Loudoun Leads in Assessment Appeals

Tara and Stephen McKenna watch three of their four children play in their yard in Loudoun County. Their assessment rose from $619,600 to $830,400.
Tara and Stephen McKenna watch three of their four children play in their yard in Loudoun County. Their assessment rose from $619,600 to $830,400. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 2, 2006

The number of Loudoun County residents appealing their property tax assessments has tripled this year, a sign of a backlash throughout Northern Virginia to another year of double-digit percentage increases -- and higher tax bills.

E-mails, phone calls and formal appeals over property assessments are up this spring in several localities. Fairfax County officials reported an increase in appeals over last year, from 1,700 to 2,100. The 5,000 appeals in Loudoun were the most in Northern Virginia.

The assessments reflect a booming real estate market that has sent home prices soaring, which is good news for equity. But those notices also portend higher tax bills, prompting homeowners, who have seen a precipitous increase all decade, to tell governments that they've had enough.

Michael J. McManus of Purcellville first assumed something was badly wrong with the eye-popping notice that arrived this year announcing his home's new assessed value.

The value of McManus's four-bedroom house in western Loudoun, which he bought a year ago, had jumped from $415,100 to $597,400, or 44 percent. That translates to a $7,391 tax bill, compared with $6,444 last year.

"I thought they'd sent it to the wrong address," recalled McManus, a 36-year-old software developer. And so he did what thousands of homeowners across the area have done: He picked up the phone and called the county assessor's office to complain.

"We're going to be forced out of the neighborhood," said Tara K. McKenna, a stay-at-home mother near Leesburg who protested her assessment in an e-mail to the Loudoun Board of Supervisors. "We moved out of Arlington to have a better standard of living, a little bit bigger house and yard. Do we have to go farther west now?"

In most Virginia localities, homeowners can protest their assessments in several ways. They can call and simply complain -- which thousands of them did in recent weeks, judging from the wait times on hold with assessors' offices across the area. They can file an administrative appeal with the assessor. And they can file a formal appeal with the local Board of Equalization, a court-appointed body that independently evaluates the fairness of assessments for those who ask.

In most localities, the deadline to file an administrative appeal has passed. Some will accept a formal appeal as late as June 1.

Most residents complained by telephone and then dropped it, assessors said. Once the process was explained and they were convinced that their home values were correct, they generally were satisfied -- if not happy.

"They explained it in such a great way," McManus recalled. "They base it on the prices from the previous year that are already in the record books for similar houses. It wasn't their fault. They were doing the right thing."

One explanation for the high number of appeals in Loudoun is that the average residential assessment in the county increased 28 percent, well beyond the average elsewhere. The 5,000 who appealed represent about 5 percent of the county's 100,000 residential parcels, according to the county assessor, Todd Kaufman.

Fairfax's 2,100 appeals is relatively low for a county with 340,000 parcels. In Arlington County, with about 60,000 parcels, the number of appeals dropped from 753 to 635. Prince William County, where the average residential assessment rose 25 percent, had received 29 appeals as of last week. But the deadline to file an administrative appeal is not until July 1 (Aug. 1 for a formal appeal).

In Loudoun, most of those appealing their bills were simply suffering sticker shock, Kaufman said. About one in five offered evidence that the assessment was wrong, and they were rewarded with an adjustment, he said.

Generally, property owners whose assessments were lowered were able to show that the county's information about the property was incorrect, Kaufman said. Perhaps the home is smaller than county records show, he said, or has fewer bathrooms or bears a structural defect such as a cracked foundation that county officials weren't aware of.

Many homeowners believed their assessments were wrong because the market has begun to cool. "My house would never sell for that now," Kaufman recalled hearing from many. But assessors use sales data from 2005 to establish assessments, which are required by state law to reflect 100 percent of the market value as of Jan. 1 of the tax year in question. The fact that the market is softening will be reflected in next year's assessments, Kaufman said.

McKenna never questioned the accuracy of her assessment; her home in Lansdowne rose in value from $619,600 to $830,400. What bothers her, she said, is that the Board of Supervisors didn't lower the tax rate enough to keep her tax bill even. And that is what she and so many property owners across Northern Virginia are upset about.

"Tax the developers," she said. "Tax the companies that are moving out here. Why should the citizens carry the burden of the tax when they're just trying to raise their families and have a good, moderate lifestyle?"

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