Higher property tax assessments won't necessarily hike bills

Assessor says rebounding home values boost numbers

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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Assessed property values are on the rise in Clark County. But before scribing a poison pen letter to the county assessor, keep in mind: That jump won't necessarily result in higher tax bills.

On average, assessed property values this year increased by around 15 percent, a sign that the housing market is on the rebound. Tax rates, which are fixed, could decrease for many residents to compensate for the higher assessed values.

"The market drives the increase," said Peter Van Nortwick, the county's assessor. "We are seeing many home values back to the 2005-2006 level."

Because of that uptick in valuation, Van Nortwick said he expects to field a higher number of property tax appeals than he has in the past few years, when the market was down. He's bracing for complaints to come in about assessed values increasing by too much.

"A lot of people aren't too in tune with what the market is doing," he said.

Higher property assessments are a good sign that the county's real estate market, and economy, are regaining their footing and that fewer houses are remaining on the market and being reduced in price.

Property values took a precipitous drop during the economic downturn, starting in 2008. In some cases, homes lost as much as 30 percent of their assessed value, Van Nortwick said. That drop, in turn, placed a heavier burden on taxpayers to pick up a bigger tax tab.

There's still room for assessed values to rise, Van Nortwick said, because of just how much the market fell. A 30 percent drop typically requires a 43 percent increase for a property to regain its previous value.

In neighborhoods where there were a number of short sales — in which homes sold for between 12 percent and 15 percent less than market value — residents have seen their assessed values jump higher than in other areas, Van Nortwick said.

And appeals are only successful if people can show that there are comparable homes selling for below assessed value in their neighborhood. Assessed home values tend to come in below market value.

Property taxes could decrease for residents because they're tied to ballooning budgets, not an overall increase in assessed property values. Van Nortwick expects low-income seniors to benefit from the high property assessments the most next year.

Lori Anderson-Benson, a broker with ReMax Equity Group, said she believes assessed values are rising faster than market prices.

"On some of the (county) assessments, they went up way too high," Benson said. "It depends on where you are in town."

Luxury homes in particular are the slowest to regain value, she said. While both assessed and market values continue to rise, Benson said she is skeptical that market prices are returning to 2005-2006 levels, especially for high-end homes.

Still, there's little doubt that prices are rebounding. The median resale price for a home in Clark County increased by roughly 14.5 percent in the first quarter of 2014 over the previous year, according to the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington.

The center also reported that despite locally higher prices, housing in many parts of the state is still less affordable than it is in Clark County.

The assessor's office won't know how the most recent assessments will affect people's tax bills until November or December, Van Nortwick said.