For David Bunzel, the bad news came in a letter, in March.
“I opened it up,” he says, “and I was surprised.”
Bunzel lives in Scarsdale, New York, just north of New York City. The community is doing its first town-wide property value reassessments in 45 years. And the letter Bunzel got came from the assessment office.
“The estimated value, from their perception, of our home went up overnight by about 30 percent,” he says.
The estimated value of your home helps determine how much you pay in property taxes.
Bunzel lives in a neighborhood of multimillion-dollar homes, and a 30 percent increase would be a lot of money. (He wouldn’t say exactly how much.) Things were even worse for some of his neighbors. Some even saw their assessments double.
So Bunzel and a bunch of his neighbors are now challenging the revaluations. He says he understands property assessments were way overdue in Scarsdale, but the way their homes were assessed and the sudden spike, he says, aren’t fair.
“Who has sympathy for these people?” says Robert Berg, another Scarsdale resident. “They were getting a great deal that we were paying for, for 45 years in many cases.”
Berg was one of the people who pushed for the property revaluations. He says the owners of what are now some of the most expensive homes in town weren't paying property taxes that reflected that. So people in more modest homes had to pay more than their share of property taxes to make up for it, he argues.
“If someone's paying too little,” Berg says, “someone's paying too much. And the whole purpose of a revaluation is to periodically and systematically review all the property valuations in town, so you can get equity in the tax rolls.”
The state of New York doesn't require periodic revaluations, but they recommend cities reassess properties every few years. Some towns in the state haven't had property reassessments since the Civil War.
New York's not alone in these infrequent assessments. In California, for example, your property tax is based on how much you paid for your house. If you've been sitting on a home for 40 years, you're paying way fewer taxes than someone who bought a similar home at today's prices.
Kim Rueben, a senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center at the Urban Institute, says to avoid revaluation controversies like the one in Scarsdale and similar situations in California, cities need routine state-mandated property assessments. They keep property taxes smoother for everyone, Rueben says.
“I think it would be easier,” she says, “for the county and the local governments if the state did mandate it. And so they could just say that it's the state law to do this.”
But if cities and towns have been collecting property taxes for centuries, why haven't they figured this out yet?
“Some of this is much more political than fiscal,” Rueben says. “So the whole idea that you're not going to reassess properties has more to do with who has political power and who's going to end up being winners and losers.”
She says reassessments usually put the biggest dent in the pocketbooks of the upscale homeowners, so politicians might avoid enforcing reassessments to avoid upsetting wealthy voters.
“But,” she says, “it's never going to be any easier for them to do the reassessment.”
At some point, towns that have held off on reassessments are going to have to bite the bullet. Scarsdale's property revaluations are still under review, but they should go into effect later this month.