Q: I bought my first home in March, for a purchase price of $285,000. Last week, I received a notice that my escrow fund is now underfunded because my property taxes (which were paid in full and on time from my escrow fund) were significantly higher than initially forecasted in the calculation of the sale price of the home.
It turns out that the local tax assessor assessed the home at a value of $326,400, $41,000 more than the value determined by the builder and its mortgage company (which financed the purchase).
Several homes on my block had already sold prior to me purchasing my property, and I recently found out that the county also assessed those homes at a much higher value than the purchase price as well.
I feel that the builder must have known they were undervaluing the home just so the monthly payments would appear more attractive now.
Now I’m stuck with paying nearly $300 per month more for my home starting January 1st. Does this seem like a bait-and-switch tactic by the builder and mortgage lender? Do I have any recourse?
I do plan to apply for Homestead Exemption in January. Should I appeal the home value when the annual notice comes in the mail in May? Should I appeal sooner than that?
A: There are a couple of ways to look at your situation. One may be that the builder gave you a better price on the home than the assessor believes your house is worth. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have paid $41,000 less for my home. The other may be that the assessor is overvaluing your home and you need to contest the valuation.
While it’s difficult to believe, it is possible that your builder had no idea what the county was going to do with regard to the property taxes on your home, but you certainly could have looked into the issue and paid a visit to the local tax assessor before you purchased the home. Buyers need to do all of their own homework these days to make sure they’re protected against unpleasant surprises.
Let’s talk about property taxes for a moment: Tax assessors around the country are in a tight spot – all of the foreclosures and short sales mean that plenty of homeowners aren’t paying any sort of property taxes at all. Other local revenue that helps pay for the services you need, like water, sewer, fire and police protection and garbage collection, are also down.
Communities that are required to balance the budget have very few alternatives other than cutting expenses and raising taxes where they can. One way to raise tax revenue is to put a higher assessed valuation on property, knowing that the property tax bill will be higher.
The problem with that strategy is you know how much you paid for your house, and you can argue that the sales price of the home is far lower than the assessed valuation. You should fight your property taxes at the earliest opportunity.
As far as a bait-and-switch tactic, are you accusing your builder of deliberately misleading you on how much your property taxes would be? That’s a serious charge and you should explore that and any legal options you might have with a real estate litigation attorney. But your builder may not have had a legal obligation to give you an estimate as to what your taxes would be on the home. And your lender would have used a reasonable approximation of the taxes based on information the lender had.
My take is that every buyer should hire his or her own real estate attorney to double check these things, and make sure they understand what’s going on. Buyers should also expect to do plenty of their own research to make sure that the builder or seller they’re buying from is actually telling them the truth – not just what they want to hear.
The question you have to answer is would you have bought the house knowing that the tax bill might come in higher? You might have. Your taxes are bound to float up anyway over the years. That’s how local municipality bills get paid and in tough economic times, cities and towns are struggling and they need money to keep people employed who provide basic services.
I’d pay a visit to your local assessor’s office to discuss the situation and find out exactly when you can appeal your tax bill and what you have to do with your lender to get this problem taken care of.
There are attorneys and other real estate tax professionals all over the country that can help you fight your real estate taxes. You might be able to take care of the fight yourself, but you better become education on the dates and methods that you will have to use to contest your real estate taxes.