(Tax) Assessment Values Well Below Market Values

Question: The County significantly increased the assessment value of my home this year, should I appeal it?

Answer: It’s that time of year again…time for homeowners to find out they’ll be paying more in real estate taxes this year due to an increase in the assessed value of their homes. Arlington increased the assessed value of residential real estate by an average of 4.3%, which is less than the 6.3% increase in average sold price in 2019 and much less than the 8.9% increase in median sold price.

Tax assessments are based on the sum of the County’s determination of the value of the land your home sits on and the value of the improvements made to that land (your home). The County adjusts each of these values every year to generate the total assessed value, of which Arlington homeowners pay about 1% of each year to the County in real estate taxes.

Based on conversations I’ve had with homeowners around the County, it sounds like most of the increase in assessments this year were driven by increases in the land value, which makes sense.

Assessed Value vs Market Value

While it is frustrating to see your assessment increase so much, costing homeowners an average of a few hundred dollars in additional tax payments, it’s highly unlikely you’re in a position to challenge your assessment. Over the last 14 months, the County’s assessed value was an average of 14.2% below what homes actually sold for.

Here’s a breakdown of how the County’s assessment compared to actual sold prices since 2019, broken out by zip code, property type, and price range. Here are some highlights from the data:

  • If the County’s assessment matched actual market values, homeowners would pay an average of about $800 more per year in taxes
  • Unsurprisingly, the zip codes with the greatest difference between market values and assessed values were all three South Arlington zip codes (22202, 22204, 22206), with homes in 22202 (home to Amazon HQ2) selling for nearly 20% more than the County’s assessment
  • The County has the most difficult time assessing home values in 22205 compared to other zip codes and, unsurprisingly, detached homes compared to condos or townhouses
  • Residents who own homes worth over $1M benefited the most by the County’s low assessments, with market values nearly 19% higher than their tax assessment, resulting in an average annual savings of about $1,900 if the County’s assessments were on par with market values
Zip CodeAvg Sold $ to Assessment $StdDev Sold $ to Assessment $Avg Difference Sold $ vs Assessment $
2220112.3%8.7%$71,412
2220219.7%15.9%$108,083
2220313.1%10.7%$72,268
2220415.4%13.7%$62,933
2220515.4%19.3%$126,150
2220618.1%11.9%$71,783
2220711.1%14.4%$106,188
2220910.7%8.8%$57,149
2221310.4%9.7%$40,016
Arlington14.2%13.0%$79,434
Property TypeAvg Sold $ to Assessment $StdDev Sold $ to Assessment $Avg Difference Sold $ vs Assessment $
Condo13.9%10.6%$50,659
Detached14.0%17.0%$118,925
Townhouse15.0%9.9%$81,220
All14.2%13.0%$79,434
Price RangeAvg Sold $ to Assessment $Avg Difference Sold $ vs Assessment $
<$1M13.3%$58,720
$1M+18.6%$187,718
Total14.2%$79,434

As reported by ARLnow last week, the County will not increase the tax rate (percentage of assessment homeowners pay in annual taxes) and may still decide to reduce the tax rate to offset increased assessments. The hope for many homeowners is that as commercial vacancy rates drop from the historic highs over the past decade, the increased tax revenue from businesses will allow the County to ease the tax burden on homeowners by reducing the residential real estate tax rate.

As always, if you are considering buying, selling, or investing in Arlington/Northern VA real estate, feel free to email me at Eli@EliResidential.com if you’d like to discuss your strategy and/or current market trends.

Making Up For A Questionable Housing Report

Question: I recently read an article by the Sun Gazette that median price per square foot was down since last year in Arlington and the rest of Northern VA. Is that what you’re seeing in the market, despite reports of prices going up?

Answer: I read that article as well and was equally confused by the statistic that $/sqft was down 6.8% in Arlington in the first nine months of 2019 compared to the first nine months of 2018. While this data point may be technically correct, it doesn’t accurately represent what’s happening in the Arlington/Northern VA marketplace. Even without having access to the data behind it, does anybody believe that with all the news about the Amazon-effect on Arlington’s real estate market, that people are paying less per square foot in 2019?

Price-per-square-foot Is Actually Up (obviously)

The truth is that while the median $/sqft did drop year-over-year in the first nine months of 2019, it was actually due to a shift in the type of inventory that sold, not because buyers are getting more for their money. As I pointed out earlier this year in an article about a national news story on Arlington’s real estate market, it’s easy to find market data that sounds interesting (aka generates reader clicks) but doesn’t tell an accurate story.

When I drilled into the 2018 vs 2019 data on median and average $/sqft, I found that within comparable sub-markets (e.g. 2BR condos, 4BR single-family, etc) median and average $/sqft increased year-over-year. In fact, if you use average $/sqft instead of median, like the article references, there was a 9.5% increase across Arlington. In this case average is a better statistical measure than median, but of course the median $/sqft made for a better story.

Accurate Headlines From The First Nine Months

While I have the data together comparing the first nine months of 2019 to the first nine months of 2018, I’ll go ahead and offer up five headlines that accurately represent the Arlington real estate market through September 2019:

  1. The market is up, but not by as much as you might thing based on some new stories. The average purchase price in Arlington jumped 5.8% to just over $722,000.
  2. A lack of inventory drove total sales down by 8%, with the biggest drop-off showing up in the condo market which suffered from a 12.3% drop in sales, led by a 13.6% drop in two-bedroom condo sales.
  3. The price range of the middle 50% of homes jumped from $380,000-$864,300 in 2018 to $415,000-$916,000 in 2019, a 9.2% increase in the lower limit and a 6% increase in the upper limit. This indicates that the Amazon-effect is impacting lower price points faster than upper price points which makes sense because investors and other speculators are more likely to purchase at lower prices.
  4. Good properties sold much faster in 2019 with 62.7% of homes selling in the first 10 days, compared to 46.4% in 2018. The craziest stat? 85.5% of 2BR townhomes/duplexes sold within the first 10 days.
  5. Price growth in the 22202 zip code, the area surrounding Pentagon City and Crystal City aka National Landing aka Bezosville, led all Arlington zip codes with a 13.7% jump in average sold price.

If you ever run across market data you’re not sure about or would like a customized data analysis, please reach out to me at Eli@EliResidential.com.

Are Appraisal Values Keeping Up With Sale Prices?

Question: Given the recent appreciate in real estate values, are you seeing more homes appraise for less than the sale price?

Answer: As we saw in last week’s column, the Arlington real estate market has appreciated rapidly over the last six months which increases the chances that an Appraiser cannot find past sales to support the price the buyer and seller have agreed to, thus increasing the amount of low appraisals in Arlington over the last six months (unfortunately there’s no data to back that up so it’s based on what I’ve seen and heard in the market). Generally, appraisal values lag behind actual market appreciation by a few months.

Banks Often Require Appraisals

If a buyer is getting a mortgage, the bank almost always requires a third-party appraisal to assess the property’s market value. While one can easily make the argument that the price the buyer and seller have agreed to is the market value, banks don’t look at it that way, hence the third-party appraisal.

Appraisals are largely based on comparable home sales over the last six months. It’s a common myth that Appraisers can only use sales from the last six months, but more recent sales are given more weight than sales 6+ months ago. Ultimately, it’s the Appraisers job to determine the market value of a home using the best available information.

Impact of a Low Appraisal

If the appraised value comes in at or above the purchase price, all is good in the eyes of the bank so things continue as planned (note: a higher appraised value has no impact on your assessed value for tax purposes).

If the appraised value is lower than the purchase price, the bank usually requires you to negotiate a reduced sale price to match the appraised value or put more money down to cover the difference between the sale price and appraised value, multiplied by your loan-to-value (LTV) ratio. In some cases, you can also change the type of loan you’re using to satisfy the bank.

The easiest way to calculate LTV is subtract your down payment percentage from 100%. In other words, if you’re putting 20% down, your LTV is 80%. If there’s a $10,000 difference between the sale price and appraised value, you’ll usually be required to bring an extra $8,000 ($10,000*.8) to the table.

All of this can change depending on your loan program and down payment, so it’s important to understand the impact a low appraisal will have on your deal prior to making an offer.

Protection Through An Appraisal Contingency

The Appraisal Contingency is one of the “Big Three” contingencies that are common to sales contracts in Northern Virginia. The Home Inspection and Financing Contingencies are the other two.

The Appraisal Contingency gives buyers an out, with a full return of their Deposit, in the event the appraisal is below the sale price and the seller is unwilling to reduce the sale price or the buyer is unwilling to make up the difference or change loan products.

If you include an Appraisal Contingency in your offer, it’s a good idea to ask your lender how long it will take to order and complete the appraisal so you can structure the contingency period around that timeline. Remember, shorter contingency periods are more attractive to sellers and longer periods generally favor the buyer.

When To Waive The Appraisal Contingency

Sometimes waiving an Appraisal Contingency is the right strategic decision when making an offer. If you’re competing against other offers, especially if they’re cash (no appraisal needed), you should talk with your agent and lender about the risk and reward of giving up this protection. In some cases, sellers will choose an offer with less risk (fewer or no contingencies) instead of the highest offer, especially when the sale price is well above recent comparable sales.

Removing the Appraisal Contingency altogether isn’t your only option either. There are ways to reduce the seller’s risk exposure, thus making your offer more competitive, while also limiting your risk exposure in the event of a really low appraisal.

Disputing a Low Appraisal

If you disagree with the appraised value, ask your lender about the dispute process. First review the appraisal report to understand what sales and details the Appraiser used to determine the value. The best chance you have at getting an appraisal adjustment is to provide the Appraiser with different sales that more accurately represent the subject property’s value, with an explanation.

Managing appraisal risk/contingencies is one of many strategic decisions you’ll make as a buyer or that you’ll have to assess as a seller. Don’t hesitate to reach out to me by email at Eli@EliResidential.com if you have any additional questions!