Kingwood Greens Evacuation During Harvey by Jay Muscat

How Some Flood Victims Saved Substantial Tax Dollars

This is a letter to the editor from retired Kingwood resident Bill Fowler. Fowler managed real estate property taxes for one of the world’s largest oil companies for much of his career. His home flooded during Harvey.

An in-depth analysis of 2018 property tax assessments in one flooded neighborhood shows that flooded homeowners who did not protest their appraisals last year were appraised on average higher per square foot than those who did successfully protest. That means if you flooded and did not protest, you could have paid thousands of dollars more in taxes than you should—and may have been assessed inequitably.

Kingwood Greens Evacuation During Harvey by Jay Muscat
Kingwood Greens During Harvey. Photo courtesy of Jay Muscat.

Property Tax Reappraisal Season Starting Now

As Kingwood prepares for its most dreaded annual event, Hurricane Season, let’s not forget another discomforting annual occurrence, Property Tax Reappraisal Season.

Yes, this is your chance to accept the Harris County Appraisal District’s (HCAD) market value of your home or file a protest to seek a lower value.

This article should make it apparent that relying on HCAD to properly value your home can sometimes prove costly. This discussion relates specifically to flooded homes, but non-flooded homeowners should also review their assessments for opportunities to reduce HCAD’s opinion of market value.

Questions to Ensure Fair Appraisal

A majority of homeowners who flooded during Hurricane Harvey have not yet received their 2019 property tax appraisal notices from HCAD. However, some have. When you receive your 2019 assessment notice, keep these questions in mind:  

  • How much did the market value of your home change between January 1, 2018 and January 1, 2019?
  • If you made progress towards, or completed, restoration of your home between January 1, 2018 and January 1, 2019, how much did you increase your home’s market value? 
  • If your repairs are completed, is this year’s proposed value realistic compared to your 2017 pre-flood value?
  • Does HCAD have sufficient comparable post-flood sales data to support its opinion of the appraised value of your home?
  • Is your assessment equitable relative to your neighbors’?

Early Trends in Heavily Flooded Neighborhoods

A review of HCAD’s 2019 online records has revealed early trends in three heavily flooded neighborhoods. Results reported here likely include a mix of both fully and partially repaired homes. Numbers in parenthesis reflect approximate percentage of homes in the neighborhood with published 2019 assessments; HCAD lists all remaining home values as “Pending.” 

  • Kingwood Greens (25%):  Average values are up 40% from 2018. 2019 values are only 5% lower than pre-Harvey 2017 values.  
  • The Barrington (55%):  Average values are up 18% from 2018. 2019 values are only 9% lower than pre-Harvey 2017 values.
  • The Enclave (20%):  Average values are up 21% from 2018. 2019 values are only 7% lower than pre-Harvey 2017 values.

Success of Protests

To illustrate the effect of successfully protesting your assessment, I analyzed the final 2018 property tax year assessments of all Kingwood Greens homes using HCAD’s public information.

On average, Kingwood Greens homeowners who protested their assessments saw significantly greater declines in their 2018 final assessments and  were assessed less per square foot compared to homeowners who chose not to protest.

About half of Kingwood Greens residents chose to accept HCAD’s initial 2018 assessments.  The average reduction in their appraised value was 25% below 2017 and average assessment per square foot was $108.

The other half (despite their assessments being down initially 21% from 2017) protested their assessments. 98% of those who completed the protest process reduced HCAD’s initial proposed assessments. Reductions ranged from as low as $4,000 to more than $500,000.  

At the end of the day, successfully protested homes were appraised 36% lower on average than in 2017 @ $96 per square foot — a far greater average reduction and lower value per square foot than the 25% and $108 per square foot realized on non-protested properties. 

Your Fair Share

To ensure you pay only your fair share of taxes this year, it seems prudent to consider filing a protest when you receive your notice. You have 30 days from the date of the notice to file the protest which can be done either electronically on the website or by mail. Your assessment notice will include instructions on how to protest.

Once HCAD receives your protest, you will receive an informal hearing date. You can also access electronically the sales and other evidence HCAD used to determine your assessment.

You may represent yourself in the protest process or hire a consultant to represent you. Should you hire a consultant, the consultant’s fees can reduce any savings you realize by up to 50%.

Additional Clarifications and Thoughts

  • By law, property must be appraised at Market Value as of January 1 each year, and then taxed at the Appraised Value (less exemptions). Your 2019 assessment is based on market value as of January 1, 2019.
  • Notice that your 2019 assessment notice references two values: Market Value and Appraised Value.
  • Market Value is the price at which a property would transfer for cash or its equivalent under prevailing market conditions. Keep in mind this is the value you will be challenging if you protest, not Appraised Value.
  • The appraisal district compares your property to similar properties that recently sold. Then they adjust for differences to arrive at an opinion of market value. Bottom line: Sales of homes comparable to yours are the basis of assessments.
  • When protesting, make sure HCAD has based its opinion of your home’s market value on properties that are truly comparable.  Valid comparable sales need to be located in the same general neighborhood. Valid adjustments recognize differences such as size, age, condition, quality of construction and additional features (pool vs. no-pool, for example).  
  • Especially important: Flooded home market values should not be based on sales of non-flooded homes (or vice versa).  
  • If your home was still under repair as of January 1, 2019, make sure HCAD recognizes the proper stage of completion of your repairs as of that date. Ensure you are not valued as completely restored or at too great a percentage of completion.
  • Your tax liability depends on your Appraised Value (less any exemptions you qualify for). Its capped at an increase of 10% above the prior year’s Appraised Value (provided you have not improved the property—i.e. increased the size of the property, added a pool, etc. in the past year).
  • Important to note:  If your flooded home was not completely restored by January 1, 2018, for tax year 2019, that cap is 21% above your 2017 assessment, not 2018 assessment.   
  • If you completed flood repairs by January 1, 2018, the 10% cap over last year’s appraised value applies.

Remember: Equity Also Matters

One last issue to bear in mind:  Don’t forget equity! Just as all properties are legally mandated to be valued at market value, the law also requires each appraisal to be equitable in relation to the median level of appraisal of comparable properties (after the adjustments mentioned above). This requires comparing your assessment to those of comparable homes in your neighborhood to ensure you are equitably assessed and paying only your fair share.  An inequitable appraisal is also grounds for protest.

May 7 Flood Victims Must Wait Until Next Year

Any flooding that occurred to homes in early May was past the January 1 assessment date. By law, the 2019 values must be based on market value of properties as of that date and taxing jurisdictions cannot request disaster reappraisals without a disaster declaration. Therefore, the 2019 assessments of people who flooded on May 7 will not reflect losses in market value due to flood damage, but may impact their 2020 assessments.

By Bill Fowler, 6/10/2019

650 Days since Hurricane Harvey