The couple tells the Newark Star-Ledger’s Bamboozled column (written by Consumerist’s own Karin Price Mueller) that when they bought the home in 1988 for $295,000 the property taxes were already a healthy $11,000/year.
This being the NYC suburbs, the value of their home inched up over the years, as did their taxes. In 2010, the home was valued at $394,000 and the family paid $18,365 in property tax.
Then the town sent out an appraiser to do a reassessment.
The couple claim the appraiser attempted to schedule two different times to look at the house but neither option worked because they were during the homeowners’ working hours. They say the town told them it wasn’t a big deal, that the appraiser didn’t need to get into the house.
“Our house goes from a value of $394,00 to $784,000,” says the husband. “Our taxes went crazy.”
By 2013, the property tax had jumped up to $27,246. The homeowners chalked it up to being in a desirable location. Many people in that part of New Jersey have seen their property taxes creep up around them.
“The town outgrew us financially, we thought, but we didn’t want to uproot our kids,” says the husband.
The costs of keeping up with the property tax bill eventually outweighed the value of living in their home of more than two decades, and so the family decided to sell. That’s when they realized the tax on their property was higher than some homes in the area with higher asking prices.
Their realtor suggested they should appeal their tax rate, which required them going out of pocket $700 for an independent appraisal.
“When the appraiser came back with the new appraisal, he was floored that there would be such a major mistake,” says the husband.
The independent appraisal came in $189,000 below the value assessed by the town’s appraiser in 2010.
Earlier this month, the town’s tax assessor came out to the house and that’s when everyone realized what had happened.
“[T]hey called me back admitting a huge mistake had been made,” recalls the husband, “and started to shift the blame on to us.”
The town’s argument was that the homeowners should have known there was a problem back in 2010 and should have applied for a rebate back then.
Okay, so even if the appraiser couldn’t get into the house, how did they add on 660 square feet and a deluxe bathroom that wasn’t there?
The town said that when appraisers can’t get into a home, they generally use information written on the card from the previous appraisal, which had been in 2002. But when the family pushed for more info, they found that the 2002 card had gone missing.
“What happened, it was technically not an error. It was an estimate,” a rep for the town’s tax assessor tells Bamboozled. “The inspector had to make an approximate guess on the square footage and the dimensions, and they were wrong.”
That mysterious, mythical bathroom that added to the assessed value? That was also an estimate, though the town provides no explanation for how someone “estimates” the existence of a bathroom that isn’t there, let alone determines that it has two sinks and is super-nice.
The town has offered to drop the assessed value of the property to $615,000, that’s $169,000 less than what it had determined in 2010 and it would bring the annual property taxes down by about $6,000.
But as for the many thousands the family has overpaid because of the mistake? That may be gone with the wind.
The county tells Bamboozled that it accepts filings for tax appeals, but only for the current tax year, and there is no state-level appeals process.
One lawyers says there is a law on the books in New Jersey that may help the family get some money back.
“The Correction of Errors statute allows you to go back for three years,” he explains. “If they can get an assessment of $615,000, and if they can file under Correction of Errors statute for all three years, they’d get back about $16,500.”
The homeowner says he’s thinking about going to court to get that money back, but knows there is no guarantee of success and may end up costing the family money it doesn’t have.
“I hope they do look back and do the right thing and pay us back the taxes,” he says. “It’s a kick in the butt.”
This is another example of why homeowners need to question sudden hikes in their tax assessments. Many towns and counties have laws protecting them from having to pay for appraisal errors that go unnoticed. Had this family done something immediately upon seeing the reassessment in 2010, they might not have to sell their home now or face fighting the town in court.