Matt Stapleton and Ahmed Elwardany cruised slowly through a West Toledo neighborhood, looking for swimming pools, air conditioning units, and other "valuables" in the yards.
The slow-moving vehicle drew concern from some homeowners. There were even a few phone calls to police, despite the fact that magnetic signs plastered to the side of Mr. Elwardany's truck identified them as members of the Lucas County auditor's office.
The men were among several teams of residential appraisers that have been driving up and down streets throughout the county. They make notations about backyard sheds, attached and detached garages, and visible air conditioning units.
Each of those items affects a home's value and, in turn, a homeowner's property taxes.
Updating real estate market values as part of the required countywide property revaluation every six years, appraisers are now in the midst of visiting each of the county's 16,966 residential and agricultural and 24,265 commercial and industrial properties.
The end result is new property values, ranging from a 5 percent average increase in Waterville Township to a 25 percent average increase in Berkey.
"We don't do taxes here, just values," said Auditor Larry Kaczala, stressing that just because a home's value went up significantly doesn't automatically mean taxes will increase, too.
"I think it's good news," he said. "[The revaluation] shows the Toledo market is still strong."
But good news to one homeowner may be a hefty tax bill for another.
County residents will soon receive notices in the mail informing them of any change in their home's property value. The notices mark the end of several months of work that involves both a computer analysis of individual properties followed by a visit to each.
Lucas and Ottawa counties are both in the midst of countywide revaluation. Wood and Fulton counties reassessed each property last year and the changes were already noted on the owners' 2006 tax bills.
And with a change in the assessment of each of Lucas County's 201,230 parcels, the auditor's office is also preparing for challenges by those property owners who feel the change is too high.
A "Notice of Change in Tax Value" will inform owners of their properties' old market value, new market value, and a list of the building's attributes, such as the number of bedrooms, year built, and total square footage.
Property owners are asked to check the information because only with correct data will a property value be equated fairly.
"If we have bad data, we will absolutely misvalue the house," said Brian Jones, a senior analyst in the auditor's real estate division.
The information on each property is gathered from original building records and amended if any building permits are pulled for the property. Every six years, teams of appraisers are sent out to check on every house, commercial business, and farm in the community.
"We look for something visible from the car," said Mr. Elwardany, a member of the team of residential appraisers. "We're not going to get out and walk around each."
The county's 12 staff appraisers, often working in pairs for speed, will spend a total of about 12 months touring the streets in Lucas County's residential neighborhoods. Another set of appraisers, most contracted from John G. Cleminshaw Inc., will review commercial properties.
Dana Willis-Sowers, a commercial/industrial appraiser with the Hudson, Ohio-based company, is among five contracted appraisers who review the values of shopping centers, apartment buildings, and office complexes. With a vastly different set of criteria, commercial and industrial appraisers look at things such as curb appeal, ease of ingress and egress, and square footage of the buildings.
"Most of the information is already there. What we're doing is tweaking the information and making sure we have what we need," said Mrs. Willis-Sowers as she stopped in front of the Swan Cove assisted living complex on Airport Highway in Toledo.
Those property owners who believe that the auditor's assessment is wrong can challenge it during one of several informal hearings being organized throughout the county.
Owners can come to the sessions with proof that their property was overvalued, undervalued, and/or to learn more about how the value was calculated.
Because homeowners pay property taxes based on the value of their property - in Ohio, taxes are collected on 35 percent of a home's value - higher property values are something many homeowners feel are worth fighting.
At these "road shows," the auditor's office can easily change data mistakes.
But Mr. Kaczala warns that residents who challenge their assessment open the door for appraisers to take a closer look that could raise the value on their home.
Most people challenging their property values do so because they worry their taxes will be raised, but most will not see an immediate change, Mr. Kaczala said.
For example, the owner of a home valued at $100,000 last year and who approved a 1-mill levy for the local school district last year would pay about $30 for that levy. This year, the county says the house is worth $114,000, but the homeowner would still pay about $30 because the tax is based on the value of the property at the time a levy takes effect.
But if voters approve a new 1-mill levy this year, the owner of that house revalued at $114,000 would pay about $35 annually.
And although most taxes will not immediately change with a raise in value, Mr. Kaczala warned some will. In Toledo, where the average home value rose 14 percent, the homeowner's taxes will go up about 3 percent. Similarly, Berkey's 25-percent average hike in property values will translate to about a 5 percent property tax increase.
"Your net worth is going up, so there are additional taxes to pay, but it's not that much," the auditor said.
If residents miss the informal appeal hearings this summer, they can file an application to the Lucas County Board of Revision - made up of the auditor, treasurer, and president of the board of commissioners - to formally challenge their assessment.
Contact Erica Blake at:
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