Schenectady County

Grieving Schenectady assessments calls for painstaking study

There are only three days left to gather information that could be crucial to an assessment grievanc
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There are only three days left to gather information that could be crucial to an assessment grievance.

Residents have been crafting their grievances for weeks, searching for houses similar to theirs but with much lower assessments. One enterprising landlord even created a spreadsheet that includes dozens of Stockade properties with startlingly different assessments.

But he, like many others, did not take into consideration the small details — air conditioning, decks, patios, garages. Landlord Robin White was taken aback when he learned that such things are considered a significant factor in assessments.

“But that’s minutiae, really,” White said.

In recent years, he bought 10 rental properties in the Stockade, sometimes at prices quadruple that of the assessment. He was “gobsmacked” when the new assessments reflected his purchase price.

Other new owners in the city have been equally surprised to find that their assessments rose to near their purchase price. In some cases, owners said they believed the assessment would not change because they were overpaying for the property.

Other owners cited the high-pressure real estate market of recent years, in which sellers overpriced their buildings and refused to sell for market value.

“It’s not fair because the market fluctuates. In 2006, when we bought, it was at its height,” said resident Karen Mallia, who bought 9 Washington Ave. for $279,000. She says she knew it was overpriced but bought it anyway when the owners refused to negotiate.

The house was assessed at $110,000 but now has risen to $272,100. Her neighbor at 7 Washington Ave., whose house is nearly identical in style and size but has slightly smaller bedrooms and bathrooms, is assessed at $139,900 — less than half that of Mallia’s house.

“How can that be?” Mallia said. “The only reason is that I bought my house recently. You know how the housing market fluctuates tremendously.”

Assessor Patrick Mastro said an argument of overpaying could be made on Grievance Day. It’s possible, he said, that some owners mistakenly bought too high.

But the best argument, he said, is to do what Mallia is doing — find very similar houses, in the same neighborhood, with lower assessments. That’s where the details come in.

Mallia is gathering “meticulous” details on the houses near her — the neighbor whose house is nearly identical does not have a garage, which she has. But a house just a few doors away at 4 Washington Ave. has a garage, is a bit larger and has a much larger yard, on the water. It’s assessed at $101,000 less than Mallia’s house.

“Isn’t there supposed to be some fairness?” Mallia said.

She’ll need to prove that those lower-valued houses are no worse than hers in every respect, from type of wiring to roof condition. It’s a research project that can take hours and usually requires a physical presence in the city.

That’s making things hard on White, who lives in Naples, Fla. He began his grievance with the data he could gather online. But the city’s Web site only offers basic information, such as the number of bedrooms and bathrooms. To get the rest, residents must either peer at their neighbors’ houses or go to City Hall and read each property’s data card. Since City Hall will be closed for Memorial Day on Monday, data card research must be completed this week.

With the data White could gather online, he found a surprising connection: houses that sold in recent years in the Stockade seemed to have much higher assessments than those that did not sell, even if they were side-by-side.

He’s going to argue that either the assessments of the sold properties should be reduced or the other properties’ assessments should increase.

Looks can deceive

But without all of the details, some houses seem similar when in reality they’re very different.

Take 19 and 26 Front St. The two seem to support White’s theory that sold houses have been unfairly assessed higher than houses that have not sold recently.

They are both single-family houses, on the same street, in the same condition. They have nearly identical square footage, both in the house and the yard. Yet No. 26 — which sold in 2003 — is now assessed at $310,000, while No. 19 — which hasn’t sold recently — is assessed at $265,400.

The differences become apparent in the houses’ data cards. No. 26 has a garage, an enclosed porch and a screened porch. No. 19 has only a 5-by-3-foot covered entry, a deck and no air conditioning. The lack of covered parking, particularly in the Stockade, where residents are starved for parking space, means that No. 19 is worth much less than No. 26.

“A garage is a big factor,” Mastro said. “Everything’s included. You need to consider everything.”

The other common mistake made in grieving is to compare houses of a different class, Mastro said. White is comparing one-family houses to three-families, saying that there are too few three-families to make a fair comparison. But Mastro says owners must stick to their house type if they want a successful grievance.

White looked in particular at 19 and 21 Front St., neighboring houses in the Stockade. He owns No. 21, which is a three-family. The house next door is a one-family.

Prior to the reassessment, the single-family house had the slightly higher assessment, at $134,000. White’s house was assessed at $110,000. He bought it for nearly four times that value in 2006.

Now his house is assessed at $394,000, while the single-family next door is assessed at $265,400.

They have roughly the same square footage, but the single-family house has a much bigger yard — three times as big. White says the house should be worth slightly more than his.

“Nothing was done to either house. The only difference was one sold,” he said. “It’s rather clear that the new owners are assessed at the price they paid and very similar properties that aren’t sold are not assessed as high.”

He noted that his neighbor’s yard stretches down to the park, which he believes makes it more valuable than the three-family, rent-producing building he owns.

But Mastro said White is comparing incomparable buildings. Not only must comparables be of the same type, Mastro said, but they must be located in similar situations.

For example, a single-family surrounded by rental property — as No. 19 is — is worth less, generally, than a single-family on a street of one-family houses. Likewise, a two-family on a street of single-families is generally worth more than a two-family placed in the midst of many other apartment buildings.

“You need to consider it all,” Mastro said.

He has received only 150 grievances so far, and only a fraction of those want to present their grievance in person to the Board of Assessment Review. But in preparation for the possibility of long lines on Grievance Day, the board will hear cases at the Hellenic Center instead of City Hall this year.

The center, at 510 Liberty St., is a short walk from City Hall. Residents must first get a number at the city assessor’s office and get their grievance form stamped if they have not done so in advance.

If the board cannot hear all grievers by the end of the evening Tuesday, they will reconvene Wednesday.

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