A glowing description in a sale brochure led the city to more than double the assessment of a house in the Stockade neighborhood, city officials said Wednesday.
They explained their process in response to public criticism about the very different assessments of seemingly identical houses on North Ferry Street.
But they also said that if the owners of those two houses would be willing to let an inspector inside, they would revise the assessments based on the inspection.
“If it is determined an adjustment should be made, an adjustment will be made,” said John Paolino, who is working on assessment issues for the city. “We’re human. And we do make mistakes. The easiest way to put this to sleep is allow us in to take a look.”
The homes look identical. But their assessments are wildly different — $320,000 vs. $148,900.
One of the owners, developer Franca DiCrescenzo, asked the City Council this week to investigate the 2009 reassessment. Two other real estate professionals cited various examples of possible inequities, emphasizing DiCrescenzo’s property as the most glaring example of an unfair system. She owns the house that is assessed at $148,900, but says she has one more bathroom and a larger back yard than her neighbor.
Paolino, a former city administrator who now does consulting work for Schenectady, responded with a stack of paperwork supporting the city’s case. He pointed to a sales brochure that describes the higher assessed house as having a new roof and new ceilings. The half-page description goes on to say that the house has been “totally renovated.” The asking price was $325,000.
The renovation was done between 2005 and 2007, but Paolino and Assessor Patrick Mastro said they never knew about it. They have no record of any building permits obtained since the owners bought the house in 2005.
Then, late last year, the city found a copy of the sales listing.
“That was a red flag with us,” Mastro said.
He searched his records and found that owners Rob Gavel and David Lowry did not allow data collectors into the house during the citywide reassessment. So he sent them a certified letter asking for permission to inspect the interior of the house.
He got no response.
Lowry said he received the letter shortly before Christmas, set it aside and forgot about it.
Meanwhile, Mastro took a look at the exterior and reassessed the house himself. He said he based the reassessment on the cost per square foot, sales in the area, and the brochure’s statement that the house was fully renovated. He interpreted that to mean the house’s condition should be changed from “normal” to “good.”
Given the controversy, he also looked at the house next door. He found that DiCrescenzo had obtained numerous building permits and had clearly done substantial work.
Searching through sales listings, he found a listing filed by her in 2009. It described her house as being recently renovated with custom cabinetry and new plumbing and lighting. The furnace and roof were also new, she wrote.
She wanted $249,900. The listing was pulled after 40 days without a sale.
Given the extensive renovations, Mastro said, his computer system should have tagged her house for a possible reassessment this year. Instead, the records were misfiled.
He has asked the state whether it’s legal for him to adjust her assessment upward at this late date. If not, he plans to reassess it next year.
In the meantime, he wants to inspect both houses. Lowry and Gavel said they may let the city in to prove that their house is not worth $320,000.
They noted that they put it on the market for $325,000 in 2007 and got no offers.
“The house didn’t sell, and that was before the market crashed,” Lowry said.
Mastro said they may have a point.
“If something doesn’t sell for $325,000, that tells me it’s not worth $325,000,” he said. “Is it worth $320,000? We don’t know.”
Gavel added that the brochure was slightly more spin than truth.
“We didn’t have the roof replaced. In fact we need a new roof,” he said, explaining that the other half of the roof — on DiCrescenzo’s side — was replaced.
Calling the house fully restored, and the ceilings new, also might have been a stretch, he said.
He and Lowry said they also believed they had obtained all the proper permits.
As for DiCrescenzo, she is deeply unhappy that she may end up with a higher assessment from this controversy.
She said the property isn’t worth even $150,000, no matter how much money she puts into it.
“They have no idea what it’s like to maintain a house that’s 200 years old,” she said. “It was in disrepair. I can’t sell that for $150,000.”
She accused the city of simply “adding together” the cost of renovations and the purchase price.
“That’s not a formula. That’s addition,” she said. “You don’t need a proprietary formula for that.”
The city has refused to release its reassessment formula because the contractor who developed it claims that it is proprietary.