March 13, 2013 - You may have received mail in late February about changes in the assessed and taxable value of your property. The Clarkston News sat down with Independence Township's Director of Assessing Kristen Sieloff to find out how these values are determined.
Overall, property values are on the rise this year, which Sieloff notes is a sign of economic resurgence since the recession.
When appraising properties, the township's assessors use a mass appraisal. "Because it is mass appraisal, it is very different from a bank appraisal whereby the appraiser sales most comparable within a specified time period would be analyzed to determine the value of the subject," Sieloff explained. This technique is referred to as a fee appraisal or a single property appraisal.
"I have almost 12,000 residential parcels," Sieloff pointed out. "It is physically impossible for us to apply that same methodology for our assessments. So, we use mass appraisal, which involves grouping everybody together having similar or like characteristics."
How does a mass appraisal work? "It's based on the concept of modeling. Our assessments are based on the information contained in the assessment program or the model," Sieloff said.
The township's appraisers measure each component of a property in the field and record them into their appraisal program. For instance, they note if it is a one-story living area on a basement or on a concrete slab foundation, the size of accessory structures such as garages and decks, and the number of and size of bathrooms. Costs for each component are given to the assessing department by the State of Michigan and are based primarily on the class and ground floor square footage.
While mass appraisals allow the township's assessors to value a large number of properties at a time, they also present challenges.
"First of all, it is the property owner's right to refuse entry onto the property. If there is an estimate on the property, then the information that we have may or may not be accurate," Sieloff noted.
Sieloff encourages residents to be certain assessors have the most accurate and up-to-date information on their property. "We have to rely on the homeowner to make sure our assessments, our records, our data is accurate because we can't physically go out to inspect everything each year for every single house," she stated. "The only way for us to treat all residents uniformly and equitably is to have the most accurate data within our system."
If the assessor's records have errors, "please bring it to our attention. If it's been an estimated appraisal for years, and we come out and find you've been assessed for something you don't have, we want to make that correction, and we will," Sieloff said.
Residents can find their records on the township's website www.twp.independence.mi.us.
In addition to having accurate information, mass appraisal "has a tendency to ignore those special characteristics that every property has," Sieloff pointed out.
"If a property hasn't been maintained at the same rate that the state has predetermined is typical, which is 1 percent depreciation (reduction in value over time) per year, then, that property that isn't being maintained at the same level, is lumped in with everybody else, and the rate of depreciation on our record may or may not be reflective of what's actually happening out there," she clarified.
Residents can ensure accuracy and consideration of their property's specific characteristics through Michigan's board of review process, which "allows the taxpayer to come in and appeal their assessment if they believe it is not an accurate reflection of 50 percent of its current market value," Sieloff explained.
Every year, Board of Review sessions occur during the first full week of March. The Board of Review consists of three township residents who are appointed by the Board of Trustees.
Fewer people have made appointments for Board of Review sessions than last year. This year, only 60 appointments have been made compared to the almost 370 appointments made in 2012.
"So, there is a big change from where the assessments were and the public's perception of market value last year versus this year. Quite honestly, I think people are liking that slight increase versus a decrease," said Sieloff. In addition, she feels the difference is "due to the efficiency, knowledge and skills of my very competent staff."
Not only does the Board of Review process offer residents an opportunity to talk about their assessment, but it also allows the assessors office to see where they need to focus their energy over the next year. "Every year we tweak the model," Sieloff said.
After 2012's Board of Review sessions, the assessors discovered discrepancies in the classes of houses and needed more recent appraisals. As a result, the townships assessment team "went out to every single house last year, took current pictures, and reviewed their class to make sure similar houses were being classed the same."
Classes of homes vary. For example, a class A home would be one with the finest quality, workmanship, and materials used to build it. It would be an architecturally designed home specific for use by one client. The elevations would be elaborate having many peaks, limestone accents, turned brick, varying angles, and a foundation with many cuts.
In contrast, a class C home would be those typically built in the mid to late 70s, whereby the same or very similar home would be built many times over in an area or subdivision, with little to no variation in the elevations, very little ornamentation if any, and the foundation walls would be straight and rectangular.
Reviewing the classes of houses in Independence Township was "a huge project, but it takes many months to go out and do that many field visits," said Sieloff. "This year, from the few appointments that we've received, we've already identified our next big project for next year."
The assessment team's 2013 project will involve "redefining our neighborhoods," Sieloff stated. "Mass appraisal utilizes a cost less depreciation methodology of valuation modified by economic conditions or market activity sales, and so when we actually get to the point where we are able to adjust for current market conditions, we use the neighborhood groupings that we have, analyze the sales that have occurred in those areas, and then make the appropriate adjustments to our assessment up or down according to what that sales analysis is telling us."
As the assessors tweak the model they use for mass appraisals, "if the neighborhood delineations aren't as accurate as they could be, then sometimes nonsimilar properties may or may not be grouped together, and that can pose a problem," Sieloff said. In 2013, the township's assessors intend to review the current neighborhood groupings to strengthen their model.
"Every year the cycle gets better, the process gets better, and it goes a little bit smoother," said Sieloff. "I'm very fortunate that I have such a skilled staff here; we're right on board with making the appropriate changes. We want our assessments to reflect market."
Property owners with questions about their assessments can address them with the Board of Review. "There are only a few rights that a property owner has in the ownership of property, one of which is to appeal their assessment," said Sieloff. "We are more than happy to go over it with you and make sure our records reflect an accurate representation of what's out there because that only helps us to do our job better."
The Board of Review has appointments available on March 14 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and on March 15 from 9 a.m. to 12. Call 248-625-8114 for more information.
Clarkston News reporter