The past few years have been a period of super-puberty for real estate values in Northern Virginia.
And no area jurisdiction has been more affected by the assessment growth spurt than Manassas Park; during 2004, residential property in the city increased in value by an average of 28 percent.
The growth in real estate value, while great news for those who want to sell, has prompted at least two Manassas Park residents to question the validity of the assessment process.
Shocked by the increased value of her home, Lisa Abrams started poking around on the Manassas Park Web site, checking out how her neighbors’ homes fared in the 2005 assessments. Abrams noticed that the assessment for one nearby house — the Mahoney’s –included a two-car garage. A quick glance out the window revealed that no such garage existed.
It turned out that the Mahoney house had been incorrectly assessed for the past 10 years. As a result, the Mahoney’s had been overcharged on their tax bill by a total of more than $1,000 dollars, Vickie Mahoney said.
Manassas Park assessor Jim Fitzgerald didn’t return phone calls seeking comment, but Manassas Commissioner of the Revenue John Grzejka said that assessment errors crop up from time to time in most jurisdictions.
“It’s not very often that situations like that occur in Manassas, but sometimes they do,” Grzejka said. “The system is only as good as the data that’s in the system.”
Manassas Park is paying her back, Vickie Mahoney said, but Virginia law only requires that the city reimburse her and her husband for four of the 10 years they were overcharged.
The statute of limitations goes both ways, Grzejka said, so if the Mahoney’s had been underpaying for 10 years, they would still only be charged for four.
“I’m sorry, but that’s not fair,” Mahoney said. “If I was cheating them, I could see it, but I didn’t make the mistake. Every year the assessment goes up anyway, so I didn’t even notice.”
Her investigation into Manassas Park assessments prompted Abrams to ask another question about the process. During a council meeting in February, Abrams asked what the city’s policy was on following up on assessments for houses where a building permit had been taken out.
In Manassas Park, if a homeowner gets a building permit to construct an addition, the house isn’t reassessed as having that addition until a final inspection is done by the city, Abrams was told by Manassas Park officials, she said.
Her concern is that some residents are using that code as a way to get around having their homes assessed at full value.
“In some cases, you can see curtains and furniture in the parts of houses that still have a building permit in the window,” Abrams said. “It’s obvious that those additions are being used, but the houses haven’t been reassessed because no final inspection has been done.”
Abrams’ concern is that the city doesn’t follow up on the building permits, allowing some homeowners to get by for years with lower real estate tax bills, she said.
The building permits can make a substantial difference in a tax bill. The Mahoney’s have a building permit to add a second story to their home. When she got her 2005 assessment, the house had skyrocketed in value because the addition hadn’t been excluded, even though they have a building permit out, Mahoney said.
After the bill was adjusted for the garage and the addition, the assessed value of the house had come down by over $125,000, Mahoney said.
“I have no problem with them doing assessments fairly, but I can see where there are loopholes in the system,” she said.
In Manassas, homes with a building permit pulled also aren’t assessed as having the addition until it’s finished, Grzejka said. If the city notices that some time has gone by and no final inspection has been given, the assessor will check it out, he said.
“It’s a judgment call, and goes on a case-by-case basis,” Grzejka said. “We check monthly updates on the permits, and if a lot of time goes by, the property is revisited to see if it’s done. A lot of people don’t get that final inspection.”
In response to the assessment questions that have been posed by Manassas Park residents, the city will give a presentation on the assessment process during Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Mayor Frank Jones said.
“We’ve had questions about what the process is and how it works,” Jones said. “We’re trying to respond to some of those questions.”
And assessment questions aren’t exclusive to Manassas Park. In Manassas, hundreds of complaints come in after the assessment notices are sent out, Grzejka said.
The assessors revisit the cases, and either make changes or stand by their work, he said. If the resident still has questions, the complaint is forwarded to Grzejka, and then on to the Board of Equalization if the resident still isn’t happy.
Last year, 12 Manassas residents took their cases to the board. None were changed, Grzejka said.