Seeing your property's value go up feels good, especially if it goes up more than what you made from your day job. However, the biggest downside is your property taxes will likely go up as well.
For as long as I can remember, I've always stood up for myself. Whether it was getting bullied at school or getting ripped off by a vendor, you best not try to take advantage of me or else. But after three years of fighting my property taxes, I've given up.
This is actually my first time losing a property tax appeal. Yet, I feel it should have been the easiest property tax appeal to win.
Back in 2009, 2010, and 2011, I successfully got the city to lower my property's assessed value so I could save on property taxes. If I had not appealed, the city would have kept charging me higher and higher property taxes during the global financial crisis.
Let me explain how this whole property tax ordeal started and some lessons learned if you also want to get your property taxes lowered. I want to save you time, money, and stress. I also want to record my experience in order to let go.
In the end, you must do a cost / benefit analysis on the property tax you could potentially save and the value of your time.
A Reasonable Property Purchase
Back in 2019, I was able to buy a single-family home fixer with ocean views in San Francisco. Ever since buying my first ocean view single-family home in 2014, I decided this was the asset class I wanted to accumulate for retirement.
The homes were in a quiet neighborhood with a decent amount of land for the city. Further, they were priced at a discount to the median price per square foot in the city, which didn't make sense. In every city in the world, water-view properties trade at large premiums. This was my opportunity.
Ultimately, I was able to buy the fixer for $1,780,000 or $200,000 below its original asking price. I had originally offered $1,550,000 before it was listed but the sellers wanted to test the open market.
After two weeks of back and forth, the sellers decided to list the property on the MLS for $1,980,000 for five days. On the sixth day, the sellers lowered the asking price to $1,880,000 for one day.
I was a cash buyer with a short three-week close. To save the seller on commission, I let the out-of-town listing agent represent me. i also wrote a convincing real estate love letter that explained we were not speculators. Instead, we were a family who planned to remodel the home and live in it.
Instead of keeping the home on the market for the “standard” two weeks before setting an offer deadline, they decided to accept my offer after only six days on the MLS. They feared I would walk.
In retrospect, I was indifferent about buying the home for anything above $1,780,000. It was a project that required a lot of time and money. But it was also a bigger home to accommodate our growing family.
The Badgering Starts From The Office Of The Assessor-Recorder
For five months after purchase, I was busy coordinating with my general contractor to get the remodeling going. Then, out of the blue in November 2019, I was e-mailed by a property assessor named Thomas T.
He asked for photos of the property I had purchased, who my agent was, and her contact information. Through a series of back-and-forth emails, I asked him why he was asking for all of this information.
Did I do something wrong? Did they confuse me for a Russian oligarch trying to launder money?
Thomas said he was tasked to understand why the property “only” sold for $1,780,000. Their assessment models flagged my property should have been sold at a higher value.
Huh? I bought the property for $1,780,000 because that is what the seller was willing to sell it to me for. Nobody else was willing to pay more, which is why I was able to buy it. The market-clearing price was the fair market value. This is economics 101!
Given my experience dealing with the San Francisco Office of the Assessor-Recorder from 2009-2011, I knew I needed to do more to convince them not to screw me. Defending my property purchase was not enough. Instead, I had to argue why the property's value should be assessed lower.
So, I wrote a letter as any real estate blogger would do.
A Letter To Try And Lower My Assessed Property Value And Taxes
On MM DD, 2019, I bought X Property Address for $1,780,000 after first offering $1,550,000. It was a trust sale, so it was sold as-is with no disclosure package. I now realize after doing this exercise that I overpaid for the house.
The home was a complete fixer-upper, where my contractor and I estimated we'd need between $500,000 – $600,000 to fix up the property.
Don't be fooled by the new carpet and the new paint job pictures from the MLS listings. I visited the property many times with a couple of experienced contractors. A lot of work needs to be done.
Summary of the work needed to be done:
1) The first floor behind the garage is uninhabitable. It needs to be blown out and redone. Estimated cost $100,000.
2) There is wood rot in the master bedroom windows and dining room window. All the wood and windows need to be replaced. Estimated cost: $50,000.
3) There is wood rot along the entire west side of the house. Estimated cost: $50,000.
4) The garage door doesn't work, requiring a new engine and door. Estimated cost: $5,000
5) Foundation work needs to be done due to the natural settling of the house. Estimated cost: $100,000 – $250,000
6) The kitchen and three bathrooms are from the 1950s. They will be gutted and replaced. There was no oven/range in the kitchen when sold to me. The estimated cost is between $80,000 – $100,000
7) There is a roof leak. The estimated cost to replace the roof: $25,000
8) The house hasn't been painted for 30+ years. The estimated cost to paint is: $30,000
9) The electrical is all knob and tube wiring, which needs to be upgraded. The cost to upgrade to new ROMEX wiring is: $40,000 for three stories
10) The fence in the backyard is rotted and falling down. Side fence is also old and needs replacement. Estimated cost: $15,000.
11) Old gravity furnace with tubes covered in abestos. The Abatement removal process = $9,000 and a new furnace = $4,000 – $7,000 for a total of $13,000 – $16,000.
12) Then there is the time it takes to do all this stuff and get a permit. We estimate everything will take 1.5 years to complete.
So you can see why we initially offered $1,550,000 before hitting the MLS. There is an estimated $500,000+ of work that needs to be done.
More Reasons To Support My Offer Price
Ultimately, I had to raise my offer price to $1,700,000 after a counter. Then I finally raised my offer to $1,780,000 when they listed it on the MLS. They couldn't get their asking price of $1,880,000, so they went back to me and asked if I could raise my $1,700,000 offer to $1,780,000. So I finally acquiesced.
1) The median home price in San Francisco peaked in April 2018 and was down about 12% by the time I was negotiating with the X Address property sellers in March 2019. Please see the attachment from Compass Reality, which does the best SF real estate research.
2) Finally, please see the sales price of Y Property Address comp, one block down the hill from me. The final sales price was only $510/sqft. This is the house that I used to anchor my $1,550,000 initial offer.
Please Lower My Property's Assessed Value
In conclusion, I believe the assessed value should be at most $1,650,000 if not lower. The SF housing market continues to weaken in 2H2019 after I bought the house.
But, at the time, I decided to pay up because we needed a larger house for our growing family. At the end of the day, the reason why I bought the house for $1.78 million was that nobody else was willing to pay more.
A Reasonable Argument To Keep My Property Taxes Fixed
A pretty reasonable argument right? I thought so. Worst case, I should be assessed at no more than what I paid for the property. That is the way it has always been. The Office Of The Assessor-Recorder can't just make up a higher property valuation in order to charge higher property taxes.
By this time, I had already spent a couple of hours doing my research, responding to their e-mails, and writing my letter. I thought I was good to go, but no.
Property Assessor Contacts Listing Agent
Thomas decided to contact the listing agent with some questions about the property. The listing agent, Lala, then responded with some lies for some reason:
1. Was the home a fixer? Not a fixer-upper. (Totally false as there wasn’t even kitchen appliances)
2. Any hazards or issues with foundation? No issues on hazards, foundation, or frame (There were no disclosures because it was a trust sale)
3. How many offers were received? Two offers were received. (I wasn't aware there was another offer)
4. Does the house have 3.5 baths? Yes 3.5 baths (correct)
5. Did you represent the seller and the buyer? Yes, agent for seller and buyer.
6. Did the buyer know the seller? This was an at arm's-length transaction. (A transaction in which two or more unrelated and unaffiliated parties agree to do business, acting independently and in their self-interest.)
I'm not sure why Lala, the listing agent, lied about the condition of the property. Maybe it was to salvage some pride. She probably promised the sellers she could sell the property for much more than it did. Not only was she a bad real estate agent for the seller, she was now a bad real estate agent for the buyer.
So now I had to continue to argue why I paid the price I paid. I told Thomas it was ridiculous I had to spend time explaining my purchase to him. But he continued to say that my purchase price was wrong.
Another E-mail From The Assessor's Office Asking For More Documents
After several more back-and-forth emails with Thomas, I got a response from Thomas' senior colleague, Concepcion V:
This is in response to your earlier email to Mr. T. Please know that it is the Assessor’s duty to fully review all sale transactions to validate its sale price. Part of this process entails obtaining information about the transaction from all parties involved i.e. buyers, sellers, and agents.
With that said, thank you for submitting photos and other information already furnished to Mr. T. However, we still need additional information about the sale itself to complete our review and appropriately validate the purchase price.
Please provide the following documentation:
- A full copy of all disclosures
- A full copy of any inspection reports prepared for the acquisition of the property
- A full copy of the purchase and sale agreement
- A full copy of the escrow/closing statement
- A full copy of the construction agreement detailing the nature of the work to be performed on the property. It is imperative to identify what is being provided as far as labor and materials and its cost.
Now, in the event the Assessor was to reject the reported sale price and value the property at a higher value, you have recourse by filing a formal appeal with the Assessment Appeals Board, which is an independent body.
You can find more information about the appeals process by visiting their website at www.sfgov.org/aab. In the meantime, I urge you to provide the information requested above so that the Assessor can complete its review of this sale.
Should you have additional questions or concerns, please feel free to reach me.
Real Property Division
Office of the Assessor-Recorder, San Francisco
Guilty Until Proven Innocent: You Must Prove Your Property Purchase Price
Holy crap! Now I felt like I had committed a crime and had to prove my innocence! I told the listing agent, Lala, to send in the materials she had. Then I had to send in the contract I had signed with my general contractor.
After sending all the documents in, I waited for several more weeks until they got back to me with their determination.
Instead of assessing my property's value at the price I paid for the property, they decided to assess my property for $1,880,000! WTF! If the property was worth $1,880,000 in 2019, why didn't anybody pay $1,880,000 for it?
Raised Cost Of Remodel
But the pain wasn't over yet. Not only did the SF Property Assessor Office raise my assessed value by $100,000 over my purchase price, but they also raised my remodeling cost by $55,000 as well.
I decided to apply for permits to remodel my kitchen and three bathrooms on the top two floors before moving in with my family. My contractor put the project cost at a reasonable $80,000.
Instead of accepting our $80,000 remodel cost, the SF Property Assessor Office decided to jack the remodel cost up to $135,388 from $80,000! What the hell. Is there any wonder why so many people decide to remodel without permits? The more corrupt your city, the more you may want to side-step the permit process.
All told, the SF Assessors Office unfairly raised my assessed property value by $165,000. A $165,000 higher value at a 1.24% property tax rate means an extra $2,046 in property tax revenue for the city. To me, this feels like theft.
I sent them multiple comps that proved my purchase price was reasonable. But they refused to accept any of them. I then asked them to send me the comps to prove my higher price and they didn't not.
I was losing hope.
Corruption: One Last Hope To Get My Property Value Down
Over a year had passed since this big waste of time. I shut the experience out of my mind because it only made me mad. I hate being taken advantage of, especially when it comes to the omnipotent government.
Getting beat up by the government reminds me of this joke:
IRS: You owe us money.
Me: How much?
IRS: Guess? :)
Me: This much?
IRS: No. Time for jail :)
In June 2020, the Justice Department announced there was corruption and bribery going on at the SF Department Of Building And Inspection and the SF Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC). A permit expeditor was basically providing kickbacks to various city employees to get his and his client's projects approved.
I always found the existence of a permit expeditor to be suspect. But I remember actually paying for one when I did my first remodel back in 2005/2006. That's what my general contractor told me to do so I followed along. It was my first remodel. That permit expeditor actually got convicted of bribery too!
Then at the end of 2020, the SFPUC head was convicted, and I finally had some hope. After finally seeing some of the corruption in the SF city government get exposed, I was emboldened to try and file another property tax appeal. Surely, the SF Office of the Assessor-Recorder would now be more above-board after the corruption scandal! Right?
I paid a non-refundable $60 bucks in the second half of 2021 and waited for months to get a response. When the SF Property Assessors office contacted me, once again, I had to face my old adversary, Thomas T.
The Property Tax Appeal Process Round 2
Thomas e-mailed me the following:
- Please send in 3 BEST COMPS according the (Board Rules) no more than 90 days after form the event date 1/1/2021
- Please choose 3 BEST COMPS that is closest in terms of: condition as of 1/1/2021, days range , square footage and view and distance to your Subject (You Home)
- After principal appraiser the Market Value range and agree the FMV , principal appraiser can change the value for FY 2021 (1-Year) according to the appeal rule immediately, if that is the case you don’t have to appear , prepare, and present to the Assessment Appeals Board.
So once again, I had to do research on my property's comps to prove my innocence. But as you might notice from the request, the property tax appeal is for the 2021 assessment year. It has nothing to do with me trying to fight the $100,000 increase in assessed value from what I originally paid for the property in 2019.
I had a strong feeling I wasn't going to get anywhere with Thomas. But given I paid a $60 non-refundable fee, I decided to at least ask him for advice on how to find the comps. Thomas actually responded with some guidance.
How To Find Historical Comps For Your Property To Fight Your Property Taxes
Here's what Thomas responded with:
- Look at your property on Redfin. Go to the “Public Facts” tab and get the real square footage right.
- A lot of other websites display “Marketing sqft” which is not useful to compare, sqft , bath count will be verified using Assessor Recorder public record. (see screenshot below)
- You can also DoubleVerify using “San Francisco Property Information Map”
- Once you search by address or (Block/Lot) , Click “Assessor Summary” to get Real sqft , bath count etc… (see screenshot below)
- You can use another website as long as you Double Verify Real sqft , bath count etc… using “San Francisco Property Information Map”
Thomas did not tell me what I asked for. All he did was tell me what the public records were for my property.
So here's a lesson to save on property taxes. If the public records show a smaller house with less rooms, leave it alone! Do not proactively update your city property records. Don't let pride get in the way. Only update your property city records the year you plan to sell.
But what Thomas did verify with me was that the SF Assessors Office uses Redfin as a guide for how to assess property values. If they use Redfin, they most certainly check Zillow as well.
I ultimately got the comps for the date range requested by asking my old real estate agent.
Giving Up On My Property Tax Appeal
After several more back-and-forth e-mails, I decided to stop wasting my time. For three years, I gave fighting my property taxes my best shot. At least I will not regret having tried to fight the power.
Since 2019, property prices have moved up. Therefore, even though the SF Property Assessors office is charging me $2,046 more a year in property tax than they should, I have a buffer between the market price and the assessed value due to Proposition 13.
I'm happy to have learned something about the property tax appeal process to share with all of you. Sharing helpful firsthand information to potentially save you time and money is one of the reasons why I'm willing to battle so much. There are thousands out there who feel like their property tax assessment is wrong too.
I got everything I could get out of the SF Office of the Assessor-Recorder and the Appeals Board. When I confirmed the SF Property Assessor Office uses Redfin, I knew it was time to stop trying. Because if they use Redfin, they may see something like this online.
Use Online Estimates To Your Advantage
We all know that online property estimates are not to be trusted. Zillow couldn't even trust their estimates and shut down their iBuying business in 2021. Zillow continued to buy overpriced properties because its algorithm couldn't take into proper account a property's true condition.
Redfin also conducts revisionist history with their estimates. They'll change their real estate estimates over time so as to not look so wrong. Back in 2019, the gap between the estimate and dollar sign was much narrower.
I've come to peace with the situation now because the market went up. There was also nothing more I could do.
However, if the market went down, I know the assessors office wouldn't do the right thing and lower my property taxes. As a result, we must all continue to fight every day for our financial freedom!
Lessons Learned From Fighting My Property Taxes
If you plan to go through the ordeal of fighting your property taxes, here are some key takeaways:
- Consider using a property tax lawyer to fight for you and save time. You usually just have to pay a portion of your tax savings during the first year.
- You must anchor low to give your chance at winning your property tax appeal. By anchoring low, you give yourself room to negotiate up.
- Getting a permit will increase your property taxes. Increased property taxes are the main reason why people don't remodel with permits. The other reasons are time and dealing with the inspectors.
- Unbeknownst to me, the property assessor's office has the power to value your property at whatever they think is fair value. They will cherry pick the most expensive comps to justify their assessment. Your master negotiating skills may get punished.
- If you do not fight your property taxes in a down market, don't expect the Property Assessors Office to automatically lower your property taxes. You must file a property tax appeal.
- Be prepared to spend hours justifying your property's value. Also, be prepared to get non-answers to your questions. They will stonewall you.
- Out of pride, some people have the desire to make their property look as awesome online as possible. Do the opposite. Since the property assessor's office uses Redfin and Zillow to get an idea of how much your property is worth, remove all details of your property online. Take off the pictures and put 0 value for square footage, bedrooms, and bathrooms.
- Keep a record of all the crappiest comps that sell within a 3-6-month time frame from when you purchased your property. This way, you can easily use them if you were to ever file a property tax appeal. The assessor's office will purposefully give you a tiny window for comps to make it more difficult for you to argue your case.
- Find your limit in terms of how much physical real estate you want to own and property taxes you want to pay. After the limit is reached, start investing in passive real estate investments instead. Your time is worth a lot, especially as you get older.
Readers, have you ever appealed your property taxes and lost? If you lost, what were the reasons given? Can you share some unfair practices or reasons why the assessor's office denied your property tax appeal?
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