Federal Hill riled up over assessments

Huge increases have area's homeowners shaking their heads

`No rhyme or reason'

Valuation methods sometimes imprecise, city appraisers say

January 23, 2000|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

John Carrico is a physicist, paid to find patterns in data. But for the life of him, the 61-year-old Federal Hill resident can't make sense of his neighborhood's property assessments.

After he painted the outside of his three-bedroom rowhouse in the 200 block of Warren Ave. and replaced the dry-rotted front door, Carrico's January property value assessment shot up 35 percent, to $309,000. His next-door neighbor's assessment rose 6 percent, to $285,000. And that of a house in the next block dropped 24 percent, to $219,000.

"We can find no rhyme or reason as to what the assessor is up to," Carrico said. "Our first order of business is to figure out what's going on, and the next is to challenge it. This is a slap in the face, and we truly think we're being taken advantage of."

Many of his neighbors concur, saying that the homes in their neighborhood south of the Inner Harbor were already overtaxed and have been walloped with the biggest assessment increases they can remember.

City appraisers acknowledge that assessments, which are based on property improvements and area home sales, are imprecise, and they encourage those who think their property values are inaccurate to appeal by the Feb. 10 deadline.

Many Federal Hill residents, some of whom did not spruce up their properties and whose assessments still skyrocketed, plan to do that.

They say that some plots of land -- which are assessed separately from homes built on them -- were uniformly valued regardless of harbor views or square footage.

House values varied wildly within the same block. State Sen. George W. Della Jr.'s house in the 400 block of Hamburg St. climbed 8 percent, from $108,480 to $117,550, while a house seven doors down jumped 149 percent, from $75,600 to $188,000. (The senator's property was the only one on the block with an increase of less than 10 percent.)

City officials say they do not calculate average increases by neighborhood, but have measured the citywide increase at 7.3 percent.

Property is taxed at 40 percent of assessed value, and the city tax rate is $5.82 per $100 of that total. So the owner of a $100,000 house would pay $2,328 in city taxes.

Neighborhood groups say this year's Federal Hill assessments range from double-digit decreases to 150 percent increases.

"There are definitely some things that don't make sense at all," said Della, whose legislative district includes Federal Hill. "It's led me to believe that something is amiss, that some drastic errors have taken place.

"And keep in mind that we're only looking at a small snapshot of a third of the city," he said. "For all I know, these errors could have happened all over the city."

Jere Danaher, the city's assessor with the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation, said neighborhoods where significant home renovations are typical, such as Locust Point, Canton and Federal Hill, are tough to appraise.

"I don't think it's haphazard at all," said Danaher, an assistant supervisor with the department. "Places like Fells Point and Federal Hill are more difficult to value because the numbers on recent sales are all over the place. You walk down a street like Battery Avenue and every one of those houses is completely different. This is not like Cedonia, where all the rowhouses were built in 1958 with the exact same construction style."

In determining "fair market value" of a property, appraisers consider improvements and area home sales. Though the Federal Hill market is on an upswing -- some homes are selling for 30 percent to 50 percent more than they would have three years ago -- real estate agents say prices have not necessarily caught up with valuations.

Three years ago, David Marshall couldn't understand why the value of his one-bedroom rowhouse in the 200 block of Cross St. dropped about 5 percent. Now, he's baffled by an 80 percent increase that raised its value to $108,000.

The 29-year-old engineer said he has made minimal improvements to his home. "I touched up the paint on the wrought-iron railing and replaced the linoleum floor in the kitchen," he said. "Who knew that was worth a $49,000 increase?"

Architect Robert R. Gisriel also counts himself among the confused. The value of his three-bedroom rowhouse in the 1100 block of William St. dipped from $106,000 to $80,000 while that of the three-bedroom property he rents out in the first block of Montgomery St. jumped from $166,000 to $192,000.

"It's impossible that the two would be so extreme. They're only five blocks apart from each other," he said. "It makes no sense."

Those who calculate the assessments acknowledge that theirs is an "inexact science," as Danaher puts it.

With about 210,000 residences in Baltimore, appraisers look at an estimated 70,000 properties each year through the triennial assessment process started in 1980. Regardless of an assessment increase, officials pointed out, city property tax increases for homeowners are limited to 4 percent a year.

"Sometimes values do increase because [locations] are desirable," Danaher said. "Are there some mistakes on there? Probably. But if a property is overvalued, it's easy for us to bring it back down."

Between 4,000 and 5,000 people appeal residential assessments each year. Absentee landlords account for about 3,000 of the appeals, Danaher said, leaving 1,000 to 2,000 homeowner appeals. An estimated 30 percent to 40 percent of the homeowners who appeal receive reductions, he said.

Details of the three-step appeal process are on the back of the assessment notices, which were mailed Jan. 1.

Carrico and his neighbors say they will appeal, armed with their analysis of the neighborhood. If they can't get their assessments reduced individually, they are prepared to hire an attorney to see what can be accomplished as a group.

Meanwhile, Carrico jokes about his new front door. "It's made an $80,000 difference," he said, laughing. "That's what it must be. It's a doggone dream door."

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