Hot market, new construction drive property value increase


October 6, 2022

“This may shock you but we have been getting a lot of calls about value,” Wahkiakum County Assessor Bill Coons said.

I asked him why property values were going up so much. Anyone watching the real estate market knows that the price of homes has been going up in Wahkiakum County. Like everywhere else.

It turns out it all depends on one very specific moment in time.

“The mandate for our office is to value property at noon on January 1 of each year at 100 percent of market value,” Coons said.

“It’s because properties are being sold for so much,” he continued. “So what happens is that to some degree we have neighbor pitted against neighbor. People moving in and paying high prices relatively to what’s gone before.”

That’s the information he is looking at, so as those numbers rise, so does the value of the homes in the county.

“If someone moves in next to you, and you’re currently assessed at $300,000, but they pay $500,000 for pretty much the same house, I’ve got to raise you up to that,” Coons said.

Individual properties have different attributes, he pointed out. Waterfront property is more desirable, and increases more than houses in Glengate.

As far as land, he added, some property out in the Elochoman, especially riverfront properties, are increasingly desirable, so those values have to go up too.

One particular surprise has been the rising value of manufactured homes.

“That’s one of the craziest things about this market,” Coons said. “We did an analysis of stick built homes versus manufactured homes. You’d expect a manufactured home to be a lot less than a stick built home. They are only five to 10 percent less.”

“I just came up with a 200 percent increase in the mobile home park,” he added. "People are paying big bucks up there, so the days of evaluations of a couple thousand dollars are gone. They may come back soon, but those were some of the biggest increases.”

“If you stand back and look at all the potential taxation systems, what we have in the state of Washington is pretty good,” Coons said. “We’re not trying to be regressive or progressive. We’re just trying to keep it equitable. I don’t like values going up this much either, I have to follow the data.”

“It’s just as shocking to us when those sales come through,” Chief Deputy Assessor Falon Hoven said. It’s just as shocking to us when we see manufactured homes go for $430,000.”

Property is assessed two ways. The Assessor’s Office uses a program, Marshall and Swift, to evaluate things like square footage, roof components, heating type, siding, sheds, and garages, but they must also consider condition, which requires a visit.

“With Marshall and Swift, you might have been sitting at an unnaturally low value for years and years and now that we’ve brought Marshall and Swift, we have to bring your value up, so that results in big swings,” Coons said.

But he acknowledges that change happens all the time in the real estate market.

“In hindsight, 2022 is looking like maybe the peak of the market, because if we are talking about values today, prices are slowly going down, but sales activity has darn near stopped,” Coons said. “That’s the nature of the beast. If it goes down, it goes down. This office will lower values.”

"If I arbitrarily kept values low, that might placate some people, but the Department of Revenue would figure it out pretty quickly and direct me to correct it, and if I didn’t, they would correct it for me and charge the taxpayers the cost to do that,” he added.

On the other hand, increased values do not equal increased money for the county, either.

“There is no big conspiracy to raise values to get more money,” Coons said.

To be clear, the function of the Assessor’s Office is not to determine the amount of taxes to be collected, it is to figure out how to distribute those taxes equitably.

“We’re doing an important job. It’s part of how our society works,” Coons said. “I like knowing that someone is going to show up to put out the fire, I like knowing someone is going to come investigate if I suffer a burglary. Those functions of government need to be paid for. We’re not the highest taxed county in the state of Washington. We’re pretty darn low.”

“Three from the bottom,” Hoven interjected.

To see the breakdown of where your property taxes go, to things like the school district, cemetery district, port districts, EMS, county, etc., go to the Wahkiakum County Assessor’s website and look for your property on the Wahkiakum County Web Map. Select 2021 Tax information, and then taxing jurisdiction.

With the big rise in property values, a lot of property owners are unhappy. What should they do?

Talk to the staff at the assessor’s office.

Find out if your home matches the information they have on hand. Maybe they think you still have that deck, but it was removed last year.

“When we’ve gone out and inspected people, we try to pick up changes, but at the end of the day, the homeowner knows more about their property than we do,” Coons said. “When they call, wondering how we came up with the number, we make sure we have things right. Like a shop building they don’t have.”

Most of the calls they are getting right now are either complaints or questions about how to qualify for a senior or disabled exemption.

“Having an income threshold to that program is an important piece of it, so we are not spreading the tax burden to the rest of us under 62,” Hoven said. “Inflation, the cost of living has gone up, and the state has not assessed our median income for the income threshold for that program since 2013. That’s what the state could do better. We are due for review in 2024.”

“We all live here too, and we all own property here too,” Coons said. “My personal assessments went up 30 percent. I’m not sitting here giving myself a good deal.”

“Home values are elevated everywhere,” Laurie Williams, the clerk for the Board of Equalization said. “It doesn’t make much sense. It’s hard. It’s hard for people who are older and on a fixed income.”

Williams advised homeowners to look at the retail market to see what has sold in the area and how much before contacting the assessor’s office or the BOE.

Talk to a realtor, she said, or the assessor’s office can provide the specs on homes that have sold recently, which is the data they use to value homes.

“They don’t just pull things out of their hat,” Williams said. “The assessors will try to work with you, because there are things about your property they don’t know. If you express that to them, they may possibly change your evaluation numbers. If they do not, and you still feel your property is worth less, even after looking at what things have sold, then you contact the Board of Equalization and I will get the paperwork to you.”

The board has to adhere to a standard and transparent procedure. It’s controlled so everyone involved knows what is going on when a disputed assessment gets to this stage.

“It’s not public information, but it’s information that the assessor’s office knows, the board knows. Everybody has the pictures, if pictures are involved,” she said.

Williams schedules the appeals, and last year there were 12-15 of them. A few people have reached out to her this year already.

“We don’t take opinions of how someone feels,” she warned. “Board members have to have factual information.”

And she said, just like the people working in the assessor’s office, the board members live in Wahkiakum County, and their properties have gone up just as much as everybody else.

Cathlamet resident Ryan Smith was so frustrated and shocked when he received his notice of value, he went outside and spray painted “Property taxes are too damn high” on the sides of his home in Cathlamet.

He said the news gives him zero incentive to make his home worth more.

“It was a shock to find out what our taxable obligation based on the inflated value of our house is,” Smith said. “The market is currently insane right now. It’s being driven by outside forces that have decimated other areas of American commerce and the ability to get ahead.”

"When we bought our house it was worth $80,000, but we are happy to have the house,” Smith said. “At the time that we bought it it was in our price range. If property values keep going up the way that we are, I see the potential of us being priced out of our own house, a house that brought us into what they consider the American dream.”

Smith spoke with the assessor’s office and is filling out paperwork and taking pictures to dispute the value.

“I can’t blame the assessors themselves, they didn’t set these rates. They’re only doing their job,” he said. “They have been wonderful to work with. They’ve been very helpful and have been very upfront about what we have to provide.


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