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Revaluation process explained during workshop

This story was printed in two parts. The first part appeared in the issue of Nov. 24. CORNWALL — About two dozen people attended a revaluation workshop at Town Hall Saturday morning, Nov. 12. It was the second opportunity for Assessor Barbara Bigos to help people understand how their property is assigned a value to be taxed.One of Bigos’ self-assigned “homework” tasks is to send a survey to property buyers. It helps her get a handle on those anomalies that seem to be the norm right now. People are getting big bargains on properties that owners are desperate to sell. Recent sales have been mostly on unique second homes, where someone who can afford not to haggle and “must have” a piece of property will pay a high asking price.The surveys also offer a good picture of what makes a property desirable.Hilltops and bubbling brooksIn Cornwall, there are no real neighborhoods, so the perceived prestige (or lack of it) a neighborhood can confer on a house doesn’t really affect property values. But location plays an enormous part in property values here. A setting might be at the top of a hill, with privacy and astonishing views. One home could be at the edge of a busy road while the house next door might be set back behind a buffer of trees.The biggest influence on the value of most properties is the site factor. Each property is assigned a rating on a scale of one to 10. Factored in are desirable and undesirable traits. A good view can easily triple an assessment. But if getting to that view requires traveling up a treacherous driveway, the site value is diminished.The gray areas that come up are endless. Suppose a vacant lot is being assessed. A brook runs through it. Building a home on the lot will require avoiding wetlands and their buffer zone. The lot has less buildable area, lowering its value —even though having a brook might seem to be a huge selling point.But if the same piece of property already has a home on it (likely built before wetlands regulations were established by the state in 1970) then the assessment is quite different. Those wetlands are now a babbling brook that adds loads of charm to the property, and bumps up the value considerably.Bigos said it is very important for her to know if a property has a right-of-way or other easement over it. That can mean a big tax savings. On the other hand, property that is adjacent to conservation land will have a higher assessment. Using an overhead projector, Bigos did her best at the workshop to explain factors that ranged from fairly clear to completely baffling. Codes and abbreviations, for example. “BAS” refers to the main floor, not the basement; the basement is the “UBM.”For most homeowners, the easiest and probably most important thing to check on a field card — free copies are available in the assessor’s office — is the description on the back of the card.The number of bedrooms does not matter, but baths and half baths do. The style of the house also matters, because current market trends might be more favorable to contemporaries than cape-style buildings. Electric heat is less desirable and will bring down the value. Clapboard siding and wood roof shingles are more valuable.Simple drawings indicate building dimensions. The numbers are rounded off and determine the assessed square footage for each floor and any outbuildings. Those are easy and important numbers to check for accuracy.Homes are given a grade that has to do with quality of materials used and building details such as crown molding and granite countertops, and their condition. A question from the audience about crawl spaces led to a lot of information about how slabs, “nasty” old crawl spaces and basements, unfinished, semi-finished, finished or finished with a walkout, can make a big assessment difference.The starting point: acreageAssessing homes and the minimum lots prescribed by zoning starts with some solid numbers, called the site index, beginning with $84,000 for 1 acre and up to $117,500 for 5. Excess acreage is listed separately on the card. An acre is always valued at $10,000 to start, but a curve is used to decrease the price per acre for large properties, or where land is not developable.Under Connecticut law, properties are taxed at 70 percent of assessed value.Bigos said she welcomes discussion about any property, and is always glad to have a chance to educate people on how it all works, but she stressed that people should not compare their own property with other properties, and they should not try to bring in issues that are not relevant to the property itself.That said, there is another very important value indicator to consider. “If you don’t think your house will sell for the assessed value, that’s the time to question it. People who are not planning to sell don’t think about it, but it’s important to ask yourself, if I were to sell this house tomorrow, what would I ask for it?” Bigos said. “Maybe you don’t think the site index is correct. That’s an important discussion for us to have.”Audience members prompted a discussion about added value. Some saw it as being penalized for property upkeep. But there is no getting around the fact that a new roof or driveway increases value. “If you were to list your home, the first thing a realtor would put in the description would be ‘new roof,’” Bigos said.That said, “Cost does not equate with value.”In other words, what one pays for improvements does not equal the property value increase. It is usually less.“For instance, you may put $75,000 into an outdoor pool,” Bigos said, “but I may only assess it at $20,000 because you can’t use it for most of the year.”

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