Faced with a July 1 deadline and with no additional staff, the Ventura County assessor's office has begun an unprecedented reappraisal of 20,000 homes whose owners stand to receive property tax cuts due to the slumping real estate market.
Assessor Jerry Sanford has instructed his staff to perform reappraisals in the next four months on all homes sold since late 1988. His office normally conducts 20,000 residential appraisals in an entire year.
"Because we're doing the review on a mass basis, we won't be able to go out and look at every property individually," said Robert Quimby, who is overseeing the computer-aided reassessment project. "Anyone who gets a reduction should look at it carefully to be satisfied it reflects their home's value in today's market."
"Considering they have to get it to the tax collector's desk by July 1, it's a monumental task," said Steven Bangs, a Ventura appraiser who works for a local mortgage lender. "Sanford's going the extra mile in that he's taking it on at all."
While county assessors are empowered to annually raise assessments used for collection of property taxes, state law does not require them to lower assessments unless a property owner appeals.
Assessors in Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange and San Diego counties said last month that they have no intention of systematically reassessing homes that may now be worth less than their owners paid for them. Along with putting the burden on homeowners to file individual appeals, those counties' assessors also are indirectly staving off multimillion-dollar property-tax losses.
Sanford estimated in late February that Ventura County's residential tax base will decline between $500 million and $600 million because of the reassessment program, meaning a loss of $6 million in tax revenue for county government, municipalities and schools.
Even with that reduction, sales of new homes and resales of homes that had been taxed at a low rate would push the residential tax base up an estimated 7%, compared with a 12% increase last year.
The average reduction in assessed value is expected to be about $30,000, which would result in roughly a $300 tax cut. Quimby said, however, that the reductions would run to wide extremes.
Tracy Long, a county appraisal analyst, said the assessor's office is able to handle the task relatively quickly because of its computer system.
"It's an incredible amount of work to be done in the next four months," said Long, who is designing a computer program to hasten the job.
The computer will first pull from deed records a list of all homes sold since late 1988, expected to number about 20,000 of the county's 160,000 residences. The value of most homes bought before then remains higher than their original base assessment and the 2% maximum annual increase permitted under Proposition 13.
The computer will then chart month-to-month percentage declines for various types of homes over the last two years, lump together comparable homes based on their neighborhood, age, square footage and number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and adjust the assessed value of affected homes downward based on their date of sale.
The median price of a home in Ventura County in January was $233,640, according to the California Assn. of Realtors. That compares to a high of $269,710 in August, 1989.
Quimby, chief deputy assessor for the real estate division, acknowledged that the computer-aided reassessments will not be as thorough as normal assessments when houses are sold, which often entail visual inspections.
As many as 18 appraisers will be assigned to review the computer's assigned values while continuing to handle the division's normal workload.
"If we had to do this manually, and review each property individually, we would absolutely be unable to do it," Quimby said.
The reassessments may be more accurate for tract homes than custom models, Quimby said.
Homeowners can file an appeal with the county assessment board between July 2 and Sept. 15.
Bangs said homeowners who are appealing should request a meeting with the assessor's office to present an independent appraisal, recent sales records of comparable homes or other evidence to show that the new assessment is high.
Long advised homeowners to file an appeal before seeking a meeting with the assessor's office to ensure that they do not miss the filing deadline. Between 750 and 900 property owners appeal their assessments each year, but only a small percentage end up going to the appeals board, she said.
"It's very seldom that we can't come to an agreement," Long said.