Using Comparable Condo Units to Challenge Your Property Tax Assessment

If you are a condo owner, you may have discovered that the assessed value of your property differs from the assessed value or sale price of similar units in your condo development.  As a result, you may have come to the conclusion that your unit has been overvalued and requested an abatement from your assessors.  If this abatement was denied, but you feel the denial was erroneous, you may consider appealing to the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board.

Many people who appeal property taxes to the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board represent themselves, and may not know how to effectively present evidence to support their claims of overvaluation.  It is important to know that you, the appellant, have the burden of proving you are entitled to an abatement.  See Schlaiker v. Assessors of Great Barrington, 365 Mass. 243, 245 (1974).  While the assessment is presumed valid, the assessors are required to assess your property at fair cash value. Fair cash value is defined as the price on which a willing seller and a willing buyer will agree if both of them are fully informed and under no compulsion. Boston Gas Co. v. Assessors of Boston, 334 Mass. 549, 566 (1956).

You may meet your burden of proof by establishing that the assessors erred in their method of valuation, or by presenting affirmative evidence of a fair cash value. See  General Electric Co. v. Assessors of Lynn, 393 Mass. 591, 600 (1984).

If you try to introduce the assessed value or sale prices of comparable units as evidence of the fair cash value of your unit, you must make adjustments for factors that would otherwise cause disparities in the comparable prices or values.  See Pembroke Industrial Park Co., Inc. v. Assessors of Pembroke, Mass. ATB Findings of Fact and Reports 1998-1072, 1082.  For example, in Nathan T. & Shirley F. Krasignor v. Assessors of Wayland, Mass. ATB Findings of Fact and Reports 2009-254, the unit in question had a finished basement. Other units in the complex that the appellants alleged were comparable did not have a finished basement, which lowered their relative value.  The appellants failed to present evidence of any of the amenities of these condos, such as by providing property record cards.  Failure to account for unit features or aspects of the sale (i.e. a transaction that is not arm’s-length) of purportedly comparable properties will make it difficult for you to meet your burden.

Additionally, when you do attempt to make adjustments, you must be sure to adequately substantiate them. In Krasignor, the appellants argued that the cost of the basement remodel was less than the difference between the assessed value of their property and that of comparable units. See id.  However, the appellants supported this contention with only a self-prepared valuation statement, photographs of the finished basement, and a contractor’s quote for a remodel of the basement.  They never provided any information substantiating the actual costs of the remodel.  Self-compiled documents containing unverifiable or unsubstantiated information will not meet your burden, even if they contain data from credible sources or that you know to be true.  You cannot simply asks your neighbors the value of their units and submit a sheet listing this data, or Google their addresses and take a value off the Internet. But see Edward S. & Ann F. Turner v. Assessors of Lunenberg, Mass. ATB Findings of Fact and Reports 2012-912, 915; Krasignor, Mass. ATB Findings of Fact and Reports 2009-254, 256.  Instead, consider presenting property record cards  or other credible data. See Krasignor, Mass. ATB Findings of Fact and Reports 2009-254, 257.

Some condo owners may assume that making improvements to their units, such as adding a finished basement, results in a lowered fair cash value. See Turner, Mass. ATB Findings of Fact and Reports 2012-912, 916.  This is based on the premise that the cost of the repairs should be deducted from the assessed value.  In reality, these improvements typically increase the fair cash value of your unit.  See id. at 917.  An improved unit will likely be more attractive to willing buyers.

One last thing to note is that if you introduce an appraisal report that supports your valuation but do not bring the appraiser to the hearing to testify, the appraiser’s opinions of value and adjustments will be considered unsubstantiated hearsay and will not help you meet your burden. See id. at 915. Only the factual information contained in the report will be allowed to speak for itself and be taken into consideration. See id.

The bottom line is that you must do your homework and be sure to substantiate claims your claim of overvaluation. Visit the Tax Board’s website and check out this helpful guide and in preparation of your appeal.  Finally, look through past findings of fact and reports (there is a search function to find appeals that may raise similar issues as yours) in order to get a sense of how the process works and what evidence you should offer to be a successful appellant.

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