Talking Taxes

Along with the gorgeous fall color, October brings property tax statements.  If you live in Oregon, you will be receiving your statement in the mail in the next week or so.  Property taxes are pretty misunderstood, and not because people are dumb. The simple fact is that they are confusing. I am going to take a shot at explaining them and clearing up some basic issues.

fallcolorThe tax year runs from July 1st to June 30th, but you receive your tax statement in October for payment on November 15th.  No wonder people are confused!  Not only does the tax year not correspond with the calendar year, but you get your statement at a completely odd time as well.  (Is this some sort of a conspiracy?)  So when you pay your taxes in November you are paying in arrears back to July 1 and ahead to June 30.  You can pay your taxes in one lump sum and receive a discount, or you can pay it in thirds with the final third due in May.

Don’t fall behind in your property taxes.  The tax assessor is the only entity that can step ahead of your mortgage lender in lien position.  This means that if you fall behind, the county can actually foreclosure on your home even if you are current on your mortgage.  This is why mortgage companies pay attention to whether or not your property taxes are paid and will be all over you if you let them slide.  I recommend to all first-time buyers, and to buyers who are not yet financially seasoned homeowners, that they arrange for their taxes to be paid as a part of their house payment.  This builds a reserve account that is built up all year so that when November rolls around the full year’s tax bill is on hand, and the taxes are paid on your behalf by your mortgage company.  It makes paying your taxes quite automatic.

fallcolor2Yes, your property taxes will probably go up this year even though your house value has likely gone down.  Right now, this is the most confusing issue about property taxes and is getting a lot of play in the media.  This is happening because of the restriction that was placed onto annual tax increases in the mid-1990’s.  At that time house values were going up quickly and property taxes were going up at the same pace.  This was creating financial hardship because people’s incomes were not keeping pace.  A ballot measure was passed that restricted annual tax increases to not more than 3% per year plus any bond measures passed through public vote.  Bond measures are those ballot measures that supply funding to build libraries, schools, zoos, etc.  Lots of bond measures have been passed in the last 15 years, including an $80,000,000 bond measure that re-built the two High Schools here in Lake Oswego.

When you receive your tax bill you will see two values:  tax assessed and market.  The tax assessed value has increased under restrictions for the last 15 years.  These restrictions have kept the increase to about 3-6% per year.  At the same time the real market value has increased at the rate of the actual market and there were many years with 10-15% appreciation.  You will not see any decrease in property taxes until or unless the market value falls below the tax assessed value.  And because the market value so far out-paced the tax assessed value, they are still pretty wide apart.  And that is why your property taxes will likely be going up this year.

It’s good to know that buying or selling a home does not trigger a tax increase.  The tax assessed value goes with the house to the new home owner.  So the new sale at a value that is much higher than the tax assessed value will not have an impact on the annual property taxes.  (Other than becoming a part of general statistics used in the tax assessor’s office to track valuations).  There are, however, two things that can trigger higher taxes.  I have already mentioned publicly voted bond measures that pass.  These have no dollar limitations.  It is completely at the discretion of the voters.  The second is major remodeling.  This is not the sort of remodeling where you re-do the kitchen or put up a fence in the yard.  (I am providing general information here.  What the tax assessor uses to trigger a tax increase because of remodeling is at his/her discretion, and not mine )  This is the sort of remodeling where you add square footage to the house, or gut a house and re-build it from the studs out.  This will bring in lots of building permits and the tax assessor will be right in there to see how it affects the value.  A total remodel can trigger tax assessments that make the home virtually a new house.

The taxation process is political. And that means it was built from problems that needed to be solved and a solution that was from compromises.  So it’s not perfect.  The biggest area that I see as imbalanced is that the basis for the 3% annual increase happened in the mid-1990’s.  Older homes that had lower market values 15 years ago continue to benefit from those values.  And homes that were newer or in expensive neighborhoods continue to have taxes that are higher in comparison.  Having said that, it is my experience that on average taxes in Lake Oswego/Clackamas County still remain lower than taxes in Multnomah County (Portland), and there is no transfer tax like you find in Washington County (Beaverton/Tigard).

Without going on and on on this topic (because that would be pretty easy to do), I hope this explanation is helpful to you as you receive your tax statement in the coming weeks.  And if you are re-locating to the area, I hope it helps you to understand what to expect.