How Does the County Property Appraiser’s Office work, and Why can’t I just go yell at them and get my values adjusted to lower my tax bill or increase my portability?
Remember the Boston Tea Party? Well, it’s probably safe to say that wasn’t a good experience for King George III who had gotten a little carried away with taxation without representation. It cost him England’s colony that is now the USA! So… that lesson was not lost on our forefathers and their modern-day equivalents in the Florida legislature. Property tax is one of the many ways of collecting taxes, and it belongs to a category called “Ad Valorem” taxation. That means that the tax that you pay is based on the value of what you are paying it on, and modern-day governments have learned that the taxpayers are very sensitive to two things when it comes to ad-valorem tax: (1) who is determining the “value” on which the tax is paid and how is it determined? And (2) what is the tax rate that is paid on the item of value that is being taxed?
In our modern world in Florida, we have designed a system for addressing #1 and #2 above which hopefully will make everyone feel like it is halfway fair and will avoid another Boston Tea Party. The first step is to put a firewall between the folks who are determining the values and the folks who are coming up with the tax rates and collecting the tax. That way, the guy determining the values can say “Hey! I don’t care if the values are high or low, my only job is to come up with the values.” The guy collecting the tax can say “Hey! My job is just to collect the taxes. Don’t blame me if you are unhappy with the values!”
The person who determines the values is called the County Property Appraiser.
Up until 2018, the County Property Appraiser was always an elected official but along with the offices of the county sheriff, the county tax collector, and the county elections supervisor things were starting to drift a little. There were three Florida counties where some of these offices were appointed, rather than elected, and that was making some people nervous. So in 2018, we had an Amendment 10 on the ballot which passed and now sets forth in stone that beginning in 2024, all 4 of those county offices will have to be elected, and not appointed. Note: in none of those three counties was the County Property Appraiser ever appointed, so to date, we have always had, and it looks like we will always have an elected County Property Appraiser. The person who collects the taxes is the County Tax Collector, and just like the County Property Appraiser, thanks to Amendment 10 passing in 2018, that office is now also always an elected office. So if you get mad at the County Property Appraiser he can say, “Well, sorry you’re mad but the people elected me!” The County Tax Collector can say the same thing.
The County Property Appraiser and the County Tax Collector have two very different jobs.
The County Property Appraiser’s job, stated in the simplest way possible, is to produce a Certified Roll of Values for every property in the county on an annual basis, and to deliver that Certified Roll to the Florida Dept. of Revenue. The Tax Collector’s job is to use that Certified Roll and to apply against it the applicable tax rates, mail out tax bills to everyone, and then make sure that all the money is collected and sent in to be distributed. The determination of the tax rates also follows a very specific process involving many hearings with the County Commission and other taxing authorities- all with the right of public participation and attendance. So as you can see, the public has a hand in everything regarding the entire process, from determining the values all the way to collecting the taxes. So nobody should be able to get too angry!
The way that the County Property Appraiser produces the “Certified Tax Roll” is VERY specific. It is set by the Florida Department of Revenue and must be followed exactly by all 67 of Florida’s county property appraisers. That procedure is:
On January 1st of each year, each county property appraiser must determine the MARKET VALUE of each property in their county.
A simplified definition of “Market Value” is what the property would sell for between a willing buyer and a willing seller, in a free and open market, in a reasonable period of time. If you want to get specific about it, a more detailed definition, straight from the law books is: Just (Market) Value is defined as "Just Value", "Just Valuation", "Actual Value" and "Value" - Means the price at which a property, if offered for sale in the open market, with a reasonable time for the seller to find a purchaser, would transfer for cash or its equivalent, under prevailing market conditions between parties who have knowledge of the uses to which the property may be put, both seeking to maximize their gains and neither being in a position to take advantage of the exigencies of the other (12D-1.002 (5) F.A.C.).
About the second week of August each year, the county property appraiser must notify all property owners in the county what he or she came up with as a Market Vale for their property by mailing them a Truth in Millage Rate (TRIM) Notice. The TRIM Notice must state the Market Value that the property appraiser came up with, and specify that if the property owner disagrees with the value that they have until the date which is 25 days from the date on which the TRIM notice was mailed to file a petition with the Value Adjustment Board. This usually works out to be around Sept. 10th each year.
Any property owners who wish to challenge the property appraiser’s determination of their Market Value must file a Value Adjustment Board (VAB) Petition by the date in (C) above, which again, is generally about Sept. 10th.
VAB petitions are heard by the Value Adjustment Board, which is a 5 member board generally consisting of two members of the Board of County Commissioners, one school board member, one citizen who owns a homestead residential property in the county, and one citizen who owns a commercial property in the county. The VAB Board can delegate its authority to hear all or some of the VAB cases to a “Special Magistrate” which is generally an appraiser or an attorney in the county.
Once all the VAB Petitions are resolved, which is supposed to be (to the extent possible) by October 31st of each year, the list of properties and their market values is “Certified” by the Property Appraiser (the “Certified Tax Roll”) and finalized. It is transmitted to the Florida Dept. of Revenue, who technically transmits it then to the County Tax Collector, and who then prepares and then mails out the property tax bills which are received the first week of November each year.
What actually goes on in a County Property Appraiser’s Office?
Who knows? Just kidding. Remember- the County Property Appraiser’s primary function is to determine the market value of all properties in the county each January 1st, to then go through the procedure of finalizing those values and dealing with anyone who wants to contest them through the TRIM notice and VAB process, and then to deliver the Certified Tax Roll to the Florida Dept. of Revenue by Oct. 31st of each year. So how, in reality, does the County Property Appraiser determine the market value of all the many properties in their county each year on January 1st? Well.. basically, by pushing a button on a computer.
The Property Appraiser Determines Values on January 1st of each year.
Meet the Computer Aided Mass Appraisal System (“CAMA”).
Each county in Florida has implemented a CAMA system to determine the values of all the properties in their county as of January 1st each year. This software uses comparative sales from the prior year, and through algorithmic analysis spits out the values. It works pretty well for most properties. But notice that we did not say that it works perfectly for ALL properties… because it doesn’t. The CAMA system is a computer program and like all computer programs its output is only as good as its input. It tends to work best for large subdivisions with very similar houses that sell very often. The further you go outside of those parameters, the more tweaking it needs. So the Property Appraiser generally sees the values that the CAMA system spits out as a good starting point to work from. They must then see if there’s anything that needs to be taken into account in the valuations. For example, say that 123 Pine Street is essentially identical to 10 other houses in the Pine Bluff Subdivision, 2 of which sold in the last year. However, the owner of 123 Pine Street build a pool last year and the other two homes that sold didn’t have a pool. So that has to be taken into account. The property appraiser staff will look at the permit plans for the pool and attempt to determine how much adding the pool increased the value of that home. In general, ANY IMPROVEMENTS BEYOND REGULAR EXPECTED MAINTENANCE ON A HOME CAN (and usually should) BE TAKEN INTO ACCOUNT BY THE PROPERTY APPRAISER’S OFFICE IN DECIDING TO RAISE THE MARKET VALUE OF THE PROPERTY. So the Property Appraiser’s office sends all of their various minions out throughout the County in those little (usually white) trucks you see with the Property Appraiser’s logo on them to ride around and see who has fixed up what and take that into account. Conversely, sometimes homes have received damage from a storm or other casualty and that must be taken into account also in lowering the market value. There are some pretty important considerations to be taken into account if your home has been damaged by a “named” storm (which is the subject of another article).
The Property Appraiser then takes the time between Jan. 1 and mid-August to tweak those values each year through additional investigation and research.
So basically, the Property Appraiser uses the time from January 1, when CAMA spits out all the values in the county, until about the second week of August when the TRIM notices are mailed out, to investigate anything that they need to look into with all the properties in the county and make any tweaks to the CAMA system output. Then they mail the TRIM notices and wait to see who objects to the values and then they deploy their staff to negotiate, cajole, and discuss with any property owners who call them to object to the values in the TRIM notices, and then to represent the Property Appraiser’s office in any VAB hearings on cases that couldn’t be settled. In reality, the Property Appraiser’s job never ends because there are VAB cases that invariably get pushed beyond the Oct. 31st certification of the Tax Roll date and continue on into the early winter months, by which time January 1st has rolled around again and the process has started all over.
The Property Appraiser also has a duty to educate the public and provide a place to file any necessary forms, etc.
The Property Appraiser’s Office also has an important interface with the public. Many of you have probably been there to the typical glass windows where you file any necessary forms and get information. Part of the Property Appraiser’s job is to educate the public as to the laws and the benefits available, and you’ll usually see a bunch of forms and pamphlets on display covering every filing needed and every topic from how valuations are made to veteran’s disability exemptions.
The Property Appraiser has a limited budget and typically large staff turnover, so manage your education expectations.
This is where it’s important to note that since the Property Appraiser is an elected official, they can turn over every 4 years! They may or may not decide to replace some or all of their staff with every turnover. They have a budget to complete all of their duties, including education, and it would be fair to say that if you want to make as much money as possible you probably don’t want to get a job working in the Property Appraiser’s office. Many times you will encounter staffers working the glass windows who have not been in the job very long and have received fairly limited education and may not know the answer to every question. That being said, you may encounter folks that have been there many years and are very knowledgeable. Unfortunately, there typically appear to be more of the former than the latter. If you were to present yourself at the Property Appraiser’s office and ask for them to comprehensively review with you the approximately 30 different property tax exemptions available to homeowners in Florida you would probably be directed to the various pamphlets, and you might be there a while if you wanted to really understand and get an explanation on it all.
I don’t agree with the Market Value that the Property Appraiser Came up with for my property. Why can’t I just go yell at them and have them change it?
We are now going to move from talking about nothing but “Market Value”, as we have above, to talking about some other values. So here are the definitions:
Market Value: As we discussed above, this is the price at which the property would sell for in a free and open market, in a reasonable period of time.
Assessed Value: The Assessed Value is the Market Value adjusted by the Save Our Homes Act. What the heck is that!? Relax… it’s pretty simple. The Save Our Homes Act is a good thing. It was passed in 1992 and basically says that no matter how much your Market Value goes up ON A HOMESTEAD PROPERTY, that the Assessed Value cannot go up more than 3% or the Consumer Price Index, whichever is less, each year. Until recently, other than for Homesteaded properties, the Assessed Value could increase an unlimited amount right along with any change in Market Value, no matter how big the increase. However due to a recent constitutional amendment, if the property is NOT HOMESTEAD, then the Assessed Value can go up as much as 10% a year. So the Assessed Value is best visualized as the basis on which taxes are assessed.
Taxable Value: The Taxable Value is the Assessed Value, less any applicable exemptions. Remember our talk about that there are around 30 exemptions available in Florida for Homestead properties? It’s a constantly moving target, because it changes almost every election cycle. So we take the Assessed Value, subtract any applicable exemptions, and then apply the tax rate against the Taxable Value to determine the amount of tax due.
Thanks for the definitions, but I want to yell at someone…wait…why am I upset?
First of all, there are two reasons why you would be upset about a perceived error in the Property Appraiser’s determination of your Market Value:
1. Market Value is too High INITIALLY or has drifted below the Assessed Value.
So let’s say that you bought a home for $250,000, and then the following January 1st the property appraiser pushes the button on his CAMA system and in August you get a TRIM notice that says that he determined the value of your property on January 1st to be $400,000. When you first buy a home, you want the initial determination of Market Value to be as low as possible, because since the Save Our Homes Act and the 10% limit on increases for non-homestead properties work their magic on holding down taxes over time, your Market Value and Assessed Value will be EQUAL the first January 1 after you have purchased the property. So if your Market Value is too high initially, the Assessed Value will be locked into that number, and you’ll pay more taxes than you should. The other possibility is that you’ve owned your home for quite some time, and the Assessed Value for a while was way under the Market Value since the Market Value kept going up and the Save Our Homes Act kept your Assessed Value down, but now the second Great Recession has hit, and your Market Value tanked and went down below the Assessed Value. Think about it like this, when your Market Value (the price at which your home would actually sell) goes BELOW the Assessed Value, it reaches out and pulls the Assessed Value down with it, and since the Assessed Value is the basis on which you pay taxes, your taxes will come down too. So let’s say that the Great Recession II hit, and your Market Value on your home you bought for $250,000 dives down to $150,000, then it will grab your Assessed Value and pull it down to $150,000 also. But the Property Appraiser on January 1st didn’t pick up on that your Market Value went down that much, and they found it to be $250,00 still. You should cry foul. The above two situations are the traditional and long-standing scenarios where a property owner would want to challenge the property appraiser’s determination of Market Value.
2. Market Value is too low.
Why would you care? Because in 2008 the Florida legislature passed “Portability.” Remember in the above paragraph how the Save Our Homes Act works? Well, say you’ve lived in your home for 10 years in the home that you bought for $250,000 and your Market Value has gone up to $500,000, but your Assessed Value, since it could only go up 3% or CPI each year at the most, has stayed down about $275,000. Now you want to move to another $500,000 house, but you realize that if you move you’ll go from paying taxes on about $275,000 to paying taxes on about $500,000, and that’ll almost double your tax bill! Not if you remember about portability and claim it! Portability allows you to take up to $500,000 of the savings you have earned via the Save Our Homes Act from one home to another in Florida, so long as you buy and move into another home by the end of the year following the year in which you sold the last home (or relinquishes homestead status on it). Portability acts just like an exemption and is subtracted from your Assessed Value to lower your Taxable Value.
Portability = Market Value – Assessed Value.
In our example above, we would have $500,000 - $275,000 = $225,000 portability. So when we moved into another $500,000 house, that $225,000 would come off the initial Assessed Value as an exemption, and lower our Taxable Value down to $275,000, resulting in theoretically NO CHANGE in our tax bill after the move. That was the whole idea!
So, for you math majors out there… Since you want as much Portability as you can get, do you want Market Value to be HIGH or LOW? That’s right- you want it to be as high as possible. And for those of you about to say “Hey Wait! That’ll raise my tax bill”…. WRONG. We pay taxes based off of ASSESSED VALUE, not MARKET VALUE. So since you want your Market Value to be as high as possible if the Property Appraiser “forgets” to raise your Market Value over the years, then that will rob you of Portability and when you move to your next Florida home you’ll be paying more money in taxes because you won’t have as large of a portability exemption and your Taxable Value will be higher.
This scenario is new to most homeowners. Most people have assumed that the lower their Market Value the better. But since Portability came along this is not true. When people get their TRIM notices and see that the Property Appraiser has come up with a Market Value for their property which they know is a lot lower than it should be, they think that they are getting away with something and saving money on their taxes. They are NOT. If they don’t fix this error before closing then they will end up paying much more in property taxes on their next home because of the error.
I don't agree with the market value that the property appraiser came up with on my property.
Yelling will not help. Remember the SPECIFIC way that the Property Appraiser must determine values? (A-F above). It’s like baking a cake. Maybe you never baked a cake before, but I guaranty you that you can bake a cake very nicely if you will get a recipe and then follow the directions PRECISELY. That means that you put in the amount of flour and sugar and eggs that the recipe says, in the order that it says, and you bake the cake the right amount of time. You will end up with a nice cake. Otherwise, you will end up with a mess that may not be edible.
It works the same way with the Property Appraiser’s office. THEORETICALLY you could go and yell at them and they could just agree to change your Market Value but that is not at all typically the way that it goes. So let’s talk about the right way to bake the cake.
The Proper Steps for Fixing a Market Value Issue.
What time of the year is it when you are going to start on this quest? Remember, the market values are determined on January 1st, but they are not officially noticed to the public until the TRIM notices come out in August. The last date for filing a VAB Petition is around Sept. 10th each year. So if you are starting this in October, that’s fine, but just realize that the date has passed to do anything about the market valuation on January 1st of that year, and you will have to wait until the property appraiser comes out with their Market Values for NEXT year on January 1st, and then continue the process. If it’s after January 1st, then so long as the Property Appraiser has published on their website the Market Value of your property for that year you can start the discussion. Remember, nothing is official until the TRIM notices come out, but most counties will publish “working values” starting as early as January of each year. If you read carefully above, you’ll remember that what the Property Appraiser does each year between Jan. 1 and when the TRIM notices come out in August is to tweak the Market Values. That being said, much of the time the “working values” end up being the same as they come out in the TRIM notices. Probably around 90% of the time.
Remember that what you are going to be talking about is whether or not the Market Value that the Property Appraiser came up with for your Property on JANUARY 1st was correct or not. That is the ONLY point of discussion. No need to get personal. No need to talk about the prior year’s valuations. Keep the discussion limited to that one simple specific topic- What was the correct Market Value of the property as of January 1st.
Remember what “Market Value” is. It is the value for which the property would have sold on Jan. 1, in a free and open market, between a wiling buyer and a willing seller, in a reasonable period of time.
IMPORTANT POINT. By law, the Market Value is to take into account the “Costs of Sale” to reflect that when you sell a property, there are closing costs. The applicable Florida statutes require that the property appraiser take this into account, up to 15%. So your Market Value on the tax rolls should be about 15% BELOW what you believe your Market Value to actually be. If you’re trying to argue for a HIGHER Market Value, as in you are selling your home and trying to get more Portability, this works AGAINST you. When you are trying to argue for a LOWER Market Value, usually when you are looking at that first January 1 that you will be locked into, this works FOR you.
Are you sure that you are right that they are wrong? What makes you so sure that the Market Value that the Property Appraiser came up with on January 1st is wrong? Did your neighbor sell their similar house for a much different price? Is your house under contract to be sold? Remember, anything that happened or that you think has bearing on the Market Value MUST be equated back to January 1st. IT IS FOR THIS REASON THAT BY AND LARGE THE BEST EVIDENCE THAT THE PROPERTY APPRAISER IS WRONG IS FOR YOU TO OBTAIN AN APPRAISAL FROM A LICENSED APPRAISER WHO HAS BEEN INSTRUCTED TO DETERMINE THE MARKET VALUATION DATE TO BE JANUARY 1ST. If this sounds confusing, with regards to the Jan. 1st Market Valuation date, please realize that an appraiser can give you an appraisal of any property on any date which you instruct them to determine the market value on. They will do this by not taking into account any comparable sales that occurred AFTER the date in question. If you got your home appraised as part of a refinance 6 months earlier and you walk in to argue with the property appraiser brandishing that appraisal the FIRST thing that they will say is that your appraisal has a market value determined on a different date than January 1st. Also, your appraisal will do you precisely NO GOOD if the Appraiser is not willing to come to the VAB hearing if you end up there and testify as to how he came up with his appraisal. There is really not anything to discuss at the VAB hearing other than what the market value of the property was on Jan. 1, so if your appraiser isn’t there to testify as to how he came up with the value then you basically don’t have anything to talk about at the VAB hearing. So when you get an appraiser involved, make sure that they understand that the market valuation date in the appraisal must be January 1st and make sure that they are willing to come to the VAB hearing and testify if necessary. They’ll probably charge you for doing so.
NOW you can call the Property Appraiser. Call them up, introduce yourself, and they’ll connect you with the person in their office who is responsible for valuations in your neighborhood. They may very well have to call you back. When you get to speak with the appraiser, be NICE. You will catch more flies with honey, just like Grandma said. Explain that you are calling because you feel that the market value that they came up with on your property on January 1st was not accurate. Explain that you have obtained an appraisal with a market valuation date of January 1st, and that you would like to share it with them and REQUEST AN INFORMAL CONFERENCE. You are entitled to this by law.
DO NOT BE SURPRISED if the Property Appraiser tries some different tactics to get rid of you. That’s what they are trained to do. If you force them to make an adjustment in the valuation, that is going to make them have to do some extra work, and they don’t like that. They will explain that they use a Computer Aided Mass Appraisal System, and many times will imply that therefore it’s ok that their value is off… which is not true. The law REQUIRES them to come up with an accurate market value as of Jan. 1 each year. It does not say “Unless you use a CAMA system in which case it’s ok to be inaccurate.”
THEY WILL OFTEN TRY TO GET RID OF YOU BY PUTTING YOU OFF. The property appraiser comes out with “working values” as discussed above very early in the year usually, and they know that the vast majority of the time those working values end up being what goes on the TRIM Notices when they come out in August. However, a favorite thing for them to say is “Hey, it’s too early to have this discussion…. Everything is preliminary now… give us a call back in August after you get your TRIM notice and we’ll talk about it.” They are fully capable of reaching a “settlement” with you as part of the informal conference you are attempting to have, but usually when they say this they are hoping that you will sell the house before August or otherwise forget about it and go away. Many of them think that if the house is sold that you don’t have the right to continue the challenge, but they don’t realize that it is possible for the Buyer of the property to assign the rights as the new owner to continue the challenge to the Seller after the closing. The FHC Market Value Adjustment Addendum© makes this assignment so long as it is signed BEFORE closing by both parties. This allows the seller to continue the challenge to the Market Valuation conducted on January 1st, even after the sale