Santa Clara County Assessment Appeals Board, Sham or Not?

by vbrasil on July 3, 2010

I just went through the the assessment appeals board for Santa Clara County with a homeowner who lives in my geographical farm. For those of you who are not familiar with the assessment appeals board, its intention is to be an unbiased, independent panel to preside over disagreements between property owners and the SCC Assessor, pertaining to their assessed property values.

This was my first experience at the appeals board hearing. Due to the number of appeals these hearings are full. They start the process by calling role for all the cases that will be heard that day.  A majority of those called are no shows and many who are present request extensions. Unlike many we were excited to present our case which we believed to be clear and supported by accurate comparables and material facts which affect property value.

This all started months ago when my client requested an informal assessment appeal and the assessor lowered the value of her home but not substantially and not to the value that she felt reflected the true market value of the home. The next step was to request a formal appeal. This would be conducted before a panel and essentially the assessor’s office would have a representative present, and both of you would state your case. The panel would hear and ask questions. Once both sides concluded the panel would convene that hearing and announce that their determination of value would be released within two weeks of the hearing.

Now the whole process seems very fair and designed to be perceived that way. You have equal representation and time and you are allowed to refute the assessor’s findings before what is supposed to be an unbiased, impartial panel.   Here’s where I have a problem with the entire process.

During the period leading up to the hearing the assessor’s representative was communicating with my client and offered to lower the assessed value of the home from $830K to $810K due to her protest.  My client, still not pleased with the result wanted to go through the process. 

The next step was that the agent for the assessor’s office would need come by and take photos of the home and the interior.  My client did not protest since her home was in original condition and had no substantial upgrades.  The images would help support her claim of $725K.  When I heard of this I was a bit taken back.  I apologize if I am over reacting here, and I’m not sure of the true policy of the assessor’s office on this matter, but I feel that a home owner should not have to be obliged to open his home to anyone, even the tax assessor.  Your home is your private domain, and is contents are of no one else’s business and that should be respected.

The other issue that I felt was very suspect was that the assessor did not want to share the comps they used to determine their assessed value.  In a normal court of law you are supposed disclose evidence to the prosecution or defense so they can prepare for cross examination.  This whole principle seemed contrary to the democratic policies that we use to conduct fair hearings.

Lastly this panel is selected by the county and you have no input over who is presiding over the case.  Normally you have input in jury selection or if you are going through arbitration you can both select the arbiter or the arbitration company.  This raises a question as to the legitimacy of the hearing.

At the hearing we presented comps in the same city within 3 months of the transfer of the property and argued that since the condition of the property was poor and the fact that the home’s backyard fence backed directly up into Kiely Blvd., a busy thoroughfare in Santa Clara, with a bus route, that the assessed value was closer to $725K than $810K or roughly 10%.  The assessor’s office picked comps in San Jose that were within a mile away in the same school district but were in a more updated condition and in quieter locations.  One of the member’s of the appeal board asked me how I determined the discount due to the busy street and if I had any evidence to support it.  I could only tell her that a property’s location is the main factor in value for most buyers, and a location such as the one my client has is a huge detriment to buyers.  Most home owner’s would agree.

In the end my client received a letter two days after the hearing and the assessed value was left at $810K.  The appeal board deliberated quickly and made no adjustments for these two material facts, and gave no explanation as to how they determined their decision. 

This is my first experience with the assessment appeals board, but not my last.  I have several properties of clients that are currently going through the formal appeal process and awaiting a date.  I’n my next hearing I will bring additional documentation, irrefutable evidence that shows my client and not leave any aspect up to interpretation.  I hope the result is different. 

For me to claim that the whole process is a sham due to one experience is premature, I wonder what other results home owner’s have had with their experience in front of the SCC Assessment Appeals Board.  If you have had any experience, please leave a comment.

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