For the first time in six years, government appraisers in Douglas and Sarpy Counties increased more home values than they reduced, which they said reflects a housing market on the upswing.
“We're starting to see the market pick up,” said Barry Couch, chief field deputy for the Douglas County Assessor's Office. “Things are a lot more active.”
During the recession, housing prices dropped or were stagnant — and property valuations for tax purposes tended to follow suit from 2009 through 2013. This year, however, the improved housing market is causing valuations to rise for thousands of homeowners across the Omaha metro area.
A World-Herald analysis of the new valuations found that 85 percent of existing single-family houses in Douglas County were left untouched for 2014. But among houses with changed valuations, more were raised than lowered.
In Sarpy County, where nearly all house valuations were changed this year, seven out of every 10 homes saw increases.
The latest batch of valuation numbers came out Jan. 15, months earlier than in previous years. These preliminary valuations were required in Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster Counties under a state law that went into effect this year — giving property owners an opportunity to schedule informal hearings with the assessor's office before the new valuations are finalized.
A house's valuation is important because it is half of the equation that determines a property's tax bill. These new valuations will be multiplied by the tax rates set later this year by cities, counties, schools and other local governments. The resulting tax bills will be paid next year.
A higher valuation now would mean a larger tax bill for 2015, even if local governments keep their rates unchanged.
State law requires valuations to be both accurate and fair. That means a house's valuation should nearly match its market value and be similar to comparable homes.
In a healthy housing market, that usually means valuations are rising. While that's true this year in both Douglas and Sarpy, officials in the two counties continue to do their jobs differently.
In Douglas County, Assessor Roger Morrissey's office targets individual neighborhoods for reappraisal based on the accuracy of their valuations, compared with recent sales. State regulators want homes to be appraised at 92 to 100 percent of market value, so county appraisers focus on areas where houses tend to be outside that range.
This year, based on market activity, the focus was on newer neighborhoods in west Omaha, Couch said.
In the Arbor Gate subdivision at 194th and Q Streets, The World-Herald's analysis found that 97 percent of existing homes had their valuations increased this year. Celebrity Homes has been developing lots it acquired from HearthStone Homes, which filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
“Part of the reason (valuations are up) is, we're filling up with more of the Celebrity Homes since HearthStone went under,” said Richard Lammers, outgoing president of the Arbor Gate Homeowners Association.
The Walnut Ridge subdivision at 156th Street and West Maple Road also saw nearly every house's valuation go up.
Steve Mobley, a member of the Walnut Ridge Homeowners Association board who has lived in the subdivision since 1999, said it's a nice mixture of retirees and young families, with good access to businesses and major thoroughfares. The homeowners' association does a good job picking up the slack when city services fall short, he said.
“We're not starter homes; we're a move-up area,” Mobley said. “For some of us, it's home — we're not going to leave. For others, it's a transitional neighborhood, upwardly mobile.”
Some suburban neighborhoods with changes bucked the trend. In the Stone Creek subdivision in northwest Omaha, for example, six in every 10 homeowners saw their valuations reduced.
Overall, Douglas County officials said, sales volume is up and homes are spending less time on the market. And Morrissey noted that higher-end homes are selling better than in previous years.
In Sarpy, most individual changes this year were modest.
County appraisers run every parcel through a valuation formula that's updated annually, which means that nearly every property gets a new valuation each year — although sometimes in small increments. About 3 percent of Sarpy valuations changed by less than $100, the World-Herald analysis found.
Sarpy Assessor Dan Pittman said signs point to a strengthening housing market in the state's fastest-growing county. Numbers for building permits and new plats are up, especially on the western side of the county, and new commercial developments are sprouting up all over.
“The housing market is improving,” he said. “We're really interested in what's happening in Gretna, in west Millard.”
The preliminary valuations for both counties are posted on each county assessor's website, as well as The World-Herald website Curbwise.com.
The new, earlier deadline for posting valuations is meant to allow informal hearings that can weed out obvious problems in valuations without requiring the property owner to file a formal protest. It's a chance to correct a property record for a three-bedroom home that lists four bedrooms, for example, or doesn't accurately reflect the home's interior condition.
In the past, taxpayers had to wait until late May for the valuations to come out. Then they had the month of June to protest to the county board of equalization if they saw problems. Property owners still have the option of filing a formal protest in June if the conflict can't be resolved.
The informal hearings will be held in March. Douglas County property owners have until Feb. 3 to schedule hearings to discuss their valuations. The deadline in Sarpy County is Feb. 28.
Morrissey said he has taken about 80 appointments so far. Not many people in Sarpy County have set up appointments, Pittman said, and his appraisers have been able to handle a few cases without needing to schedule a hearing at all.
“It's been very slow,” he said.
Lancaster County, which reappraises property every three years and is making few changes in 2014, also is subject to the new law. It has offered such hearings on a trial basis since 2009.