The problems with property taxes: taxing investment

Considering The Tax Shelter
Photo Credit: JD Hancock via CompfightThe reason Mitt Romney pays so little income tax is that he makes most of his money from investments. This is supposed to be a way to “incentivize” investment. So he invests in companies that supposedly create jobs and spread the wealth around.

Mitt is most definitely part of the 1%. For the rest of us, our biggest investment is our home. The government gives us a mortgage-interest deduction to help us out, but mortgage interest is a fixed known cost in the equation, our wild card is property taxes- something our government seems to play fast and loose with.

For most Americans- the only long-term investments they make are their home and their retirement accounts. Both are supposedly backed by our government. Mortgages were backed by Fanny Mae and Sallie Mae or FHA and our pensions (unless you worked for Delphi) are backed by the Federal Pension Guarantee fund. Government regulations are all over the place- with rules on 401Ks, IRAs and the mutual funds that much of our retirement planning is predicated on.

But your home is different- it’s the one that is tangible, a direct reflection on your choice of where to live and you are the manager. You decide if it’s time to paint, put new gutters on, how you landscape, if you want to invest in granite counter tops or just use Formica. And here is the rub, at any time, someone hired by the county comes around every few years and decides what the value is and raises or lowers your tax bill totally arbitrarily.

How do I know this? Quite simply- I own four pieces of property and have watched the bills get played with over the years and despite going in to dispute the values last year- end up with mixed-up bills again this year.

Case in point: I bought two virtually identical cottages across the street from my house in 1995 for $19,500 each to try to improve the quality of life on our block. They were owned by a slumlord, whom the city has made very wealthy by overpaying for rent for years on a priority board office in a building he owned on the West Side. He was renting them out as Section 8 homes, I wouldn’t let a junkyard dog sleep in either one when I bought them. When entering for the first time the one my parents now live in  (I bought them without inspection) a lump of dirt fell on my hat – when it started moving, I realized that it wasn’t dirt- but cockroaches. The house was so infested I even found them inside the toilet tank. The other house was involved in drug sales- but wasn’t much better. I totally gutted both, put all new everything inside them, and then went to the banks to refinance and get my money back. They’ve been solidly rented ever since.

The tax values on these two homes, despite me telling the county that they are identical- is different. It’s also based on a number pulled out of a hat. It is so confused that they don’t even tax you on “the value” but on a percentage of value. The value goes up and down over time, based on what others in the neighborhood do, based on what you do, based on whim and whimsy.

This is bullcrap. The value of the homes was established when I bought them. What I choose to do with them is none of government’s business. If I fix them up and rent them for more, how is this any different than what Mitt Romney does in buying stock and hoping it goes up? Why does my investment get “appraised” a market value by someone who has no real way of telling what the value is? Concrete numbers like rent received aren’t counted. Concrete numbers like sale price aren’t considered. If you wonder why our housing market started fluctuating like the stock market- it’s because we allowed the banks to change the way they made money from concrete numbers to a numbers game (like a casino would run- where the “house” always makes money- and the irony of that expression is noted).

Banks used to make a majority of their money by lending money to people to invest in their home or business- and they had to hold those notes to get paid. Now, they make their money by investing money that we let them “create” with dubious products that they started selling based on packages of loans that they handed off. Banks no longer had any responsibility to make sure their investments were protected- since they sold off the loan as fast as possible to someone else and moved on to the next loan. Churning mortgages by banks is the same as churning stocks for stockbrokers- who only make money on the transaction- not on the outcomes.

So here I sit in my house. Bought for $14,500 in 1986, across the street from my office, bought for $2,200 and $2,400 in back taxes in 1988 and my two cottages (which I paid too much for)- paying taxes on property that is now worth a lot- according to the tax man, despite being written off by everyone else, including the banks when I bought it. Every property I bought I had to pay cash for, since they were all worth “below” the loan threshold for banks. Yet, here I am being asked to pay $2,000 a year  on both my office and my house and $800 a year on each cottage. I am being penalized for investing. Mitt Romney isn’t.

To add insult to injury- the house nearby, which is bigger than mine (it’s 2 stories over the back of the house, while mine isn’t), but the same basic footprint, was sold in foreclosure 3 years ago for $14,000. Not only are their taxes only $600 a year, they haven’t paid them and have been the frequent entertainers of police, fire and truancy officers.

How much money could we save if we didn’t have to pay for “re-appraisals” every so many years- and based tax value only on the purchase price by the owner? How about treating the real estate investor the same way we treat the stock market investor? It’s time for real-market valuation system and taking the arbitrary valuation of property out of the equation. Never mind the effect this has on seniors on fixed incomes (where we have to put “homestead” protections in place).

Why shouldn’t those who buy low and don’t sell, be allowed to profit from their investment in the community? Why do we abate property taxes for businesses that are “going to invest” but not for those who actually did invest? Considering that my investment in the office building brought jobs to an empty storefront- saved the city from having to tear down another vacant building and turned a shithole into a preservation award winner- why am I getting penalized with a growing tax bill? Consider that the cottages have been rented to people who have jobs instead of being on welfare or either on the way in or our of prison, haven’t I added value to the community and deserve to be rewarded instead of taxed? My home had sat on the market for over 2 years, starting at $22,900 and sold for $14,500 because the banks wouldn’t lend (despite all the BS about Community Reinvestment Act – CRA lending protocols), and yet 25 years later, because of banks’ new found freedoms of not having to be held accountable for loans- the nearby home sold for $500 less- despite being worth much more?

How come on almost every other level, investment isn’t penalized, but on property, it is? If there was a reason for a tea party revolt over taxation without representation, shouldn’t this be the case? My home was valued at one time by a bank at $130,000, but now according to Zillow it’s only worth about $62,300 and interestingly enough, Zillow is what the government is turning to for valuations for the “Making Home Affordable” program- not our local tax man’s appraisal.

There is only one honest way to value real estate, by the purchase price. Do you agree?

If you like this article- please share with a friend. If you like having this kind of material on esrati.com please consider donating to the campaign, because, even if my voice can’t be heard in Congress- it can continue to be heard in our community. These 1900+ posts come with a price and I’d appreciate your support. Thank you.

 

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed! If you wish to support this blog and independent journalism in Dayton, consider donating. All of the effort that goes into writing posts and creating videos comes directly out of my pocket, so any amount helps!