The Property Line: As Home Values Soar, Should You Brace for Your Tax Bill?

If you're in a home whose value on paper has been going up, up, up, preparing for the resulting tax bill could bring you back down to earth.
Holden Lewis
By Holden Lewis 
Edited by Mary Makarushka

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You're a typical homeowner: You fret over mysterious noises behind walls, savor the yard's smell after a storm, and giddily track your home's fast-rising value.

That buoyant emotion might yield to a sinking feeling later, when you receive a property tax bill. As the home's value skyrockets, the amount you pay in property tax is likely to go up, too.

The magnitude and timing of that increase will vary, depending on where you live. Property tax obligations have the potential to go up swiftly in some states, such as New York and New Jersey. Even states that officially restrict year-over-year hikes, such as California and Texas, can see year-over-year tax hikes of hundreds of dollars.

Values may rise faster than taxes

Property tax bills don't always keep pace with torrid growth in house prices. "An increase in value does not necessarily mean that the next year’s property taxes will increase at a proportionate rate," Lee Pierce, senior vice president of lending for Seattle Credit Union, said in an email.

That's good news if you own a typical home. The median sales price of an existing home rose 12.6% in 2020, and was up 13.3% in the 12 months that ended in September 2021, according to the National Association of Realtors.

Caps may not always hold down assessed values

Many state and local governments boast that they keep tax bills under control by clamping down on assessed values. The District of Columbia and 18 states, including the three most populous (California, Texas and Florida), limit how much property tax assessments can rise each year, according to the Tax Foundation, a think tank focused on tax policy. New York City and neighboring Nassau County, on Long Island, restrict increases in assessed values, too, according to the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank that focuses on land use, stewardship and taxation.

The caps vary in their level of protection, though. According to the Lincoln Institute, the assessed value can go up by a maximum of 2% a year in California, 3% a year in Florida and 10% from one assessment to the next in Texas.

Local governments find ways to raise homeowners' tax bills despite the limits imposed by state governments. For example, the median real estate tax paid on a home in Marin County, California, rose 9% from 2018 to 2019, to $8,103, according to U.S. census data.

Tax rules can lock owners in place

There's a problem with laws that limit increases in assessed values. They can inhibit people from moving to upgrade or downsize, and result in neighboring houses having divergent tax bills on similar properties. California is a prime example.

While you own a home in the Golden State, the tax bill almost surely rises more slowly than the home's value. But when you sell, the assessed value will be reset to reflect the true market value. The new owner's tax obligation could be much higher than you were paying.

When recent home buyers pay a much bigger share of taxes than longtime homeowners, it creates a situation where newcomers subsidize the old-timers. Even if you think that's fair, it's theoretically a disincentive for someone to buy your house.

It also will give you second thoughts about relocating, because you, too, could end up paying a dramatically higher property tax bill on your new home.

"Moving from one home to another generally involves surrendering preferential tax treatment built up over years of undervaluation, creating a 'lock-in effect' where homeowners have a disincentive to relocate," Jared Walczak, the Tax Foundation's vice president of state projects, wrote in a 2018 paper.

How to keep watch over your taxes

States have other ways, besides restricting assessments, to limit growth in property tax collection. Some prevent local governments from jacking up millage rates (the tax paid for every $1,000 of taxable value), and some limit increases in total tax revenues.

Even though many states insulate homeowners from shocking jolts in property tax bills, you still may be vulnerable to an increase that cramps your budget. There are a couple of ways to prepare yourself.

If you pay property taxes via an escrow account on a mortgage, the loan servicer sends an escrow account disclosure early each year. This statement includes the expected annual cost of property taxes, homeowners insurance and mortgage insurance. It may contain a breakdown of last year's escrow payments, including the property tax paid, along with projections for the upcoming year.

If your servicer doesn't or can't pay the tax bill in full with the amount collected from you over the past year, you'll have to pay the difference. You can tell the servicer to withhold more each month to avoid shortfalls, Jeffrey Wood, a certified public accountant, investment advisor and partner at Lift Financial, in South Jordan, Utah, wrote in an email.

Your county tax assessor will notify you of your upcoming tax bill, sometimes months in advance. The information may come in a letter, or you can check the tax assessor's website.

Look for phrases such as "total tax" or "levy due" and you'll find your tax amounts for this year and last year. Then you can calculate how much your taxes will go up.

If luck and favorable tax laws smile upon you, your giddiness about your home's rising value won't be offset by panic over the property taxes.

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