Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 51
 
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
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Joint Meeting Looks at Revaluation

Ellen Gilbert

“The number one question is ‘what does this mean in terms of my taxes?’” said Appraisal Systems, Inc. head Ernest F. DelGuercio, Sr., at Monday evening’s joint meeting of the Township Committee and the Borough Council on the coming revaluation, and that probably explained why there were few empty seats in the Township Municipal Building’s main meeting room.

Tax Assessor for both the Borough and the Township Neal Snyder opened the meeting by encouraging residents to refer to the online site of frequently-asked-questions about revaluation prepared by his office (www.princetontwp.org/revalqawebques.pdf). After that, the meeting essentially belonged to Mr. Delguercio and his associates, who took turns walking the audience through “a brief but comprehensive overview of the program.”

The “very lengthy process” will begin shortly after the New Year. The Princetons’ last revaluation was in 1996, and in response to an audience member’s question at the end of the meeting about the frequency of revaluation, Mr. Snyder said that despite the common perception that they are supposed to happen every ten years, there are no set time frames; it occurs when the Mercer County Board of Taxation orders it.

The “statutory scheme” that informs the revaluation process, according to Mr. DelGuercio, includes “two demands: that all properties be assessed at 100 percent of their true market value (i.e., what a willing buyer would pay a willing seller), and that assessments must be guided by the same standards of value. He noted that these precepts are particularly important in New Jersey, which is “number one in relying on property taxes for budgetary purposes.”

“The revaluation process must be direct and transparent,” emphasized Mr. DelGuercio. Homeowners will probably want to bookmark Appraisal System Inc.’s website (www.asinj.com), where collected data will be posted. They will also receive “introductory letters” informing them about the process, which will begin with inspections of both the interior and exterior of every privately owned home in the Borough and Township.

A first “unannounced” visit by an Appraisal Systems inspector will occur between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. It was noted that each inspector will have an ID and will be authorized by the local Police Departments. Residents were advised not to allow anyone in their homes without an ID, and told that they may call the Police Department “before allowing anyone in your home if you have any concerns.” Inspectors will not enter homes where the homeowner is not present, or if only a minor is present. If no one is home on the first visit, they will leave a notice giving the homeowner an opportunity to make an appointment for a return visit. These are typically in the evening, between 5 and 7 p.m. The goal, according to Mr. Del Guercio, is to see 100 percent of the area properties, although he admitted that this was unlikely. When inside inspections cannot be made, he said, then “reasonable assumptions” based on external conditions are made about things like the number of bathrooms a house is likely to have.

Interior inspections typically take 5 to 15 minutes, depending on the size of a house. Inspectors will note room counts, heating type, presence of air conditioning, numbers and types of fireplaces, whether or not there is a finished basement or attic, and if kitchens and bathrooms have been updated. Speakers on Monday evening noted that the focus will be on “the greatest contributors to value; what would prospective buyers look at?” They pointed out that the values assigned will not be done by inspectors, but by appraisers who will do it based on the information reported by the inspectors.

That information will also contain the results of an exterior inspection, which includes taking actual measurements of each property, and considering “economic and site influences” such as views (the presence of water towers and utility poles, for example, detract from a property’s value), the proximity of commercial properties, and the amount of nearby traffic. Homeowners may point out these variables to inspectors during their visits, especially if the visits occur at a time when inspectors are not likely to be aware, for example, of noisy school children on their way home. Other external considerations include improvements like in-ground pools, decks and porches, and the quality of a home’s construction, its condition, windows, exterior wall type, and roof type.

In addition to internal and external house inspections, sales information as of October 1, 2009 and neighborhood trends will be used to revalue area homes. “Location, location, location,” intoned Mr. DelGuercio, describing how inspectors will drive through the Borough and Township “delineating neighborhoods.” He described how a van will carry “seven or eight” people listening to an assessors “stream of consciousness” as he observes the streets they drive through.

Residents will be notified of their homes’ assessments late in 2009 or early 2010. Although they may meet with Appraisal System representatives to discuss their findings, Mr. DelGuercio observed that “We feel confident in defending them, because the information that the county board is interested in is the sales information that we’ve collected.” Appeals may be made at the county and state level, depending on the value of a house. 

Area homeowners attending the meeting had plenty of questions for Mr. DelGuercio and Mr. Snyder. Hodge Road resident Kathleen M. Bagley wondered whether the analysis would take into account houses that are currently for sale, and may have been on the market for some time. She noted the extremes in house prices in just the last year, when some of the highest prices ever were being asked at the beginning of the year, with markedly lower expectations in recent months. She was told that listings are monitored over time. 

Another Hodge Road resident, Scott Sipprelle, asked about Appraisal System’s use of the word “subjective” in its description of how neighborhoods are delineated. “Doesn’t this run the risk of violating the statute saying the assessment must be uniform?” He was told that the process “is simply a way of establishing an area of like properties.” Mr. Sipprelle pointed out that municipal input into revaluation “should be a matter of public disclosure,” and it was noted that citizens’ committees would be created to review neighborhood assessments.

Edgehill Road resident Bob McLennan was told that assessments of non-university and non-seminary homes would have to suffice in delineating neighborhoods where there are houses owned by university or seminary and no tax records exist. Mr. McLennan got a big laugh when he wondered about vacant or neglected university- or seminary-owned properties, asking “Does that count like a power line?”

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