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As housing prices soar, corporations exploit legal paths to challenge appraisals

Wednesday, May 5, 2021 by Seth Smalley

The Travis County Commissioners Court fielded a discussion Tuesday from the Travis Central Appraisal District that touched on a number of issues, from legislative outlook related to property appraisal reform to Austin’s meteoric growth and its effects on the state of the Austin housing market.

Chief appraiser Marya Crigler presented TCAD’s findings to commissioners, starting with a list of superlatives: “We have been named the number-one tech town for the second year in a row, we’re the number-one rate of tech job growth, number-one in job growth and manufacturing and financial activities. Number-two U.S. market for real estate investments, and the number-two job market overall.”

Other fast facts that can be used to justify Austin’s outsize prices for home buying included the city being the number-two most popular destination for migrating homebuyers and the third best place to live in the U.S.

“Our total appraisal averages increased by about 12 percent, which has been driven by substantial increases in the residential market,” Crigler told commissioners.

All these factors, combined with Austin’s 10-year population growth of over 31 percent, drive record high demand for real estate in Austin. This, coupled with the record low supply of housing – TCAD saw a 73 percent decline in listings in 2020 – precipitate excessive home prices.

Anecdotally, Crigler mentioned, “new builders are telling us that they are pre-sold out of a lot of their homes. They’re looking at selling at least a year in advance.”

Many brokers are selling, on average, 7 to 8 percent above their asking prices to hand-tied retailers.

“Often they offer $100,000 over asking prices. Houses that used to get three or four offers are now seeing, on average, 20 to 30 offers,” Crigler said.

As housing prices go up, so do the number of protests filed each year in order to stall the meteoric rise in property taxes.

“I’m anticipating that we will see somewhere between 140,000-160,000 protests, which is up slightly but not substantially more than what we saw in our record year of 2019,” Crigler told commissioners.

Additionally of interest to TCAD were three pieces of legislation which, if passed, would affect appraisal operations in the area. Together, Senate Bill 63, House Bill 988 and SB 449 would create time constraints, notification requirements, additional deadlines, and electronic communication and payment requirements for the appraisal district.

“These are all of note because they are things that are unfunded requirements for the appraisal district, but they are all things that require intensive manpower and additional staffing,” Crigler said. “So we’re keeping a very close eye on the progress of all these bills.”

Commissioner Brigid Shea expressed concern over an increase in residential tax appraisals, saying, “Seems to me like it will be shifting an additional burden onto residential taxpayers.” Shea also remarked upon the outsize influence and power the Legislature gives to corporations when it comes to industry appraisals.

“The appraisal rules and laws, as the Legislature has changed over the years, recommend in some cases giving large corporate property owners and industrial property owners an unfair advantage, in that they can bring in an army of lobbyists and lawyers to challenge appraisals.”

The legal challenges, while easily affordable for large companies, cost the relatively underfunded TCAD too much to meaningfully fight in court, allowing corporations to continue shirking the burden of paying fair levels of property taxes.

In order to protest property tax increases, residential property owners can go to and book appointments for informal meetings online.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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