It happens every five years, but with real estate prices stagnant, Wilton’s 2017 real estate revaluation has become a dinner party topic of conversation. Real estate agents report that clients are concerned that this year’s revaluation could result in increasing their real estate taxes at a higher percent than the mill rate increase, making it more difficult to sell their homes.

Several weeks ago, Wilton property owners received a letter and data sheet in the mail from Vision Government Solutions, Inc (VGSI), an independent appraisal company, asking them to verify specific information about their properties. The town has been utilizing VGSI since 1994 to assist with the setting of assessments. The five-year assessments are based on statistics, but every 10th year, VGSI conducts a more detailed review, hence the recent mailing.

First selectman Lynne Vanderslice encourages Wilton property owners to return the data sheet promptly. “If homeowners provide the information VGSI needs, they can do a more accurate assessment. Without it, VGSI may need to set up a site visit to gain access to the property.”

“The whole point of a revaluation is to adjust property values to reflect market conditions from actual sales data. Properties may change in value differently over time,” explains David Lisowski, Wilton’s assessor. “The Assessor’s job is to determine fair and equitable property valuations, not to determine tax liability. The mil rate determines the tax liability.”

How Revaluation is Calculated

The last detailed revaluation was in 2007, right before the recession. Lisowski notes that the guidelines for revaluations are actually set by the state, and that every town goes through this process, although timing is staggered. Some towns, like Milford, conduct the revaluation themselves, but others, like Wilton, contract the process out to independent appraisal firms such as VGSI. In addition, some towns assess properties at estimated fair market value, whereas in Wilton, assessments are 70% of estimated fair market value.

VGSI calculates assessed value for residential properties based on a variety of metrics, including square footage; number of bedrooms, bathrooms and fireplaces; whether a kitchen has been remodeled; and any yard improvements or outbuildings.  The assessments include separate values for the homes and the land they sit on.

For this year’s revaluation, VSG is also asking property owners whether they have a stand-by generator, which adds value to a home, because more homeowners have been installing generators in response to frequent power outages.

“The revaluation is fairly straightforward,” Lisowski explains.  “VGSI uses current sales since July 2016 to establish a benchmark. The state actually requires going back a full year. The more sales, the better, because it provides a larger sample size.”

However, as Marion Filley, a real estate agent with Berkshire Hathaway, notes, last year Wilton recorded only 12 houses that sold over $1.5 million. “In 2007, 43 homes sold for over $1.5 million. With fewer comps, it is more challenging to accurately appraise the higher end properties.”

In response, Lisowski points out that because assessments are based on twelve months of sales data, a house that might currently be assessed at $1.8 million but has comps that sold for $1.6 million would have its valuation and assessment adjusted accordingly.

“We wouldn’t be doing our job well if we revalued that house at $1.9 million,” he says.

He acknowledges that while the top of the real estate market has been soft, certain segments of the market–specifically properties below $1 million–have performed well; these segments may see an uptick in their revaluations.

After Revaluation, Then What?

Once VGSI has completed assessments of every property, they will be sending notices out to owners in December advising them of their new valuations. Property owners who feel that their revaluation is inaccurate can set up a meeting with a VGSI appraiser. Following the meeting, they will receive a second notice informing them whether their assessment has been changed. Lisowski will then finalize the assessment list in January.

Any property owner who believes their assessment is still inaccurate can go through an appeals process. For the 2017 revaluation, they can pick up the appeal form from the assessor’s office between Feb. 1-Feb. 20, 2018 and file for an appeal to the Board of Assessment Appeals by Feb. 20, 2018.

The board will schedule meetings with these property owners in March, although depending on the volume of appeals, this process might extend into early April. They will notify property owners within seven days after their decision.

Lisowski explains that after the last revaluation in 2012, the Board, which usually has just three elected members, received over 320 appeals. “We will increase the number of Board members to six during the 2017 revaluation year in anticipation of an increase in appeal filings versus a non-revaluation year.”

What Revaluation Means for Taxes

Regardless of the results of the revaluation, Lisowski, Vanderslice and Filley all point out that real estate taxes are determined by the town budget.

“Property prices go up and down over the years, assessments go up and down over the years, but generally taxes won’t go down unless the town budget drops,” explains Filley. She says that while she expects most property assessments to go down, “that doesn’t mean that taxes will go down, because the mill rate will be adjusted up to ensure the town budget is covered.”

The mill rate for the 2017 tax year is 27.3371 per $1000 of assessed value, a 1.89% increase over the prior year. The Wilton town budget for the 2018 tax year will be voted on next May and the 2018 mill rate will be applied to the July 1, 2018 property tax bills.

Vanderslice points out that during the last two revaluations, there were shifts in assessments. In 2007, land assessments went up significantly as a result of the new home construction boom.

“Residents who owned a small house on a larger piece of property might have seen their assessments go up because the land had become more valuable than the house itself,” she says.

In addition, the tax burden between residential and commercial properties fluctuates and plays a key role in homeowners’ tax bills. In 2012, residential valuations went down by 20%, but commercial valuations went up, for a net decline of 17%.

“In 2012, homes at the high end of the market may have seen their assessments come down, reflecting what was happening in the real estate market. Today, prices at the high end are still soft,” Vanderslice says. “When calculating the mill rate, the budget is the numerator. The grand list is the denominator. Even if the town budget doesn’t change, as the denominator decreases, the mill rate has to go up.”

Vanderslice is committed to promoting economic development and capitalizing on efficiencies to reduce Wilton’s tax burden, a challenging goal at a time when the state of Connecticut is cutting funding to towns. She recognizes that residents are concerned with the soft real estate market and rising taxes.

“We’re doing what we can to position Wilton competitively to other towns from a residential and commercial standpoint. We can’t compare ourselves to Darien, New Canaan and Westport. These towns have over $5 billion in taxable income versus $2 billion for Wilton. They also have a much larger inventory of very high end homes to carry some of the tax burden.”

She cites the advantages that Wilton does offer:  top notch public schools, over 26 parks and open spaces, a diversity of housing that includes homes of all sizes on 1-2 acre properties, townhouses, condos, Wilton Commons, Ogden House, assisted living facilities for people at different stages of their lives, Ambler Farm, the Norwalk River Valley Trail, two train stations, a wide range of restaurants and retailers, and a scenic river running through town.

“I saw someone fly fishing in the river downtown recently,” Vanderslice remarks. “We need to compare ourselves to those towns that are truly our competitors for new buyers–Weston, Redding, Ridgefield and Fairfield. We’ve developing marketing materials to get the message out there. And we’re doing what we can to keep the mill rate as low as possible.”

Regardless of the 2017 revaluation, many Wilton residents will most likely see their real estate taxes go up in 2018. Filley advises residents who have questions about their assessments to set up an appointment with a VGSI appraiser.

“Homeowners who haven’t updated their homes might want to request a site visit to make sure the comps truly reflect their own homes.” Residents who feel their assessments aren’t accurate always have the option to research online comps on the Vision Appraisal website for the town of Wilton, and file an appeal.