Every homeowner who tracks houses on Zillow knows that market values change all the time, heading both up and down. In a logical world, the assessed valuations of our homes — and the property taxes we pay on them — would closely reflect market conditions. But in the City of Rye, it’s only a coincidence if they do, as we have not undertaken a citywide property reassessment since 1972, more than 50 years.
It’s time to follow the example of Scarsdale and Mamaroneck and to reassess — not to raise taxes, but to make our valuations fairer and more equitable.
As matters stand, homes that were all the rage in the early 1970s — such as small ranch houses — are assessed as if they are still relatively more valuable than much larger homes from the same era that were not new or stylish at the time (unless those ranch houses have successfully sought reductions). That means almost any home may be taxed at a higher or lower value than what market conditions dictate.
How are our property tax bills calculated absent regular valuation? Instead of being tied to the values of our individual homes, home values are linked to the overall value of all property in the City. Home values are calculated through a formula known as the Residential Assessment Ratio (RAR), which is calculated by the state based on the market trend in Rye as a whole. That outdated 1972 assessed value is divided by the RAR to compute our current valuation — which, when multiplied by our tax rate, gives us our tax bills.
Here’s one example of how that can go awry.
Those small ranches and capes that were built in the 1970s and earlier have seen their popularity decline, but because their valuations were relatively high 50 years ago, they remain high today. Their valuations have been multiplied every year since based on that RAR — the overall trend in Rye, including homes that have appreciated much more.
If, for example, a newly constructed ranch house sold for $65,000, the property was assessed at $26,000. (Fifty years ago, assessments were set at approximately 40 percent of full value. Fast-forward to 2023 and the assessed value of $26,000 equals $2,015,504 in market value.)
Older homeowners who have aged in place have, as a result, faced ever-increasing tax bills and feel financial pressure. They own the small “starter” homes that are being knocked down and replaced by homes two to three times their size.
But they are not the only homes over- or under-valued — an inevitable consequence of dated valuations. The Board of Assessment Review receives hundreds of property tax appeals every year. Many are simple “my taxes are too high” complaints that are not justified. But some reflect property tax injustice.
There’s a rule of thumb that summarizes the likely impact of a property reassessment: a third will go down, one third will go up, and one third will remain unchanged. That means that those whose tax bills rise will likely squawk. Indeed, that’s what happened when Scarsdale reassessed in 2016. Over time, however, the heat died down and values were set at fairer levels.
An understanding of the injustice of lagging valuations underlies the Massachusetts law that requires reassessments every three years. In New Jersey, reassessments are required every 10 years. New York has no requirement.
A city-wide revaluation will not likely put a halt to our teardown trend. It will still be true that small homes on large lots will be worth more dead than alive; the lots are worth more as building sites than the homes are as residences. That’s even true for some large homes; we’ve seen $5 million teardowns in Rye.
But reassessment would, at least, ease pressure on some whose small homes on small lots are overvalued. And it would make the system fairer for all homeowners.
Fifty years is too long to wait. Rye needs revaluation now.
The author serves on the Rye City Board of Assessment Review.