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Market's down, but you wouldn't know it from property taxes

When home sales were blazing three years ago, property values soared on the blast of hot air. These days, with sales as cool as Dick Cheney at an Osama bin Laden rally, values are thunking back to earth.

Unless you're Juan Lopez, resident of St. Petersburg's Allendale Terrace neighborhood.

At the height of the housing boom in December 2005, Lopez and his wife, Joyce, paid $250,000 for a rough-around-the-edges 904-square-foot house near 36th Avenue N and Seventh Street. It was built in 1941 and suffered from renter's rot. A new appraisal values the home at $237,000.

Try telling that to Pinellas County. The property appraiser's office values the house at nearly $300,000 and taxed the Lopezes $5,600. Here's the twist: The county admits his house is nearly worthless, but claims his land alone would sell for $300,000.

Granted, the Lopez home squats on the edge of an attractively leafy enclave of brick streets. But facts are stubborn things: Lopez paid $250,000 at market peak for the house and lot. Pinellas property values have since dipped 10 to 20 percent. And the county's acting as if Lopez sleeps atop Saudi oil.

Eager to save money with a baby on the way, Lopez investigated. He was stunned to learn the county raised his 2007 property values by cherry-picking two lot sales during white-hot 2005. Most aggravating is a sale on 25th Avenue, 11 blocks away in Crescent Park Heights.

That lot sold for $200,000, but it turned out to be a speculative purchase by a builder who went bankrupt. He built a luxury home there. It's in foreclosure. Yet this is what passes in Lopez's case for a "comparable sale."

A cursory look at the tax rolls suggests the problem goes well beyond Lopez. How does government justify muscular appraisals when the market's a 95-pound weakling?

Market's down, but you wouldn't know it from property taxes 06/05/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 9, 2008 10:05am]
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