The House Always Wins

The House Always Wins - roulette wheel with chips

Thomas recently reminded me of a popular saying in Vegas: “The house always wins.” Basically, it means “the house” (casino owners) set up their games so the casino will always net a profit. Yes, people do win money, but the vast majority leave with their pockets substantially lighter. Would you like to know who else works in a similar fashion? Answer: Hays County, Texas.

For the record, I did ask my attorney if he’s okay with me blogging about this. His answer, “Yes, and make sure to send a link to your congressman.”

Those who follow me on Twitter know that my anxiety was running on high all last week. The reason is because Thomas and I had an upcoming hearing (which happened last Friday) to protest the county’s appraisal of our property, which is what determines the amount of our property taxes for this year. The higher the appraisal, the more money the county receives from us.

For those not familiar with Texas, we do not have a state income tax. Local governments (county, city, MUDs (municipal utility districts), school districts, etc.) gather their revenues from property taxes. Because of this, the property tax rate is considerably higher than most states. It’s a given that a good chunk of money needs to be set aside every year to pay this tax. What isn’t a given, however, is the county raising the property appraisal 10+% EVERY. SINGLE. YEAR.

We moved into our house in 2015. The appraisal for that year had already been set. It jumped 2016 (and every year after), and fighting the county has become a yearly process. The way is works is the property owner files a protest (within a small window), and the county schedules a hearing for them to plead their case in front of the county board. Sometimes a settlement offer is presented beforehand, and the owner can either accept or reject it. If it’s rejected (or one is not offered), the board hears both sides (the property owner and the appraiser), then votes on a decision.

The first few years we did this, we emerged with mild success. Sometimes we accepted the settlement, other times we presented our case to the board. Then in 2019, the county got a new chief appraiser, and things quickly went downhill. Prior to 2019, the land value of the property pretty much stayed the same, and what was being increased was the “improvement value,” basically structures on the property: house, shed, barn, pool, etc. For the most part, my arguments would bring the yearly appraisal down to something fair.

But in 2019, the new appraiser started increasing not only the “improvement” (house) value, but the land value, as well. That year, I compiled arguments for both the house and land value. While waiting our turn for the board, we were called to the front desk to informally present our case to see if a settlement could be reached (we had not received a settlement offer that year). I presented my evidence to her and she said they can come down on the house but can’t touch the land value. She explained that the state was “getting on” the county to produce more funds (no joke, that is what she told us—basically, the people “higher up” were breathing down their necks and they had no power to do anything about it).

We ended up taking the settlement offer that year because a huge portion of my argument was around the land value, and presenting in front of the board could yield an appraisal higher or lower than the offer. It was basically a risk we did not want to take. I was also scared that more than half my argument was basically obsolete.

The next year (2020), though, I was more prepared. The county had increased our land value 28.57% (I’ll let that sink in). I gathered data around me and presented all kinds of evidence, including the fact that my land was valued 7.7 times more per acre than my neighbor across the street. And they weren’t the only ones by a long shot. In the hearing, the appraiser said she was willing to come down to a lower number, but it wasn’t much. I reiterated to the board that my neighbor less than thirty feet away was appraised as a fraction of what I am. They did not care. They sided with the appraiser.

This year, the county’s appraisal of our land from 2020 to 2021 increased 41.67%. Anyone beginning to see a pattern? The problem is the way things are set up make it very difficult to fight. My house is one of four properties that are tied to a gated community to which we live OUTSIDE of. Actually, the entrance is half a mile away from my house. Properties right across the street from the gate aren’t included in this gated community. Just us four two streets away (it used to be five, but I’ll get to that in a bit)

When I was making my arguments in 2020, the appraiser only compared our property to sales the previous year of houses INSIDE the gated community. When I pointed this out, she said, “We don’t distinguish whether a home is inside or outside the gate.” She and the board disregarded my SEVERAL comparisons because they were all ones not linked to the gated community. Forget the fact that they’re physically closer.

So, this is what I was up against, and I knew it. I have a county board and an appraiser whose chief job is to get the county as much money as possible. Remember, the house always wins. Screw fairness. But even though I have anxiety, I don’t easily quit. I acquired an affidavit from a real estate broker stating that a house inside a gated community will command a higher price than one outside and that my house should be compared with other properties on my street NOT linked to the gated community. I also sought the help from an attorney. He gave me a letter citing state law that requires properties lumped together to share similar attributes—we do not enjoy any benefits from the gated community.

Surprise, surprise, this fell on deaf ears. Actually, I take that back. This fell on apathetic ears. The appraiser made a half-hearted argument that my land is appraised 8.8 times more (it was 7.7 times last year) because the lot across the street is bigger. Really? What about these lots over here that are smaller than mine? The appraiser: they’re in a different subdivision (i.e. they’re not linked with the gated community like my property is).

Part of our argument, and included in our attorney’s letter, is a formal request to have our neighborhood code (the subdivision) changed. The appraiser said that’s the legal definition and he can’t change that. Really? Because you did exactly that for my neighbor a year and a half ago. Remember when I said there used to be five outside properties linked to the gated community? One was able to escape it—and it’s the one that is physically closest to the gate. When I pressed for why, one of the board members jumped in saying it’ll take some time to figure out why, and we need to end this proceeding because “others are waiting.”

I was able to get them to let me ask one more question “as long as it’s quick.” I asked, “Is if fair that my land is valued 8.8 times more than my neighbor across the street?” Surely, the answer is in the negative.

To my surprise, a different board member said, “Yes, because your land is smaller.” (forget the smaller properties I pointed out earlier debunking that argument). His callous tone and cold eyes still make me want to cry. I find that amount of heartlessness unbelievable. But then again, they had one agenda, and it wasn’t fairness. It was to maximize the county’s revenue. And they did it by hiding behind a single legal term: Subdivision. These comps aren’t in your gated community subdivision, therefore they don’t count—we don’t care that you’re not inside the gated community. All we care about is our money. The house always wins.

On Friday, we walked out of the county office with our appraisal exactly the same as when we walked in. They did not reduce it one red cent. I’d hoped I’d feel better Saturday but no. A wave of depression and hopelessness fell over me. It’s not that we can’t pay our property taxes this year. We can. And we can pay them the next year. And even the next. My youngest is going into third grade in the fall. If Hays County keeps up this unethical, yet legal tactic, there is no way we will be able to stay in this house until she graduates.

Homestead law restricts taxable value to go up more than 10% every year, but the remainder simply rolls over to the next year (along with their yearly rate increase) until the taxable value “catches up” with the county’s appraised market value. With the board predisposed to side with the appraiser, this all but guarantees a 10% property tax increase EVERY. SINGLE. YEAR. Think about it. When was the last time you received a 10% salary increase? Exactly. The house always wins.

But I’m a fighter. I can appeal the board’s decision, but it costs money. Several hundred dollars, actually. And there’s no guarantee of success. But this year alone, our property taxes are increasing more than twice the cost of the appeal. And the neighbor who “escaped” the gated community? That happened during an appeal—the board didn’t listen to them either, and that’s with their attorney sitting right next to them. So, there is hope. How much, I don’t know.

The House Always Wins - lego men fencing

The house always wins…until they go up against a spitfire with anxiety—then all bets are off. They might still win in the end, IDK, but they’re going to have to fight like hell to do it because that’s exactly what I’ll be doing.

‘Til next time!

Amélie

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