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Land whoa! County sees multibillion surge in property values

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS (Week of June 15, 2023)

Indian River County got much more valuable over the past year. The dollar value of property taxed to fill the county’s general operating fund jumped nearly $3 billion, from $23.3 billion to $26.2 billion, a bracing 12.4 percent increase, according to estimates released this month by Property Appraiser Wesley Davis.

The tax roll numbers are impressive – $26 billion worth of real estate isn’t bad for a small, mostly rural county with a population less than 165,000. It translates to more than $150,000 worth of real estate for every man, woman and child, and many of the dogs and cats.

But the taxable values are only part of the iceberg. The actual value of real estate in the county is likely twice what the tax rolls reflect, more like $50 billion, with a $5 billion or $6 billion increase from last year, though there is no official number.

Homestead exemptions are the biggest reason for the discrepancy between taxable and actual value. Most people are familiar with the $50,000 break residents get for a home they live in full time. If the appraiser values a house at $300,000, the owner only pays taxes on $250,000 if it is homesteaded. Just that protected value amounts to several billion dollars that don’t show on the tax roll.

But much more value is “concealed” by the Save Our Homes amendment to the Florida constitution that was approved by voters in 1992 and went into effect in 1994. That amendment and subsequent legislation limit the increase in taxable value for homesteaded properties to 3 percent a year, for the most part, and 10 percent a year for non-homesteaded properties.

In a booming real estate market like we have had in the past several years, in which property prices have increased by 50-to-100 percent or more in many cases, a huge amount of untaxable value quickly builds up on the ledger.

Here are couple of examples pulled at random from the property appraiser’s highly functional and transparent website, which allows anybody who’s interested to look at property tax details:

A house in Wave Three of Castaway Cove was valued by the appraiser’s office in 2022 at $1,320,287, but after homestead exemptions were applied, the taxable value was reduced to $978,454. A home in the 800 block of Riomar Drive was valued at $2,870,398 by the appraiser last year, but with homestead exemptions, only $2,062,867 was taxed. And a house on Ocean Drive valued at $6,474,030 had a taxable value of only $4,303,477 last year, due to homestead protections.

For just those three houses, which are not abnormal in beachside neighborhoods where home prices skyrocketed in recent years, that leaves more than $3.25 million in phantom value not included in the $26 billion tax roll.

Altogether, the basic $50,000 homestead reduction and the Save Our Homes damper on value increases excludes more than $10 billion in value from taxation, according to Davis’ office, raising what that office calls the Just Value of real estate in the county to more than $40 billion.

But there’s still more value that remains hidden.

Davis chief deputy, Mickey Umphrey, told Vero Beach 32963 in an email that there are “44 lines of calculations on each property that are not included in the numbers above ... there are exemptions and many other calculations in the 44 lines of the state report that alter the total.”

Using last year’s school board numbers as an example, he said that taxable value for the school board was $25.7 billion, with $7 billion in homestead exempted value not included in that figure.

Just Value was $37.5 billion.”

So those 44 lines would appear to add billions more to the actual value of land and buildings in Indian River County.

On top of that, there is another huge but uncalculated factor that reduces the ratio of taxable value compared to actual market value.

The three houses mentioned above illustrate this differential. The house in Castaway Cove that was valued at $1,320,287 before exemptions in 2022 sold last June for $2.55 million, nearly double the official figure, while the home in the 800 block of Riomar Drive, which was assigned a value of $2,870,398, sold last June for $5.1 million.  And the house on Ocean Drive valued by the appraiser’s office at $6,474,030 sold for $13.9 million, more than twice the assigned value.

So some value was missed last year. The county valued the three homes at $10.7 million in 2022, with a combined taxable value of $7.34 million, but the live real estate market valued the properties decisively at $21.5 million, nearly three times the taxed value.

This year, prices have continued to go up, 11 percent during the first four months of the year compared to last year and increase that is hard to accurately assess in the short term and is only partially reflected in the current tax roll estimate.

None of which should be taken as criticism of the property appraiser’s office, where valuations are necessarily backward looking. Davis and Umphrey lead a staff of 38 professionals who work year-round to update values and pave the way for fair and accurate taxation. But they are operating in a complex matrix of state laws and fast-moving market conditions that create an inevitable time lag in valuations.

They are on the lookout for tax cheats, such as people who claim homestead exemptions they are not entitled to, but also want to give taxpayers every break they are entitled to, which include exemptions for widows, disabled people, members of the military, charitable groups and certain types of farmland.

Since all three of the houses mentioned above were sold last year, much of the value that was missing from the books in 2022 is included in this year’s higher numbers. And the appraisers and analysts in Davis’ office captured much of the increase in the value of other houses in island and mainland neighborhoods, based on the sales prices of houses that changed hands, but they have to be careful and certainly did not capture all of it.

The bottom line is the value of real estate in Indian River County is much higher than shown in the tax rolls and the increase in value from last year to this year was huge – which is good news for all concerned.