There was one silver lining for Stanislaus County homeowners as they watched their house values plummet during the recession: Property taxes declined for most homes.
For five straight years, assessed property values fell. Countywide, they dropped from nearly $43 billion to less than $33.5 billion.
Assessment drops saved many homeowners thousands of dollars in property taxes, which was sort of a consolation prize for a miserable real estate market.
About 60 percent of Stanislaus County landowners have enjoyed lowered tax bills since 2008. Stanislaus lowered more property assessments than any other county in California, a dubious distinction during the recession.
So here's the good news: Stanislaus home values have risen substantially this year.
And now the bad news: Assessments are going up, and so will property tax bills.
Stanislaus County Assessor David Cogdill Sr. is warning homeowners to brace themselves for assessed value increases of 15 percent to 20 percent. Taxes will go up accordingly.
"For some folks, there won't be any change. But for most, there will," Cogdill said.
Patterson in for a shock
Assessments in some communities, such as Patterson, where home prices are soaring, will go up more than others. Waterford and Riverbank assessments aren't expected to increase as much.
Homeowners can find out how much their homes are assessed at in early July, and their first tax bills will be due Dec. 10.
Cogdill expects lots of calls from upset homeowners wanting to know why their tax bills are jumping so much.
What about Proposition 13? Isn't that supposed to protect property owners from skyrocketing assessments?
The answer is "yes," and "no."
Proposition 13 the controversial 1978 initiative that overhauled California's property tax structure stops assessments from rising by more than 2 percent per year, no matter how much a home's market value increases.
But sometimes a home's market value declines. So a voter-approved initiative called Proposition 8 requires property assessments to be lowered when market values drop dramatically. That's why Stanislaus assessments (and property taxes) dropped from 2008 through 2012.
Some of those drops were dramatic. Example: One Oakdale home that was assessed at nearly $292,000 in 2007 had its assessed value lowered to $175,000 by 2010, which saved its owner nearly $1,200 per year in property taxes.
Whopping hikes are legal
Such lowered assessments are only temporary, however, and assessed values can catch back up all at once if market conditions change.
That's because Proposition 13 enables assessments to keep increasing by as much as 2 percent each year, and that cap keeps going up even during recession years when Proposition 8 temporarily lowers assessments.
So if the housing market suddenly skyrockets, that Oakdale home's assessment could soar from the $175,000 it was assessed at last year up to $318,000 this year. (But no one expects that to happen because the real estate market isn't that hot.)
The Proposition 13 assessment cap is different for every home in California, and it's based on when each home was bought and how much it initially cost. Home improvements like room additions also affect a home's assessment cap.
It's all very confusing for most homeowners, which is why Cogdill anticipates lots of questions.
Homeowners can find their home's current Proposition 13 cap (called a "factored base value") by going to www.stancounty.com/ assessor. Go to the "on-line services" section to make an "assessor value notice inquiry." Homeowners need to know their assessor parcel number to get their property's information.
The 2013-14 property assessments will be posted there in early July.
Homeowners who disagree with the new assessments can file an appeal through Nov. 30. Cogdill urged property owners to first call his office to discuss concerns because adjustments can be made if justified.
"People don't need to pay anyone to do anything for them about this," said Cogdill, warning people to beware of scams. "Just call us first so we can look into it."
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2196.