Get Ready for Higher Property Taxes

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The property taxes on my condo just went up 17%. That would be a breathtaking number if I wasn’t so used to it: Last year they jumped 16%. The problem here in New York City is that there are fewer real estate sales than during the boom, so the city has to make up the missing revenue from somewhere. And guess what? Existing homeowners are one place to look.

But the trend is widespread. Aggregate tax numbers available from the census show that property tax revenue dropped in the first quarter of 2011, down 1.7% from a year ago. And as the Wall Street Journal‘s Kelly Nolan has noted, this is the second straight quarter of year-over-year declines, the first time we’ve seen two quarterly back-to-back declines since 1963. (Quarter-over-quarter numbers aren’t meaningful because many municipalities concentrate their property tax collections toward the end of the calendar year. Merry Christmas!)

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If you think that municipalities are just going to roll over and try to live on less revenue, think again. (Schools, which are generally the main beneficiary of property tax revenue, aren’t getting any cheaper to run.) As a result, we’ve seen property tax hikes of 3.85% in Philadelphia, and Austin‘s Travis County is looking at 4.5% for the fall. In New Orleans, the post-Katrina “storm freeze” on assessed home values is being lifted, according to Michelle Krupa of the Times-Picayune. The city has also modernized its assessment system, and the result of both changes should be increased tax revenue

But the pressure is perhaps going to hurt most in the Northeast, where property taxes are already the highest in the country. A study by the Tax Foundation, a nonprofit that takes a magnifying glass to such things, shows that the 10 counties where property tax burdens are highest are all in New York and New Jersey. What’s the measure of a “burden?” It’s the ratio of the median property tax paid to the median income. Passaic County, N.J., for example, tops the list with a median property tax ($7,939) that’s 9.7% of the median income ($82,038). By that measure, the nation’s most property-tax burdened homeowners live in Passaic, N.J.; Essex, N.J. (8.7%); Union, N.J. (8.7%); Bergen, N.J. (8.6%); Nassau, N.Y. (8.6%); Rockland, N.Y. (8.6%); Westchester, N.Y. (8.2%); Suffolk, N.Y. (8.0%), Putnam, N.Y. (7.8%), and Hudson, N.J. (7.6%).

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By contrast, Cook County, Illinois (home of Chicago) ranked 52nd in the country with the median property taxes at 5.2% of the median income; San Francisco County ranked 125th with a 4.3% ratio; and Kings County, N.Y. (Brooklyn) ranked 215th with a 3.7% ratio.

But these rankings are all generated using 2009 numbers, the latest available. We should get results from the 2010 American Community Survey, the census questionnaire that asks millions of homeowners about their property taxes, sometime this fall — and I’ll bet dollars-to-donuts that the national average, currently 3.5%, will have risen.

Certainly a quick glance at Passaic tax bills, courtesy of our friends at the Star-Ledger’s, shows that average property tax bills in 2010 have risen anywhere from $200 to $976, depending on where you live in the county.

And I don’t see things getting much better in 2011. So the next time you walk to your mailbox and find that envelope from your municipality, brace yourself.