Assessors accused of unfairly inflating home sizes
Shirley Paulenko just about panicked when she opened her property assessment to find the value of her South Surrey house had soared 43 per cent in a single year.
The $450,000 jump in her assessment to more than $1.5 million would mean a big jump in the recently widowed senior's property tax bill.
"I was so flabbergasted," Paulenko said. "I lost a night's sleep. I thought, 'holy man, how could this possibly be going up by this much money?' "
Her son looked at the assessment notice for the two-storey home near 140 Street and 26 Avenue and found the answer.
It showed she lives in what friends now joke is the "mushroom house" – a 1,746-sq.-ft. first floor with a giant 8,791-sq.-ft. second storey somehow perched on top.
BC Assessment says a typing error added a fourth digit for the second floor by mistake.
Assessors have now corrected both the square footage and reduced Paulenko's assessment to just over $1.1 million, an eight-per-cent increase Paulenko still has her doubts about.
But it's not the only case where residents in the region are complaining about either errors or unusual changes in the assessment authority's calculation of their house size.
"I think there's going to be a whole pile of these errors," said Surrey accountant Cindy Konkin.
She and her husband are appealing their Newton house's 8.6-per-cent assessment increase to $554,000 because it shows what they say is a fictitious 1,100-sq.-ft. increase in the size of the home.
In the Konkins' case, BC Assessment is holding firm on its determination of the value, saying the first floor is now designated as living space, rather than basement.
"Nothing's changed here in 23 years," Konkin said. "They could look through our window and see it's an unfinished basement."
Even excluding the first-floor revision, the Konkins say BC Assessment inexplicably added more than 200 square feet to the footprint of the main floor.
Meanwhile, Konkin has checked the assessments of eight other homes on their block of 77A Avenue off of144 Street and found the square-footage numbers have all changed – some by a few feet, others by several hundred.
In only one case she's aware of is the change justifiable because of the finishing of a basement.
"Without looking at very many, we've found there are errors," Konkin said. "How many people have got theirs and are up $20,000 or $30,000 and just think it happened to everybody? Now they're all going to be charged more."
Chris Danchuk, deputy area assessor for South Fraser, said BC Assessment hasn't seen any spike in complaints about errors relating to home sizes.
But he said the sizes of all homes have been reviewed over the past two years using aerial photos and corrections have been made in many cases.
"We can go in and look at a house from four different angles and see if there have been any changes to the property," he said.
In other words, owners who have built illegal additions to their homes without a building permit can now expect to have the extra space added to their assessment and see their tax bill to the city go up accordingly.
Danchuk said assessors used to walk down the street knocking on doors, but "often people weren't home, didn't let us in, or wouldn't give us any information."
Landcor Data Corp. president Rudy Nielsen said use of aerial photos is likely responsible for some of the jumps in square footage appearing on assessments.
"If a person did a renovation even five or six years ago they'll catch it with this new system and correct the square footage on your assessment," he said.
Nielsen, whose firm analyzes property values, said errors do happen, even though BC Assessment's system is "one of the best in the world."
And he suggests residents carefully consider whether it's worth fighting an assessment they think is unfair in order to save a few hundred a year in tax.
Assessed value is a key number that tends to influence the future selling price of a home, he said, so an owner who fights to keep their house value lower to pay less tax now could end up doing worse when they have to sell.
"For many people, when they sell it, that's their retirement money," Nielsen said. "I'm a firm believer in keeping my assessed value up there. Of course if it's totally out of whack and my taxes are really going to go up, then I'll appeal it."