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The coastal town of Ipswich, Massachusetts, 30 miles north of Boston, has about 6,000 homes built over the course of five centuries. There are the typical cul-de-sac Colonials, the new townhouses, and both modest and massive waterfront properties. But Ipswich is also awash in historic homes—including roughly five dozen “First Period” houses built before 1725, more than any other community in the United States. Lately, the town’s antique houses have been popular with homebuyers, fetching the kinds of multimillion-dollar sales prices usually associated with new construction.
Ipswich Chief Assessor Mary-Louise Ireland isn’t sure whether it’s a temporary blip or the start of a trend. But she does know one thing: it’s making her team’s task of assigning fair and accurate property tax values to every home in town a bit more challenging.
After all, one of the biggest difficulties for a local tax assessor isn’t just making accurate property valuations—it’s doing so consistently, across all price points, home styles, and neighborhoods. If a $1 million Colonial is assessed at $950,000, for example—or 95 percent of its market value—then a $100,000 condo in the same district should be assessed at $95,000. When that ratio is consistent across a community’s price tiers, the valuations have what’s called vertical equity.
That’s tricky enough to achieve in a homogenous postwar suburb. But when 300-year-old saltboxes share the streets with new luxury townhomes, and storied houses get converted to character-rich condos, making equitable assessments across such a sundry assortment of housing styles gets even more challenging. “We’re three people,” says Ireland, “and we do all of the field work on our own.”
Now, Ireland’s small department is using an innovative—and free—new online tool from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy to evaluate and interpret the vertical equity of their assessments. “We don’t have a lot of money for extra tools,” she says. “So having this has been fabulous.”
Evaluating the Valuations
Getting assessments right across the board is crucial to a fair and equitable property tax. But accurately assessing very low- and high-priced properties is notoriously difficult, partly because there are fewer market sales in those brackets. And in recent years, researchers analyzing national data sets have found headline-worthy evidence that lower-priced homes are being over-assessed—and therefore overtaxed—relative to higher-priced properties nearby.
“If assessments are equitable, then low-, medium-, and high-priced properties are all assessed at the same level relative to the market,” says Lincoln Institute of Land Policy fellow Ron Rakow. “But even though it’s a fairly simple concept, vertical equity is really tricky to measure.”
The International Association of Assessing Officers (IAAO) has two vertical equity standards in place to guide assessors, says Rakow—former commissioner of the City of Boston Assessing Department—but even those measures are imperfect. The price related differential is a simple ratio most assessors use, but Rakow says it can be imprecise; the coefficient of price related bias is a little more robust, but also more complex—it requires a type of analysis that many small departments don’t have the resources or expertise to conduct.
“Because of the difficulty of measuring vertical equity, there’s no single best, definitive measure,” Rakow says. “So rather than just looking at one indicator, it’s better to look at several indicators to paint a more complete picture.”
Needless to say, that’s no simple undertaking. So the Lincoln Institute partnered with the nonprofit Center for Appraisal Research and Technology (CART) to develop a new online tool to help assessors measure and understand the vertical equity in their own valuations.
The browser-based vertical equity app, which is free to use, instantly analyzes property data that any local assessor already has on hand, evaluating it against six different measures of vertical equity and providing a detailed report. “We wanted to give assessors a tool where they can not only get these measures calculated out, but also get some assistance in interpreting them,” Rakow says.
The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy Vertical Equity App is a free online resource designed to help assessors evaluate and interpret vertical equity, a measure of how consistently properties at different price points are assessed relative to the market. Credit: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.