Measurements Amiss

Size matters--on your property tax bill

Behind a locked gate at the end of a dirt road on Tucson's far eastside sits a 4,400-square-foot house listed for sale at almost $1 million. Although the home was built three years ago, no property tax has ever been paid on the structure.

In a quiet midtown neighborhood, a box-like, white stucco house hides behind a tall oleander hedge. While the home has more than 5,000 square feet of space, property tax is levied on less than 3,000, thus holding down the home's $280,000 assessed valuation.

Out in Tucson's horse-and-cattle country, a brick ranch-style home has an American flag flying in its front yard. Totaling almost 4,500 square feet in size, this figure is more than one-third greater than shown by the Pima County Assessor's Office.

These are just a few of the tens of thousands of local homes for which property tax bills are being paid this week. Like many others, the owners of these three houses won't be paying their fair share.

A recent large sample, which professionally measured mostly trendy homes in metropolitan Tucson, revealed widespread discrepancies between the actual square footage of homes and the records of the assessor's office. In 18 percent of the cases, the government's square footage was at least 10 percent too low. On the other hand, the number of homes considerably smaller than the assessor's listing was only 1 percent.

This survey also discovered that three-fourths of all the homes included had more square footage than Pima County records indicated, while the other one-fourth had less. In summary, the average home measured was more than 200 square feet larger than shown by the assessor's office.

The impact these differences might have on property tax bills could be substantial. The assessor's office's determination of full cash value for tax purposes is based in part on square footage measurements. Thus, while many Pima County homeowners appear to be paying too little property tax, an unfortunate few are paying too much.

"I'd like to say we are 100 percent accurate (in our records)," Pima County Assessor Bill Staples says. "But that's incorrect."

Staples acknowledges the square footage of a house, along with the quality of construction, plays a "very important" role in determining a home's valuation for property tax purposes. He adds that he finds the sample results interesting, but says he doesn't agree or disagree with them.

To determine square footage, Staples' office receives building permit data for new homes, and he indicates it should be listed after a certificate of occupancy is issued. As an additional check, the assessor's office has field crews go out and physically measure the exterior footprint of model homes in new subdivisions.

In some cases, like the $1 million new home on the eastside, this process doesn't work. If the builder waits until the house is sold before obtaining a certificate of occupancy, no property tax will be paid on the structure while it sits vacant.

Staples admits this shouldn't happen, but he knows it does. "In a perfect world, those houses should be subject to taxation," the assessor says, "but we don't have a process in place at this time (to catch them)." Sometimes, though, the neighbors will turn in properties.

For many homes, the difference between listed and actual size can be caused by several factors. Thousands of houses in Tucson had the square footage calculated decades ago, and it might have been inaccurate to begin with. If additions were later put on without permits, these homes will be shown by the county as being much smaller than they really are.

Saying his office tries to pick up cases like this through field measurements, Staples understands this effort is far from complete. "These random checks are very sporadic," he concedes.

Instead, Staples indicates that at the time of sale, real estate agents often inform his office of incorrect measurements. This usually happens when the assessor's records are substantially lower than the agent's, who has obtained them from independent sources.

"If the buyer has been told they are getting a 2,000-square-foot house," Staples says, "and our records only show 1,800, the agent wants that corrected to the higher number." After learning of these cases, Staples stresses his office will check them out.

At the other end of the spectrum, some unlucky homeowners are paying property tax on square footage that doesn't exist. One such case is in the Catalina foothills, where a rambling house on top of a small hill looks out over new residential construction going on all around it.

According to the assessor's records, this large home has 20 percent more square footage than is apparently there. With an assessed valuation of almost $900,000, the property taxes on this home could be considerably lower.

Staples says cases like this often show up immediately when the house changes hands. For everyone else, he urges property owners to check the exterior measurements of their homes. They should include other areas, such as enclosed carports, but also understand that if there are quality of construction differences between the main house and these additional structures, the square footage measurements are calculated differently.

"Measuring the building would be a good start," the assessor suggests. If a discrepancy with county records is found, he would like to know about it.

"We will bend over backwards to verify the square footage measurements (of a home)," Staples insists, "and make our records as close to perfect as humanly possible."