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Measuring Down

By Tina Traster

August 27, 2009 -- Ten days after moving into my renovated farmhouse in late 2005, a pale woman with beauty-parlor-stiff hair knocked on my door. She held a clipboard. I thought she was a Jehovah's Witness, but it turns out this wasn't my day to receive the love of Jesus.

The unwelcome visitor was the town tax assessor. My building permit had triggered a reassessment. A new powder room, installation of air-conditioning upstairs and aesthetic improvements raised the assessment of the home's market value by 33 percent. This increased my taxes from $4,975 to $6,926 -- a nearly 40 percent jump.

In May 2006, I waged an appeal before the town's tax board. I argued that mistakes had been made in the reassessment, and that it was out of line compared to neighbors'. When eyes glazed over, I said, "Furthermore, I don't believe my house is 2,005 square feet. There's been a mistake in the calculations."

After a few self-righteous sniffs, the assessor explained that she added 389 square feet to the total. Not because we had changed the footprint during the renovation, but because the previously converted porch that was now living space had never before been factored into the house assessment.

I insisted her figures were wrong, but she said unless I had an appraisal to challenge the town's report, she was sticking to her numbers. I hadn't done a $500 appraisal for the appeal because I was financially drained from the renovation. And at this point, I had no appetite to hire a lawyer to take this to court.

Fast-forward to spring 2009. Like everyone else, I was looking for pennies between the couch cushions and wondering if I really need premium cable.

Then it occurred to me to pull out the dusty tax-appeal folder. Harrumphing as I looked at it, I was reminded of the "2,005 square feet" figure in the town's appraisal. This time, I was going tape measure to tape measure with these people.

Before my husband could walk through the door that evening, I held up the measuring device and said, "Let's do some reassessing."

Knowing it was futile to say, "Calm down, we'll do this later," he dropped his stuff on the porch and we started. We went around and around the planks, my husband holding the tape measure at one end, me pulling it out as far as it would go. I held my thumb in the spot where he would meet me for the new segment that needs measuring.

After four times around the perimeter, I was satisfied. We had a winner -- 1,610 square feet, or about 20 percent less than the assessor's measurements.

My husband called to arrange a meeting. The assessor told him I didn't let her in the house back in 2005, and that's why the calculations might be wrong. But I did let her in. And besides, you don't need to be inside to measure a house.

Two weeks later, the assessor and her ponytailed assistant pulled into our driveway in a town-issued hybrid. Their tape measures were cocked like pistols. The air was thick with tension. Western gunslinging music played in my head.

The ponytailed human ruler measured and jotted down numbers. We shadowed him closely. By the time we got to the second side, I smelled victory. On the third side, the moistened-brow assessor looked like she needed a glass of water. Flustered, she said to me, "Can you step away from the house?" as though it were a crime scene.

"Um, no," I answered. "This is my house. I'm keeping my eye on you."

She huffed with disgust.

My husband shot me the look my parents used to give me when I was 15. But I couldn't help myself. One becomes hostile after four years of being taxed to death in suburbia. My taxes have increased 72 percent since 2005 -- but that's another story.

Defeated, the town assessor acknowledged our house measured 1,610 square feet.

I was surprised when the town expeditiously mailed us a letter to say the assessment would decrease 11 percent. I expect to save about $1,500 in annual taxes. I've also reduced my home-insurance premium, so I've stopped scrounging for pennies in the couch, where one finds all kinds of other unwelcome surprises.

But this is not over. According to my calculations, the town owes me several thousand dollars in overcharges for the past three years. I intend to test a little-known state statute that lets taxpayers petition for reimbursement when a town has made clerical or math errors.

As for the town assessor, I'm hoping that the next time she welcomes a family to the neighborhood, she'll be more careful with her calculator.

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