In Palm Beach County, buyers who find fire-sale bargains at foreclosed-home auctions picking up, say, $400,000 houses for $100,000 or less are realizing they're required in many cases to pay the same property taxes if the homes were still valued at $400,000.
In Miami-Dade County, to the south, where 1 in 4 homeowners is 30 days or more behind in his or her mortgage payments, residents are bracing for what Mayor Carlos Alvarez says could be an imminent property-tax hike to fill an almost $400 million budget hole a move that veteran Miami realtors like Alex Shay insist would set recovery back. "It's out of line," says Shay, who recently took Alvarez to task on his Miami Real Estate blog. "A lot of people here are barely holding on to their properties, using credit-card advances to pay escrow, and the county wants them to take another hit?" (See TIME's photo-essay "Miami: Paradise Lost?")
Welcome to Florida, the land of no income taxes and killer property taxes. Whether it's a nightmare for someone who just purchased a Florida foreclosure or a tax hike that proves the last straw for some struggling homeowner, it's bad news for the individual, and increasingly for the state. It's also a painful reminder of the halcyon days when Florida's economy could lazily rely on soaring real estate prices and related taxes to pour ever more money into government coffers. Now local governments say they're broke, thanks to the housing bust, and many are trying to maintain the lofty property-tax rates levied during the housing boom or even increase them even though that could exacerbate the housing bust.
Truth is, a dysfunctional property-tax system has been haunting Florida, if not many other states, far longer than the recession has. Over the past generation, Florida's explosive but fecklessly managed growth drove up real estate values, and therefore property taxes, beyond the reach of more and more families. In the 1990s the state adopted a "homestead" measure which, when homeowners become eligible for it, caps their assessed property-value increases at 3% a year (part-time residents don't qualify). But when houses are sold, a far higher base assessment usually applies, creating absurd situations in which neighbors with similar properties pay wildly disparate taxes. And during the boom, in expensive markets like South Florida, homeowners who had yet to qualify for the cap often saw their property levies double in just a few years a big reason half of all South Floridians in a 2007 Zogby International poll said they were considering moving
out of the state. (See pictures of Americans in their homes.)
But lately the situation has gone from bad to, well, perverse. "One of the frustrating paradoxes of the recession is falling real estate markets and rising property taxes," says Kurt Wenner, research director at Florida Tax Watch in Tallahassee. A 2008 state reform, as well as another scheduled to go into effect next year, has reduced some of Florida's property-tax burden by making the cap more generous and accessible to more residents. But because of arcane provisions in the homestead law, government appraisers can tell a homeowner that although his house's current market value may be as depressed as a Florida sinkhole, its taxable value is still high or rising. More important, many of the state's county and local governments are raising their millage rate (the rate per $1,000 of assessed value that determines the property-tax bill) to make up for budget shortfalls.
One element of confusion, if not contention, is the tax bill due on dramatically discounted homes bought at foreclosure auctions. Those purchases, which represent about 40% of new home purchases in Florida now, are driving any home-sale revival the U.S. is seeing (even if they also help drive down surrounding home prices). But in many if not most cases, people buying foreclosed homes have budgets "that can afford the taxes on a $100,000 house but not necessarily a $400,000 house," notes Brian Paul, CEO of the Realtors Association of the Palm Beaches. Of course, Palm Beach County executives take a different view. "Introducing foreclosure into the [property appraisal] equation may be an interesting idea," says John Thomas, director of residential appraisal at the Palm Beach County Appraiser's Office, but "people should remember that property assessments are made based on the surrounding neighborhood more than a specific house."
Of course, homeowners can appeal to their county's value-adjustment boards to negotiate lower assessments. And real estate experts like Paul say onerous tax bills aren't proving too large a hindrance to foreclosed-home purchases. The bigger concern is that during the boom, many local governments spent their revenue windfalls like sailors, which makes taxpayers less sympathetic to their budget whining. Mayor Alvarez insisted this month that "it's almost impossible that we can achieve an acceptable budget" without a property-tax increase. But because Miami-Dade residents saw so much official profligacy during the housing bubble county commissioners were famous for having cops chauffeur them around town, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in police overtime Alvarez's suggestion is being met instead by calls to further streamline the county's bloated bureaucracy.