If you're one of the 44,000 property owners in the Town of Amherst, don't toss aside a letter from the town you'll be receiving as early as Saturday. It contains an important number - your new assessment.
And Town Assessor David C. Marrano has just one question for you: Does that number accurately reflect the price you could realistically sell your property for?
It's an important question, because it determines how much you pay in property taxes.
"The law's very clear," said Marrano. "You pay your fair share of the tax levy based on the market value of your property."
The town has embarked on its 2017 Assessment Equity Project, a townwide reassessment of properties, with the mailing Friday of preliminary notices. Every property is reviewed, from the smallest home to the largest commercial property.
The reassessment will result in some people's tax bills going up. But some owners' taxes will decrease, while others' will stay the same. The town's goal is to have one-third of property owners fall into each category after a reassessment.
Amherst last conducted a townwide reassessment in 2009, and they're recommended every four years. Some towns, including Aurora, Colden, Concord, Marilla, the Town of Tonawanda and West Seneca, had not done reassessments since the 1980s as of 2015, according to the state Department of Taxation and Finance.
Over time, the assessed value of a property can drift higher or lower than what a buyer is willing to pay for it, depending on the market. A reassessment seeks to correct that discrepancy.
"If we're not continually reviewing that, you have assessment inequity," Marrano said.
Marrano points to a home on Lake Ledge Drive that sold in January 2015 for $210,000, 21 percent less than the town's taxable market value of $267,034, which is based on the assessed value of $243,000 when the town's equalization rate is factored in.
"He's paying more than his fair share," Marrano said. "He's overpaying right now."
Conversely, some properties are under-assessed, based on recent sale prices in the red-hot Amherst housing market.
Abhi Chattopadhyay was recruited to the area with his family to work for M&T Bank. In February 2016, he began looking for a home in Williamsville. But low inventory in the family's price range of $230,000 to $330,000 meant list prices were rising and the competition involved up to 25 offers, said their agent, Ed Golach. Many offers exceeded the list prices.
"I have not seen a residential real estate market the likes of 2015 and 2016 in over 30 years," said Golach.
Chattopadhyay finally purchased a home in September in the town's Audubon section for $275,000, much more than what the town thought it was worth -- $214,900 based on its assessed value of $195,600.
"Overall, it was very frustrating, very tiring," Chattopadhyay, 34, said of his first home buying experience.
Now, he expects that overpaying will mean a higher assessment and thus, higher taxes.
"It would hurt me," he said. "It's a double whammy."
Taxable assessed values are a moving target, and an assessor is asked to maintain them over time so the burden of paying for municipal services is fairly distributed.
"If I were to focus on the moon at 9 p.m., it would be out of focus a minute later," said Golach. "It is also true for taxable assessment values. One day after receiving a new taxable assessment, changing economic and local conditions can change your values."
There are some misconceptions about reassessments, Marrano said. A reassessment does not raise more tax dollars. Only a School Board, Town Board or Village Board can do that by raising the tax levy.
"If there's a big pie that represents the tax levy for the village, the town or the school, my job is to put the right market value on your property so you get your fair share of the pie," said Marrano, who has also led reassessments in the Town of Lancaster and City of Tonawanda. "I don't control the size of the pie."
He points out that if the total taxable assessed value of all properties in the town increases but the tax levy is unchanged, even those property owners who see a small increase in their assessment could still see a decrease in their taxes.
Property owners unhappy with their new assessment can go through a process to challenge it. The first step is to schedule an appointment to attend an informal educational forum about the process by calling (866) 910-1776. Property owners can also call that number to schedule an assessment review.
Those who are still unhappy with their new assessment can go before the Board of Assessment Review on May 23 before the town's assessment roll is finalized July 1. More info is available on the town's website.
So, what is market value and how is it determined? Market value is the most probable sale price between a buyer and a seller in an open market, known as an "arm's length transaction." Factors that determine market value include housing style, affordability, neighborhoods and supply and demand.
Gary Kenline, senior vice president with HUNT Real Estate, said he expects homes in Amherst currently assessed at under $300,000 will see the biggest assessment increase because strong demand among buyers is driving up sale prices in that price category.
"Those will probably get a little higher of a push than the ones in the upper end," he said.
Marrano said the largest assessment increases on the town's residential side are mostly in Williamsville, Snyder and pockets of east and central Amherst - exactly where Chattopadhyay was looking.
The biggest increases on the commercial side went to apartment buildings in the town, and also on vacant land remaining in the town that's primed for development, Marrano said.
A townwide reassessment is complex, and not an inexpensive project. Amherst's reassessment is budgeted at $600,000, although the town hopes to receive up to $100,000 in state aid. Some of the work is done by town employees in the Assessor's Office, but the town also hired an outside consultant, GAR Associates.
For the town, "equity" is the key word in the project, said Marrano. But it's still sure to be the most controversial issue in Amherst during the first half of 2017.
"We want to make sure we're as fair as possible," he said. "We want to make sure that tax levy is fairly distributed. We tell people, 'Don't be fearful of the project.' The only question you should have is, 'Does this represent my market value?' We've done as good a job as possible, I think, to try and get there."