Real estate appraisal might seem like a straightforward job, but tell that to the intrepid men and women who encounter all manner of wildlife and wild humans in the course of reassessing properties for cities and counties across Virginia.
Gary Eanes of Wampler-Eanes Appraisal Group, Ltd., has been in the business for 40 years. Tops on the list of job-related hazards are dogs chasing and attempting to bite appraisers attempting to do their jobs. He knows appraisers who have run into bears and rattlesnakes while trying to get a good look at a house or barn.
And then there was the goat. He said one appraiser left her car door open while she was checking out a property and returned to find a goat sitting behind the wheel. Another time, his business partner, Steven Wampler, was counting rafters at a dairy farm when he fell in a slurry pit and nearly drowned.
On occasion, Eanes said appraisers have had guns pulled on them by nervous residents. These folks calmed down once they found out the purpose of the visit, he added.
Undaunted by the challenges he and his colleagues face, Eanes and his staff are currently making sure all 20,470 properties in Orange County are assessed and properly recorded in the county’s new software system. The massive project takes more than a year and requires a reassessment of every single property, taxed and tax-exempt alike. The number of parcels fluctuates over time, since some parcels may be subdivided or consolidated.
Orange County currently conducts the reassessment every four years. The county uses the information as the basis for the real estate tax, which has been 80.4 cents per $100 assessed value since 2014, according to Orange County Commissioner of Revenue Renee Pope.
Real estate taxes go up and down with the real estate market, she explained. “The higher the value, the lower the tax rate.”
Pope’s records show that in 2002 the rate was 42 cents per $100 assessed value. In 2012, it was 72 cents.
Pope said the county has never had an in-house assessor, because hiring a contractor to do the job every four years is more cost-effective. According to Eanes, the company’s current contract with the county is for $325,000. That includes assessments of new construction built before the next reassessment period begins.
In contrast, he said, the city of Salem, Va., has its own appraisal office handling a yearly reassessment; the annual cost is $500,000. He said “there is a savings” for municipalities that farm out the work since otherwise, they would have to hire appraisal staff members, pay them benefits and provide them with vehicles.
The Orange County Board of Supervisors forbids assessors from going on properties with “no trespassing” signs posted, but Eanes’ office manager, Amanda Long, said some municipalities insist appraisers visit every single parcel.
“They’ll climb a locked gate if the county tells them to,” Long said. “It’s scary. You don’t know what’s on the other side.”
In Orange County, properties with “no trespassing” signs are still subject to reassessment. Pope said appraisers base reassessments on information gathered in the past and sales information of nearby properties.
Eanes, whose company is based in Daleville, said he has a deadline of December 31 in Orange County.
He said assessors working for Wampler-Eanes wear identification badges and have identification signs on their vehicles. They also are supposed to introduce themselves to residents before doing their work. If no one is home, they will conduct their business and leave a slip saying the property has been reassessed.
He said the process may take around 10 minutes for a townhome, but large farms and estates with many outbuildings—think James Madison’s Montpelier—require much more time.
The assessor photographs each structure on a property and checks to see how the exterior compares to previous pictures on file. Roofs always get scrutinized. If possible, the assessor then verifies basic information, such as the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, with the property owner. Sales of properties in the area also provide valuable reassessment data.
Changes are entered into a tablet computer, and all the information goes into the central system once the assessors return to their headquarters. In Orange, the reassessment office is located in the rear lower level of the Department of Community Development office at 128 W. Main Street.
Pope said it’s important for property owners to inform her office of any changes to their properties, whether they are improvements or damages, “so we can adjust their value.”
She said that in her 23 years of working in the revenue office, she has never had any issues with county residents trying to manipulate the value of their properties.
Eanes said he and his team of assessors enjoy the “challenge” that Orange County presents. By the end of the year, they will have reassessed every lakeside home at Lake of the Woods, every sprawling farm in Somerset—and every parcel in between.
“It’s a rural county, but you have all kinds of different properties here,” Eanes said. “We love working in this county.”