By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Still, Johnson says he wouldn't sell it for $287,000. The lot alone is worth most of that. Indeed, in May 2000, Johnson's neighbor's house--which is about a third larger--sold for $620,000, district records show. In a subsequent public fight over the historical propriety of his renovations, the owner, lobbyist David Dean, told reporters that the place was so dilapidated, it had pigeon droppings and rat urine staining the floors. Although Dean saw fit to pay $620,000 on the open market for such a fixer-upper--a fact known to the district--the district put him on the rolls this year and last for $495,000.
"That's a mistake," Mitchell says. "It should be on for 100 percent."
So what can the little guy do?
Perhaps there's something to learn from Ebby Halliday, grande dame of Dallas residential real estate sales. The tax appraisal of her Antebellum-style house on Preston Road didn't go up at all between 1996 and last year, when it was appraised at $425,300. Actually, it went down $10,630 over those years, a drop of 2 percent.
In that same period, according to Texas A&M University's real estate center, the price of an average home in the region increased 20 percent.
"It dropped because there was an appeal...a complaint about traffic and noise on Preston," says appraisal district spokeswoman Cheryl Jordan.
In other words, even a beautiful home on Preston can be devalued if a savvy owner presents the right information. (Like a lot of her neighbors who were flatlined for years, Halliday's valuation went up this year, to $504,000.) "I wasn't aware we'd made that complaint," says Halliday, who didn't personally make the appeal. "The traffic there has grown tremendously."
Armed with pictures of leaky gutters and crumbling foundations, or represented by retinues of tax accountants and lawyers, about 70,000 homeowners are appealing their appraisal hikes this year in hearings that are going until July 15.
District officials say they regularly hear from slumlords who bring in their code violation notices as proof their shabby rent houses should be taxed lower, and ordinary homeowners who can't believe the value of their lot doubled because speculators bid up one or two parcels down the block.
Ross Perot appealed his this year. Make that a team of tax experts from Deloitte and Touche appealed, and succeeded in knocking $2.7 million off the original $19.7 million appraisal. Kenny Troutt, whose buying spree has made him the district's most-taxed homeowner with $30 million worth of land, is appealing, too.
"This staff is told their job is to get the correct value, not the high, not the low," says Mitchell, adding that his staff is willing to listen to any appeal based on supportable facts.
"I'm the last person who'll let the rich person get away with something the little guy can't get away with," he says. "If we're missing, we are missing within the framework of the law...Without mandatory disclosure of sales prices, there's a problem in the framework. That's the story. I'm willing to take all the hits you might dish out if you'd only print that."