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Dummerston Select Board: Pandemic Prevents Accurate Appraisal

a sign informing residents of a townwide appraisal on a road
Howard Weiss-Tisman
A town-wide appraisal is underway in Dummerston, but the company doing the home inspections says COVID-19 is preventing staff from entering homes.

Vermont’s property tax system is dependent on strangers walking into your house. The only way for your town to know the true value of your home, and to see if you put in a skylight, or added a bathroom, is by doing an appraisal.

But in a pandemic, home inspections have become much more complicated.

Dummerston’s last town-wide appraisal was done about 10 years ago, and it went pretty well. More than 90% of the homeowners allowed inspectors into their houses.

“For our entire history, our town was, 'Come on in,'" said Dummerston Select Board member Terry Chapman at recent meeting. “Now, that was not a COVID time. But, you see what I’m saying? It was more, 'We’re a little welcoming town.'”

Chapman said so at a meeting the board received an update from the company hired to do a new appraisal. Dummerston is paying the New England Municipal Resource Center more than $90,000 to inspect all of the houses in town and come up with updated property values.

More from VPR: Towns Find Creative Ways To Keep The Lights On Despite Social Distancing

"I can tell ya, I think the days of doing interior inspections are coming to an end in Vermont. I'm following things around the country, and it's the same thing everywhere." — Ed Clodfelter, New England Municipal Resource Center

Every town in Vermont has to update its grand list every 10 years or so, because the state relies on property taxes to fund schools and local government.

Dummerston’s contract with the appraisers was signed last year, before COVID, when opening a door and letting in a stranger wasn’t considered a health hazard. The town expected that the appraisers would be going into homes, but senior appraiser Ed Clodfelter told the board that in these days, it’s not going to happen.

 “I can tell ya, I think the days of doing interior inspections are coming to an end in Vermont,” Clodfelter said. “I’m following things around the country, and it’s the same thing everywhere.”

He added the company doesn’t want appraisers walking into homes. And there’s a good chance that most of the people in Dummerston feel the same way.

So Clodfelter was trying to convince the select board that his staff could get enough information from just doing outside inspections. But the board was skeptical, and Dummerston Board of Civil Authority member Paul Normandeau wasn’t buying it.

“When all they’re doing is looking at square footage and their construction manuals, right away the process is flawed,” Normanseau said.

"When all they're doing is looking at square footage and their construction manuals, right away the process is flawed." — Paul Normandeau, Dummerston Board of Civil Authority member

Dummerston isn’t the only town that’s trying to finish an appraisal in the middle of a pandemic. Property valuation and review director Jill Remick with the Vermont Department of Taxes said about 20 towns are in the same boat.

Ludlow just finished its home visits, and the town stopped going inside when COVID hit. Wilmington and Waterford are now figuring out their strategies of carrying out an appraisal.

Remick says the towns have to figure out a way to protect everyone’s safety and health, while coming up with accurate property values.

“Yeah, I mean I would say everything related to COVID is not ideal,” said Remick. “But I think given the circumstances, I think they’re doing the best that they can, and I don’t think that there are any alternatives to using what they’ve got.”

On mobile? Click here to see the map of Vermont towns undergoing appraisals as of Aug. 12, 2020.

Before the pandemic, homeowners had to let inspectors into the house if the property owner wanted to appeal an updated value. The Legislature changed that in response to the pandemic, and appeals can now take place without a visit.

Still, Remick says there’s a lot riding on maintaining accurate property values on the grand list. If values are off, some people pay too much, while others too little, and towns can pay penalties on their school tax bill when the numbers are outdated.

When those numbers get so far out of whack on a town-wide basis, then the state can order an appraisal.

And as COVID refugees snap up Vermont properties to escape the more crowded urban and suburban communities to the south, Remick says it will be a challenge to maintain accurate home values.

“You know you read a lot about folks from out of state buying property here,” Remick said. “Is that really coming to fruition? Is that concentrated in certain areas? So I think it’s worth, you know, keeping an eye in the next six months or so and seeing what happens to Vermont property values.”

More from VPR: The New 'Beckoning Country'? City Buyers Eye Vermont Property As COVID Sanctuary

"You read a lot about folks from out of state buying property here... So I think it's worth, you know, keeping an eye in the next six months or so and seeing what happens to Vermont property values." — Jill Remick, Vermont Department of Taxes

Back in Dummerston, the select board is considering calling off the appraisal. The appraisers have already started their work, and so the board thinks the whole study will be skewed if the appraisers can't do inside inspections.

At a recent meeting, board member Terry Chapman sparred with the company rep at the end of his presentation.

“What we’re really looking for is the most equitable, so that we don’t have one house that is paying more taxes than needed,” Chapman said. “We’re looking to make sure that all of our town residents are on at least as close to a level playing field with their taxes as possible. It will never be 100%.”

“It will not,” Clodfelter said. “And my whole point is, it's gonna be less and less as time goes by. We’ll go into 90% of the places if people let us go in. I don’t think it’s going to happen. I just don’t think it’s going to happen.”

The Dummerston Select Board is now trying to convince the appraisal company to delay its work until they can once again go inside.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

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Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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