Oct. 30, 2006

Assessors appraise property value

By Roz Kohls
Staff Writer

Assessors appraise the value of property. They don’t raise taxes.

You’re not alone, though, if you thought assessors raised taxes. Many people think they do.

That’s why the part of Dale Engel’s job he likes the most is explaining the property appraisal process to people, he said.

Engel was a Wright County assessor up until his retirement Sept. 29. Engel and the other assessors who worked in the courthouse in Buffalo have looked at every property in the county within five years.

They make sure that the value they assigned to the property matches the value of properties just like it that were sold within the year or preceding year. It’s called a “fair market value,” Engel said from his home southeast of Howard Lake.

What happens to taxes after that is up to the Legislature or budgets adopted by the various levels of government.

About half the governmental units in Wright County have their own assessors. Engel and the county assessors are contracted to appraise the rest, he said.

After appraising property full-time for 15 years and part-time for two years as a township assessor, the task became easier and easier for him because much property is the same, especially in cities and housing developments, he said.

Some properties are unique, though, such as dome houses, angular buildings, or barns that have been remodeled into homes. Those are challenging because there’s nothing in which to compare them.

The constantly changing market also makes property appraisal difficult. The value of land in the county has been the biggest change. Engel recalled when a typical home in western Wright County was valued between $50,000 to $60,000. Now they are approaching $200,000.

“A half-million-dollar home doesn’t surprise me anymore,” Engel said.

The value of a 2.5-to-10-acre building site in Cokato and Stockholm townships has grown to $100,000, and to $250,000 in eastern Wright County he said.

Engel studied market prices constantly. If a property sold for significantly more than the value he assigned to it, he got in his car and drove from Buffalo to the property to look it over and figure out what changed, he said.

The value depends on size of home, style, quality and amenities, such as number of bathrooms, garages, air-conditioning and decks.

Oddly enough, the factor that makes a property jump in value the most is cleaning it up. Next biggest factors are fixing the roof, installing siding, painting and adding or replacing windows.

Moving walls and expanding rooms inside doesn’t have as much affect on the sale price as people often think, he said.

Occasionally Engel had to reassess property because of a disaster, such as when a tornado swept through Cokato in 1992. Engel is no stranger to disaster. The year before the tornado his own dairy barn burned down, he said.

However, it was still heartbreaking to see the tornado’s widespread damage. Engel remembered a woman who came up from her basement after the storm and found her home completely gone, he said.

Most of the residents of Cokato were able to go to the city offices and report their property damage themselves. The reassessments in the townships around Cokato were more difficult, though. Engel and the appraisers had to search for the properties damaged by the storm.

Six months to a year later, Cokato property values rebounded nicely, however. It turned out that new residents in town didn’t know about the many tall, stately trees that were destroyed, so they didn’t miss them, Engel said.

The farm economy also caused problems for agricultural land. A big portion of Engel’s job was to attend boards of review, where property owners appealed their property valuations. Engel remembers some Stockholm and Cokato township property owners who made some very good points about ag land values. Their lands weren’t producing as much as the valuations made it seem, Engel said.

Now that Engel and his wife, Bonnie, are both retired, he is going back into the dairy business, but in a small way. In addition to bowling and playing golf, he is tending to his herd of cattle, cleaning up the dairy farm across the road, and enjoying his family, he said.

His daughter, Jill Kittock of Howard Lake, lives nearby on Engel’s parents’ farm. Engel also has two sons. Jeff Engel lives in St. Anthony and Stephen Engel lives in Moundsview.

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