Swings in median home values problematic for municipalities
By Brian C. Rittmeyer
Published: Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014, 12:51 a.m.
Rhoda Gemallas-Worf sees Verona as an improving community.
Borough life includes movies and concerts in the park, a farmers market and an active historical society.
“We have really generated new ideas for family participation. We're very family-oriented,” said Gemallas-Worf, who was raised in Verona and is in her fifth year on borough council. “I consider Verona a diamond in the rough.”
But that shine isn't reflected in the borough's home values.
Of the 20 municipalities in the Alle-Kiski Valley portion of Allegheny County, Verona was the only one to have its median assessed home values decline in the county's 2012 property reassessment.
The median assessed value of residential properties dropped 7 percent in Verona to $51,700, according to the Allegheny County Office of Property Assessments.
“It's disappointing because it reflects our town,” Gemallas-Worf said. “I feel the assessments have hurt us.”
At the other end is Frazer, where the median home value rose by 47 percent — the biggest jump in the area — to $112,950.
But Frazer Supervisor Lori Ziencik isn't happy, either. She worries the rising values could price people out of the community.
“It is really mind-boggling,” Ziencik said.
The median is the property value in the middle — half are higher, and half are lower. It differs from an average, which can be pulled higher or lower by extremes.
Overall, the total assessed value of residential properties with homes in the 20 municipalities rose by about 20 percent, from $5.1 billion to $6.1 billion, according to the Office of Property Assessments.
The most expensive homes are in Fox Chapel, where the median assessed value rose 17 percent to top a half-million dollars.
The lowest are in Tarentum, where the median is $44,400.
Six of the communities previously had values that were more than $100,000 — Aspinwall, Fox Chapel, Indiana, O'Hara, Oakmont and West Deer.
Now, half are over that threshold, with those six joined by Frazer, Cheswick, Harmar and Plum.
Higher value: Pros, cons
The higher assessments in Allegheny County are a consideration for Mike Verbanic, who is in the market as a first-time homebuyer with his wife, Sheila.
Verbanic, 26, rents in Lower Burrell and is considering homes there and in his wife's hometown of Plum.
He says he can't afford to look in his hometown of Hampton, where the median assessed home value rose from $141,700 to $176,750.
Verbanic said lower taxes would be the main reason for staying in Westmoreland County.
“We'd like to go to Allegheny County,” he said. But, “In Lower Burrell, we can afford more house because the taxes are less.”
Vickie Roolf said home values in Cheswick — which rose 22 percent — are probably fair. The borough is built-out and has a lot of older homes, bolstered by newer and larger homes in the Stoneybrook area, she said.
“I, myself, live in a home built in 1904. I wouldn't trade this house for a million other houses. They don't build them like this anymore,” said Roolf, a borough councilwoman. “The majority of homes here are well taken care of. People take pride in their homes in Cheswick.”
Ziencik worries that the presence of the Pittsburgh Mills mall has unfairly increased Frazer's home values. Most homeowners who have appealed their assessments have lost, meaning the higher values are sticking.
“We have a lot of senior citizens,” she said. “How can they continue to afford the school tax when the assessed value has increased so much?”
Ziencik doesn't think the shopping mall should be a factor.
“It's on the southern tip of the township. It really does not affect three-fourths of our residents and it should not affect our home values,” she said.
Flawed, or not?
At first glance, such a dramatic increase in home values could be a sign of flaws with the county's reassessment, said Dan Murrer, vice president of RealStats, a real estate information company in Pittsburgh's South Side.
But the increase could be justified when sale prices are considered.
In Frazer, the median home sales price in 2013 was $115,000, slightly higher than the new median assessed value. The median home price is up nearly 150 percent from 1988, when it was $46,450, according to RealStats.
“Yes, 47 percent sounds like a big number,” Murrer said. “The reality is: You're now assessed fairly.”
The increases are not a reflection of a change in values from just one year to the next, but since the county's last reassessment, which was in 2002, said Eric Montari, senior policy analyst at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, a Castle Shannon policy group.
More frequent reassessments could take the “sticker shock” out of the process, he said. But county officials resisted the reassessment, which was delayed and happened only because of a court order.
Verona's Gemallas-Worf said there should have been local input in the reassessment, and faulted the county for hiring an out-of-state company — Tyler Technologies of Plano, Texas — to do it.
“I know my town. I'm more familiar with my town than someone from Texas,” she said. “I think that would have been a more fair approach.”
A representative of Tyler Technologies referred questions back to Allegheny County.
The reassessment was ordered by the court, and started under the previous county administration.
“No one really embraced it in terms of the process,” said Jerry Tyskiewicz, director of administrative services for Allegheny County. “Judge (R. Stanton) Wettick ordered the process. He ultimately signed off on it. We assumed he's happy with the process.”
Mill towns lag
Compared with the rest of Allegheny County, property values in much of the Route 28 corridor have suffered during the last 25 years, Murrer said.
While other areas have benefitted from proximity and ease of access to downtown Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh International Airport, the northeast area stands in stark contrast. “You've got the snarl of Route 28,” Murrer said. “For anybody who lives up there, it's a nightmare for them to commute to work each day. The state is working to change that.”
Municipalities with the lowest values — Tarentum, Verona, Sharpsburg, Brackenridge and East Deer — are all riverfront steel towns with declining and aging populations, Tarentum Borough Manager Bill Rossey said.
While Tarentum's median value rose 8 percent, it was the lowest at $44,400.
Despite that, Tarentum “absolutely” could be a good place to buy a home, Rossey said.
“We take care of the people that live here, and that's the important thing,” he said.
Rossey called the borough's Riverview Memorial Park the nicest along the river in the county; the borough has a water spray park, historical museum and a good business district.
“I think Tarentum is a great town. You can get a great value here,” he said. “We have a lot to offer. Our business district is doing really well. We've completed a downtown streetscape project.
“I think when people come here, there's a lot for us to offer them.”
The borough's access to Pittsburgh is improving, he said.
“I can be down to the North Side in 20 minutes,” Rossey said.
Owners vs. renters
The number of owner-occupied homes versus rentals can affect values.
In Verona and Sharpsburg, renters outnumber homeowners, according to the 2010 Census.
The split is nearly equal in Tarentum, but homeowners outnumber renters in neighboring Brackenridge and East Deer.
About 85 percent of homes are owner-occupied in Cheswick; in Verona, just less than half are.
It can be a compounding problem, with lower values attracting out-of-town investors who buy homes and convert them into apartments, Gemallas-Worf said.
“I have no problems with rentals,” she said.
“They need to be kept up to code. We have a wonderful code enforcement program. We are diligently working to get these out of town landlords in compliance.
“It's a challenge, it really is.”
Gemallas-Worf said there are many nice homes in Verona.
“We have a quaint little town. It's safe and clean. Our business district has improved,” she said.
“We have a good police force. We have a wonderful (Riverview) school system. More residents have become more conscientious with their properties.
“We're moving in the right direction. Everything takes time.”
Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or email@example.com.
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