Useless Protest

Homeowners find the rules can change from county to county

If you're a homeowner who has seen the assessment on your house rise a significant amount, you usually protest it.

You might bring evidence to your hearing like the fact that a ton of homes in your neighborhood are in foreclosure. Surely that would have some effect on your assessment, right?

Most everyone expected a tough year for the Astros this season, but the past few weeks have been brutal. Who are these guys? Click here to find out.
Most everyone expected a tough year for the Astros this season, but the past few weeks have been brutal. Who are these guys? Click here to find out.

Not in Fort Bend County.

Homeowners in that suburban enclave are told bluntly that such matters as foreclosures, or how long other homes stay on the market before selling, will not be taken into account when determining a property's value.

It's state law, says Glen Whitehead, the county's chief appraiser.

"You have to use an arms-length transaction, part of which is having a willing seller and a willing buyer both trying to maximize their gain," he says. "With a foreclosure, that's not an arms-length ­transaction."

And using such factors as how long similar homes stay on the market would take too many resources, he says. Not to mention that some homes don't sell at first because the owners are asking too much.

On the other hand...Harris County takes both foreclosures and "market-time" into account when a home­owner presents such evidence, says Guy Griscom, the county's assistant chief appraiser.

"We definitely do," he says. "When the preponderance of sales in a particular neighborhood are all foreclosures and that is the market, then we do take it into consideration."

Apparently "state law" has some wriggle room.

"We've always fought the state, for many years, trying to get foreclosures included," says Fort Bend's Whitehead. "And I remember days when that was all there was. I remember fighting Mr. Robinson on that because he was at the state at the time."

"Mr. Robinson" is Jim Robinson, now Harris County's chief appraiser.

"I guess it depends on what side of the fence you're on," Whitehead says. "Harris County's got some unique things they do."

Griscom notes, by the way, that Harris County lowered values on more than 123,000 properties this year.

"That's more than we've done since the late '80s, early '90s, because we did have the foreclosures becoming the market in some select neighborhoods," he says.

We're not sure how "select" those neighborhoods are if foreclosures are the main market driver, but Griscom says they mostly involve neighborhoods of homes in the $85,000-$100,000 price range.

We suppose those property owners should just be happy they're not in Fort Bend when it comes to tax-protest time.

Continuing Adventures in Customer Service

Eager as always to jump into the 21st century, even a few years late, we signed up for automatic bill pay with Reliant Energy.

Simplicity itself: Every month you'd get an e-mail saying what your bill is and Reliant would charge that amount to your credit card.

We got the first e-mail two months ago; a few weeks later we received a disconnection notice and had to pay up immediately by phone.

So when we received the latest e-mail we called Reliant customer service. We told the representative what the e-mail said: "Your Reliant Energy bill is now available; since you are signed up for automatic bill pay, no action is required on your part."

We asked if that meant no action is required on our part; when we somehow heard "no, you still have to mail a check" we started the recorder.

Reliant Rep: As far as that part, it's most likely meaning that you don't have to worry about taking any further action meaning in your request for automatic bill pay again, or anything like that, because it's currently processing.

ME: All right. I don't want to get argumentative, but "...since you signed up for automatic bill pay, no action is required on your part" — does that not say, in simple English, that I don't have to do anything and the bill will take care of itself?

RR: No sir, that's not what it's meaning. Honestly, I'm looking at your account and it's not showing that you're on recurring payment.

ME: And I'm looking at an e-mail that says the bill is there, but I am signed up for automatic bill pay so no action is required. That seems to me to be pretty clear...What does "no action is required on your part" mean? How can that mean "You still have to [take some action to] pay your bill"? "No action" pretty clearly means "no action," right?

RR: No. Well, it — maybe I'm understanding it a different way than you are, because when I hear it it basically means that "I don't have to do anything else as far as sending in another request [for automatic bill pay] or anything like that...

ME: But doesn't it say "since you are signed up for automatic"? It doesn't say anything about "We're still processing your request"...

[Back and forth continues. Signing up for automatic bill pay can "take one or two bill cycles," I'm informed.]

ME AGAIN: All right. But I assume that I will get an e-mail when it does go into effect, right?

RR: Mmmmm. Possibly. Unfortunately, I don't know that part, sir.

ME: [Utterly defeated] All right.

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