Watchdog, I’m preparing for my protest at the appraisal district in the coming weeks. I want to use comparable sales prices in my neighborhood but can’t find them. Do you have any idea why there seems to be no sales price listed publicly on properties, and why it appears that the appraisal district has access to those prices and I don’t?

Oh, man. You struck a nerve. When I rant that the Texas property tax system is rigged against us little people, this is one of the easiest ways to show it. Texas is one of about a dozen states that don’t require the final sales price on a home or commercial property to get listed publicly.

Really? That explains why I couldn’t find my neighbors’ comparable sales prices.

Yes, they call those “comps” — and with these neighborhood sales prices, it’s often easier to show that the appraised value that you’re being taxed on is out of whack when compared with homes that sold recently nearby. Right now thousands of property owners are doing what you’re doing: trying to figure out how to convince your appraisal district that the taxable value of your property is too high.

Watchdog, last year at my hearing my appraisal district knew the sales price of my new home, which meant my value jumped. I didn’t tell them. If it’s not public, how do they know?

They have their mysterious ways, and they’re not always happy to tell you. When I put that question to the Dallas Central Appraisal District this week, spokeswoman Cheryl Jordan answered: “We get our sales from a myriad of sources for which we are not at liberty to disclose.”

Hmm. Why the mystery?

Your guess is as good as mine. There is a way for you to get the numbers you need, and I’ll show you that in a moment. But first I want to answer your original question: Why are sales prices not disclosed?

Answer: It’s against the law in Texas. The given reason, as explained to me by Tray Bates, vice president of governmental affairs for Texas Realtors, the state association, is privacy. “We typically are not interested in compelling disclosure of private databases to governmental entities. Most Texans really appreciate their privacy.”

Now, I don’t buy that. Appraisal districts get the information, and we don’t? It’s more than privacy.

You’re right on. It’s about who controls what information in this unfair taxing system. District appraisers make a best-effort guess about what they believe a property is worth without ever going inside.

How do you change the law?

You get the Realtors association to back down on its opposition. Realtors have a lot of power in the Texas Capitol because they are in every community, and their association is known for making lots of campaign donations to state lawmakers.

Watchdog, can we fight the Realtors and make sales prices public?

Let’s try. The only way to win without matching their donations dollar for dollar is, I guess, to embarrass them in the coming 2021 state Legislature.

Watchdog, you’re good at that. Can you give them one of your funny nicknames?

How about real-price-tors instead of Realtors?

Uh, it’s a start. Another question: A friend in Austin told me that the Travis Central Appraisal District froze many, many residential taxable values back at 2019 levels, so those owners’ taxable values didn’t go up this year. Is that true? And if so, how come we didn’t get that in North Texas, where many values did go up, sometimes by a lot? That sure would have helped in these economic times.

They did freeze in Travis but not because of tough economic times. The appraisal district down there did it because it’s at war with the Austin Board of Realtors over this very issue of private sales prices.

See, the district has always wanted access to the Multiple Listing Service sales prices owned by Realtors. But the Realtors wouldn’t let them have it, they say, for privacy reasons. The district got access to the MLS database anyway.

How?

The district hired a middleman company to buy it, and that company gave it to the district. Realtors were irate and ordered the district to delete all the information showing final sales prices. They’re still fighting over this. Travis’ appraisal district contends that it couldn’t do proper appraisals this year because, in part, it lost access to the MLS.

Why does this matter to me?

It shows the ridiculousness of the entire system. In Travis, they don’t want the appraisers to know the final sales prices. But elsewhere, say in the Collin Central Appraisal District, the MLS is purchased and used. Collin Realtors don’t mind. But in the Dallas district, MLS is not used. So you see, it’s all over the place. No standardization. Very unfair.

Again, this matters to me how?

The lack of transparency favors commercial and industrial property owners because, when sales figures are mostly kept secret, it can help them avoid paying a larger and fairer share of the tax burden. Real estate experts say that business properties worth millions of dollars can have a much lower taxable value that doesn’t reflect market reality. And studies have shown this means a loss of billions in tax revenue. So the tax burden falls more on residential owners. This also hurts homebuyers who pay top price for a property. If the appraisal district finds out, their taxes are usually higher.

What other ways do appraisal districts find final prices?

When you buy a property, the title company may stick in that thick stack of documents you sign one called “Consent to Share Buyer Closing Information.” You don’t have to sign it.

Aren’t sales price records available at the county courthouse?

Not sales price. The amount of a mortgage is listed in a deed, and that’s public. But you can’t figure sales price from it because you don’t know the down payment.

Watchdog, you promised to share a work-around to get comps.

There are a couple of ways. The first is your appraisal district’s review board that runs your hearing is supposed to supply you with comps that they’ll use in your hearing. Sometimes, it’s not easy to get them. And I’m suspicious enough that I believe it’s possible they’ll show the comps that help them and possibly leave out those that help me.

What’s the other way?

You can ask any Realtor to dig into your county MLS and send you the comps from your area. I’ve never heard of a Realtor who says no to this request, even from strangers.

How much does this cost? It’s free. It’s a way for a Realtor to develop a relationship with you, and maybe you’ll hire them down the road. This is the best way to compile evidence if you’re using the comps argument in your protest. Good luck and go get ’em!

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