Tax Assessors Go Airborne

drone_tax_assessmentIt’s a plane! It’s a drone! It’s…..the property tax assessor? That’s right, as local governments start to look under the couch cushions for loose change, they have found a more high-tech and lucrative way to garner more tax revenue: use airplanes and high resolution aerial photos to detect property improvements. This method allows them to see improvements such as home additions, extensions, new garages and swimming pools that drive-by inspections could not observe before. They are also more likely to catch those giving false information on their tax assessment forms.

Local governments in the U.S. are now joining other international governments in using aerial and satellite imagery to find more taxable wealth. Already back in 2010 the Greek government was using Google Earth to find unreported swimming pools; they found in the suburbs there were not 324 pools as reported, but actually almost 17,000! The Irish Tax Commissioners also followed suit. Then in 2013, The Daily Mail reported that Officials at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs were using Google Earth and Google Streetview to find fancy cars, home additions and new construction in the UK to try to decide whether to investigate homeowners they suspected of paying too little tax. They even reported that tax officials would add extra details to their searches such as people bragging on Facebook about a new car or exotic vacation. The Long Island community of Riverhead also used Google Earth to find pools that were constructed without filling out the proper paperwork or paying the permit fees, bringing the town over $75,000 in fees.

It shouldn’t be surprising that even governments will eventually adopt the latest technology if it means more revenue for them. What is interesting is how these stories illustrate an embedded disadvantage to holding wealth in the form of real estate. Real estate, unlike other assets such as precious metals, almost always carry a real estate tax which is usually assessed annually based on its estimated value. So even if you fully own a piece of property or land, there will still be an annual cost to holding it. Further, if the perceived value of the land goes up, the tax will likely go up as well. Precious metals, held outright, do not have such a tax. Currently the only possible tax would be on the gain realized after selling it; but at least as the value of the metal appreciates, there is no annual tax also increasing.

The other variable with real estate is how the real estate tax or anticipated real estate tax can affect the property’s value. If it is believed real estate taxes are expected to increase significantly in an area, the value of the property will likely decline compared to other areas where the real estate tax is not expected to be as high. An interesting example of this we may see in the coming years could be in Chicago which has expected pension payments to spike in 2016. It is estimated that to fully fund these pension payments, Chicago would have to increase homeowner property taxes by approximately 50%! This isn’t to say real estate will not remain a good option for holding wealth, but it is important to note some of the advantages and disadvantages of location and other factors when comparing alternatives.

Chris Kuiper, CFA is currently a student and researcher at George Mason University pursuing a Master’s of Economics. His previous experience includes asset management, investing and banking.

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