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Damon Druse takes notes during a recent home inspection.
Damon Druse knows just about every address in the city of Minot by heart. He’s probably visited most of the addresses for his job as the assistant city assessor for the City of Minot.
On a morning in late June, Druse is welcomed into three homes in southeast Minot where he has appointments for inspections. He identifies himself, and explains the assessment process to the homeowner. After being given permission to walk through the home, Druse takes laser measurements of the physical size of the homes inside and out, and compiles notes on the attributes of the home.
“We’ll verify the basic information – how many bedrooms, how many bathrooms, unfinished or finished basement, those kinds of things,” Druse said. “We’ll check the condition of things like siding, roofing, etc. We’ll also look at the overall quality and condition of the home and of any adjustments that have been made.”
Before he leaves the site, Druse asks the homeowner if he can answer any questions for them. One asks about the housing market in that area of the city. Another asks Druse about the appraised value of her home for the past three years. Druse shares that information, which is listed on the paperwork he carries with him, with the homeowner.
Once he’s gathered all the information, which he updates on a printed-out sheet with detailed information about the home and information from the last time the home was physically inspected, he thanks the homeowners, and makes sure they have his contact information if they have questions.
But Druse’s job is far from done.
“I think half our job is on site and the other half is in the office sorting through details,” said City Assessor Kevin Ternes. “Damon brings back that information and keys that into our appraisal model software. For existing homes, he’ll double check measurements, load a new exterior photo, go through line items like how many bathrooms, bedrooms, is the basement finished, etc. The biggest decision he’ll make is what is the overall quality and condition of the home. Those two things really drive our model.”
Ternes said the software will then generate a value, which is calibrated with depreciation tables every year.
“Once we get that initial value, we’ll decide if that’s reasonable by comparing it to sales of similar homes in the area. If there’s an outlier, then we’ll dig deeper into the information to see why, and make adjustments accordingly if necessary,” Ternes said. “As part of our job, we’re expected to put a value on all 13,000 homes in Minot by Feb. 1 every year.”
Home valuations in Minot have dipped in recent years, but have leveled off the past two years. The assessor’s office can often be caught in a no-win situation: Homeowners want their assessed value to be reduced so their property taxes are lower, but homeowners also want their assessed value to be higher if they’re trying to sell their home.
“Most everyone understands how the process works, and if not, that’s part of the reason we do these inspections,” Druse said. “But not everyone’s going to be satisfied with their assessment.”
Druse said the City assesses everything yearly, although there certainly isn’t enough staff to do yearly inspections of every property in Minot.
“We want to physically inspect each property every eight to 10 years,” Druse said. “We have divided the city into numerous sections, and we rotate through those sections.”
During the first part of May, the City generates lists of properties to be inspected that year. Druse and others in his office will take new exterior photos of those properties, which could be between 1,500 and 2,000 photos.
“We send a letter to every homeowner on that list, asking them to call us and set up an appointment. Some do, some don’t,” Druse said. “Some people just do not want us in their home, and we respect that. But we’re just trying to do our job the best we can, and the more homes we can get into the more accurate our information is going to be.”
Druse said his office has divided the city into between 30 and 40 different zones to help track home sales. If homes in a particular zone are selling for higher than normal, the assessor’s office compiles that data throughout the year to help make any needed adjustments.
“At the end of the year, we’re statisticians,” Ternes said. “We’re gathering information on all the sales in Minot, sorting them, studying them internally for a month or so. We do a statistical analysis of all the information we’re gathered throughout the year.”
Ternes said the state plays an oversight role to ensure cities and counties are assessing property at market value every year.
“The state gathers all the property sales in North Dakota and they do their own study. At the end of the year, they’ll say the assessor’s office in Minot is at 94% of market, so Minot is OK,” he said. “But if any city or county isn’t between 90% and 100% of market value, then the State Board of Equalization has the authority to make adjustments to get to that level.”
“It’s not something we just make up. We have to follow the state’s guidelines,” Ternes added.
Ternes said there are often misconceptions about the role his office plays.
“I think over the years it’s gotten better as we try to educate people in the field, but I would say there are two things: First, some people don’t quite understand that the assessment is supposed to resemble market value. They think it should be lower, and we tell them that we have to follow the state’s guidelines,” he said. “And two, I think the biggest misconception is that if the assessor comes out and walks through my home my taxes will go up. That’s not necessarily true. Sometimes we walk through a home and their value gets lower, because it was in above average condition 10 years ago when we last inspected it, but they haven’t done anything new so their home is now in average condition, and that means their assessment could go down.”
Both Druse and Ternes said their job is to gather the most accurate information possible, and reduce the number of properties that receive an estimated assessment based on a view from only the outside of the home.
“We’re trying to avoid homes being over assessed, and the best way for us to do that is to physically inspect as many homes as possible,” Ternes said. “If we can’t walk through your home, then we’re simply estimating from the outside, and that’s not going to give us or the homeowner an accurate assessment.”