PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – It’s the biggest house in the region – 33,000 square feet, 34 rooms, 12 bedrooms, 22 fireplaces — not to mention the Roman villa swimming pool, the terraced gardens, the tennis court and the full basketball court.
Estimates say it cost about $20 million to build. During the countywide reassessment three years ago, it was assessed at $9.5 million. So, how did owner Joe Nocito manage to get that assessment reduced to $4.2 million – a value real estate experts say is ridiculously low.
Nocito lost his appeal at the Property Appeals Board and that’s where the process ends for most folks.
“They think it’s a one-step process, but he insiders know it’s a two-step process. And that’s where the rubber meets the road. That’s where you get the huge reductions,” realtor and former county assessment director Mike Suley said.
Nocito appealed his assessment to the Board of Viewers — a little-known panel of lawyers and lay people and part of the court system — who reduced it to the $4.2 million.
He’s not the only wealthy property owner to find those kinds of reductions there either.
A Fox Chapel mansion sits on 31 acres, has five bedrooms, seven full baths and a four-car garage. It was assessed at $6.5 million, but the Board of Viewers reduced it to $2 million – a reduction of $4.5 million.
Another house in Pine, which has four bedrooms and five full baths, was assessed at $2,861,900. The Board of Viewers cut that assessment in half to $1.4 million.
KDKA-TV’s Andy Sheehan found that over the past three years, the Board of Viewers substantially cut the assessments of thousands of commercial and residential property owners by an average of 21 percent per property.
Property owners, often accompanied by lawyers and appraisers, enter a room, negotiate a new assessment and leave happy.
But, is it fair to the rest of us? Suley says it’s an insiders’ game.
“Most people trust government and don’t file the appeal. But, people in the know who can afford the appraisers, can afford the lawyers are getting these reductions,” Suley said.
The chief administrator of the board declined to appear on camera, but denies that appealing the board is an option reserved for the rich.
Michelle Lally says property owners from all income levels appeal and generally do not have a lawyers or appraiser with them. She says the $100 filing fee should not put the board out of anyone’s reach.
“We have people of extremely modest means come before us and they’ll be just as persuasive as those with professionals. No one need be intimidated. We try to be very user friendly,” Lally said.
But, it’s more likely that people of means will use the two-step appeal than people without and the reductions are more dramatic.
A nine-bedroom house on Beechwood Boulevard in Squirrel Hill had an assessment of $3,503,800, but it was slashed to $2,400,000 – or a reduction of $1,103,800
The owner of another mansion in Fox Chapel took his $3,503,800 assessment to the Board of Viewers and saw it reduced to $2,400,000 – another $1,103,800 reduction.
Suley notes that these reduction will be locked in until the next reassessment, which is nowhere in the foreseeable future.
“One person’s tax break is another person’s tax. That’s how the system works,” Suley said. “Until the next reassessment, when hell freezes over.”
The purpose of the reassessment was to level the playing field and have everyone pay their fair share. But, it seems that if you know the system and have the money for a lawyer and an appraiser, you have a big advantage over the people who don’t.