A rising tide lifts all boats, they say. But the old aphorism about the economy apparently does not hold true for Vineyard real estate, as the most recent property valuations show.
For higher-end real estate, particularly up-Island, the tide appears to be turning. On the other hand in the down-Island town of Vineyard Haven, the tide went out farther, has not yet turned and may not for some time yet.
In interviews with five of the six Island towns’ assessors, as well as Vision Appraisal, the company which contracts much of the work for them, what emerged was a picture of a two-speed recovery in real estate.
The way the towns determine assessments — which in turn determine how much owners pay in property taxes — is by analyzing the actual prices paid and adjusting the notional values of other properties up or down to reflect that market reality.
If sale prices for properties in an area go up, so do assessments; if they go down, so do assessments. The object of the exercise is keep assessed values as close as possible to market realities, although assessments always lag. The 2011 assessments, recently released, reflect values of January last year.
But the statistics and the anecdotal evidence from the assessors show the same thing. More expensive real estate generally is holding its value or increasing, while less expensive real estate is not.
The statistics make the point. For fiscal year 2011, the overall valuations for Tisbury declined seven per cent. They fell four per cent in West Tisbury, about three per cent in Edgartown, and stayed constant in Chilmark and Aquinnah. Oak Bluffs is behind in its assessment process and did not provide figures.
But those are just the overall numbers. Within towns, different sectors of the real estate market have been moving at different rates, the assessors said.
“The overall valuation of all property in the town has gone down four per cent,” said Kristina West, principal assessor for West Tisbury, “but that doesn’t mean all individual properties went down four per cent.
“Some went down less, some didn’t go down at all, depending on the location and what the market in that area was doing.”
The places that held their value were the high-end ones, she said.
And since those figures were compiled a year or more ago, the differences between the upper and lower ends of the market have only been reinforced.
“The sales in 2010, so far — I was just reviewing them the other day — in most cases, the price has been right about the assessment, except at the high end,” Ms. West said.
“The properties which are going for more than their assessed value are all the expensive ones,” she said.
Overall, though, things were just about flat.
“At least they don’t seem to be falling any more,” Ms. West said.
Chilmark assistant assessor Pam Bunker echoed that view.
“Last year in Chilmark [the correlation between assessed values and market values] was 97 per cent, which is why we kept our values the same,” she said, adding:
“Waterfront has definitely not decreased, some of the places with distant views have gone up and down. The interior lots, wooded lots with no water views, will go down just a wee bit. But everything is pretty steady in this town. We’re not chasing the sales anymore.”
The one exception for waterfront land was beach lots, which fell.
“But in general the assessments are coming in very close to actual sale prices. That hasn’t happened in many years,” Ms. Bunker said.
The other town where overall valuations have stayed the same is Aquinnah.
The town’s assessor/appraiser Angela Cywinski credited the price stability to the town’s remote location in part.
“There’s not a lot of property available here,” she said. “Aquinnah is a two-acre minimum, and there is a lot of conservation land. People come up here to buy to get their private beach, their privacy and serenity. It’s a different ambience from Vineyard Haven, say.”
Overall, Edgartown valuations declined three per cent, but once again, the price movements were not even across the board.
“We have seen over the past couple of years that places that are assessed at $1 million or more don’t seem to have declined significantly,” said Edgartown assessor Jo-Ann Resendes.
After a “modest” decline over the past couple of years, she said, prices now appeared to be stabilizing.
As for the immediate future, it is likely the bottom of the market will not make any gains for a while yet, and may even fall farther, predicted Stephen Ferreira, district manager for Vision Appraisal.
His company is now in the beginning stages of a major re-appraisal of five Vineyard towns, excluding Chilmark, which happens every three years.
“I don’t think we’re looking at any major changes. We’ve stayed pretty current over the past three years,” he said.
“But we may see some of the more inexpensive properties coming down a bit more. And maybe some of the high end either holding value or going up a little bit.”
None of which is good news for struggling Island workers or for the towns whose budgets are being squeezed by flat or declining tax revenues.
However, Coldwell Banker Landmarks recent real estate review of 2010 gave some reason for optimism.
It noted that selling prices were up around 10 per cent in 2010 compared with 2009. However, the inventory of properties for sale remains high at 650 to 700, about twice the historical norm.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the tough times, the towns all reported low numbers of owners seeking abatements on their assessments.
The deadline for applications passed this week. All five towns reported an unusually low number of requests. There were 32 in Tisbury, down from 43 last year; in West Tisbury there were 23, the lowest number since 2004.
Ms. Bunker said the number for Chlmark averages 15 or 20 a year, although “requests for abatements usually peak in the certification years, once every three years.
“And the next of those is this coming year for all the Island towns,” she said.