WANT TO SEE HOW AMERICA IS CHANGING? PROPERTY TAXES HOLD THE ANSWER
Younger people are flocking to cities in the Northeast - but it’s not enough to offset retirees and those in search of lower taxes.
Americans paid nearly $300 billion in property taxes in 2016 - but as with everything in real estate, it’s all about location. Yet those taxes don’t just tell a story about local and regional housing markets - they also show how the country is changing.
Americans are fleeing areas with higher property taxes, making housing markets and local finances more stagnant in those areas. And even an influx of younger people into the urban areas that anchor those areas, like the Northeast and Midwest, isn’t enough to offset the exodus to low-tax areas like the Southeast and West.
A report out this week from Attom Data illustrates the stark difference between the highest tax burdens and the lowest. Effective tax rates range from 0.32% in Hawaii to 2.31% in New Jersey.
In dollar amounts, that meant an average property tax bill of $776 in Alabama in 2016 to nearly that much every month for the average New Jersey homeowner. The annual tax bill there is $8,477.
According to Daren Blomquist, vice president with Attom Data, those discrepancies aren’t just important for homeowners considering where to live, but also say a lot about the state of the national housing market now, and offer some previews of the future.
In particular, Blomquist told MarketWatch, states with higher property tax burdens are also those that have lagged behind in the housing recovery. Nationwide, home prices have risen about 45% in the past five years, but in high-tax states New Jersey, prices have gained only 5% in that time. Meanwhile, low-tax Colorado has seen prices soar 59%, and prices in Arizona are up 83%.
In part, that’s because markets with lower taxes, particularly in the West and Southeast, are drawing more buyers. But it’s also because older, more established areas of the Northeast and Rust Belt are stuck: they’ve built as much as they can and are losing population even as they’re stuck paying municipal legacy costs built up over decades. That could create a “vicious cycle,” Blomquist said.
In 2016, United Van Lines reported, New Jersey was the state with the most “outbound” movers, followed by Illinois, New York and Connecticut. The top ten “inbound states” included some with a higher tax burden, like #5 Vermont, but also Nevada and South Carolina, which rank #43 and #44, respectively.
|Top “inbound” states, United Van Lines||Property tax ranking, Attom Data||5-year home price change, Attom Data|
|Top “outbound” states, United Van Lines||Property tax ranking, Attom Data||5-year home price change, Attom Data|
“New Jersey’s been on the wrong side of the Laffer Curve for a least a half-dozen years,” said John Mousseau, director of fixed income for Cumberland Advisors, a Sarasota, Florida-based firm with $2.8 billion in assets, with a focus on municipal bonds.
That curve refers to the relationship between tax rates and the revenue they raise for governments, in particular the idea that after a certain point, raising rates will be counter-productive because taxpayers will be disincentivized from paying. Cumberland was founded in and headquartered in New Jersey for decades, but its founder relocated the firm to Florida in 2011, in part to be closer to its many clients who’d retired there, but also to enjoy a lower tax burden.
New Jersey’s small size and linkage to a regional economy doesn’t help, Mousseau pointed out. It’s easy for homeowners to relocate to Pennsylvania or even parts of New York and keep the same job but pay lower property taxes.
“They’re constantly playing catch-up in terms of revenue,” Blomquist said. “That can become a vicious cycle.”
There are some big exceptions to these broad trends.
Texas has one of the higher property tax burdens in the country, but no personal income tax, which helps keep it attractive. California has artificial property tax caps, but makes housing expensive in other ways, including regulations. Now, in many of the most attractive areas, “most of those people have enough wealth to live there if they want to,” Mousseau said.
And big cities are also bucking some of the national trends - and not just those on the coasts. Chicago is enjoying a development boom and is drawing big employers who want to attract workers. That will help offset some of the city’s long-standing fiscal woes, Mousseau believes.
It’s worth noting that United Van Lines found the number of retirees streaming into the West “are leaving at such a fast pace that the movement of millennials to urban areas in the Midwest and Northeast is being overshadowed.”
Another lesson for the housing market: the national average property tax rate for owner-occupied homes is 1.21%, while for investment properties it’s 1.03%. While it may be difficult for homeowners to consider big moves away from careers, family, and home, that’s a much easier calculation for investors, Blomquist pointed out.
“Investors are gravitating not just toward lower property prices but also lower taxes, probably in markets like Atlanta or Charlotte, where you have strong fundamentals and affordability,” he said.