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Real estate sales, home building off to decent start in 2014; new numbers about county's housing values, tax base released

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Perhaps you are like me, and this winter weather has you in the market for a very specific type of home: one with a heated driveway and sidewalks. (Or I would even settle for one equipped with a 10-year old son who doesn't feel faint at the sight of a snow shovel.)

I'm not sure any of those types of homes have sold recently, but the latest series of real estate and building reports indicate that 2014 got off to a decent start for home builders and real estate agents.

Here's a look at a few reports:

• Although January is one of the slower months for local real estate agents, home sales increased by a little more than 10 percent, compared with January 2013 totals, according to a new report from the Lawrence Board of Realtors. Home sales totaled 41 for the month, including five sales for newly constructed homes. The most important number of the report, however, may be the number of homes on the market. Active listings in Lawrence are down 320 homes, which is a decline from 380 in January 2013 and 460 from January 2012. That's a positive sign for the market. More homes are selling, but if the number of listings doesn't move upward, look for prices to rise.

• Lawrence home builders took out permits for nine new homes in January, compared with eight in January 2013. January obviously isn't a big month for starting new home construction, but, for what it is worth, the nine is the highest January total in at least the last five years. The five-year average for January home starts is 5.4 new homes. (Rumor has it, the guy who lived in the 0.4 of a home, spent all his money on heated sidewalks.)

• When it comes to numbers, the one homeowners usually care most about should be arriving in the mailbox at any moment. The Douglas County Appraiser's Office sent out change of value notices on Friday. The notices tell homeowners how much the appraiser's office thinks their property is worth. That number, of course, is key in determining how much a homeowner pays in property taxes. I haven't yet got an update from the appraiser on what most homeowners should expect. When I get that information, I'll pass it along. But his most recent report did include some other interesting numbers:

— The total value of real estate in Douglas County is on the rise. Total assessed valuation — that's the taxable value, not the fair market value — was $1.04 billion dollars on Jan. 1. That's up 2.2 percent from Jan. 1, 2013. Appraiser Steve Miles said most of the increase was due to new construction and an increase in the value of agricultural land in the county. If that number holds — it generally goes down a bit as people appeal their tax values — it will be good news for local governments who use the tax base to help build their budgets.

— The median value of all residential property in the county — excluding big apartment complexes — was $161,700 in 2014. That's up 2.9 percent from the $157,000 median in 2013. The median value had declined in 2013, 2012 and 2009. The report shows that median values still have a ways to climb before they reach the levels seen during the housing boom. In 2008, the median value of residential property in the county was $164,900.

— The report provides a median residential value for each of the four communities in the county, plus the rural area. Those values: Baldwin City, $140,000, up 5.5 percent; Eudora, $137,900, up 9 percent; Lecompton, up $109,860, up 30.8 percent; Lawrence, $160,200, up 0.3 percent; $199,800, up 30.2 percent.

— Housing, of course, is just one part of the county's real estate tax base. Commercial real estate, agricultural land and a few other miscellaneous categories also make up the tax base. But residential property is certainly the giant among the bunch, which has been a bit of a concern to economic development leaders for a long time. The idea is that commercial real estate produces more jobs and pays a higher tax rate. So, having more commercial, job-producing real estate in the community has been a goal.

Well, I've done some figuring. (It wasn't pretty. Those were really big numbers, so I had to call on my neighbors to take off their shoes as well.) Regardless, here's a look: In 2014, residential property made up 68.5 percent of the tax base compared with 68.1 percent in 2013. Commercial real estate made up 25.6 percent in 2014 compared with 25.7 percent in 2013. So, we didn't go in the right direction.

Just for fun, I also went back to 2004 to see how the numbers have changed. In 2004, residential made up 67 percent of the tax base and commercial made up 25.9 percent. These really are big numbers, so you shouldn't expect big swings. But it is telling that for an entire decade we lost ground on the goal of strengthening our commercial tax base.

In other news around town:

• Maybe all these numbers have made you want to be a renter. If so, you might have some questions about the city's proposed rental licensing and inspection program. Whether you are a renter, a landlord or just an interested resident, we want your questions about the program. City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer will participate in an online chat at 11 a.m. Thursday. Click here to submit some questions in advance.

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