In 1988, before he married, he bought a newly built home in town. The four-bedroom, 2.5 bath colonial cost $295,000, and had property taxes of about $11,000.
After his marriage, he and his wife Annette decided to raise their family in that same home.
Property taxes rose slowly over the years, and by 2010, the home was valued at $394,000 with property taxes of $18,365.
But that year, the town conducted a reassessment.
“Our house goes from a value of $394,00 to $784,000. Keep in mind, we are in the midst of the biggest financial collapse since the Depression, and my house doubles in value,” Auriemma said. “Our taxes went crazy.”
In three years, his property tax bill went up nearly $9,000 to $27,246 in 2013. That was a monthly increase of about $750.
“The town outgrew us financially, we thought, but we didn’t want to uproot our kids,” he said, so they struggled to stay in their home with a non-amortizing mortgage. Fees were expensive, but the loan lowered their monthly payments enough that they could stay put.
Such is life in New Jersey, one might think.
But it wasn’t just general rising prices that challenged the couple’s financial situation.
It was a mistake. A big mistake.
The appraiser hired by the town in 2010 added 660 square feet and an extra top-of-the-line bathroom with two sinks to the home. The Auriemmas had been priced out of their own home — on a mistake.
“I never caught on that something was wrong,” said Auriemma, 60, who lost his job a week after contacting Bamboozled. “Call it ignorance, but it’s now insanity.”
Here’s how it happened.
PROPERTY TAX CONFUSION
The Auriemmas now have added costs with one child in college and another who is a college-bound high school senior. They decided they had to sell their home.
“We just can’t afford to live in Maplewood anymore. It is more important to us to help our kids in college than to live in such a beautiful home,” he said. “It just got too hard to pay $22,000 then $24,000, and now $27,000 a year in taxes.”
They put their home up for sale on Dec. 7, 2013 for $669,000. Their real estate agent suggested they consider appealing their property taxes because the tax bill was higher than similar houses.
The couple resisted because they didn’t have an extra $700 laying around for an independent appraisal.
But potential buyers were spooked by the tax bill, and the Auriemmas learned that larger homes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars more — just a few blocks away — had lower property taxes than they did.
They scraped together the money and on Jan. 12, the appraiser’s report was in their hands.
“When the appraiser came back with the new appraisal, he was floored that there would be such a major mistake,” Auriemma said.
Major, indeed. The report said the home had a market value of $595,000 — $189,000 less than the town’s appraiser said in 2010.
Annette Auriemma brought the new appraisal to the town’s tax assessor the next day, and a meeting at the home was scheduled.
The town’s rep came to the home on at 9 a.m. on Jan. 14, Jerry Auriemma said.
“By 11, they called me back admitting a huge mistake had been made, and started to shift the blame on to us,” he said.
Auriemma said the assessor’s office said their appraiser was unable to get into the home, and that Auriemma should have known something was wrong and applied for a rebate.
Auriemma said what happened with the appraiser was not that simple. He said appointments were set twice, and both were at times when the homeowners would be working. Auriemma said he called to reschedule, but there were no times available when someone would be home. He said he was told it really didn’t matter if anyone was home, so Auriemma said they’d leave the back gate unlocked in case the appraiser wanted to circle around the property.
And that was the last he heard about the 2010 appraisal, he said.
In conversations with the town, Auriemma said, he was told if the appraiser couldn’t get in, they would likely use information from the card written after the last appraisal, which was in 2002.
But as the situation was looked at more closely, the tax assessor’s office said it couldn’t find that old card from 2002, Auriemma said.
So exactly what the 2010 appraisal was based on is unknown.
Auriemma wonders what would be different for his family if the taxes had been correct.
“If this didn’t happen, we might not have been in the financial situation we’re in now, having to sell the house,” he said.
The Auriemmas lowered the asking price of their home by $30,000 a week ago, knowing that the tax situation could indefinitely stall the sale.
GETTING MONEY BACK
Auriemma said the town offered to change the assessment to $615,000. When he asked about overpayments being refunded, the town said it’s “covered by the law,” he said.
We reached out to Maplewood’s tax assessor, and while we waited for a return call, we asked the Essex County Board of Taxation about appeals.
It said homeowners would appeal with the county, but it only accepts such filings between Jan. 10 and April 1, and only for the current tax year.
And the state’s Division of Taxation said there’s no appeal process on the state level.
Then we got a call from Chris Murray, the assistant to Maplewood’s tax assessor.
Murray and Auriemma’s accounts of the access that was given to the home differ.
“What happened, it was technically not an error. It was an estimate,” Murray said. “The inspector had to make an approximate guess on the square footage and the dimensions, and they were wrong.”
Of the extra bathroom, Murray said that was also an estimate.
Murray said he didn’t know the procedure for making estimates.
We asked if the appraiser would see the past measurements of the house.
“The old records just get wiped out because it’s all digital and it overwrites,” he said.
For more clarity, we talked to David Wolfe, a real estate attorney with Skoloff & Wolfe in Livingston.
He said the normal course is that homeowners must file appeals on a yearly basis by April 1, or by May 1 for revaluation. He also said towns don’t budget for retroactive relief, so it’s understandable that homeowners can only appeal annually.
But, there’s a statute that could help this couple.
“The Correction of Errors statute allows you to go back for three years,” he said. “The tax court recently received guidance from the appellate division as to specifically the type of situation you’re discussing.”
The tax court had argued it was not an exact science to determine how a homeowner’s taxes may have been overcharged, even when it was determined there was an error.
The appellate court disagreed. “You can figure it out from the property tax record cards, and see how much they value the property per square foot, and just plug in the values,” Wolfe explained.
“If they can get an assessment of $615,000, and if they can file under Correction of Errors statute for all three years, they’d get back about $16,500,” Wolfe said.
On the Maplewood offer to change the assessment to $615,000, Wolfe said the assessor was doing the right thing voluntarily, and that many town assessors wouldn’t do that.
At the $615,000 figure, Wolfe said, the property taxes would be approximately $21,700 — something that would probably help a lot with the sale of the house.
So in the end, it seems the Auriemmas only option is to go to court.
Jerry Auriemma says he’s thinking about it, but he knows the process could take years without a guarantee he’d win, and the couple doesn’t have extra money floating around to pay for an attorney.
“I hope they do look back and do the right thing and pay us back the taxes,” he said. “It’s a kick in the butt.”
We’ll let you know what happens.