By BILL VARIAN
Published August 29, 2007
TAMPA -- Living in your dream home? Have visions of growing old there?
You'll want to think long and hard before switching to a new "super homestead exemption" if voters approve it in January.
Most people planning to stay in their homes for the long term will pay less in taxes if they resist the allure of the super exemption, a new analysis shows. For them, it's better to stick with their Save Our Homes protection, which limits annual tax increases to 3 percent.
"The Save Our Homes protection has much more benefit for those who are going to stay in their homes for a long time," said Tim Wilmath, the Hillsborough County property appraiser's director of valuation, who performed the analysis.
Homeowners who make the wrong choice could cost themselves thousands of dollars in additional tax payments.
The super exemption amendment was born in June during a special session of the Legislature called to deal with the public outcry over property tax increases.
Currently, homesteaders get $25,000 knocked off the value of a home when their tax bills are calculated. But the heart of the current system is a 3 percent cap on how much their taxable values may increase annually. That's the Save Our Homes part.
Under the super exemption, homesteaders would get what is initially a more generous tax shelter: a 75 percent exemption on the first $200,000 in value of a home and an additional 15 percent on the second $300,000 in value. The maximum exemption is $195,000.
But the cap that comes with it is much less toothy. It caps the overall growth in property tax revenue to the rate of personal income in Florida, which averages 4 percent annually.
But unlike Save Our Homes, it places no limit on how much a homeowner's bill may increase. This explains why, over time, Save Our Homes is a better deal.
"The Save Our Homes cap insulates the property owner from large increases in value, whereas the super exemption does not," Wilmath said.
Passage of the super exemption amendment would not mean you would lose Save Our Homes.
Current Save Our Homes beneficiaries would have a choice: keep what they've got or go with the super exemption. They could make the choice at any time. But once they pick the super exemption, they can't go back to Save Our Homes.
The Legislature, without being more specific, said 73 percent of homestead owners would benefit from the new exemption. That figure was reached by counting any homestead that was better off in the first year of the new system.
Wilmath's analysis and a similar St. Petersburg Times analysis of Pasco County tax records confirms the Legislature's findings -- for the first year. In Hillsborough, 78 percent of homesteaders would benefit from the super exemption the first year. In Pasco, using the same assumptions that Wilmath did, it would be 70 percent.
But over time, things would change dramatically.
After five years in Hillsborough, only 57.7 percent of people who stay in their homeswould be better off with the super exemption. By year 10, it would be 25.8 percent. By year 15, it would be less than 5 percent. In Pasco, 58 percent would be better off by year five, 15 percent by year 10 and 2 percent by year 15.
None of which surprises Mike Wells, the Pasco County property appraiser.
"It's my belief that whether you should decide in January to go with the super exemption or keep what you've got is based ... on one issue," Wells said. "How long do you plan to stay in your house?"
For Wells, 60, who plans to live out his days in his current Dade City home, his savings under the super exemption would end after year two. Switching would ultimately cost him up to $11,000 annually by the time he turns 80, he said. So he'll stay put.
His son, however, bought a New Port Richey home last year and works for a large company that may ask him to move in the near future. For him, the super exemption would make sense.
The typical Floridian stays in a home five or six years, a figure that has dropped sharply in the past decade. That may reflect the effects of speculators who flipped houses and condos during the housing boom for quick profits.
Wilmath's projections assume that property values increase 7 percent annually, the historical average in Hillsborough since 1980. He also assumes that personal income in Florida -- the basis of the government cap -- increases by an average of 4 percent annually. And he used the maximum 3 percent rate increase under Save Our Homes to make the comparison.
Pinellas County Deputy Property Appraiser Pam Dubov thinks the analyses discount the immediate savings people would enjoy under the super exemption.
In short, while Save Our Homes might be the better bet for the long-term homeowner, the super exemption might make more sense for someone who plans to stay in a home just a short time.
"I wish I had the imagination to figure out how to measure the turnover rate into this," Dubov said. "I don't know how you do that."
The analyses don't suggest how people should vote on the issue. Warren Weathers, the deputy property appraiser in Hillsborough, said he thinks homeowners are taking a nuanced view of the issue.
Speaking at the politically active retirement community of Sun City Center recently, Weathers asked a crowd of 60 to 70 whether they would make the switch if he promised them $1,000 in initial savings. Not a single hand went up.
But one woman told him she still planned to vote in favor of the measure. Given that it's optional, she wouldn't mind the choice in case she does move one day.
She was referring to a benefit the amendment would offer people who now feel locked into their current homes by Save Our Homes. They know that if they move, they might well pay higher taxes on a less expensive house. This absence of "portability" is considered a major flaw of Save Our Homes.
Under the amendment, she could have the best of both worlds: Save Our Homes protection in her current home and the super exemption if she moves.
"Basically she's voting to have an option," Weathers said. "That way she can have the super exemption in her hip pocket if she moves."