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America’s New Great Migration in Search Of Lower Property Taxes


Rich Harty, co-owner of Chicago-based Harty Realty Group, has an unusual business model. As an exclusive buyer’s agent, Harty has spent the past few years leading house hunters farther afield than many expected when they started to search in his metro area.

Property Taxes, Great Migration, Home Loan, Mortgage

As Harty, a lifelong Chicagoan, puts it, “I’m trying to convince them, let me show you what Wisconsin has to offer.”

Harty’s clients range from first-time buyers with sticker shock to people who’ve lived in and around Chicago all their lives. Each has a different story, but they share a common theme: many believe that Chicago-area property taxes are too high, and relief is just an hour away over the state line.

As a new report out Thursday demonstrates, Harty isn’t the only one realizing how big of an impact property taxes make on home-buying decisions.

The 2017 property tax analysis from real estate data provider Attom Data Solutions shows that last year, Americans paid $293.4 billion in property taxes, a 6% increase over 2016, and an average of $3,399 per home.

But if all real estate is local, all real estate taxes may be even more so.

Attom’s data show that the average tax burden ranges from $10,612 in the most expensive metro area, Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, Connecticut, to $525 in Montgomery, Alabama. And those are just averages.

For Daren Blomquist, Attom’s senior vice president, the story of national property taxes is the story of migration around the country. Taxes aren’t the most important determinant of where home buyers will locate, he said – jobs are.

But taxes are “the icing on the cake” in areas that are seeing strong population inflows anyway, Blomquist told MarketWatch.

Among the counties that saw the biggest percentage of in-migration in 2017, according to Census data, all are in Texas, Florida, Georgia, or the Carolinas. (Texas doesn’t have particularly low property taxes, but it has no personal income tax, making the overall tax burden much more manageable.)

Cook County, where Chicago is located, had the biggest number of people leaving, but given a bigger starting population, those 45,360 leavers only made up 0.9% of the total.

Blomquist’s analysis of Census data showed that among all counties that had at least a 1% population increase, the average tax bill was $2,706, while in all counties with a least a 1% decline in population, the average was $3,900.

$1,200 annually— or $100 a month—isn’t a huge difference, and it’s why Blomquist says pure dollar figures aren’t the sole driver of where people locate. Still, home values are surging in most markets around the country, making tax considerations even more critical. And now there’s a new wrinkle for Americans trying to figure out what they can afford: last year’s tax law changes reducing how deductible property taxes may “add momentum to the trend we already see in favor of lower tax-burden states,” Blomquist said.

That rings true for Harty, as well. His client Jeff, a 53-year-old contractor, has lived in the same northwest-side Chicago neighborhood his whole life. He married his high school sweetheart and together they raised a family in a small 1940s Cape Cod with airplanes flying so low overhead they could practically reach up and touch them. Jeff pays property taxes of $8,500 a year – not outrageous, Harty concedes – but he’s been watching city services decline and crime go up for some time and he commutes to the far-north suburbs for work.

More than that, with a dire fiscal situation in both the city and the state, Jeff bets that taxes are only going to go up more.

“He’s realizing that this is nuts,” Harty told MarketWatch. “He’s seeing the writing on the wall. This is someone who’s said, enough is enough.”

For now, sales are brisk in Chicago, and Harty believes Jeff and his wife will quickly find a buyer. The downside is that the first-time buyers he represents are having trouble muscling their way into a competitive market. If they do manage to find a home they like, it’s often the taxes – frequently as high as 4% of the purchase price – that put it out of reach.

That’s why two years ago, Harty got a real estate license in Wisconsin. Besides Jeff, he’s currently leading a flock of about half a dozen other Chicagoans to communities like Pleasant Prairie and Kenosha.

Jeff is buying a newly constructed home with four bedrooms on three-quarters of an acre, a hefty upgrade from his 45-foot lot. And he’ll only pay about $7,200 a year in taxes.

Still, dollar amounts aside, there’s one enduring reality of property taxes, Blomquist said. “Everyone always thinks theirs are too high.”

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