‘A run on land’: Assessor breaks down property valuations as landowners express sticker shock


As landowners throughout Lewis County received notices with their 2024 property valuations, The Chronicle received emails, phone calls, Facebook comments and letters to the editor, with two basic questions: “how?” and “why?”

“My property value went up by over $100,000 last year. This year it went up well over $300,000,” one Nov. 15 email read. “I am a retired veteran with (a) set income. Mind you, I have made zero improvements to my property for years and over half of my property cannot be used properly due to (Bonneville) power lines.”

The questions aren’t new. The Lewis County Assessor’s office, tasked with valuing the roughly 60,000 parcels of property in the county, received a record number of appeals for valuations last year. 

A search of The Chronicle’s archives showed yearly explanatory articles, typically in late November or early December, coinciding with the window to appeal a valuation.

“My barn wall is falling in on itself,” a citizen, who said he lives near Chehalis, wrote. “So if the assessor values my property at over $832,000, will the Lewis County assessor buy my property for the assessed value so I can move to a more stable county?”

While disagreements over land value aren’t new, Assessor Ross Nielson is, though the role leaves little leeway. Neilson was an appraiser in the office for seven years before taking the big job in January.

“The only discretion we have is market value,” Nielson said. “A lot of people think the assessor should bring down values; the market does that. And the values are strictly set by the market.”

In an interview last week, Nielson discussed the valuation process, misconceptions and how homeowners can appeal.


The valuation process

The Lewis County Assessor’s Office works on a six-year cycle to physically inspect properties, unless the property sells or there’s a permit open. This year, the assessor’s office inspected properties in the Chehalis area, looking at the recent sales in the region before the physical inspection.

“Not all neighborhoods, but it was pretty common for land to go up substantially because the land is selling higher than we’ve had it assessed,” Nielson said, of a trend that was steady throughout most of the county. “There’s been, you can say, a run on land. There’s a lot of demand for land right now.”

Once the land is valued, the assessor’s office then looks at improvements made to the property. Neilson said that doesn’t mean the assessor checks to see if a homeowner has installed a new deck.

“The term ‘improvement’ is an appraisal term, and it’s the noun ‘improvement,’” he said. “We have to separate it into land, which is dirt only. So the value of your land should be for the dirt, so no improvements. And then, anything you’ve done to that land is an improvement. So a shed is an improvement, a house is an improvement.”

For the other five years in the cycle, the assessor bases the value on “a mathematical, statistical update” that considers recent sales in the property’s neighborhood.

“We have some areas where there haven’t been good sales over the years, and now we have a bunch of sales in, and they’re much higher,” Nielson said.

To further explain how the valuation process works and how taxes are assigned, take for consideration a random parcel of land on the 100 block of Eighth Street in Chehalis — where property was assessed in person this year — on the Lewis County parcel map.

Bought by the current owners in 2015 for $94,500, the property increased in total assessed value from $220,900 in 2023 to $309,200 in 2024, an increase of $88,300. The parcel’s .17 acres of land increased in value from $58,400 in 2023 to $95,800 in 2024, while the single-family home that sits on the land, the “improvement,” increased in value from $162,500 to $213,000 in 2024.

In this example, the property increased in value by roughly 40%. That doesn’t equate to 40% more taxes. In 2023, the homeowner(s) paid $1,846.80 in property taxes.

That tax bill included individual taxes collected by the Chehalis School District’s regular levy and its construction bond, the City of Chehalis, the state, the fire department, the Port of Chehalis, and the Timberland Regional Library.

Voters approve the amount of assessed value those entities can raise.

“We don’t levy taxes, we don’t willy nilly assign them,” Nielson said. “We’re given a number, and we have to divide it equally among that value.”

On their property taxes, the homeowner paid a rate of $1.866412376514 per $1,000 of assessed value to the Chehalis School District for a standard education levy in 2023. With a valuation of $220,900, this comes out to $412.29 of their $1,846.79 tax bill. Additionally, the homeowner paid a rate of $0.728559093405 per $1,000 for a Chehalis School District bond passed in 2015 to fund the construction of two new elementary schools. With the 2023 valuation, this was an additional $160.93 on their tax bill.

“The assessor’s office job is to make sure that all of the values are correct so that when that money is dealt out by the thousand, everyone is paying their fair share,” Nielson said. 


The misconceptions

A common misconception, which circulates yearly, is that the increase in land valuation coincides with proportionally higher taxes. Nielson knows the distinction can be confusing.

“I’ve tried for years to put a one-page (explainer) together, and it’s almost impossible,” Nielson said. “Most people think if their value goes up 25%, their taxes go up 25%.”

Nielson recalled a house he labeled in “good condition” after he observed a new roof, new windows and siding, and a fresh coat of paint. After the homeowner received the valuation, he contacted the assessor’s office over the assessment and invited them out for a closer inspection.

“The guy said, ‘Hey, my house, the inside is gutted,’” Nielson said. “He invited us out, we took a look, we documented it, and we changed that. Because it was open studs inside the house. There’s always going to be information we have to catch.”

Nielson encourages homeowners to “double check everything” ranging from the house's condition to the square footage.

“My running joke is, ‘We’re like vampires. If you want us to see something, let us in,’” he said. “But otherwise, we’re looking at the outside of the houses.”


The appeal process

By law, landowners have 60 days after receiving their valuation notice to file an appeal. For most people, that deadline is the first week of January. A formal deadline to appeal is included on the notice homeowners received.

Nielson said when people visit the assessor’s office, the conversation often includes an examination of recent home sales in the area, while other appeals can focus on correcting false information.

If appealed, the case then goes to the Lewis County Board of Equalization, which hears evidence presented from both the assessor’s office and the homeowner.

“People misunderstand that evidence as their neighbor’s assessment,” Nielson said. “But a lot of times their neighbor has a smaller house or an older house.”

Instead, homeowners could either consult a realtor or research comparable sales in the area.

Other cases can center around outdated information.

“I can’t believe how many times people have had a barn fall over four years ago and no one told us, but we’re still valuing it,” Nielson said. “But as soon as they let us know, we’ll remove it.”


A tax break

The Lewis County Assessor’s Office offers tax deductions to low-income landowners who are age 61 and older; unable to work because of a disability; or have a U.S. military service-connected disability.

“It’s an exemption. They don’t have to pay it back,” Nielson said. “It’s just, their taxes will be reduced.”

Next year, the barrier for low-income homeowners will increase from $40,000 to $48,000, though Nielson recommends applicants wait until January or February to contact the assessor’s office, after taxes are received.

“It’s really a form that they fill out, and they bring it in with I.D.,” Nielson said.

For more information on the program and the paperwork, or with any other questions, homeowners are encouraged to either visit the assessor’s office at the Lewis County Courthouse or visit lewiscountywa.gov/offices/assessor/senior-disabled-persons-exemption.