Many lower-income homeowners 61 and older haven’t tried to take advantage of a King County program for property-tax relief. But some better-off homeowners have.
For John Wilson, helping financially strapped seniors stay in their homes is one of the most rewarding parts of his job as the King County assessor.
But at home, he’s often glued to HGTV, the cable channel devoted to home buying and remodeling that features some of the most lavish homes in the country. “It’s one of my guilty pleasures,” he told me.
Wilson recently caught an episode of the show “Million Dollar Rooms” that featured a Mercer Island mansion with an indoor pool so extravagant, it took a team of contractors five years to build.
Getting a senior or disability tax exemption
You may be eligible for a reduction in your property taxes based on your household income and your age or disability.
• 61 years or older, or retired due to a disability or a veteran with a service-connected disability
• Own a home in Washington that is your primary residence
• Total household income of $40,000 or less
For more information, call the King County Assessor’s Office at 206-296-3920 or download this overview from the state Department of Revenue.
Source: King County Assessor’s Office
“I come into the office the next day and I’m casually chatting about it with some folks,” Wilson said. “And they go, ‘Oh, we know him — he applied for a senior exemption.’ ”
They’re referring to the Washington state program designed to help distressed homeowners age 61 and older (or who have a disability) by reducing their property tax bill, in some cases dramatically. To qualify, their household income must be below $40,000.
Census data show close to 40,000 homeowners in the county who would meet the requirement for the senior exemption. But not quite 15,000 are enrolled in the program.
“The program is intended to help people who are truly struggling,” Wilson said, “not people who have their home on HGTV.”
The Assessor’s Office looked into the Mercer Island homeowner’s request — and turned him down.
But some other folks who do qualify for the exemption might raise a few eyebrows.
According to my analysis, there are 118 King County homeowners currently receiving the senior exemption whose houses were assessed at more than $1 million in 2015.
Eleven homeowners in Medina get it, and 14 in Clyde Hill. There’s one in Seattle’s Laurelhurst neighborhood who owns an eight-bedroom Tudor overlooking Lake Washington with an assessed value of $5.5 million.
Wilson notes that it’s not always easy to determine which homeowners truly need help: “How do you means test, and make sure you’re applying it to the people who really need it?”
To be eligible for the senior exemption, income alone is taken into account — not assets such as home equity.
“You can have somebody who has relatively modest income but they are sitting on huge assets,” Wilson said. “Those are probably cases where people bought the house years and years ago … They may well have under $40,000 income but the house has accrued in value into the seven figures.”
Wilson thinks the program could use some fine-tuning to reflect the changing real-estate market.
“This was created before we had lots of million-dollar homes … they are not as uncommon now.”
Even so, these million-dollar homes are the exceptions. Three of four homeowners receiving the exemptions live in a home with an assessed value of less than $400,000, according to my analysis.
And importantly, there are likely thousands of seniors in King County who might really need the exemption but are not taking advantage of it.
A lot of folks just don’t know about it, Wilson says, and he’s trying to get the word out.
“The idea has always been to figure out how to keep seniors in their homes,” he said, “and not tax them out of them.”