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Hamilton Tax Rate is Not a 'Typo,' Town Seeks to Market Pluses to Home Buyers

Hamilton Selectmen are looking at ways to market the town and tout the positives - to draw attention to more than the town's high tax rate.

Hamilton town leaders see Marblehead residents looking for more open space and buyers struck by the “sticker shock” in Manchester-by-the-Sea as prospective homebuyers in town.

Earlier this month Jennifer Scuteri, chairman of the Hamilton Board of Selectmen, and board member Jeff Hubbard met with about 10 local real estate agents to hear about house hunter’s views of the town. And last week, selectmen debriefed the meeting at and worked to come up with ways to use the information they had gathered from real estate agents.

The top concern from the real estate agents – the tax rate.

“They see the property tax line and they think it is a typo,” Scuteri said real estate agents told her, describing the reaction of potential homebuyers attending open houses as they see the listing sheet. “So it is a real concern.”

The comparison often comes from open house attendees who started their home search in Manchester-by-the-Sea and are also looking in Hamilton.

While Hamilton’s tax rate - – is higher than Manchester’s $10.11, the average tax bill is lower. In Hamilton, the average residential tax bill is $6,796 while in Manchester it is $9,240.

As of the result of the meeting with real estate agents, Hamilton selectmen hope to give local real estate agents specific information they can use to tout the pluses of the town.

“The tax rate is not going down to $14,” said Selectmen David Carey. Instead, selectmen can give real estate agents information about efforts to decrease or hold the tax rate steady, Scuteri said.

Real estate agents told selectmen that a commitment to slow or halt the upward trend of the tax rate would help increase property values.

In addition, buyers can get more house for the same tax bill in Hamilton versus Manchester, Selectman Marc Johnson said.

“We should have the same cache as Manchester,” Hubbard said. “We have as much to offer, if not more.”

The schools are “a big piece” of buyer’s draw to Hamilton, Hubbard said he heard from real estate agents, as is the quality of life and open space.

Earlier, Hubbard said Hamilton can market its proximity to Crane Beach and access to trails. Many of the redeeming qualities of Hamilton are “underappreciated,” Hubbard said.

Hamilton is attractive to Marblehead residents, for example, Hubbard said, noting he used to live there. They are seeking quality schools along with more open space. In Marblehead, the density is nearly 4,500 people per square mile versus the 550 per square mile in Hamilton.

To lower the tax rate, town services would have to be cut, Scuteri said. And real estate agents told the selectmen that few buyers look at town services – such as snow plowing and trash collection – when choosing where to live.

Instead, schools get most of the attention. Some of Hamilton’s “competing” towns include Beverly, Essex, Ipswich, Manchester and Wenham, Scuteri said.

“What’s starting to come in to play is that all of our surrounding towns have new schools,” Scuteri said, adding that building is “perfectly fine inside.”

“It’s the visual,” she said, referring to the attraction of newer schools in Beverly, Ipswich and Manchester.

Other nearby towns, such as Boxford and Topsfield, “compete” more with Andover, she said.

Selectmen hope to sit down again in a few months with real estate agents. It will follow-up on the first meeting, which was intended to “see what the perception is on the outside.”

Bob Gray December 27, 2011 at 11:56 AM
Smart real estate agents point out the educational value of our school system ie, SAT and MCAS scores rather than the physical plant amenties......
Rich December 27, 2011 at 12:24 PM
The higher the tax rate, the lower value of your home, the lower value of your home, the higher the tax rate.
john December 27, 2011 at 01:43 PM
Are they mentioning that the tax rate isn't going down and they are cutting services anyway?
Michelle Bailey December 27, 2011 at 03:17 PM
What is more important than the rate is the bill you actually pay. If all home values go down, but the total town budget stays exactly the same, the tax rate will go up, but the tax bill will stay the same. One way to make the rate go down is through new growth. Focusing on new growth, either through new development or home improvement, will affect total town revenue and total town assessed value. That's where the selectman should focus their efforts and not on marketing existing homes. Leave that to the capable real estate agents.
Doug December 27, 2011 at 04:15 PM
If potential buyers are focusing on our "typo" tax rate then I suggest it's a bit foolish to divert their attention to the accessability of Crane's Beach (which is accessable to anyone with a car), or to our "perfectly fine inside" school buildings. It also seems silly to employ 2nd grade logic to the math in order to apply lipstick to our pig-like tax rate. Presenting as a positive that the average Manchester tax bill is 36% higher than Hamilton's ignores the fact that the average listing price of homes in Manchester is some 80% higher than in Hamilton and 75% in Wenham. No matter how you slice it there's much more bang for the tax buck By-The-Sea.
Jack December 28, 2011 at 06:34 PM
I think there are many truths here - we have a great school system, we have wonderful open spaces, we are close to Crane's Beach, we need more of a commercial tax base to reduce the residential rate, our taxes are too high and we are cutting services without reducing them due to arrogant, stubborn and fiscally confused selectmen. I have decided to leave the town and look forward to getting more bang for my tax buck almost anywhere else. If you have kids in the school system though, Hamilton is the best and cheapest option to get a wonderful, better than private school (on so many levels), education.
Tracy December 29, 2011 at 02:15 AM
Buyers look at the overall sticker price -- including but not exclusive to tax rate -- and what amenities and services are delivered. The majority of homes in Manchester are out of the price range of the 99%, regardless of the tax rate. In Hamilton, we have a high tax rate, it's true, but it's still a place to which middle-class families can move. In my neighborhood, every single house that has sold in the past 18 months has sold to a family with babies/toddlers/preschoolers. They can afford a house here, even with the taxes, and they insist on the stellar reputation of the schools. Open space is nice, but it's an extra for them, not a driver.
Michelle Bailey December 29, 2011 at 02:34 AM
Hamilton and Wenham will always be preferred to Manchester or Marblehead for it's location, location, location. - We have easy access to 2 commuter rail stations with plenty of parking. - We have easy access to highways 128/95. - We have easily accessible shopping including grocery stores...Manchester and Marblehead have only small grocers. Getting to Liberty Tree or North Shore Malls is a hop, skip and a jump unlike trekking in from Manchester or Marblehead. - Plus we have an excellent reputation for our schools. - Let's not forget the very low crime rate. Open space is nice, but it doesn't sell homes. We should concentrate on maintaining our quality schools and accessibility to vibrant local businesses.
Jay Burnham December 29, 2011 at 12:46 PM
As one of the the local real estate agents that attended the meeting, I would ask you to please note that open space does, in fact, sell homes. Good schools do as well, but primarily for families with children. Even for families with children, open space for views and recreation IS a strong selling point, one that should not be overlooked, particularly when our towns are being compared to those that have the ocean and beaches, AS WELL AS local shopping, good schools, commuter rail service and easy access to highways (such as Manchester, Ipswich, Beverly, Newburyport). At least two in-town studies indicated that when asked, residents have rated Open Space as one of the leading reasons why they enjoy living in Hamilton. It's one of the main reasons my family moved here and why many remain, despite the high taxes. Unfortunately, the high taxes remain a primary reason that many depart (see Jack's comment above)... often right after the last child has graduated from high school.
john December 29, 2011 at 12:58 PM
We actually did move here for the open space. I would have rather moved to topsfield because we would have got the same house for the money and probably would have saved 4-5K per year in taxes. At the time there was nothing on the market. Masco is a very good school system as well. I would like to have the option to send my kids to private school but I really can't justify it with the amount we pay in taxes. I will most likely move out of Hamilton when my kids finish school but that is a long ways away.
Jack December 29, 2011 at 02:38 PM
Jay nailed it - call me a carpetbagger if you will, but the reasons for paying the high taxes disappear when your kids leave the high school (this coincides however, with a lot of reasons to leave the big five bedroom house anyway). As to private schools - it's a different discussion I know, for a different thread, but private school was an option for us, we considered it, dismissed it and put three kids through the school system (with many friend's kids in private schools for comparison). Our conclusions - the public school (Hamilton Wenham specifically) has more diversity, as good or better college acceptance, as good or better SAT and test results, the advantage of all their friends being in town (HUGE) and a short drive away (and returning home on college breaks), a much higher level of team spirit for football and team sports, etc. less "keeping up with the Jones's" and extravagant displays of wealth, a much wider circle of friends from all walks of life and a saving of around 30K per year, per kid! Without any exaggeration, at the identical price, my kids would have gone to the Hamilton Wenham School System - all are in, or went to, great colleges (inc. Ivy League), have great jobs and are happy, productive, successful and balanced people - I credit the school system for at least a part of that.
john December 29, 2011 at 02:46 PM
That is good to hear about the schools. I suspect your kids would have ended up in the same place if they went to a private school or some other public school. I think the parents are the main reason kids end up where they do, not the school system. In some circumstances I think private schools are more beneficial to certain students than public schools.
Rich December 29, 2011 at 02:59 PM
FYI....better plan a year on the market if your plan to sell.
Jack December 29, 2011 at 03:05 PM
Too true Rich, we haven't listed yet and are in no great rush... we'll bide our time until the market comes back at least a bit...
Tracy December 30, 2011 at 02:22 AM
Jack, thanks for your comments, they are very enlightening and coincide with my own perceptions, at a different place in the road, with one senior HWRSD student applying to competitive colleges and another child just finishing up at the middle school. I wonder, actually, at your earlier comments, given all that Hamilton wound up providing for you and your family. I hope that you are not conflating normal next-stage-of-life issues with Hamilton-specific issues. Or, put another way, people exactly like you are looking right now to move out of Boxford, Beverly, Topsfield etc. for the exact same reasons -- they're ready to move on. People worry about a tax rate, absolutely, but it's never the only reason to choose or move to/from a place. To Jay: In all the years we have battled over the tax rate and school funding, open space has always been sacrosanct. I would love to hear your thoughts as a realtor on the disproportionate amount of Chapterland exclusions in our town.
C. James December 30, 2011 at 03:03 AM
Just had a round table tonight about leaving town over the tax rate. It's time. Pushing out the people that make up your town is no way to build a community. I can only imagine being a town employee having to read this and wait for the axe to drop. I like the talk of business development. We are behind. We are between generations right now and lagging as a result. The town needs income to help support it's residents before it has no residents to help support it. The operative word being help. We the residents alone cannot carry this burden and stay a community. Some of us will have to go and you will have to build it with your new neighbors.... and managers.... and stressed out overworked town employees....
Jay Burnham December 30, 2011 at 11:38 AM
Hi Tracy...thanks for the invitation. There is little question that the amount of Chapterland exclusions in our town have a direct bearing on the burden placed on the remaining residents. This has been brought to the attention of the assessors and I have been told that they have actually visited and investigated properties and owners claiming relief and in all but a few cases, the tax relief was legal, if not perhaps justified. Perhaps of equal concern is an issue that was brought up at the Realtor meeting, specifically: In the past year 49% of all homes in Hamilton (according to the MLS stats) that sold below $600,000 sold for LESS that the assessed value. On the other hand, only one home that sold for more than $600,000 sold for LESS than the assessed value...the rest sold for MORE (in some cases significantly more) than their assessed values. The message (IMHO): Owners of moderately priced homes are paying a disproportionate share of the property taxes in Hamilton and the assessors need to look into the valuations of the more exclusive properties in town.
Jay Burnham December 30, 2011 at 11:52 AM
Hi again Tracy...I do not think that Jack is considering leaving town simply because of "next-stage-of-life issues", but I will let him respond for himself. I can tell you that I personally know four families that absolutely decided to move out of town because of the tax burden in Hamilton/Wenham. Two did move, one is planning on moving and the fourth has opted to remain but recognizes that it will cost nearly $4,000 more a year to remain in Hamilton than to move to say, Beverly and live in a comparable house. If there is a "next-stage" consideration with these four families, it is that they are nearing retirement age and realize that property tax cost reduction is an important part of planning their futures.
Chris LaPointe December 30, 2011 at 03:53 PM
We moved to Hamilton 8 years ago because of the quality of life, which includes the schools, the open space, downtown walkability, access to the train, and the lack of congestion. We know that along with those things, we have to deal with higher taxes than in surrounding communities and we live in a much smaller house than we might live in if we chose another town. Further, because of the high taxes, our next house (hopefully in Hamilton) will take us longer to afford because of the higher price and the higher tax bill for that next home. That bothers me a bit, but the positives (for us) far outweigh the negatives. I am not opposed to more economic development - we certainly could use some in appropriate venues - but we chose Hamilton over Middleton or Danvers other similar communities because it is less densely populated and has more open space (and less traffic) than many surrounding towns. As to the Ch. 61 issue, for my family living on a relative postage stamp of land in town, I am happy to have large landowners take advantage of a reduced tax rate for qualifying land. A significant part of our enjoyment of this town includes driving along the roads in this beautiful country and walking and biking on trails that are made available on private land. That land, though privately owned, is a community asset. I really appreciate everyone's views on these issues - for us the balance of high taxes is outweighed by the unique quality of life that Hamilton offers.
Jack December 30, 2011 at 06:21 PM
Thanks Jay - and respond I will! I am definitely moving HOUSE because of the "next stage of life" issues (a truly depressing term I hope to never use again!)... Empty nest syndrome will soon be upon us and there is no point heating, cleaning, landscaping, repairing and paying taxes on a big house with only two people living in it. As to moving TOWNS, that's a bit more complicated. We could of course move to a smaller house in the same town - which would be great, we love the town - however, the tax issue is not to be ignored. We can buy an equivalent house in a few neighboring towns with a much lower tax bill and, as we don't need to take advantage of the schools anymore, that makes a lot of sense. Other factors include a growing frustration with Hamilton's town management which is currently stubborn, blind to the wishes of the town population and seems to be agenda driven and fiscally confused. I'm not naive enough to think other towns may be much better, but this has gotten to the point where it has certainly diminished any loyalty I previously felt towards Hamilton. With the current mindset of the selectmen being one of reducing services, backdoor taxes and ignoring the clearly stated wishes of the people, I would worry about the future tax rate and service reductions as I get older and presumably less financially secure.
Carl February 02, 2013 at 12:33 PM
I'd like to understand where the current revenue money is going? My suspicion is that a good portion is going to employee pensions, healthcare, and benefits. The town must consider alternatives to the current programs. Companies long ago recognized that pensions were not sustainable and so should local governments. The shift to lower cost alternatives for the town does not need to be draconian, but a shift is needed or things will only get worse, not better.

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