Home values have continued to fall across Maryland, but for the first time since 2008, the average decline in tax assessments was in the single digits, state officials said.
"It's showing an improved market, that's really the bottom line here," said Robert E. Young, director of the state's Department of Assessments and Taxation, which will send out tax assessment notices Friday to 678,763 property owners.
After several years of disheartening double-digit declines, this year's lesser slump in home values — down an average of 6.9 percent from three years ago — is being taken by homeowners, government officers and real estate professionals as a sign that better times are likely ahead.
"It looks pretty decent compared to the past," said Gwen Wynn, president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, of the single-digit drop. "We are moving forward."
The other major signal from this year's assessments that property values are stabilizing: Fewer than eight in 10 homes assessed — 77 percent — lost value during their assessment cycle. That's still high, but it is a significant departure from the past three years of assessments. Each year from 2009 through 2011, more than nine in 10 homes assessed lost value.
"That decreasing percentage reflects the fact that in every jurisdiction there are communities that have either flattened out or increased" in their assessed value, Young said. "We saw some of it last year, but clearly we're seeing more of it this year."
Every taxable property in Maryland is assessed once every three years. The counties and Baltimore are each divided into three sections; one section of every jurisdiction is reviewed each year of the three-year rotation. The last time the current group of properties was valued, in 2009, 93 percent of the homes lost value and the average decrease was 19.7 percent.
"2012 has been a comeback year. It's starting to take hold," said David McIlvaine Sr., an real estate agent based in Ellicott City.
The residences assessed this year in Baltimore — in either downtown or North Baltimore — lost 7.8 percent of their value from three years ago, according to the tax department. Harford County's reassessed homes saw a 7.9 percent drop since their last assessment. In Carroll, the assessments showed a 4 percent decline.
Only 48 percent of the reassessed Howard homes lost value, and that county's reassessed homes, on average, lost just 0.2 percent of their value. Montgomery County had a slightly better performance with declining values applying to only 45 percent of reassessed properties and an average assessment increase of 1.7 percent — the sole county with a positive figure this year.
Homes assessed this year in Prince George's County, on the other end of the spectrum from Montgomery, lost 21.5 percent of their value on average. Prince George's was hit hard by the foreclosure crisis and values are still being affected by large numbers of bank auctions and short sales.
This year, the state tax department based its new figures on 41,189 homes sales in the reassessment regions over the past three years. Property owners who would like to appeal their new assessment have until Feb. 11 to do so, Young said. Appeals of assessments from prior years must be made by Jan. 2, he said.
In Anne Arundel, the group of properties reassessed this year include the communities of Riviera Beach, Lake Shore, Gibson Island, Severna Park and the Broadneck Peninsula. The roughly 59,300 residential properties there lost 3.7 percent of their value since the last time they were assessed.
Single-family homes saw an average decline of only 1.5 percent, said Joseph Glorioso, Anne Arundel's assessments supervisor. Townhouses and condominiums registered the larger losses, he said.
Those properties, common among first-time buyers, lost about 10 percent of their value on average, he said. He speculated the difference could come down to the fact that it has been difficult in recent years for first-timers to get mortgages, making Anne Arundel's starter homes less valuable.
McIlvaine expects those difference to even out next year, which he called "the year of the first-time homebuyer." Young people who have avoided, or been unable, to buy a home because of the recession are expected to come out in force next year, he said.
"We're starting to see far more activity," he said. "The issue now is inventory. But I think that's going to change by spring."
The 82,808 residential properties in Baltimore County that were reassessed this year were concentrated in the western side of the county and include Catonsville, Milford Mill, Owings Mills and Arbutus. The properties there saw an average decrease in value of 15.8 percent — the largest decrease this year in the Baltimore metro region.
Charlotte Rogers, Baltimore County's supervisor of assessments, attributes the larger drop in part to the region assessed. Western Baltimore County has not had as much luck maintaining home values as have the county's eastern communities, including White Marsh, she said.
The new assessment numbers seem to be in line with sales activity, said Carlton Boujai, president of the Maryland Association of Realtors, who predominantly sells homes in Frederick and Montgomery counties. And provided the housing market stays on its current path — and, in particular, legislators in Washington come to an agreement on the spending cuts and tax hikes that have become known as the "fiscal cliff" — the next round of reassessments should be the first in years to be in the black, he said.