Eminent domain in any state can be a useful device. Without it, we probably wouldn’t have post offices, courthouses, jails, police stations, fire stations, highways, city streets, running water, electricity, and many of the other amenities we take for granted every day. And we, as Americans, are lucky that we are paid for the land that is taken from us. In many other countries that luxury is not afforded to property owners.
Just because we are entitled to be paid for the property that is taken from us, however, does not mean that we should accept the government’s determination of what our property is worth. Although I do not question their trustworthiness and motivation to get it right (I used to work for the government doing this exact thing, so I know how much they want to get it right), sometimes they just miss the boat when valuing properties. Some of this comes from a lack of knowledge of the law, some of it comes from the subjectiveness of property valuation, and some of it comes from just doing a bad job. So, below I’m going to briefly discuss things you can do to get the money you deserve for your property.
The first thing you need to do is get an experienced Washington eminent domain attorney on your side. If someone sued you alleging your property was theirs or you were arrested and charged with a crime you wouldn’t try to represent yourself would you? The same goes for eminent domain, which is a highly specialized and complicated area of the law. Just as you probably wouldn’t trust a criminal defense attorney to draw up your will, you shouldn’t trust your family attorney to know what he is doing with eminent domain. Get a professional.
Now that you’ve gotten yourself signed up with an eminent domain lawyer you can look at the offer presented to determine its validity. The usual basis of property value for appraisers is to look at other sales that actually occurred in the market that were similar to your property and then adjust those sales to account for the individuality of your property, otherwise known as the comparable sales or market approach. There are several problems that can arise with this method that you need to examine before accepting an eminent domain offer of purchase.
The first thing to look at are the comparable sales used to determine your property’s value. Were they in the same general location as your property? Where they substantially similar to your property? Was there anything about the properties discovered that makes them bad candidates for comparison to your property? These are all questions that should be answered, and someone experienced in valuing property taken by eminent domain law can help you do this. Assuming you find a couple of mistakes here, hold on to that information and move on to step two.
Step two is to take the information you’ve gathered and see how the appraiser adjusted these sales up or down to reflect the value of your property. And it is important to interject here that you will have access to the government’s appraisal in most circumstances. All you have to do is ask them for it. Back to step two, the appraiser’s adjustments can have a significant impact on how your property is valuated. And here is the kicker – for the most part these adjustments, and more particularly the amount of adjustment, is based solely on the appraisers discretion. There is no set formula for determining this. An experienced eminent domain lawyer should be able to tell if these adjustments are realistic or not. If they relied upon the mistakes found in step one to make these adjustments, there could be some significant difference in the final determination of fair market value
After steps one and two, step three goes outside the box. The last thing you want to do is make sure there are no other sales out there that the government’s appraiser missed when determining the fair market value of your property. In many cases, one recent sale can significantly affect the value of your property and your final award of just compensation. If it was missed by the appraiser, it is important to inform the government of this recent sale so they can pay you what you deserve.
In the end, determining the fair market value of your property and just compensation in an eminent domain case is a very subjective exercise. The government will have advocates on their side to help them present their point of view, and you should too.