Jerry Hurd's jaw dropped when he received a property-tax bill indicating the 2012 Hyundai Sonata he bought last summer was valued at nearly $10,000 more than he paid for it.
Hurd, who lives in Bluffton, called state and county officials and discovered his modestly outfitted GLS model was being taxed as if it had the most expensive Sonata amenities. When the information was corrected, his bill dropped by about $100, he said.
The higher valuation was the result of standard procedure for auditor offices in Beaufort County and across the state. State law requires auditors to assess new and used vehicles bought at dealerships under the assumption they're the priciest versions for a particular model, make and year, unless presented with additional documentation to the contrary, according to the S.C. Department of Revenue.
Auditors in all 46 counties make these assessments using a guide issued by the Revenue Department.
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"When a person buys a new vehicle, the only information in the guide is the manufacturer's suggested retail price," department spokeswoman Samantha Cheek said. The guide is organized according to a vehicle's make, year, model and vehicle identification number. The value drops at least 5 percent each year, Cheek said.
Beaufort County Auditor Sharon Burris said her office doesn't receive enough information to accurately appraise every dealership purchase. One VIN can apply to multiple option levels for a model, each with a different price.
A 2012 Honda Civic with a special color, for example, would be priced for more than the same model in a standard color. The auditor assumes the more expensive version, Burris said, because the dealership's state-issued forms don't provide a place for further details.
"If we put it as the lowest model, nobody would come in and say, 'You didn't charge me enough,' " she said. "I wish we could work it down to a better understanding for the public, but the nearest we can come is to put the appraised value on the tax notice."
Boats and other watercraft are valued the same way, using a Revenue Department guide, Cheek said.
The only way South Carolinians can make sure they're being taxed the correct amount is to check the appraised value on their property tax bill, Burris said. If taxpayers suspect the valuation is wrong, they can call one of the county auditor's offices.
Cars bought from an individual, however, should have the correct valuation on the tax bill. The car's title -- which includes more information that a new car's dealership paperwork -- is used to determine value, Burris said.
Burris said the bill for a car purchased at a discount or with a rebate will still be assessed at its suggested retail price, according to the Revenue Department's guide.
Though Hurd's bill was adjusted, he is concerned that vehicle owners may pay more than they should and has talked to state officials about making changes.
"I'm going to pursue it further because I think what they're doing is wrong," he said. "They are aware that they're doing it wrong, and they're choosing not to serve the taxpayer."
Burris said she doesn't expect the state to change its process any time soon, but said her office will help taxpayers.
"I want every one of my taxpayers to look at their appraised value and call us if it doesn't look right," she said.
Follow Anne Christnovich on Twitter at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufortCo.