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[The Hall Monitor] The Value Of Land At Walden Pond

Todd Huttunen began appraising more than 20 years ago with a few years off in between to pursue a career in cabinet making. He relegated that to hobby status and is currently an appraiser in an assessor’s office. His best friend dubbed him The Hall Monitor because of his rigidity and respect for rules (and pretentious, arrogant, know-it-all seemed a little harsh). He offers Soapbox readers tongue-in-groove insight on appraisal issues. Today Todd asks the question : If an assessed value exceeds construction costs, will the assesor make a sound? …Jonathan Miller


Henry David Thoreau published “Walden”, in 1854. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

He built his cabin in 1845 and in 1846 he spent a night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax. That experience led to the publication of Civil Disobedience [1] in 1849. Now, maybe I’m just sensitive because I work in an Assessor’s office, but when I look back at his writings from that time, I can’t help but think that the Concord Assessor had his hands full with one Henry David Thoreau when the time came to assess his new house. Although the “letters” that follow are a total fabrication on my part, I have borrowed some of Thoreau’s own words which you will have no trouble discerning from those which I put in his mouth.

Dear Sir
I have recently completed construction on my humble abode and am fully cognizant of the fact that you, as Assessor, intend to place a value on it which will be used to apportion my fair share of the Concord property tax. There can be no question that you are familiar with Mr. Sam Staples [2], Tax Collector and Jailer, who only recently locked me away for a night due to my refusal to pay the poll tax. I make mention of this only to remind you that I take the issue of taxation quite seriously and, with regard to the property tax, I have studied the law and am confident that your assessment cannot exceed the actual cost I incurred to construct my house, which details are as follows:

I have thus a tight shingled and plastered house, ten feet wide by fifteen long, and eight-feet posts, with a garret and a closet, a large window on each side, two trap doors, one door at the end, and a brick fireplace opposite. The exact cost of my house, paying the usual price for such materials as I used, but not counting the work, all of which was done by myself, was as follows; and I give the details because very few are able to tell exactly what their houses cost, and fewer still, if any, the separate cost of the various materials which compose them:

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These are all the materials, excepting the timber, stones, and sand, which I claimed by squatter’s right. I have also a small woodshed adjoining, made chiefly of the stuff which was left after building the house. As “Cost tends to set the upper limit of value” I respectfully request that you set the assessment for this property at its actual cost of $28.12 (rounded).

Obediently yours,
Henry David Thoreau

The Assessor responds:

Dear Mr. Thoreau,
Impressed as I am with your knowledge of construction and your meticulous record keeping, your understanding of the real property tax law is less than comprehensive. You are correct when you state “cost tends to set the upper limit of value” however, your recitation of costs has several glaring omissions, notably the value of the land. You may in fact be a squatter who paid nothing for the land, nevertheless, it has value as evidenced by the fact that the eleven acres, one of which you occupy, sold just last year for $8.08 per acre.

Further, although you may have done all of the work yourself, I am obligated to assess the value of that work irrespective of the fact you incurred no cost. Since you started building in March and took occupancy in July, I am estimating labor at $100 ($1.00 per day @ 100 days).

Lastly, you have failed to allow for entrepreneurial profit, which, in this case accrues to you at 15% of your direct costs – $28.12 x 0.15 = $4.22.

The tentative assessed value, which includes land value as well as direct and indirect costs, is hereby set at $140.00.

If you disagree with this assessment, you may file a formal grievance with the Board of Assessment Review. Please do not hesitate to contact me if I may be of any further assistance.

Faithfully yours,
Assessor, Town of Concord