Why Old Stuff Gets Torn Down: Property Taxes

Below are three abandoned houses in Winneshiek County.  Two are log, one is framed, and all three are significant mid 19th century buildings anyone would be foolish to tear down.  The first house is a huge Norwegian-built three room log house with attached entry sval.  It was likely built sometime just before or just after the civil war.  It’s the most materially intact and substantial 19th century Norwegian-built house I’ve ever located.  Truly a gem!  It was abandoned in 1922 and has sat empty since then, and today is used for storage (it sits on a working farm) and as a sheltered place to house an electric fencer for cows.  The county classifies this building as a “20′ x 30′ agricultural shed” with an assessed value of $6,750.  The yearly taxes on just this building (not talking land or anything else) is $380 a year!  Holy shit, why wouldn’t you just get rid of it!  Should a building like this be taxed at all, given it serves no value to its owner, other than perhaps a sentimental one?  What about it being the most significant log building within the state, does that earn you any brownie points with the Winneshiek County Assessor?  No.  Totally stupid.  Buildings such as this- old “sheds” as the county calls them- shouldn’t be taxed at all.  Fortunately, its owner understands it has value and continues to pay annual taxes on it and has even gone to the extent of replacing its roof two years ago.

The second building was occupied until sometime during the late 1990s.  Prior to its abandonment, the county assessed its value (minus credits and whatnot) at around $16,000 with annual taxes hovering in the $750-800 range.  Instead of it falling off the tax roll when it went abandoned, the county now classifies this building as “salvage” with an assessed value of $2,500.  A decade after this building went abandoned, its owner continues to pay somewhere between $220 and $250 a year in taxes!  Exactly what is “salvage” anyway?  The value of the building down, in other words, the value of its building components, I guess.  Really?  The county actually continues to tax something it admits has no value standing whole?

The third building is a very old abandoned farmhouse that sits north of Decorah in Pleasant Township.  Its owner died about ten years ago and the property was transferred to their children who have since sold the farm.  Despite having sat empty for nearly a decade, the county still assesses its value at $38,350, which amounts to a yearly payment of roughly $1,075!  The county is very reluctant to take once-lived-in houses off the tax roll or reduce their assessment to “salvage” state for fear the assessor will return years later to find someone living there.

Abandoned ninety years ago, this gem of a log house is taxed $380 a year. Where's a match?

Instead of logically falling off the tax roll when it went abandoned fifteen years ago, the county instead claims this structure has a "salvage" value of $2,500 and taxes its owner $220-$250 a year.

The county refuses to take once-lived-in buildings off the tax roll for fear they'll be reoccupied given a lower assessment. This house was abandoned ten years ago and is still being taxed at a full assessed value of over $38,000, amounting to a yearly tax liability of $1,075. (photo courtesy Winneshiek County Assessor)


2 thoughts on “Why Old Stuff Gets Torn Down: Property Taxes

  1. David R

    should actually get a tax credit to subsidize stabilization and recognition of historic character that improves a neighborhoods value

  2. C.R.

    Good post. This blog is very interesting, and I had known very little about log construction in the Upper Midwest prior to discovering it. I’m curious to know how the author gains access to so many log buildings, though. I’m attempting to do similar research in Ohio, but I haven’t had the same level of access to structures that he has.

    Finding information about taxed buildings (via the county assessor’s website) is easier than finding information about structures that are not taxed. I’ve noticed that most assessors only photograph residential buildings on any given parcel, and if a building is completely ignored for tax purposes, no pictures of it are available. At least taxation enables researchers to locate buildings with greater ease (and without having to physically visit them).


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