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How to Get the Most Money When the Government Takes Your Property

Blog by Gillian Katsumi
February 8, 2020
"Eminent domain" is the power of local, state or federal governmental bodies to take private property and convert it for public use. “Condemnation” is the legal process by which a government body exercises its right of eminent domain to acquire property from private owners for public use. Often, the government invokes eminent domain for public works projects such as road widening, installation of new electric or plumbing lines, or the construction of new schools, libraries or other public-service properties. While the government does not need an owner’s consent to take property under eminent domain, it must show that the property is for “public use” and that it is only taking land that is “necessary.” Additionally, the Fifth Amendment states that the government may only exercise this power if they provide “just compensation” to the property owners. 
If you have been notified that the government wants to take your property under eminent domain, your first questions might be, “can I stop the process?” and “what is considered ‘just compensation’?” In North Carolina, the eminent domain process can only be stopped if the proposed taking does not meet the requirements for public purpose or public necessity. In most cases, you will not be able to prevent the condemnation of your property; however, you are legally entitled to just compensation. What exactly is “just compensation” for your property? The appraised value of condemned property will be based upon the “highest and best use” of the property. “Highest and best use” of the property must be physically possible, legally permissible, financially feasible and maximally productive. An appraiser determines a property’s highest and best use by evaluating those four categories, looking at the range of uses that qualify under each of those categories, and making a conclusion about which possible use will result in the highest market value. The determination of highest and best use can be the most important factor in whether a landowner is properly compensated for their condemned property. This posting will help you better understand the eminent domain process and review things you may do to get top dollar for your condemned property. 
Gather as much information as possible. 
One of the best ways to increase the offer you receive from the government is to build up as much information on your eminent domain case as possible. The government is required to compensate you for the “fair market value” of your property. However, what is considered to be “fair” market value can be interpreted in many ways. Appraising is not a science; it is simply an informed opinion and appraisers do make errors and disagree. 
The state appraiser hired in an eminent domain case is a professional with experience in eminent domain appraisals. They will inspect the inside and outside of your home and will almost always call or send you a letter before they arrive. It is extremely important that you are with the appraiser during your inspection so that you can show them the more attractive features of your house or property. 
When property owners are presented with what they believe is a ‘low ball’ offer from the government, they typically exercise their right to another appraisal. What property owners often fail to realize is that not all appraisers are equal, and not all appraisers will be appropriate for the job entailed in an eminent domain case. Eminent domain cases are not prevalent, so many appraisers lack the experience necessary to accurately value property at its “highest and best use” in eminent domain. You should be wary of selecting an appraiser on your own because hiring the wrong appraiser can be detrimental to your determination of just compensation in your case as all appraisals are discoverable and can be used against you in court. 
While we strongly caution against hiring an appraiser on your own without consulting an eminent domain attorney, you can conduct research on your property on your own. For example, looking at prior home or property sales in your neighborhood will give you an idea of how much money you can expect for your property. This information can be helpful in ensuring that you receive the true value of your property. The more information you present the government with, the better your chances are to receive a fair compensation. 
Understand your right to fair compensation.
It is important to remember that you, as the property owner, have many rights in an eminent domain case. The most important right you have is to be compensated the fair market value for your property. Crucially, this means that you have the ability to assess whether or not you think the government’s offer is fair. If you do not believe it is adequate compensation, you have the right to counter the government’s offer. An eminent domain case can progress all the way to court when the condemning authority files its condemnation lawsuit, and a judge could rule in your favor and you could receive more money. Having an experienced eminent domain lawyer to fight for your rights can make a big difference in the final compensation decided on by the jury. 
Hire an eminent domain attorney. 
Once the condemning authority (typically the NCDOT or your City/County Planning Division) holds public meetings to inform the public of upcoming projects and their effects on private property, it is highly recommended that you hire an eminent domain attorney. An eminent domain attorney can review your appraisal offer and determine the strength of your case. Depending on the complexity of your case, the amount of damages and differences in valuations, an attorney may proceed with your claim to help your recover additional just compensation. An eminent domain attorney can be with the appraiser during the appraisal of your property to ensure that nothing is missed that could positively impact your potential compensation. A skilled eminent domain trial attorney should also be able to interface with the condemning authority on your behalf and be able to take your case to trial if negotiations cannot be reached. 
Most importantly, an attorney can hire their own appraiser to check that the state appraisal is as accurate and complete as possible. Appraisers are allowed a reasonable amount flexibility when making land value determinations, so it is in your best interest to avoid using an appraiser who predominantly works for the government. Appraisers who do a large amount of work for governmental bodies tend to use this degree of flexibility to favor the condemning authority.  As there are multiple acceptable methods to value your property, you want your appraiser to apply the one that is in your best interest. The government’s methodology is not always wrong; however, the gray areas of eminent domain appraising make selecting the wrong appraiser a potentially fatal mistake. This value determination directly affects the amount of compensation you will receive, and you will more than likely not get a second chance if this is done incorrectly the first time. Speaking to an attorney before hiring an appraiser on your own can make or break your case.
Contact the Taibi Law Group today!
While it may seem unfair, the government has a constitutional right to obtain your property if it is required for public use. However, the government cannot follow-through with its right to eminent domain unless you approve compensation, which gives you a great deal of power in your case. Thus, obtaining as much information as possible, understanding your legal rights, and finding an experienced attorney to work with you can help you get the most for your property. Our team of lawyers at Taibi Law Group have the knowledge and skills to work with you and fight for top dollar for your property.