Receiving a phone call or letter from the government notifying you that they will be taking your property under the right of eminent domain can be daunting. You may feel like there’s nothing you can do, and you have many questions. What is the process like? What is going to happen to my family? Our land? Our business? How can I be assured I will be compensated fairly? Who can I trust?
Knowledge is power. And understanding what will most likely happen may make the process a bit easier for you to endure. Here are some answers to questions our clients typically have.
What is an eminent domain appraisal?
An eminent domain appraisal can run from about 50 to 100 pages long. It only vaguely resembles the typical four- to five-page home appraisal most people are familiar with. Without eminent domain experience and a tremendous amount of time and research, it can be extremely difficult for many people to spot errors that an appraiser may have made. And they do make them. Appraising is not an exact science.
The state-hired appraiser is a professional with experience in eminent domain appraisals. They will typically inspect your property (including the inside of your home) so that the government understands the value of the property and how much to potentially compensate you. The appraiser will almost always call or send you a letter before they arrive. And they will generally attempt to work with your schedule so that you can try to be home during the inspection.
It is very important for you to be with the appraiser during your inspection so that you have an opportunity to show them the more attractive features of your house or property.
We have seen instances where the state appraiser noted less attractive or less valuable parts of a home when homeowners were not present to point out the features of value. (One time, my colleague saw an appraisal photo that showed the inside of a toilet.) It is important that the appraisal reflect a piece that is an accurate representation of what you are losing so that you will be compensated fairly.
If you feel the appraisal is way off, you may be tempted to hire your own appraiser. We would urge you not to hire your own appraiser for a number of reasons.
It may be beneficial to hire an experienced eminent domain attorney when you are first contacted by the appraiser. An eminent domain attorney can be with the appraiser during the appraisal to try to ensure that they do not miss anything that would positively impact your potential compensation. Or the attorney may hire their own appraiser to “double check” that the state appraisal is as accurate and complete as possible.
What if I want to forestall the appraisal to make improvements?
Some people think that if they repaint their house or construct a new deck then the value of their home will go up in the state’s eyes. This is most likely not worth the expense and effort on your part. In cases where the state will be taking your entire property, they will most likely knock down your house.
On the other hand, if you have unsafe areas such as wobbly stair railings or a rotted deck, then it might be a good idea to go ahead repair or demolish them. This adds an unnecessary risk to the house that you don’t want the appraiser to see.
What do right-of-way agents do?
A right-of-way agent’s primary responsibility is to explain the project that is causing you to have to give up your property. They will try to help bring transparency to the project so you can see what is happening and learn who will own the land and how much they will own. They will ask you general questions about your property. However, you are under no obligation to answer them all. They are also there to try to acquire access to your property – all or part of it.
Learn more: The Right of Way Agent
We got an offer from the state. Now what?
You will eventually get an offer for your property. If you have not hired a lawyer during this process, this is the crossroads where we strongly urge people to hire one.
Experienced eminent domain lawyers can strive to get you the compensation you deserve, especially if you think that the government is low-balling you, which they often do. After all they are just like any other buyer trying to get the best deal. Further, they’re buying with taxpayer money, so there’s a responsibility to use state funds wisely.
Our lawyers have a combined 85+ years of experience working on eminent domain cases. Plus, there are only a handful of eminent domain attorneys in North Carolina who have prior experience working as NC assistant attorneys general. We have several of them at our firm – myself, Jason Campbell, Ken Sack, and Kevin Mahoney. We left the state to work for the NC Eminent Domain Law Firm because we saw too many property and business owners leaving good money on the table during negotiations. We have what some would call inside experience. We know which experts to call on to try to show your property in its most favorable light.
Since our law firm has been in business we’ve increased the average offer for our clients by 208.1%1.
Will we have to go to court to get what we want?
If you are unsatisfied with the offer, the NCDOT will file its condemnation lawsuit “taking you to court” to acquire the property it needs and deposit an amount of money that they think is fair compensation. This amount is based on what their appraiser told them your land was worth. If you still feel like this is not adequate compensation then a jury will ultimately determine a fair value.
Usually, the final compensation meets somewhere in the middle of what you wanted and what the government was willing to offer. However, there is no guarantee of what compensation the jury will decide. Some people may think that if they go to trial and tell the jury what they want, the jury will be sympathetic because they feel they are the innocent bystander who is being railroaded by the NCDOT. However, jurors are taxpayers, and it is taxpayer money the NCDOT is spending. This is why compensation typically – not always – meets somewhere in the middle. Again, this is where an experienced eminent domain lawyer can make a big difference. Read one client’s story of his experience with a jury.
Which part of my land is the NCDOT taking?
It may be a bit confusing when the government takes part of your land and you’re subsequently unsure of what you own and what the NCDOT now owns. The right-of-way agent might try to explain this, but you may not understand the jargon. The government is not required to ensure you understand exactly where your property ends by providing physical markers or documents that make sense to you. Their documents and markers make sense to them and that is what matters from their perspective. If you want physical markers of your land’s new boundaries you will need to hire a surveyor out of your own pocket to mark the land.
I can’t afford to hire an eminent domain attorney.
Everyone wants more for their property when it is taken by eminent domain. But many people think that they can’t afford to hire an attorney to help fight for more. That is wrong (at least if they hire us).
We don’t charge upfront, or by the hour. We only get paid a percentage out of the increase we are able to obtain for you over what the government already offered you.
Better still, if we take your case, we’ll front all costs – things like hiring necessary experts and travel. If at the end of your case, you don’t receive more than the government’s initial offer, you never have to pay us anything back. Guaranteed.
By hiring us you have nothing to lose and potentially a lot to gain, as this eminent domain client reasoned.