Realtor/science writer/self-proclaimed “house geek” Hannah Holmes on the fuzzy math behind Maine’s mill rates, her sportswoman mother’s pro-trespassing stance, and more.
Illustrations by Christine Mitchell Adams
I’m thinking about retiring to Maine. Any places where the property taxes won’t kill me? I prefer a rural, small-town feel.
Luckily for you, the state publishes a list of “mill rates” on maine.gov. These are the rates of taxation for each $1,000 in property value. The impact of that mill rate, however, is not so obvious. In 2016, for example, Portland property owners paid about $18 per $1,000, while in nearby Harpswell residents paid about $6. Generally, citizens in towns with pricey second homes, or big commercial complexes, fare well because those properties shoulder a large tax burden, bringing everyone else’s down.
Complicating matters, the mill rate surfs atop a wobbly wave of “assessed value.” A town has to assign a value to each property so that it can spread the burden of the annual budget evenly. Town-wide assessment is costly, and hence rarely updated. Thus assessed values can drift far from market values, obfuscating the impact of a mill rate.
The tires you’ll really want to kick in a “low mill rate town” are the services. Many of these municipalities have no local police and rely instead on a county sheriff or state officers. The firefighters may be volunteers. You might schlep your own garbage to the transfer station, and maintain your own well and septic system. One building inspector could serve many towns. And once a year the entire populace may be invited to “town meeting” to debate and vote on the next year’s budget. During the tedious portions of that meeting, your neighbors will be scouring the annual report for tax delinquents — so make sure you’re paid up.
When is it appropriate to post “No Trespassing” and “No Hunting” signs on your property? I want to know before I upset anyone.
ALICIA CAROLINA, SPRINGFIELD
This is indeed a ticklish subject! When “No Hunting” signs began to appear in the 1970s, my mother, who hunted deer wearing a little red blazer she sewed herself, painted some cheeky signs to post around our property: “Yes Hunting!” Mom is a wildlife biologist, not a bloodthirsty maniac. She thought it sensible to control the deer population by eating them, rather than by barreling into them at dusk in the family station wagon.
Maine has a long tradition of hunting wherever the deer (or trout or clams) might lead. In fact, by law, you’re free to hunt on any land that’s not explicitly posted otherwise. But a series of horrible hunting accidents and increasing urbanization have made more homeowners fearful that their children or pets could be killed in the backyard. So when I ran this question past George Smith, of Mount Vernon, a longtime hunting advocate and former executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, he was notably unoffended.
“There are all kinds of reasons to post your land,” he says, “including just wanting to know who’s using it and where they’re going to be.” Even his own property is posted “Hunting With Permission Only.” He grants access to anyone who asks, but the personal connection has eliminated the trash people used to leave behind. If a burgeoning deer population is mowing down your azaleas or blocking your driveway, this may be the ideal solution.
Our wraparound porch has a flat roof and we are worried about wet snow accumulating there. What do you suggest?
JILL TURNER ODICE, AUGUSTA
Flat roofs aren’t common in these parts, for reasons that may be obvious. Nonetheless, both flat-roofed apartment buildings and mansions can be found among the old-house population, and a porch roof is almost always flatter than the primary one.
The good news? Flat roofs were built to stand up to the snow load. The bad? They were also built with little to no insulation. In the old days, this allowed heat from the home to rise and melt the rooftop snow. The water would run off (flat roofs are actually slightly tilted), lightening the load. Adding insulation to an old building alters this balance. Snow is more likely to linger and grow heavier as it becomes saturated with water.
The only way to know how much your roof can handle, says Topsham architectural historian Scott Hanson, is to have an engineer analyze the building as a system, taking all modifications into account. “But most people do not go to that extent.” Instead, he recommends removing snow from a flat or low-pitched roof when it gets deeper than 8 to 12 inches. “With that much, if rain is expected, it’s particularly important to get it shoveled off.
This is our first winter in Maine. Is there anything we need to do to prep or protect our well?
BEATRIX BALDWIN, STOCKTON SPRINGS
The well itself is weatherized by nature, more or less. Down in the “well zone,” temperatures hover at about 50 degrees, warmed courtesy of the planet’s still-smoldering core. And since most pumps reside down in that water, they’re well protected. (Heh.)
But if your pump is the surface type, that’s … unfortunate. If it’s outdoors, it probably already has some type of “pump house” to soften the horrible reality of winter aboveground. If the pump is inside the basement, that’s somewhat safer.
But basements aren’t necessarily safe. In a particularly leaky basement, the water can shed heat until it freezes, rupturing the pump or pipes. By insulating these, you can protect that earth-warmed water. (It’s a lot more efficient, but a lot more expensive, to insulate the whole basement.) Another trick is to leave faucets trickling on super-cold nights, which continuously pulls “warm” water through the pipes.
The caveat: If you’re shutting down a home for the winter, then you will need to thoroughly drain the whole system. Have a plumber or well driller walk you through this process before you attempt it yourself.
Hannah Holmes is a real estate broker at Keller Williams Realty Greater Portland and the author of four science titles, including The Secret Life of Dust and Suburban Safari. A veteran renovator of old houses, she blogs about humans and their territorial issues at geekrealtyblog.com.