September 7, 2020

Calculating property taxes


In late 2019 we started the process of buying our first house and found estimating property taxes in NY to be more difficult than it should be. I learned how to calculate taxes, found a state-provided tax spreadsheet, and wrote a small web app to estimate property taxes on the go.


Late in 2019 my wife and I decided to move back east after a little over three years in the Bay Area. We started looking at homes in New York and while there's plenty we had to learn about the home-buying process, what really threw me for a loop was how important it was to calculate property taxes.

Understanding the tax implications of each property is essential in planning a budget. A property tax difference of just $833 per month means an extra $10,000 per year. Assuming you live in the home for 10 years you're looking at adding $100,000 to the total cost of your home.

But getting to this total property tax figure isn't an easy task. First, property taxes are complicated to calculate. The tax for each property is a sum of taxes from a number of different entities like the county, town and school district for that property. Second, unlike sales tax which is often shown as a percentage, property taxes are usually presented as a mill rate.

What is a mill rate?

According to Investopedia:

The mill rate is the amount of tax payable per dollar of the assessed value of a property. The mill rate is based on "mills." It is a figure that represents the amount per $1,000 of the assessed value of the property, which is used to calculate the amount of property tax.

Ok so what does that mean for us? If you were to find a mill rate presented as a dollar value you could calculate the effective tax for that rate relatively easily.

mill rate * property value / 1000 = tax cost

For example:

A $20 mill rate on a $100,000 property would be $100,000 * 20 / 1,000 or $2,000.

As a first-time home buyer it was easier for me to think in percentages since it matched my model for other taxes. We can just move the decimal by one spot so that $20 mill rate becomes a 2% tax.

mill rate / 10 = tax percentage

To figure out what the tax impact of a property is going to be we need to start with adding up each of the individual taxes.

Multiple jurisdictions

Property taxes can be levied by a number of authorities for any given property. In New York state this means your effective property tax rate is the sum of:

  1. County tax
  2. City OR town and village tax
  3. School district tax

There may also be additional taxes for specific departments like the fire department. Finding the tax rates for each jurisdiction can be tricky. They're not easily searchable on Google and most search results show only county averages. Since the county is only 1 of multiple jurisdictions, however, taxes can vary significantly by property, making the average a less than ideal tool for estimating budgets. To determine the effective rate for any given property you need to get the tax rate from each of the separate agencies. Complicating things even further is the fact that a property can have a postal address for one town and be managed by another. If you live in a town you might also live in a village which applies additional taxes.

At first I tried finding rates on the county, city, or town websites. Not all municipalities listed this information publicly and some of it wasn't up to date. When I did find information it was presented in spreadsheets I had to download and parse. I started keeping notes for the tax rate as a percentage for each of the towns and villages we were looking in.

Building a calculator

I eventually lucked out and was able to find a state-wide list of property tax rates for each county, city, town, and village in New York. With this spreadsheet I could find the taxes for each entity and add them together for each house we were looking at. This worked well for houses we planned to visit in advance, but we'd often find new homes as we were visiting others. I wanted a quick and easy way to calculate taxes at any time from my phone which created the perfect opportunity for a mini web app.

I converted each of the tax spreadsheets into JSON and wrote a set of filters to show only the appropriate school districts and villages within a city or town. As you select each entity the following entities are filtered so you never have to worry about finding / matching the correct villages with your selected town.

Next I added an optional field to capture the estimated property value so you can see the actual tax implications in dollars. The results table shows the mill rate, tax rate as a percentage, and the total cost per year while showing the rates for each entity.

I used Bulma to simplify my CSS and wrote the rest in vanilla JS and HTML. Since there is nothing to save, hosting was as simple as pushing a new folder to my personal website. I made the site mobile friendly so I could visit it from my phone and it ended up coming in pretty handy as we looked for a home.

What I would do next

I'm not sure what the property tax situation is in other states, but if it's as confusing as it is in NY then I think it would useful to add additional states to the app. It would also be great to be able to save particular property tax estimates so you can keep track of multiple properties instead of having to fill out the form each time. Finally I didn't look into how this would work for other types of properties. I'm not sure how condos or rental properties are taxed for example. It'd be great to extend this to include more property types in the future. For now, however, the calculator got the job done for me and I've had plenty of home projects to keep me busy in a nearly 100 year old home.

January 17, 2019

Codea on Menus in iOS

I've been using an iPad Pro on and off for the past year and have yet to find a way to use it as my daily work machine. Some of this is due to missing applications like Sketch or Adobe XD, but also in the limitations of most iOS apps. Mobile apps are simple, accessible, and focused, but don't typically offer the robustness of desktop counterparts.

Codea recently addressed this gap as co-creator Simeon wrote in a recent blog post:

I realised six months ago as I was using my Mac, using the menus, that I need these things — menus — in Codea. I was trying to solve a problem that has been solved for decades.

So I set out to make the best menus I could make for iOS.

For simple apps, menus aren’t necessary, and that’s great.

But Codea isn’t a simple app and there’s nothing I can do about that.

What it can be is discoverable. Compared to all the options I considered, menus are exactly that, discoverable. You pull down a list of named features complete with shortcut keys (if a keyboard is attached). Then you activate that feature by tapping on it, or by dragging your finger and releasing.

Hamburger menus, side-drawers, whatever you want to call them, are a conventional way to bury additional and often unrelated functionality into an app. But they are much heavier than the good old-fashioned menu bar. They often pull out a whole modal side-thingy, maybe they slide all your content to the right. It’s a context switch for your brain.

Menus categorise items under common, plain-text headings, and they appear and disappear without fanfare.

I wanted menus that looked beautiful, looked like iOS, and felt great.

Simeon perfectly describes the missing component in many of today's productivity apps - discoverability. Features and complexity are often dropped for the sake of simplicity, sacrificing the value of the app. But Simeon doesn't just stop at adding menus to Codea, he dives deeper in a second post to focus on the interactions.

The other interaction I really needed for this menu was something I first noticed in Procreate, an iPad app for painting. It uses popover menus to allow the user to change tools and colours. Standard iOS popovers require the user to tap outside the popover to dismiss it before she can interact with the background. In Procreate, you can just start drawing and the popover dismisses.

This behaviour gives the menus their lightweight feel. They don’t stutter your interactions with the rest of the system. The clip below shows what happens when you scroll the editor with an open menu.

There are so many great details in this piece, but I particularly love how he handled scrolling for various device sizes and his brilliant implementation of dynamic button colors for increasing legibility (see the video).

February 11, 2018

The quantified self: Wedding edition

Who says you can't quanitfy love? I tracked my heart rate during our wedding ceremony in September and time-stamped a few highlights with the help of photos from family, friends, and our official photographer. I tried a few different tools for creating the chart (Google Sheets, Numbers, Sketch, etc.) but eventually landed on for the interactive annotations.


Plot 2

I wore the heart rate monitor under my shirt cuff to keep it out of the photos and against my skin. I'm sure it moved around a bit, but I was happy to see repeated measurements even after some of the steep drops or climbs.

Waiting for it to begin

My heart rate climbs slowly but steadily towards the beginning of the procession. The wedding party waited inside for everyone to be seated before the procession started. We could see the guests arriving, chatting, and getting to their seats through the windows of the auditorium we were waiting in. I definitely got more and more nervous watching and waiting.

Calm during the vows

A lot of friends and family have pointed out how the vows and then exchanging the rings seemed to calm me down a lot. It definitely did. I think part of the calm came from the most normal moment in the entire wedding. The whole day is this crazy ordeal. The two of you are the center of it, but it's not really about you. It's about celebrating with your friends and family, making sure the buses arrive when they're supposed to, remembering how slowly you have to step to take up all the time of the music during the processional.

But when it came to the vows it's really just the two of you again. Vows can be cliche and overplayed, but at the end of the day it was just me and my wife telling each other how we felt. Sure everyone else was there, but the words were just for us.

The glass

Oddly enough I was most nervous about this. Stepping on a wine glass isn't the most natural thing in the world. Not only that, but my father-in-law warned me not to step too hard as he'd actually injured his ankle at his wedding. You don't really get to practice either - unless you order extra glasses or have some at home you're not fond of.

Needless to stay I stepped a bit too delicately and needed a second attempt. If my heart rate wasn't up from the nerves it definitely was up from the embarrassment!

Blurred for friends privacy

Full day

Here's the full day chart from the actual Fitbit app. It's crazy to me that breaking the glass topped everything - including dancing at the reception!

November 16, 2017

How Twitter solved the character problem for different languages

Great writeup from Josh Wilburne of Twitter detailing the challenges of designing for the 140 character limit across the world. Two major aspects that stand out:

Automatic density-based adjustments

With this in mind, we designed a system that defines two types of written languages, dense and non-dense, and expands the character limit for non-dense languages.

Continuous insight

While I thought removing the UI until it was relevant would help alleviate the stress of the character limit, it ended up having the opposite effect; people were unable to properly plan their Tweet since they had no feel for how far along they actually were.

There's plenty to debate in the final implementation (as there always is in design), but I love the outside box thinking to classify languages, adapt automatically, and to show progress throughout composition, regardless of the language.

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