When Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and her husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, bought a 15,000-square-foot Atlanta mansion known as “Descante” for $10.5 million in 2009, it was the most expensive private home purchase in the city’s history.
The value of the estate, as appraised by Fulton County government officials for the purpose of calculating annual property tax dues, remained the same, $10.5 million, for the next seven years. Then, in 2016, the appraised value suddenly plunged to $4.15 million—a whopping 60 percent decline.
The result was a dramatic cut to the couple’s property tax bill.
Originally, they were paying $200,000 annually to the city and county governments. In 2016, after their home’s value dropped, they paid $90,000.
Since then, the appraised value of the home has risen to roughly $5 million, but they are still paying about $80,000 less a year than they did when they first bought. In 2018, the home was valued at $5.5 million, and the couple paid $115,000 in property taxes for that year. In 2020, the home was valued at $5 million, with a tax bill of $112,000.
The devaluation of the Loeffler-Sprecher estate, and lower tax bill, came after the couple invested significantly in improvements to the property. In 2015, they spent nearly $90,000 to renovate the kitchen, $150,000 to construct a new greenhouse, and $125,000 on various outdoor improvements, records filed with the city show.
And it’s especially striking given that Atlanta was undergoing a real-estate boom at that time. Home prices in the metro area surged by 81 percent from 2012 to 2020, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Seven of Loeffler and Sprecher’s eight closest neighbors saw their own property values increase as Descante’s fell, according to records maintained by Fulton County. The couple’s immediate next-door neighbors did see their home’s appraisal shrink—a far more modest decline from $4,152,800 to $3,269,100—but only after they filed an appeal with the county challenging the valuation.
“You know something’s wrong there, if there was just a singular discount,” R.J. Morris, a former member of the Fulton County Board of Assessors and a longtime tax activist, told The Daily Beast after examining tax documents with the names redacted.
What was behind the precipitous decline is not apparent in city and county records reviewed by The Daily Beast. In a statement, a spokesperson for Fulton County was unable to offer an explanation, either.
“The employees responsible for these changes, including the appraiser, the Residential Property Manager, the Deputy Chief Appraiser and the Chief Appraiser, are no longer within Fulton County and there is no documentation suggesting the cause of these changes,” said the spokesperson.
There is no indication that Loeffler or her husband acted improperly, or worked to have the value of their estate, and thus their tax bill, lowered through non-public means. The Georgia senator’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
But the unusual circumstances around the drop in the property’s official worth, and the lack of an explanation for it from county authorities, raise questions about how the process of valuing one of Atlanta’s most expensive homes unfolded.
Loeffler and Sprecher, a fabulously wealthy couple cemented in the ranks of Atlanta’s elite, snapped up Descante at the bottom of a recession that crashed the housing market. They got it for $7 million less than the original owners, the soap-opera moguls behind General Hospital and As the World Turns, were asking.
At the time, Loeffler and Sprecher were executives at the company he grew from a local energy-trading marketplace to a Fortune 500 behemoth that now owns the New York Stock Exchange. The seven-bedroom home in Tuxedo Park, an exclusive subsection of the tony Buckhead neighborhood, features lush, spacious grounds, a garage portico imported from Spain, several Renaissance-era European frescoes, and no fewer than nine antique fireplaces.
At the time their home’s value dropped, Loeffler and her husband were fixtures in Atlanta’s business, philanthropy, and society circles, and were also active in fundraising and giving for political candidates. But neither held public office of any kind. Loeffler was floated as a possible Senate candidate in 2014, but it was not until December 2019 that Republican Gov. Brian Kemp announced he would appoint her to the seat being vacated by former Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA).
Several Georgia-based property-tax and real-estate experts, speaking on background, told The Daily Beast that the decline in Descante’s value was very unusual. One reason is the sheer magnitude of it, often seen only when a property sustains serious damage. “Did they demolish the house?” quipped one Atlanta property tax guru, after the appraisal pattern at Descante was described to them by The Daily Beast.
Some longtime observers of Fulton County’s government speculated that the value drop may have been the result of some deliberate readjustment of the home’s value—or simply an error on the part of the assessor’s office. Either way, the move cost the county a significant amount of money.
A tax professional who deals with Fulton County regularly told The Daily Beast that seemingly inexplicable errors and changes in valuation—even those as dramatic as the one seen at Descante—are not uncommon among Fulton County’s hundreds of thousands of residential properties. “It’s a trainwreck,” the professional said of the county Board of Assessors, speaking anonymously to offer candid insights about its functioning. “They’re wrong a lot.”
In Georgia, where residential properties are appraised for tax purposes on an annual basis, a property owner can appeal the county’s decision if they believe their home’s value was inflated or miscalculated in any way. But there is no record that Loeffler and Sprecher appealed the county’s valuation of their home at any point. The tax professional speaking to The Daily Beast doubted that Loeffler or her husband took any moves to lower their property’s value.
The math behind the change, shown in annual county filings breaking down value calculations, centers on two things. One is a line item titled “gross improvements.” From 2009 to 2015, that line item accounted for $5 million of the home’s value. The next year, it was reduced to $0.
Another is a line item called “cost/design factor,” which professionals say is simply a reflection of how high-end the property’s amenities and architectural features are. In 2015, Descante’s value for that line item was 94 percent—an incredibly high figure. In 2016, that line item dropped to 24 percent; the reasons for the shift are unclear.
Beyond the messy accounting of Descante’s value was a messy political situation at the Board of Appraisers. The office was in the middle of a tumultuous period when it reduced the property’s value by $6 million. The chief appraiser in 2016, David Fitzgibbon, was fired in September that year amid complaints over his management of the assessment system and his use of public resources. He did not respond to calls for comment.
Morris, the former Board of Assessors member, characterized the appraiser’s office during Fitzgibbon’s tenure as “squirrelly,” incompetent, and plagued with rumors of malfeasance. The Daily Beast shared property tax documents for Loeffler’s home with Morris, while redacting identifying information about the address and its owners.
Knowing only that the owner was an elected official, Morris said it was unlikely any politician would attempt to meddle with their tax bill.
“I would be shocked. You’re smart enough to have a building in Tuxedo Park, which tells me you’re pretty smart, unless you inherited it,” he told The Daily Beast. “And you’re so stupid you turned around and got some government officials to lower your property value when it’s a public document?”
Morris noted that Georgia tax law includes a principle known as “uniformity,” which encourages counties to assess substantially similar properties in the same area at around the same level. Fulton County has consistently appraised the Loeffler-Sprecher residence at a higher value than its neighbors, even after its price plunged in 2016 and its peers continued to trend upward. At the same time that the couple’s home saw its assessment plunge, a new house wrapped work on a separate but adjacent lot also belonging to the pair, and received a first-ever appraisal of $1,192,900.
Since this home is in the same neighborhood as Loeffler and Sprecher’s regular abode, its lower value could act as a drag on the former’s assessment, Morris said. But it should have had a similar effect on all the other homes in the area. It did not.