Protesting your property
You've been watching the selling
prices of your neighborhood's homes decline month after month. You're
not alone. Single-family home prices had their largest quarterly
drop in 29 years, according to the latest
survey by the National Association of Realtors.
But there is a bright side.
As home values decrease, so do property assessments.
Just as assessments increased during the real estate boom, now they
should be lower. And a lower assessment means you'll pay less in
property taxes. If your property taxes haven't declined along with
your house's value, you should take action: Appeal the assessment.
fight city hall
Property tax increases are determined by home values, not set
by local governments. Different formulas are used to figure property
taxes, but all depend on a home's assessed value. Some jurisdictions
use a home's actual market value, while others use a percentage
of a property's worth.
Whatever value is used, it's multiplied by the local
tax rate to compute the property's final bill. As home values decrease,
so do their assessed values. Homeowners end up paying less even
though the tax rate stays the same.
The National Taxpayers Union, a Washington, D.C.,
advocacy group whose goal is to lower taxes, estimates that as much
as 60 percent of taxable property in the United States is over-assessed.
But despite the growing tax bills, only half of homeowners protest
their assessments. That means many may be paying more property taxes
property owner really should monitor his assessment every year, with a particular
emphasis in a reassessment year, if applicable," says Illinois state Rep. Franco A. Coladipietro
of the law firm of Amari & Locallo based in Chicago.
fail to fight because they don't understand the process (it is complicated) or
because they can't stomach doing the research and providing evidence to prove
the assessment is wrong. Instead, they opt for what Glenn Straus, president of
Straus & Co., a Dallas-based property tax consulting firm that works with
businesses, calls the cuss-and-pay system.
the bill and then they pay it," Straus says.
bad, since the appeal work isn't as difficult as homeowners fear. In fact, it's
something most can do themselves. Sure, the process is tedious and bureaucratic,
says Peter J. Sepp, the National Taxpayers Union's vice president of communications,
but it's no more difficult than representing yourself in traffic or small claims
If you really don't have the time, hire a property
tax consultant or attorney to do the work. Many of these consultants charge on
a contingency basis, meaning they'll take a percentage of the tax savings if they
succeed in lowering your assessment.
"Fees are charged
various ways," says Les Abrams, a property tax analyst with Nearhood Law
Offices in Scottsdale, Ariz. "Some will work on contingency, others will
charge flat fees and some will do work by the hour."
the appeals process
If you decide on a do-it-yourself appeal,
you first need to establish your timeline. When do assessments go out? When is
the deadline for appealing? Call your local assessor's office for this information.
along with the appeals process, can vary from locality to locality. So does the
amount of time permitted for an appeal. Sometimes a homeowner might have only
30 days to appeal. In other jurisdictions, you could have up to 120 days.
your request for an appeal arrives at the assessor's office even a day after the
protest deadline, you're out of luck and will have to wait until the following
year (or sometimes the next assessment, which could be longer) before you can
appeal. Straus says you might want to send your request for an appeal by certified
mail so you'll have proof that it was received before the deadline.
you receive your assessment, it's time to build your case. It's not enough to
bemoan how high your taxes are. Complaining about how those excessive tax dollars
are spent won't help either. You need cold, hard facts.
can be appealed on two grounds: a mistake in the assessment of your house or an
assessment at a higher rate than comparable homes.
Mistakes happen more often than you think. Many
assessors don't even come on your property to inspect it. They simply compare
a written description of your home with that of similar properties in your neighborhood.
Appraisers also may use historical information that's wrong.
A home's square footage, for example, might have been incorrectly calculated on
original construction documents.
Or the assessor may have
a slightly different view than you do of your home. "The assessor may be
counting a screened in porch as year-round living space and you only use it in
the summer," says Sepp.
Obvious mistakes aren't difficult
to spot. Is the inhabitable square footage figure correct? Does the assessment
say your home has four bedrooms when it only has three? But you also should consider
checking the assessment's accuracy by comparing it with a recent appraisal of
your property. If you don't have one, hire an appraiser for a new evaluation.
Make sure that any property changes, particularly those that
would negatively affect the value of your home, are part of the assessment. For
example, maybe a bridge has gone out near your home, making your house much less
accessible (and less valuable).
Don't forget any modifications
you've made. If you've torn down a garage to increase garden space, your home's
value likely would be less.
at your neighbors
The other way to challenge an assessment
is to see how your home stacks up to comparable houses in your neighborhood. Comparable
means homes of the same size, age and general location.
example, Straus lives in a 550-home subdivision in Texas. But even within the
subdivision, there are differences that affect value. Homes near a busy road in
the community are valued less than those abutting a quiet creek.
can find information on comparable homes and their worth at the assessor's office.
If you don't want to do the legwork yourself, hire a Realtor or an appraiser to
collect the data. Straus recommends getting comparisons on five to 10 homes.
you have your comparative data, go over the figures and decide whether you have
a case. If you believe that your assessment is too high, contact your assessor's
office and try to arrange a one-on-one, informal meeting. Sometimes simply pointing
out the facts can be enough for the assessor to lower an assessment.
says 95 percent of his commercial cases are settled informally without the need
of a hearing. Just be aware that when you meet with your assessor, it's a negotiation.
You may still end up with a higher rate than you'd like, but one that is lower
than the assessor's original appraisal.
to the hearing
If the assessor won't meet with you (and some
counties won't permit informal meetings) or you meet but fail to reach an agreement,
the next step is to protest the assessment.
Ask the assessor
what the deadlines are to file a protest and what the procedure is. Follow the
guidelines to the letter to ensure against your appeal being thrown out on a technicality.
your hearing, gather all your evidence and put it in order. For example, you may
want to collect photos of comparable properties or put the market data into a
spreadsheet that makes it easy for the hearing officials to see the basis of your
argument. Your presentation doesn't have to be as polished as Perry Mason's, but
being organized will help you put on the strongest possible case.
sitting in on somebody else's hearing before your appeals date. Here you'll see
how the board operates. You can also get a sense of what arguments do and don't
What if the board doesn't rule in your favor despite
your compelling presentation? You always can go to court, but in most cases it
will cost you more that the amount of tax money you might save. But you may not
need to take such drastic action. Many states have a state appeals board where
you can take your case if the local panel rejects your petition, Straus says.
And remember to stay composed and professional throughout
"Calling them SOBs is not a good negotiation
tactic," Straus says. "The appeal hearing is an emotional thing because
it goes straight to your wallet, but you have to stay calm."
C. McCune is a contributing editor based in Montana.