real estate

Property taxes too high? Get help

"My assessment was lowered by about $30,000, and I didn't have to pay another company," she says. "All the information I needed was out there and available to the public."

Davis advises homeowners to first try to appeal their property taxes themselves and to turn to an outside company only if they need help.

"There was one year when I hired a third-party company for a couple of rental properties I owned because I truly didn't have time to appeal," Davis says. "The company saved me $600 in property taxes, but they charged 30 percent of the savings. Every other time I filed an appeal, I did it myself. It's not that difficult."

Who to hire?

Still, some homeowners may not be comfortable taking matters into their own hands. Those who opt for third-party help can hire either an independent company or an attorney to handle their tax grievance.

If you plan on using an attorney to help you with the appeals process, Lynch recommends going to acquaintances for recommendations.

"Ask your lawyer if they know someone who has a good reputation," he says.

An online search is a good place to start looking for a local tax-assessment-challenge company. When you contact prospective companies, have a list of questions ready, Davis says.

"Ask how long they've been in business, and who they've helped in the past," Davis says. "It would be ideal to get names and phone numbers of past clients as references."

Make sure the company or attorney who you choose is familiar with your county's residential assessment appeals processes and make sure they are licensed if that's required, says Mozer of Tax Reduction Services.

Before choosing a company, be sure to read all terms carefully and pay special attention to additional costs.

"You have to ask companies about their fee structure," Mozer says. "Some companies charge up to $250 for an appraisal fee. Others increase their fees to 75 percent of the savings if they're not paid within 30 days of being notified of a reduction."

Also, find out your obligations if there's a change of the property's ownership during the appeals process.

Some companies offer a middle ground between third-party and do-it-yourself property tax appeals. These companies provide assistance in preparing legal appeals forms, but homeowners are responsible for printing and mailing the documents.

Adam Berkson, co-founder of EasyTaxFix.com, says his Web site is one such business. It lets homeowners in New Jersey and California gather comparable house prices and appeals paperwork for a fixed fee of $49.

"Hiring a firm is an expensive proposition," he says. "Sometimes, homeowners just need a little bit of help instead."

Another compromise for homeowners is to initially protest the property assessment themselves. If they're denied, they then could bring in a third party to handle subsequent appeals.

If homeowners don't reach a resolution on their first try, they usually have the chance to request a more formal hearing, says Cooper.

"There are other options, including arbitration or litigation," Cooper says.

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