Appealing Your Property Taxes, a Primer
Spring is here and that means it’s time to… well, it’s time to appeal your property taxes. Not everyone needs to do this, obviously, but there are plenty of people who should. Do you feel like your most recent tax assessment was pretty high? Alternatively, is your tax record (you can usually find these online through your county assessor’s office) stuffed with wrong information that could be affecting your tax bill?
We’ll help you get it figured out. Welcome to your introduction to appealing your property taxes.
Is it Worth the Effort to Appeal My Taxes?
Everyone has their own idea as to what their labor is worth, so jumping through all the hoops to appeal your property tax is a decision that only you can make. But if you live in a high tax state like New Jersey, Illinois or Texas, the new tax laws may be really hurting you with deductible property tax now capped at just $10,000.
The process can be very time consuming, so a few hundred dollars might not be worth the fight, but a few thousand almost certainly are. You should ask a similar question before you hire a lawyer to handle a tax battle for you — will it be worth it in the end?
If you’re certain that you’re ready to dig in for a fight, then read on so we can help you lay the groundwork.
Challenging Small, But Significant Errors
One of the most common reasons that homes are improperly taxed is because their tax record is incorrect in some way. Common problems stem from the house being listed with more square footage, more bedrooms or more land than is actually there.
Older homes, especially, suffer from these problems because so many people have had their hands on these records over the years. Every time the government caught up to the latest tech, someone had to transfer all that information over again by hand. That makes it too easy to swap a three for a two, or transpose 2300 square feet into 3200 square feet.
To successfully fight your property taxes, no matter how you choose to do it, you’ll need to know what the tax assessor thinks about your place. If the assessor’s office believes you have an additional 900 square feet or an acre that you definitely don’t have, you should have very little trouble appealing your taxes.
Mind the Window, It’s Not Open Long
A really important item to keep in mind when you’re exploring this tax appeal is that the window for said effort isn’t open for very long. You can’t just appeal on a whim, so have everything ready as soon as you can or resolve to try next year. You’ll have to contact your county assessor’s office to find out just when the appeals window is because they can vary pretty wildly.
Just taking a quick stroll around the Internet reveals a huge range of deadlines to file those appeals, here are a few examples:
- Cook County, Illinois — Rogers Park Township: March 18
- Cook County, Illinois — Oak Park Township: April 19
- Washtenaw County, Michigan : July 31
- New Jersey: Apri 1, May 1, Dec 1, Jan 1 (depending on your situation)
Make sure you make real contact with your tax assessor because they can keep you informed about any and all changes to the way they’re handling taxes this year, as well as the deadlines that you have to abide by to stand a shot at reducing your tax bill.
Exemptions to Keep in Mind
Certain people, through service or simple longevity, have earned the right to reduced property taxes. That doesn’t mean they’ll get them right out of the gate, though — sometimes you still have to take it to the tax man.
Here are a few ways that you may get a break in your county:
- Homesteading. In many states, simply living in your own home is reason enough for an exemption. You may find that only part of your property’s value is taxed under a homesteading exemption, but check the rules carefully because some areas only allow this exemption if you meet specific criteria related to age and income.
- Seniors and Disabled People. Many high tax areas have rules in place to help protect the property of people who are older or have become disabled. If either of these statuses apply to you, call your tax assessor’s office and ask for details. Typically you have to income qualify.
- Military Vets. Vets who have served during wartime will often qualify for property tax exemptions, provided they were honorably discharged. Different states may tack on additional requirements, but many go the other way and will allow any military vet to receive the property tax exemption.
- Remodeling. Plenty of areas are willing to let you work your way to a tax exemption. For example, you might fix up a property that’s at least 25 years old and has fallen into disrepair. In Bismarck, North Dakota, you can get a five year exemption from paying on the value you added to the property just by bringing it back to life.
- Green Housing. Some states are greener than others, but the really green ones will happily exclude the value of your green improvements from your tax assessment. It makes it easier to go green when you know you don’t have to worry about paying taxes on those improvements right away, plus you may be able to claim additional tax credits on your tax return.
This is far from an exhaustive list of the property tax exemptions you may be able to claim in your county. Take a stroll down to your county assessor’s office or check them out online to see what exemptions are available in your county.
Supporting Documents for Tax Assessment Appeals
Beyond your exemptions and corrections due to incorrectly entered data about your home, you can further attempt to reduce your tax bill if you think it’s still unfair. You’ll need to come armed, though, because now the county will be putting up a fight.
The most important tools you can have in this war are an up-to-date appraisal, a comparative market analysis and documentation of any damage to the home since the last tax assessment (for example if the roof now leaks because a tree fell on it, that would certainly reduce its value).
An appraisal is a time-sensitive document, since it only describes your home during a set point in time. Don’t rely on an old appraisal to get a tax assessment reduction, instead hire an appraiser to perform one that’s all brand new.
The catch is that you may spend more on the appraiser than you will save this year, but if you plan on staying in your home for a while, even the smallest dent in your taxes makes an appraisal a good long-term investment.
Comparative Market Analysis
When you can’t have an appraisal done, either because it’s not cost-effective or because you’re cutting your county’s submission deadline close, a CMA could save the day. Real estate agents are not appraisers, but they can provide a great deal of insight of their own. Since they have access to information on homes around yours that have sold, they can help you figure out what values are right now.
Unlike appraisers, who are generally deemed competent to judge the value of a property, real estate agents aren’t always given the same benefit of the doubt, even though comps (comparable properties) are pulled using very similar criteria. Ultimately, a CMA that helps establish your home’s value is an iffy approach, but it’s still an informed one.
Documentation of Damage
Serious damage to your home can reduce its value. So, for example, say you had a major storm and now half the siding is gone and the brick on the front sheared clear off below the windows. This is no small thing.
Photographs, letters from the neighborhood association, copies of fines your HOA is threatening to impose can help. The downside? Well, your house is broken and devaluing further every time it rains. Also, too much documented loss of value could make your lender nervous, to the point that they call in your note.
Presentation and Waiting… and Waiting…. and Waiting…..
Your supporting documentation is vital to the fight against your higher tax assessment, so make sure you have copies to spare. Once you’ve submitted or presented your case for a reduced tax burden, it could be several months before you get an answer. Keep those copies at least through the end of the appeals process because if any documents have gone missing, you’ll need to be able to replace them quickly.
If you end up still owing as much tax as you did at the beginning of the process, you can generally appeal one more time. You’ll want to bring more ammo with you, so if your first attempt at appealing your tax assessment included a CMA and not an appraisal, go the distance and have that appraisal performed, too.
Keep in mind that what you’re appealing isn’t your tax rate, but the assessed value of your home. The same tax rate applies, just to a much less valuable piece of property. This is both good and bad for you. It’s good because, hey, less tax. It’s bad because you could literally be undermining your efforts to sell or refinance your property.
You’ll have a much easier time appealing your tax bill if you have a legitimate exemption that you can claim or there are errors in your tax records. This is the easy road, compared to the harder route of trying to convince the assessor’s office that they overvalued your home by mistake..
If You Need Property Tax Help…
Take a gander in your HomeKeepr community. You’ll find lawyers, real estate experts and even remodelers who can help with various aspects of your property tax appeal. Don’t give up if you meet some resistance at first, just call on your HomeKeepr crew to help you with the right documentation to prove that you deserve a break on your taxes.