New Tools Help Owners Get Reduced Valuations; Saving Big in New Jersey
Kim Davidson lives in Bonita, Calif., a San Diego suburb hit hard by tumbling property values. Earlier this year, she made the best of a bad situation and appealed her tax assessment. The county reduced her annual tax bill by more than $1,000 to $3,500.
“I did the whole thing online and walked [my application] down to the mailbox, and a month and a half later, I learned I saved all that money,” says Ms. Davidson, a 44-year-old account manager for a business consulting firm, who purchased the home last year. “It was incredible.”
Tens of thousands of homeowners across the country are trying to wring something positive from an epic real-estate crash. In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which includes Cleveland, hit hard by rising unemployment and foreclosures, nearly 23,000 property owners applied for property-tax reductions this year, up from an annual average of 1,700. Appeals in California’s Sacramento County soared to 12,000 in 2008 from a typical rate of 1,800 a year earlier.
The number of property owners seeking a tax reduction in Clark County, Nevada, which includes Las Vegas, soared to 6,000 this year from about 1,000 annually in recent years. About three-quarters of those who filed appeals succeeded in having their valuations lowered, most by 30% to 40%, county officials say. The county already had reduced valuations across the board for the vast majority of its residential property owners, says Michele Shafe, assistant director of the Clark County Assessor’s office. She said staffers had to work overtime and Saturdays to keep up with demand for reassessments.
Many of the Nevada appeals came from homeowners in recent developments. “That is where people were paying $400,000 for homes that are now worth maybe $150,000,” Ms. Shafe says.
Many homes nationwide were last appraised prior to the housing crash and are valued for tax purposes at levels higher than today’s home prices. “If you have a three-year period between assessments and the last one was in 2007, your assessment is still at the top of the market,” says Jacqueline Byers, director of research for the National Association of Counties in Washington, D.C.
Homeowners who want to appeal their assessment in many cases can handle the process themselves, although it’s important to be prepared before going in front of an appeals board, tax experts say. People who want help can hire a property-tax consultant or attorney, but should expect to pay a fee, often 25% to 50% of the amount saved in the first year. And enlisting the service of a real-estate appraiser can cost up to several hundred dollars.
There are also a growing number of local and national online services that use automated property-valuation models to help consumers determine whether they may be able to reduce their property taxes. Initial evaluations are often free at these sites, which include EasyTaxFix.com and LowerMyAssessment.com. For a fee of $50 to $100, users can obtain forms with data already filled in and instructions on how to appeal, and a list of recent sales of comparable properties. Ms. Davidson of Bonita used EasyTaxFix.com to help with her appeal.
Such online services may be able to give you a convenient ballpark estimate of whether your home is overassessed. Tax officials say these sites’ results can be supplemented with information from other sources, such as local real-estate agents. Government tax officials also warn that scam artists have been trolling developments in California and elsewhere touting phony property-tax reduction services in direct mailings.
Nick Osnato, a real-estate appraiser in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., says he conducted his own appeal in March and succeeded in getting his tax assessment lowered by $30,000, saving him about $150 a month in property taxes.
“I looked for sales of homes that were the same size as mine, with the same lot, but that had a lower assessment. That’s it,” he says. Mr. Osnato estimates home values in New Jersey are down between 10% and 20% from a year ago, depending on the area.
Winning an appeal mainly requires producing enough evidence to convince the tax assessor or an appeals board that your property assessment is based on inaccurate or outdated information, or is unfairly high compared to similar properties. In some areas, homeowners have as little as two weeks to file a notice of appeal after receiving their tax bill, but 30 to 60 days is more common. That means homeowners have to be ready to scramble when the tax bill comes.
Check on whether you qualify for special property-tax reduction programs such as special exemptions for people age 65 and over. Then, examine property records for inaccuracies, especially square footage. The assessor keeps on file a property record-card that contains your lot number, zoning category, address, sales records, land value and dimensions, as well as significant features as recorded by the town appraiser. Check it closely for errors, including inaccurate descriptions of the property (say, a three-car garage instead of two). Also check whether significant defects like a leaky basement, which could lower the value of the property, are on record. Nowadays, many municipalities put this information online.
While you are at it, check the assessor’s math, particularly with respect to assessment formulas. Some areas use full-market value, replacement value or sales price. Others use a fraction of the market value.
Next, locate three to five comparable properties and check your property against them, making adjustments for differences. Sales data are available from your local government, or a licensed real-estate agent.
“Look for disparities that cannot be explained away, like the age of other properties or better lot configuration, or view. If those things can’t explain why the assessment is so much higher than others, you may have grounds to appeal on equitability,” says Pete Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union, an advocacy group.
If you think your property value is unfairly high, your next step is to contact your local assessor. If the property information on record is inaccurate, the assessor may be able to lower your assessment without a formal appeal. But if an appeal before an appeals or equalization board is necessary, you will have to produce evidence to support your complaint. Bring an appraiser’s report, if you have one, and records of comparable sales along with any other supporting documentation, such as photos, a surveyor’s report and contractors’ estimates. If your appeal is turned down, additional appeals usually are heard by a state court.
For more information about how to file an appeal, a brochure is available for $6.95 from the National Taxpayers Union at http://www.ntu.org/.
Experts say there are few drawbacks to applying to reduce your tax assessment. However, if you made additions and improvements to your home that were never properly recorded with your town — usually through a building permit — you might not receive a reduction, and could conceivably face an increased assessment.
Robert Chambers, administrator of the Cuyahoga County Board of Revision, which handles appeals in the Cleveland area, says the most common mistake homeowners make is failing to bring enough evidence about the house.
“Most of the time if a person is denied, it is because of lack of evidence,” Mr. Chambers says. “They say here is a similar bungalow or ranch, but they don’t adjust for age, square footage, etcetera, which is everything that a certified appraiser must do,” he says.
He suggests refraining from using a hearing as a forum to vent your rage at high taxes. “You are filing a legal affidavit that says the auditor’s value is wrong and I have evidence to show you that,” he says.