"I love paying my property taxes! I wish I could pay even more!" — said no one, ever.
Property taxes are one of the necessary but unpleasant side effects of home ownership. Personal Finance Expert and Author Jordan Goodman (aka America's Money Answers Man) notes that new homeowners often underestimate the amount of property taxes, along with other running expenses such as insurance and maintenance required for homeownership. They end up in a stage where, as Goodman puts it, "The house owns you. You don't own the house."
The amount of property tax that you pay depends on its assessed value. If that assessment overestimates the value of your home, you are paying too much in property taxes and should take immediate steps to rectify the problem. It's the first step to, as Goodman would say, owning the house and not being owned by it.
To determine if your home's assessed value is out of line, start by requesting your property tax card from your local assessor's office and reviewing it for errors. Some assessments are done on a drive-by basis, leaving a lot of room for interpretation and assumptions. Does the card have the basics listed correctly, such as square footage or number of bedrooms and bathrooms? If not, bring that to the assessor's immediate attention.
Next, find out how property is assessed in your area, because the guidelines are not universal. Some areas assess on full fair market value; others use a percentage. The definition of fair market value itself may vary from location to location, ranging from assessing replacement cost (plus land minus depreciation) or by sales of comparable homes in your neighborhood.
Armed with that information, see how your home stacks up against comparable neighboring homes. Since property tax bills are public information, it's likely that you can find the necessary information online to do a comparison, and real estate websites should allow you to find recent sale prices for comparable homes in your area. Make sure that your realty search is based on actual sale prices, not just listings.
To win any appeal, you should try to find as many comparable homes as you feasibly can — five is a good target.
If you believe the property tax savings will recoup your expenses, you can have an independent assessment done by a home appraiser. Keep in mind that the appraiser may decide that your home is actually under-assessed, so be reasonably confident that your home is overvalued before bringing in a professional to determine the extent of overvaluation.
Check to see if any property tax breaks are available to you, such as reductions or exemptions for senior citizens or veterans. Your state Department of Revenue is a good place to begin that search.
If you decide that you have a case for lowering your property taxes, find out from your local assessor's office how appeals are handled. It could be that a simple request for review does the trick. If not, make sure that you understand all the deadlines and obligations involved in filing a formal appeal in your area. In most areas, a board of appeals or similar group will address your concerns.
Finally, keep in mind that a lower assessed home value is great for lowering property taxes but is less desirable when it comes to the future sale of your home. If your property tax is realistically too high because of an error or a bad/incomplete assessment, it's good to correct that — but don't try to portray your home as being in worse shape than it really is. Aside from harming your resale potential, consider this: why would you want to give the impression that you live in a run-down home?
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