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posted: 10/25/2012 4:15 PM

How to appeal a property-tax bill

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As many as 60 percent of all homeowners are paying too much in property taxes. A successful appeal can save $100 or more, year after year.

Q. We purchased our home a few years ago, and it's now worth a lot less than we paid for it, but the annual property-tax bill that we recently received from the county assessor has gone up again even though the county has not imposed any special assessments. How do we go about filing an appeal to have the bill reduced?

A. As many as 60 percent of all homeowners are being "overassessed" and are paying more property taxes than they should be, according to the nonprofit National Taxpayers Union (www.ntu.org). Property-tax time is here, and several readers from across the country have recently asked questions similar to yours, so I'm devoting this entire column to providing some tips that can help those homeowners slash their bills.

Q. What's the first step I should take to obtain a reduction?

A. The rules to appeal an assessment often vary from one county to the next, so call your local assessor's office to find out the procedure in your area. Also, find out when an appeal can be filed: Most counties limit them to a specified time frame -- often 30 or 60 days after the bill is received.

It's also important to learn how the assessor determines how much taxes should be levied. Many base the figure on what the assessor believes is 100 percent of the home's current market value, but others base it on a fraction of that amount that's known as the "assessment ratio." If the property's estimated value is $100,000 but the local ratio is 80 percent, the assessed value for property-tax purposes should be $80,000.

Also check with the assessor to make sure that you're getting all the tax breaks that may be available. Many counties offer an automatic exemption that prevents, say, the first $5,000 or $10,000 of a home's value from being taxed. Others offer discounts and sometimes even waivers to owners who are elderly, handicapped, earn little or no income or are on active duty in the military.

Q. My bill states that my lot size is 6,413 square feet, but it's actually only 5,126. Is this cause for a reduction?

A. Absolutely. Your appeal may be easier than most because the assessor apparently prints rather detailed information on its annual statements. In most counties, homeowners instead must visit the local office or visit the assessor's website to view their home's "property record card" or similar document to find out how large the assessor believes the lot is, how much livable space the actual home has and related info.

An estimated 50 percent of all property cards have at least one error on them. The mistakes typically involve the lot size or the square footage of the home itself. But you might be overcharged for more obscure reasons, such as a permit that you pulled to finish a basement or to add a pool but never went through with the plans. When a permit is issued, the assessor automatically assumes that you completed the work and adjusts the bill upward.

The assessment office may reduce your bill automatically -- and thus allow you to skip the formal appeals process -- if you can prove that there are inaccuracies on the record card that have artificially inflated the taxes that you're expected to pay. Blueprints of your home's floor plan, title papers and other documents you received when closing the sale or photos of the unfinished basement or pool-less backyard can bolster your case.

Q. All the information on my record card is correct, but my tax bill is still about 15 percent higher than my neighbor, who owns a near-identical house. What can I do?

A. Assessors have to ensure that all homeowners are treated equally, so you have a pretty good chance of trimming the bill. Review the record card for your neighbor's property and other comparable homes in the neighborhood (they're a matter of public record) to see if the taxes that they are paying are at least 10 percent less than what the assessor wants to charge you. The more cases of disparities that you can provide, the better.

Q. My tax bill estimates that my home is worth $228,000, but comparable properties in my area are selling for $20,000 to $30,000 less than that. Does the fact that the assessor has obviously overestimated the value of my house serve as grounds for an appeal?

A. Yes. To prove your case that the assessor has overestimated your home's value, ask a local real estate agent to compile a list of recent sales in the neighborhood that are similar in size and condition as yours. Most agents will provide this service for free in the hope of getting your future business, and the report can be a valuable tool to earn a reduction in your bill.

You also can do your own sleuthing on recent sales by visiting such sites as realestate.com, zillow.com or trulia.com. Print out your findings and present them to the assessor when making the appeal.

You could even consider hiring a professional appraiser to estimate the value of your home. But before shelling out a few hundred bucks for the service, check the appeal rules in your particular county: Some assessors require appraisals, while others won't even allow them to be part of the process.

• Our recently revised booklet, "Fight Your Property Taxes and $ave," provides several other simple but effective strategies to appeal your bill and save $100 or more each year. For a copy, send $4 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to David Myers/TAX, P.O. Box 4405, Culver City, CA 90231-4405. Send questions to that same address and we'll try to respond in a future column.

2012, Cowles Syndicate Inc.

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