Reassessing Property Taxes

With home values falling, many owners are counting on a tax break. So why are county assessors making it harder than ever to get one?

SmartMoney

The scene is all too familiar: A tax attorney in Weston, Fla., argues that his client's home value has dropped 8 percent in the past year, making his $25,000 tax bill far too high. Just outside New York City, a homeowner recounts her frustration when an assessor wouldn't explain why he valued her lake house higher than the neighbor's home. And in Chicago, a tax consultant loses her appeal, despite presenting evidence of sales of similar properties that suggest her tax bill is off by $1,200.

Most homeowners might think that tanking home values would have one silver lining: a lower property-tax bill. But despite the continuing housing mess, a surprising number say they're not getting quite the break they expected -- if any. And if the latest statistics are any indication, property owners aren't taking it lying down. Indeed, one out of every nine Mecklenburg County, N.C., residents filed an appeal last year. In New Jersey, home to one of the nation's highest property-tax burdens, appeals surged by 221 percent from 2008 to 2011. The issue has even caught the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear an Indianapolis case about denying refunds to taxpayers who say they deserve them. "I don't think I've ever seen this many frustrated homeowners," says Andrea Raila, a 22-year veteran tax consultant in Chicago.

Of course, with revenues drying up in the down economy, counties and states are equally frustrated as they try to drum up funds. But critics say some counties are making it harder to win reductions, much less file appeals. "It's subtle, but the hurdles seem a bit higher," says Norman Bruns, a tax attorney in Seattle. Mercer County, N.J., for one, granted 50 percent fewer revisions in 2011 than in the previous year.

Homeowners typically win appeals when they can prove that their house was valued above the market rate -- a figure generally determined by the recent selling price of nearby homes of the same size and condition. These days, however, there's a hitch: Few homes are selling. Ryan Kennedy, a tax attorney in Princeton, N.J., recently stumbled upon this problem when he couldn't find a recent sale with which to compare his client's two-family home. So he was relieved when he managed to find one in the next town over. ("It's the part of New Jersey where you don't even know where one town ends and the other one starts," he quips.) But Kennedy ultimately lost the appeal -- an outcome he attributes to having a sale price from a different town.

[Also see: 3 Recession-Inspired Home Remodeling Ideas]

And that's just the beginning of homeowners' woes. Many counties now let people appeal their bill online, arguing that it makes the process easier for everyone. But some say the technology doesn't allow enough space for supplemental information like, say, photos to show that there's been no new addition put on the home. (Some counties say homeowners are permitted to mail in additional evidence.) Rule changes have also proved troublesome. In Cook County, Ill., confused senior citizens recently flooded the assessor's office to ask why their taxes had suddenly skyrocketed. The reason, it turns out: A new law that went into effect in 2011 required them to reapply for an exemption each year -- a big change from the old system, which made it automatic. (Cook County's assessor says he's asking state lawmakers to overturn the measure.)

Some property owners report that hiring appeal specialists -- some of whom are also real estate agents -- can help those navigating the changing tax landscape, though it's worth considering that many of these pros take a cut of any refund they secure. Experts also note that tax lawyers, who used to concentrate on commercial real estate clients, are increasingly accepting cases from homeowners.

Still, even the pros can run into some surprises. Last year, Palm Beach County, Fla., decided that evidence could no longer be e-mailed or faxed in. So when Seth Lubin, a property-tax attorney in the county, discovered he didn't have time to mail documents before a hearing date, he found himself driving an hour each way to turn them in in person. "If they're trying to discourage people, this is a good way to do it," he says.

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