Friday, May 22, 2015

Property Taxes

Around this time of year, it seems like we get taxed coming and going. We get a bill for our income, then another for our house! There's no end! In reality, these taxes are being levied by different levels of government and property taxes play an important part in funding schools, public transportation and other important civic goods.

That said, there's no reason not to try minimizing your liability. If you can pay less, you should. The amount of your property taxes is determined by the value of your home, as determined by an assessor. The assessor looks at nearby houses, as well as improvements and features of your home, to determine what your property is worth.

Since assessments are scheduled affairs, you'll have a chance to prepare yourself before your house is assessed. If you want to cut your property tax bill, try these four tricks: 

1.) Follow the assessor 

You don't have to allow an assessor access to your home, but it's always a good idea. If they don't see the inside of the home, assessors usually make the least charitable assumptions. They'll assume you have the newest possible appliances and fixtures in your home. You should let them in and follow them around your house.

While you're doing so, be sure they take note of any flaws, damage or needed repairs. These can reduce the assessed value of your house. If you're not there pointing those out, they may never see them. They'll focus on the wonderful parts of your house and make the assessment based on that.

Additionally, following around the assessor and talking to him may encourage him to hurry the inspection. The assessor may miss new fixtures or overlook value-adding features of your house. By following them, you subconsciously rush them. This can also set you up well for an appeal (but more on that later). 

2.) Check for breaks 

Many localities have complicated property tax laws. They may allow for a standard deduction from your property tax bill. This is a portion of the value of your home that you're not responsible for in terms of taxes.

Other localities may offer specific tax benefits to seniors, veterans, and people with disabilities. Breaks may also be available for renewable energy projects, energy efficient appliances and features, and other green improvements. Because these breaks vary by region, they're usually not well-publicized. You may have to do some research to find out more. 

3.) Limit your curb appeal 

If you're not selling your house soon, you may want to hold off on landscaping until after the assessment. Assessors are just as influenced by first impressions and aesthetics as everyone else. A beautiful front yard sets the tone for an expensive house. That's exactly what you want for a potential buyer, but the opposite of what you want to show an assessor.

You shouldn't try to wreck your yard or do anything to compromise the value of your property. Such tactics will likely draw the attention of nosy neighbors and others who might consider your tasteless display a violation of zoning laws. Instead, just try holding off on major exterior improvements.

Minor tricks, like opening windows on one half of the facade to mess with the symmetry, can be effective in marring the assessor's impression of the house. You might also hold off on resealing driveways and cleaning vinyl siding until after the assessment. These little tricks can nudge your property value down a bit. 

4.) Appeal your assessment 

If you're really unhappy with your tax bill, you can appeal the decision of the assessor. To do this, you'll need to research quite a bit. Finding your property card at the county courthouse is the first step.

Your property card lists details about your home, like square footage, number of bathrooms and so on. Identifying errors on this card can be an easy way to set up your appeal. You can also find out how quickly your property is appreciating in value, according to the assessor's opinions. This will allow you to compare how quickly your property is increasing in value compared to others in your area.

You'll also want to research comparable sales in your area. Find houses of similar size that have sold in the last year, and find the home value assessed to your neighbors. Property cards are public records, and in many areas are available online. This information can help you make the claim that the assessor has unfairly valued your home.

To start your appeal, you'll likely need to visit the county courthouse and speak with a records clerk. They can direct you to the necessary forms. Be sure you've made copies of all supporting evidence and prepare your argument in advance. The first step will likely be an informal appeal, where you speak with a representative from the assessor's office. If that fails, there are several other appeal levels available.

Property taxes can be a pain, but they're one of the costs of home ownership. Know that you're protecting the value of your home by investing in good schools and safe streets. Best of luck with the tax man!

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