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Taxpayers Can Negotiate Reductions of their Excessive Property Taxes

Here are the steps to start an informal discussion with the assessor that may lead to a tax reduction.

Owners of large commercial real estate portfolios typically have internal staff to deal with assessed property values and the resultant taxes on a regular basis. But what about owners of small or medium-value properties?

How can a taxpayer, without knowledgeable staff or outside assistance, determine whether their assessment is fair or if they should seek an adjustment? And if seeking a reduction seems appropriate, going it alone through discussion with the Assessor may be productive.

Any such informal review or discussion should be the result of careful consideration and preparation. The following points are essential in that review and will help the taxpayer build and present a strong case for a reduced valuation.

Getting started

A government representative, usually the county collector, issues a property tax bill based on the value the county assessor has placed on the taxpayer's real estate. The property owner may launch an appeal to contest that assessed value. However, in many states, the tax bill arrives after the due date for appealing the assessor's valuation.

Owners should review their property's assessed value each year. Begin the process as soon as the assessor posts new values to its website, usually in January. If there has been no increase, the assessor won't provide a statement of the assessed value until it is included in the tax bill sent later in the year, at which time the appeal period will have ended in most jurisdictions.

If the assessor's value opinion is less than the taxpayer believes it should be, they can simply pay the taxes due and plan to revisit the assessor's website the next year. If the assessor's opinion is approximately the same or greater than the property owner's value estimate, however, the taxpayer should investigate further and consider whether to seek a meeting with the assessor followed by an appeal.Some jurisdictions (states) have cycles of more than one year so the valuation for tax purposes may extend beyond the first year's valuation date into the following year or years.

Know dates and procedures

Missing the filing deadline is fatal to any potential relief from property tax. Most jurisdictions will notify taxpayers of an assessment increase and provide the timeline for review on appeal. Even when an assessed value is unchanged from previous years, the owner may still deem the assessment to be excessive and worth appealing.

While the owner is entitled to appeal an unchanged valuation, in most states there is no obligation for the assessor to notify the owner of altered assessed value—at least not until the time for appeal has run out.

Learn the lingo

Appraisers, assessors, attorneys, real estate brokers and other professionals dealing regularly with property tax matters frequently use words and phrases unique to the valuation of real estate. These terms and their interpretations fill volumes of legal writing and serve as linchpins in court decisions and business transactions.

Taxpayers who familiarize themselves with valuation lingo will be better prepared to discuss value with assessing officials. (For a list of key terms and definitions, see Property Tax Terms.)

Call the assessor

Most assessors or members of their staff will meet for informal discussions prior to, and sometimes during, a formal appeal. Call to request a meeting and provide the assessor with a heads-up about which property or properties will be discussed. This will save time by ensuring the assessor's team has an opportunity to review their work and supporting data for an informed discussion.

The meeting will be informal. The assessor or representative will be prepared to defend the assessed value. It is important for the taxpayer to realize that value was probably, in whole or in part, generated by a computer.

Bring relevant materials and documents in duplicate so that a set can be left with the assessor's office. They may not want to accept them but give it a try.

The informal meeting is often the property owner's first opportunity to show the property was overvalued in the assessment. The owner will need to support their proposed value using at least one of three standard approaches to valuation, which are cost, income, and sales comparison.

Of these, a non-appraiser is most likely to apply a sales comparison. While adjustments may be necessary in the application of a comparative sales calculation, it is less complex and dependent on expert analysis than either the cost or income approach. For the non-professional, the fewer adjustments required, the better.

For example, developing an informed opinion of a single-family home value based on the sale of two nearly identical homes on the same street does not present a great challenge. The further away the sales occur and the more they differ from the subject property, however, the greater the challenge and the less reliable the sales become as comparatives.(comparables is the term appraisers use)

The cost approach, unless it reflects the actual and recent construction cost plus the land value of the property in question, requires the application of factors best left to professionals in the valuation field. The income approach is even more complex, drawing a value conclusion not from actual rent at the subject property but by applying market rents to the initial rates of return that provide the basis for prices paid for acquisition of similar properties.

Like the cost approach, income-based valuation is best left to the experts. However, an owner who owns and invests in income-producing properties may very well be able to show a lower valuation using their own formulas learned through experience and practice. If such be the case, present that opinion and back-up information to the assessor.

Escalate as needed

Assuming informal discussions fail to achieve a value reduction, the taxpayer must file a timely appeal or accept the assessor's opinion. Filing requires the owner to know and conform to the prescribed filing date. The taxpayer must also decide when or if they will engage an attorney to pursue the appeal.Jurisdictions vary on the point at which an attorney is required to pursue a formal appeal.Filing dates and the required point to seek expert assistance are critical and vary by state. It is up to the taxpayer to learn these dates for their area, and to act while there is sufficient time remaining to file and win an appeal.

Property Tax Terms

A general understanding of real estate valuation terminology is intrinsic to discussions with the assessor.

Assessed Value: The taxable percentage (usually set by statute) of the assessor's opinion of fair market value.

Fair Market Value: What a willing and informed buyer would pay to a willing and informed seller. Fair market value is not value in use, sentimental value, or personal value unique to the owner.

Deferred Maintenance: The property needs a paint job, roof replacement or similar repairs, in which case the cost of correcting the deficiency is deducted from the property's value.

Obsolescence: A curable problem of which the anticipated cost to cure is deducted from the value of the property without the problem.

Incurable Obsolescence: A problem on the property that can't be cured at any cost, such as loss of parking or loss of access due to a road project.

Jerome Wallach is a partner at The Wallach Law Firm in St. Louis, the Missouri member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys
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