Pay too much property tax? Try arguing it down

As president of Taxpayers' United of Illinois, Jim Tobin has spent 20 years fighting rises in taxes on income, businesses, and goods.

But when it came to his home in the Chicago suburb of Berwyn, Ill., Tobin hired a lawyer to protest the valuation of the three-storey brick building.

It took at least three appearances before Cook County's tax-appeals boards, but Mr. Tobin has just learned that his tax bill is due to drop by more than $700 a year.

Tobin hired a lawyer after finding one who would only bill a percentage of whatever Tobin saved. But anyone can represent himself or herself in protesting the tax man's valuation of a home.

And more homeowners might want to consider doing so. The National Taxpayers Union estimates that tax assessors overvalue as many as 60 percent of residences.

"It is a major problem," says NTU spokesman Pete Sepp, based in Alexandria, Va. "Property taxes can be one of the single largest sources of tax liability a person has."

And few people are protesting, Mr. Sepp adds. "Owners under 60 barely give it their attention," he says.

Property-tax bills are normally rolled into mortgage payments, which include other items, such as homeowners and private mortgage insurance, as well as principal and interest. As such, changes can be relatively hard to spot.

Further clouding the issue are local rules and valuation procedures. Bills can range from simple statements showing what is owed to lengthy reports on which taxing body gets what.

Assessments may come from one office, with instructions to take complaints within a specified time to another office.

Assessors can be affected by a home's general upkeep, or lack thereof. They may be charged with "penalizing" a homeowner with a higher assessment than that of a neighbor with a comparable house, just for investing in his or her property's appearance.

And, Sepp points out, it doesn't help that valuation formulas may have little relation to the true market value of a home.

Property-tax critics say mistakes happen because governmental bodies will often hire people with limited real estate experience to calculate residence values.

Sheer numbers prevent them from spending enough time with a property to accurately assess it, said George Evers, a property appraiser in New Jersey and operator of the website www.propertytaxax.com.

Mr. Evers says a professional appraisal can cost $125 to $300, far more than a governmental body would likely be willing to spend on an individual dwelling.

To fight an assessment he or she feels is unfair, a homeowner should look at similar properties for guidance, Evers says. Find out what they are worth, he advises, and show this to tax-appeals boards.

For ease in getting a look at neighbors' taxes, some jurisdictions are better than others. Some, like Polk County, Iowa, which includes Des Moines, have posted all of their property-tax records online, complete with photos of properties.

But many counties aren't that advanced. Evers suggests asking local real estate offices for help.

"They're pretty friendly," he says, and certainly will know the value of similar dwellings. Collect the values of three comparable homes, he suggests.

This legwork will give appeals boards something to work with.

"Some people just sit there and say, 'I'm paying too much in taxes,' " says Patrick McMullen, assessment department administrator in Lackawanna County, Pa.

Bob Chambers, administrator of the Cuyahoga County, Ohio, Board of Revision, says there are no hard rules that apply to protests of property valuations.

Many of the complaints that reach his office can be handled fairly easily, Mr. Chambers says, with the re-measurement of a lot size, for example.

When the appeal revolves around a difference of opinion, he says, it's up to the property owner to present the board with as much information as he or she can. It is a legal action, he points out, and homeowners bear the "burden of proof."

Lackawanna County's Mr. McMullen estimates that somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of appeals go in favor of the property owner.

And while Ohio permits only one appeal every three years, Mr. Tobin's experience in Illinois shows that in states without such a rule, persistence can pay off, too.

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