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Tax breaks for Mom

Appealing your property tax appraisal

Last week we received our annual home appraisal notice from the county.

Two days later, we got the first in a series of mailings from folks who want to help us protest that assessment.

Some of the offers are quite elaborate, like the mailer from Texas Protax. That company's flier, the cover of which is pictured below, assures us that it s the "largest and most successful property tax representation firm in Central Texas."

Property tax appeal mailer-1
If we use its services, we'll have access to its "state-of-the-art database" and assistance from staff that have "over 200 years of combined experience" in appealing property tax valuations.

Even better, if we don't save money on our tax bill, we don't have to pay.

However, if we do get a break on our tax bill, 40 percent of those savings will go to Protax.

A national process: As I noted, this was just the first such solicitation. And we're not alone.

In addition to our neighbors getting the same come-ons, it's a process that happens nationwide.

In Seeking Lower Property Taxes on a House of Sinking Value in today's New York Times, Alina Tugend writes:

It seems as if every week I get a postcard or letter that reads something like this: "Save money by reducing your property tax. 100 percent risk-free. No Reduction, No Risk." ... Challenging property taxes is becoming a national sport, as homeowners contend they are paying too much as their houses decline in value. Some, too, have lost their jobs or have seen their salaries cut and can no longer afford their hefty property taxes.

Here in the Austin area, we aren't suffering as much as other places with overpriced homes.

And, based on what I've learned of recent homes sales in the area, the Travis County appraiser looks to have done his homework this year.

Our valuation is substantially lower than last year's. While that's a blow to the old home-owning ego, I'm definitely not complaining.

Plus, this year's assessment is still more than what we paid for the place five years ago and well above what we owe on our mortgage.

So we won't be taking advantage of the offers from Texas Protax and similar companies.

A detailed, but not impossible task: Even if we were so inclined to protest our property tax valuation, I'd probably take the advice that Peter Sepp, executive vice president of the Alexandria., Va.-based National Taxpayers Union, gave Tugend:

The appeals process is so simple that homeowners shouldn't pay anyone to do it.

In fact, along with our appraisal was a legal-sized insert, covered front and back with instructions on how to appeal. Such "here's how to challenge us" info is standard procedure in most property tax assessments.

The key first step is making sure you meet the deadline to protest your property tax assessment. Miss that date and you're out of luck.

Then you need to track down at least five other comparable properties to see how your home's value stacks up against them.

And be sure, even if your appraisal is way out of whack, that you pay your tax bill if it comes due while you're still going through the appeal process. If you don't pay, the county will place you in default. When all's said and done, if you win, you'll get refund or credit for your overpaid taxes.

If you didn't get how-to-appeal information from your appraiser, or you lost the material, check with that office or its website. Today's Times story also outlines the steps to appeal a property tax appraisal and you can find more do-it-yourself details here.

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Property Tax Appeal Process

Once you receive your property tax assessment and realize it's too high, you need to move quickly because the window to appeal is usually very short. Depending on the rules where you live, you will only have 30 to 120 days to let the local government know you intend to appeal. Send your appeal application by certified mail or hand deliver it and get it stamped, so you will have proof that it arrived by the deadline.

Follow the tax office's appeal instructions to a T, so your case won't be thrown out on a technicality. The first step is to ask your city or county tax assessor's office for the materials it used to evaluate your property. As an example, in Washington, D.C., where I live, the office of Tax and Revenue will send you the "property worksheet" which consists of its notes on your property; and also a "sales list," which is the list of recent home sales that it used to set the value of your property.

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