Q: I own a home in California. Like everyone else, times are tough. I’m not looking to sell my house or anything, but I stay up on what homes are worth in my neighborhood and values have definitely taken a hit. A few weeks ago, I got my new tax bill in the mail, and it showed that the assessed value of my home, for purposes of calculating my property taxes, went up 2 percent from the assessed value last year. I guess the tax assessor doesn’t read the newspaper! I have gotten a couple of letters in the mail from consultants who claim they can get my property taxes lowered, but a couple of my friends say they have done this on their own. Is it wise for me to tackle this myself?
A: Don’t you just love public records? I’m all for transparency in government, but if you own a home, you (like me) probably receive a million pieces of mail "tailored" to your supposed wants and needs based on the data about your home and your mortgage that are on file with your county’s recorder’s office.
I was horrified when I opened one such piece of mail this week. It was an "offer" for assistance in getting my property taxes reduced, sent by a real estate broker purporting to "specialize in reducing people’s property taxes." He wrote on:
"My research shows that because you bought your property at the height of the market, there is a very good chance that you are overpaying the property taxes on the property at ____________________ (my address.)
"I am one of the most experienced and successful agents in the state at reducing property taxes. …
"Please understand that I would not spend the money to send this letter unless I was reasonably sure I could save you money on your property taxes."
I’m reasonably sure he can reduce your property taxes, too. The thing is, though, ANYONE can do this — on their own — for FREE!
If you bought your home within the last two to three years, it is likely that your current assessed property value — the basis for your property taxes — is higher than the current market value of your home. And in California, unlike in many other states, the reassessment every year is an automatic increase of 2 percent, rather than an actual reevaluation of fair market value based on the factual market dynamics.
Your situation is so common that many counties across the country have actually simplified the process of getting your property taxes reduced on the basis of the current market value. In California’s Alameda County, where I live and own two homes, the assessor’s office has actually issued a new form called the Informal Request for Decline in Market Value Reassessment. It’s a one-pager, with a couple of brief questions to make it super easy for you — and the county — to give you a tax break, albeit a tax break intended to be temporary, until the market rebounds.
If you get a letter like this from a real estate broker or real estate attorney — both professions of which I am usually a proud member — don’t take the bait! You can generally do the same things they can — for free — and might even have an easier time dealing with your county. Counties tend to be a little less rigid with homeowners than they are with hired guns.
Note: Most California counties have a Sept. 15, 2008, deadline for submitting a request for reassessment — get on top of this ASAP!
Here are the steps to take to get your property taxes reduced on the basis of the decline in market value:
1. Search Yahoo! or Google to find the Web site for your county tax assessor’s office or tax collector’s office.
2. Go to the Forms section and look for a form with the words "reassessment request" or "decline in market value." If you can’t find it, give the office a ring and ask them to fax, mail or e-mail the form to you.
3. Usually the request will ask you for (a) an estimate of the current market value of your home and (b) a list of recent, comparable sales in your neighborhood supporting that estimate of value.
You have two routes you can take here:
- (a) Call up the Realtor who sold you the house and ask her to complete the form for you or to at least provide the information you need about comparable sales. Realtors want to keep you as a long-term friend, client and referral resource, so nine times out of 10 they’ll do it for you. Alternatively,
- (b) Go to CyberHomes.com — you’ll get both an estimated value and a list of the comparable sales on which it was based.
For this step, keep in mind that you are trying to make the case that your property value is significantly lower now than when you bought it — so list legitimate comparable sales that support that argument, or you are wasting your time! In other words, don’t list the cutest, best, highest-priced homes — use homes that are similar and close to yours (within 1/2 mile to 1 mile, if possible) that sold in the lower price range in which you are asking the assessor to reassess your home.
4. Sign it and mail it! Allow several weeks, then call and check on the progress of your request. If it’s accepted, you’re golden. If it’s denied, there will be a more formal application and appeals process available to you, and you can decide at that time whether it makes sense to undertake that.
Either way, you won’t have coughed up half your savings to some "consultant" to do something that should take you less than a half-hour to do yourself!
Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman’s Homebuying Handbook," and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Ask her a real estate question online.
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