How to Appeal Your Property Tax Bill

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Owning a home is an expensive proposition. There’s maintenance, landscaping, utilities, renovations, and, of course, taxes. It’s your civic duty to pay the latter, but it’s also your right not to yield a penny more than your fair share.

It’s possible to trim your property tax bill by appealing the assessed value of your home. But making a case against your real estate assessment, the basis for your property tax bill, requires doing a bit of homework. Initial research can be done online or by phone over two or three days, but the process can stretch out for months if you’re forced to file a formal appeal.

There are a few things to keep in mind as you weigh an appeal. The board can only lower your real estate assessment, not the rate at which you’re taxed. There’s also a chance, albeit slight, that your assessment could be raised, thus increasing your property taxes. A reduction in your assessment right before you put your house on the market could hurt the sale price. An easier route to savings might lie in determining if you qualify for property tax exemptions based on age, disability, military service, or other factors.

Read your assessment letter

A real estate assessment is conducted periodically by the local government to assign a value to your home for taxation purposes. An assessment isn’t the same as a private appraisal, and the assessed value of your home isn’t necessarily how much you could sell it for today. Real estate assessment letters are mailed to homeowners annually, or perhaps every two to three years, depending where you live.

The letter will include some information about your property, such as lot size or a legal description, as well as the assessed value of your house and land. Additional details—number of bedrooms, for example, or date of construction—can often be found in the property listing on your local government’s website. Your property tax bill will usually be calculated by multiplying your home’s assessed value by the local tax rate, which can vary from town to town.

If you think your home’s assessment is higher than it should be, challenge it immediately. The clock starts ticking as soon as the letter goes out. You generally have less than 30 days to respond, though the time frame varies not just between states, but within each state. Procedures are often outlined on the back of the letter.

Gather evidence

Start by making sure the assessment letter doesn’t contain any mistakes. Is the number of bathrooms accurate? Number of fireplaces? How about the size of the lot? There’s a big difference between “0.3 acres” and “3.0 acres.” If any facts are wrong, then you may have a quick and easy challenge on your hands.

Next, research your home’s value. Ask a real estate agent to find three to five comparable properties—“comps” in real estate jargon—that have sold recently. Alternatively, check a website like Smarthomeprice.com to find approximate values of comparable properties. The key is identifying properties that are very similar to your own in terms of size, style, condition, and location. If you’re willing to shell out between $350 and $600, you can hire a private appraiser to do the heavy lifting.

Once you identify comps, check the assessments on those properties. Most local governments maintain public databases. If yours doesn’t, seek help from an agent or ask neighbors to share tax information. If the assessments on your comps are lower, you can argue yours is too high. Even if the assessments are similar, if you can show that the “comparable” properties aren’t truly comparable, you may have a case for relief based on equity. Maybe your neighbor added an addition while you were still struggling to clean up storm damage. In that case, the properties are no longer equitable.

Present your case

Once you’re armed with your research, call your local assessor’s office. Most assessors are willing to discuss your assessment informally by phone. If not, or if you aren’t satisfied with the explanation, request a formal review. Pay attention to deadlines and procedures. There’s probably a form to fill out and specific instructions for supporting evidence. A typical review, which usually doesn’t require you to appear in person, can take anywhere from one to three months. Expect to receive a decision in writing.

If the review is unsuccessful, you can usually appeal the decision to an independent board, with or without the help of a lawyer. You may have to pay a modest filing fee, perhaps $10 to $25. If you end up before an appeals board, your challenge could stretch as long as a year, especially in large jurisdictions that have a high number of appeals. But homeowners do triumph. According to Guy Griscom, Assistant Chief Appraiser of the Harris County (Texas) Central Appraisal District, of the 288,800 protests filed in his Houston-area district in 2008, about 58% received reduced assessments.

How much effort you decide to put into a challenge depends on the stakes. The annual U.S. median property tax paid in 2008 was $1,897, or 0.96% of the median home value of $197,600. Lowering that assessed value by 15% would net savings of about $285.

 

This article provides general information about tax laws and consequences, but is not intended to be relied upon by readers as tax or legal advice applicable to particular transactions or circumstances. Readers should consult a tax professional for such advice, and are reminded that tax laws may vary by jurisdiction.

 

The differences between cities, counties, towns and unincorporated settlements in Virginia

For many, especially those who are new to the area, the system of jurisdictions that we have in the Commonwealth of Virginia can be confusing. This is especially confusing in Northern Virginia, where
Virginia intersects with Washington DC and the State of Maryland.

Fortunately I have a fresh bottle of CONFUSION-B-GON to spray liberally as needed.

Around our nation’s capital

Let me start with my single-biggest pet peeve among newcomers: the term “DC proper”.

I have seen this term used regularly on a site that claims to provide local information. That information is provided by people using anonymous handles. Anonymous handles should be your first clue not to completely trust the information you find.

At any rate: there is no such thing as “DC proper”. There are three main jurisdictions here: Virginia, Maryland and Washington DC.

It is very common to live in Northern Virginia or Suburban Maryland and work in DC. Virginia is as different from DC as New Jersey is from New York. With a wink and a smile I have to inform you that just because you thought your job was transferring to Washington doesn’t mean that you’re moving to DC proper or improper.

Virginia jurisdictions

One of the keys to understanding Virginia real estate for a property search is to understand the differences between towns, counties and cities. In Virginia, as in most other states in the US, a county and an area administer below the state-level by local / county government.
Counties are often rural areas, but Fairfax County has over a million
residents and has very little rural land left.

Fairfax County aside, a county may have one or more towns within it’s borders. In Virginia a town, no matter how many people live in that town, is part of a county and is managed by the county. In Virginia, towns often have governments but these governments are subordinate to and part of the
county where the town is found.

In addition to counties, Virginia has a fairly unique concept called a city. A city is like a county, except it is more urban than rural.

For example Falls Church and Alexandria are both cities. Cities, unlike towns, are not subordinate to counties. Cities are independent and operate on a level similar to counties.

This can be particularly confusing in Fairfax County. Fairfax County is a large mostly urban county and it surrounds Fairfax, an independent city. So the City of Fairfax is surrounded by Fairfax County, but it’s not a part of Fairfax County. Falls Church, Alexandria and Fairfax are
all cities. Manassas and Manassas Park are both cities, and both are surrounded by Prince William County.

Real estate is sorted by county

It’s important to understand this system of administrative organization because land tax records are stored by the county or city. Because tax records are organized by the county or city, real estate property searches are often sorted by the administrative jurisdiction.

For a newcomer it can be a little difficult to tell the difference between Fairfax and Fairfax County, between Manassas and Manassas Park and Prince William County. Another point of confusion is Arlington. Arlington is a city in a practical sense, but Arlington is a county.

Herndon, Vienna and Clifton are all towns located in Fairfax County, which mean that these towns have local governments subordinate to the county. Springfield is much bigger than Clifton, but Springfield is not a town.

Another curious case is Crystal City. Crystal City is located in Arlington County. Interestingly, Crystal City is not a city nor is it a town!

Unincorporated settlements

Which brings us to the next point of confusion in the area. There are many unincorporated neighborhoods, villages, towns and settlements in Northern Virginia. Unincorporated just means there is no local (i.e. town) government. Rather than having a town government, an unincorporated town is managed by the county. Springfield, Annandale, Bailey’s Crossroads, Mclean Tysons Corner and Reston are just a few of the many unincorporated towns in Fairfax County. In places like Springfield this can be a little confusing because without a town there is no formal border between Franconia and Springfield and thus no hard and fast distinction between the two. In addition, with the near completion of Kingstowne, Franconia-Springfield is now home to one of the largest planned
communities/subdivisions in the area. Kingstowne is considered a town in and of itself by many.

Post office address

To make matters even more confusing for newcomers, there is the matter of the post office. The postal address of a property is not always an indicator of the jurisdiction of a property. For example,
many addresses in Fairfax County have an Alexandria address. Service from the Alexandria post office has no bearing on the county or city of the address in question.

Confusion-B-Gon guarantee!

Well, that’s the last of this bottle of CONFUSION-B-GON. If you’re still confused, no worries. Contact Nesbitt Realty. Tell us what you seek and we’ll find the property for you!
For more information or to set up an appointment call Stuart at (703)765-0300.