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About Real Estate: You can appeal a property tax that seems too high

DEAR MR. MYERS: We just received our annual property-tax bill, and the county assessor has appraised our home at about $50,000 or even $75,000 more than it is worth. How do we go about filing an appeal?

ANSWER: The appeal process varies from one county to the next, but most assessors provide information about it with the bill itself. If the tax bill you received didn’t include such info, you should start by calling your local assessor or tax collector to see how appeals are handled in your particular area.

It’s important to keep your cool at this initial meeting; screaming about stupid bureaucrats, government financial waste or outrageous tax rates won’t get you anywhere.

In most counties, the process starts with an informal conference between the homeowner and a representative of the assessor’s office. At this point, it’s the assessor’s job to defend his or her assessment of your property’s value, and it’s your job to politely provide evidence that he or she is wrong.

It’s important to keep your cool at this initial meeting; screaming about stupid bureaucrats, government financial waste or outrageous tax rates won’t get you anywhere. If anything, the assessor’s representative will get defensive and become even more unwilling to accept your argument and lower your bill.

Instead, enter the meeting with a polite but businesslike demeanor and a manila file or briefcase containing the evidence you believe will support your request for a reduction. The most persuasive evidence includes a report by a real estate agent or appraiser indicating that the assessor’s estimated value of the home is too high, supported by a list of recent sales prices of similar homes in your neighborhood.

More than half of all property-tax disputes are settled at the first meeting between the homeowner and the assessor. If you’re not happy with the results, you can file a new appeal with the local appeals board or possibly even sue the assessor in court.

New Jersey and Illinois have the highest effective property-tax rates in the nation.

By the way, in most counties across the U.S., the first installment of property taxes is due on Nov. 1 and is considered delinquent Dec. 10. The second (and final) payment is due Feb. 1 and becomes delinquent on April 10.

A good way to remember those dates is to think about the first letter of each of those months and memorize this phrase: When it comes to paying property taxes, there’s “No Darn Fooling Around.”

REAL ESTATE TRIVIA: New Jersey and Illinois have the highest effective property-tax rates in the nation, a new study by the nonprofit Tax Foundation says. Hawaii, Alabama and Louisiana have the lowest.

DEAR MR. MYERS: I watch a lot of TV shows that are based in New York City, and they often refer to an area called “Hell’s Kitchen.” Where is it? How did it get its name?

ANSWER: Hell’s Kitchen is a neighborhood in Manhattan. It’s close to the theaters on Broadway and home of the famed Actor’s Studio, where current screen stars ranging from Jane Fonda to Al Pacino first honed their skills.

Few historians agree on how this up-and-coming area got such an uncomely nickname. Some say it’s from immigrants who began streaming into our country in the late 1800s, with one group “fighting like hell” against another. Others trace it all the way back to 1835, when frontiersman Davy Crockett voyaged to the area and later wrote that many of the people there were so rowdy that they were “worse than savages; they are too mean to swab hell’s kitchen.”

Still, the most plausible explanation of the area’s malicious moniker is based on the story of “Dutch Fred the Cop.” A veteran officer, Fred and a rookie officer couldn’t get enough help as they encountered a small riot on West 39th Street.

According to local historian Mary Clark, the rookie said, “This place is hell itself.”

Fred quickly disagreed. “Hell’s a mild climate,” he replied. “This is Hell’s Kitchen.”

DEAR MR. MYERS: My fiancee and I bought a home together in August. We split the mortgage payments, utilities and property-tax bill evenly. Can we file a joint tax return (which would save us money) next year, even though we won’t get married until next June?

ANSWER: Sorry, but no. You cannot file jointly unless you are married by Dec. 31, 2015.

Instead, the two of you will have to file separately. But each of you can claim 50 percent of the total amount of interest that will be paid on the mortgage this year, as well as 50 percent of the property-tax payments.

Don’t forget to also deduct your and your betrothed’s individual share of the closing costs that the two of you paid.

Because of your situation, it might be worthwhile for the two of you to visit an accountant, enrolled agent or similar tax expert for help.

David W. Myers’ column is distributed by Cowles Syndicate Inc.

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