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How to Appeal Property Tax

When it comes to income tax, most states have a particular form and process for appealing tax issues. The most commonly familiar is the 1040X form for the IRS and your federal taxes. However, property tax does not go through these agencies. Instead, property tax is typically a local government charge that goes through a county office or special district assessor's office. Thus, what works in Northern California does not necessarily work in Eastern South Carolina. Each local government or district has its own, often confusing, process for appealing property taxes.

Step 1 - Determine Which Government Office Is Responsible 

A good first step is to find out for sure which office is responsible for your property tax on real estate. In most cases, this tends to be a county assessor's office. Most such jurisdictions have a web page with contact and general information as part of the county government website. It's important to identify this office because sending an appeal to the wrong tax office essentially means you're sending your paperwork into the abyss. Tax agencies are not particularly helpful in forwarding information or even sending things back many times when received in error. Do your homework up front to avoid a delay in the process. 

Step 2  - Review or Appeal The Appraisal 

The second step is to make sure the given real estate involved has been appraised properly to begin with. Many county offices have a process by which a property owner can challenge an appraisal before a property tax is levied. This is important because a successful appeal can trigger a new appraisal and potentially an adjustment before the annual tax bill is sent out. Doing an appeal after an assessment has been invoiced will be unlikely to change an outstanding tax bill already owed. Agencies tend to adjust forward, not retroactively. There's also money involved and little incentive for the bureaucracy when you try to appeal property tax bills. 

Step 3 - Organize Your Documents

The third step is to have your documents in order before actually submitting the appeal. There's no room to appeal and then hope to have time to make an argument after the fact. The argument, supporting documentation and calculations need to be ready up front. Most appeals get one review; the focus tends to be on whether the tax agency did their work correctly. If there is an error, you as the property owner must be able to make the argument convincingly that the agency appraiser missed a big issue. That typically requires an independent appraisal by a licensed appraiser to make a convincing argument. Fortunately, some counties make it easier by providing assessment values of nearby properties that can be accessed online, so look for this option. If you can make a solid argument that your tax is higher than similar properties next to yours, you may be able to avoid an appraisal with the agency's own information and achieve a fast adjustment.

Timing is Crucial When you Appeal a Property Tax Assessment

Note the timing of when you will be making an appeal, as well. Most appeals tend to be filed when property owners are realizing an increase in their property tax. This typically happens when real estate values are climbing in general and the tax agency wants to bleed you dry capture new tax revenue as fast as possible. An appeal is more likely to get traction in a down year when property values are dropping and there is less attention on the process from property owners. Most homeowners at that time are just happy their tax bill has gone down in general and are not paying attention as to whether the amount went far enough. You can be proactive by checking for updates to your property's assessed tax value. Most local governments allow you to look up your address online to check the most recent information. 

"Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.”" Luke 3:12-13 ESV

Ultimately, a residential tax appeal could be litigated if denied, but this is rare. A property owner has to be able to prove a case that is just outrageously shocking, such as an intentional abuse of taxing power and ill will against the property owner; it rarely occurs. The best valuation appeal chance is at the local tax agency level, so it helps to be personable when contacting tax personnel. You never know which staff person might be the actual individual handling the appeal personally. Be polite, helpful and courteous. A nice conversation can go a long way in getting an appeal filed and a fairer response.

"I shall never use profanity except in discussing house rent and taxes." Mark Twain

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