Reality is that nobody likes taxes. Let's face it - if you moved from out of town into our Lone Star State, chances are that you had sticker-shock when you saw the property tax rates. And if you haven't claimed your Homestead Exemption, you're already on the downside. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to keep your property taxes in check - and keep some of this money in your pocket.
- Review your property's preliminary assessed value - Early on January, each county's Appraisal District (CAD) posts the preliminary assessed value - in essence, an estimate of how much your home is worth for tax purposes. Some counties apply the 10% rule (by law, property taxes cannot go up more than 10% per year + the value of any improvements you've made, like a pool), while some may have a Google-like algorithm to guess the value (yes - counties don't have the manpower to visit everyone's home to assess their value). At any rate, it's always helpful to (a) visit your CAD's website to get familiar with the tools it offers, like the datasheet and historical reference; and (b) get the amount that the CAD assessed to your property.
- File a protest well before the deadline (May 31) - This is the very first step - basically, you're letting the CAD know that you disagree with the assessed value. Even if you feel that the value is just right, you don't lose anything by doing this - this is your right! You'll get a chance to assemble what you need for the actual hearing. Tax appeals can be filed using the form provided by the CAD in the notice they mail you, or visit the CAD's website. The earlier you do this, the more time you will have to prepare.
- Prepare your case for the dispute - Two of my favorite words - facts and data. Leave the histrionics aside. A tearful dissertation at the hearing will very likely not help you at all. To follow are some of the items that have proven helpful -
- Get your property's Report Card - The CADs typically have a datasheet posted for each property, listing facts like lot size, square footage, amenities, etcetera. This Report Card will help you make your case by (a) identifying errors in it - a sound basis for your appeal (say, you are being assessed for a pool that you don't have); and (b) compare your property with others in the neighborhood.
- Request the House Bill 201 Evidence Packet fromyour CAD - This will be the one thing that will probably help you the most in making your case - it will show you how they arrived at your assessed value. Harris County makes their HB packet available online - so make sure to ask for instructions on how to get to it.
- Make note of all properties around you that may be similar to yours - Using the CAD's website, look for the assessed value of properties in your street that look consistent with yours. You might need to do quick math to determine the price per square foot. Make sure, though, that when picking "comparables," you pick those that closely resemble your own - lot size, amenities, etc.
- Get market value information - If you bought your house recently, look at the HUD statement. If your assessed value is over what you paid for, that's a slam-dunk. If you've been a little longer, we can help you in finding comparable sold information to help you make your case, using our self-service Market Snapshot tool. Key here is to obtain market value per square foot and determine if the assessed value is higher than your opinion of market value.
- Look for negatives - Now, we know that your house is "home" and that it's the right one for you - otherwise you wouldn't be living there, but focus on the following three words: Condition, Desirability, Utility. For example, take note of road noise, if you're backing a major thoroughfare, a creeping water tower or apartment buildings behind you, or if there's planned or actual construction. Google Earth can help you a lot on this one. Take pictures - and take them with you.
- Make your case - The first appeal procedure is an informal hearing with a CAD appraiser. Keep in mind that these folks see anywhere from 40 to 50 people per day and by the time you get to them they may be frustrated - translation, be quick, stick to your story, your facts and your data. If you prepared well, more likely than not, you'll be offered a deal. If you're happy with it, the agreed to value will be the year's assessed value. If not, you'll be offered the opportunity for a Formal Hearing with the Appraisal Review Board. It's up to you to decide whether it's worth it to take it to the next level.
This entire process is to be repeated every year. If you feel that this is cumbersome, or if you don't have the time to do this, consider hiring a professional to take care of it for you for a fee. O'Connor and Associates is perhaps the best-known firm in the business.