Reduce taxes by fighting your property appraisal

Until this past week of winter temperatures, it almost felt like spring was in the air. As in many states, each spring in Georgia is met with the arrival of flowering quince, birds singing, and the dreaded local tax assessor's annual Statement of Appraisal for Residential (and commercial) Property. These statements are used as the basis for calculating property tax for every piece of property, and in my experience, municipalities are becoming more and more aggressive in boosting appraised values to increase revenues from property taxes. Rather than falling into the usual routine of filing this document with your mortgage statements, I'm going to challenge you to appeal this year's appraisal in an effort to reduce your property tax bill.

In years past, fighting your tax appraisal (and therefore your tax bill) required access to tools only available to real estate agents, appraisers, mortgage brokers, and those willing to spend a lot of time digging through real estate filings in the county courthouse. Those days are gone. With tools like Zillow's semi-nationwide Zestimate coverage (thank you for finally providing data on metro Atlanta!!), ShackPrices, HomePriceMaps, and HomeRadar, there is no reason to be ignorant of the value of your home. Information is power, and in this case, information can = money in your pocket.

The first step upon receiving the tax appraisal is to read it thoroughly. Read it again. Each tax appraisal should offer several pieces of information: 1) the appraised value, 2) the process for appealing this appraised value, and 3) the deadline for filing this appeal.

For my county, the process is simple: I need only provide a written statement that I wish to appeal the appraised value, and this written appeal must be postmarked within 21 days of the date of the tax appraisal statement. This appeal is one of the annual rites of spring. The appeal costs me nothing, and the worst case is that my assessed value remains the same; in the best case I get a significant reduction on my property tax bills. The steps and process I'm going to describe are specific to Georgia, so please be mindful that this process and corresponding deadline will vary by state, county, and/or city.

Once the appeal has been filed I wait for the county's response, but while waiting I am also gathering information. As a real estate investors with multiple properties, thousands of dollars are on the line, so I'll use Zillow and the other tools referenced previously to help determine the fair market value of my homes. In addition, I'll compile a list of between 5 and 7 properties that have recently sold to serve as good comparables. If you've recently refinanced your home and paid for an appraisal, you can add this to your quiver if it's to your benefit or at least study the comparables from your paid appraisal to see if they would help your argument.

A couple of months later I receive a letter acknowledging my timely appeal along with an optional worksheet to complete and remit to my local Board of Tax Assessors (hereinafter, "Board"). The key word for this worksheet is "optional". The letter also advises that the Board will review all information in 30 days and respond in writing within two weeks after said review. Included in the worksheet they provide is a summary of the characteristics of my property along with a request to verify the accuracy of these characteristics and to provide additional information to support my appeal. If the characteristics of the home reflect less square footage than the home actually has or there are any details which, if corrected, would actually hurt your argument for reducing the appraised value, I would advise against completing this worksheet.

If you wish to avoid the chance of appearing before the board in person, you may choose to complete the optional worksheet or respond in writing with a detailed explanation of why you believe the tax appraisal is too high and provide supporting evidence, and by all means, include your list of comparables.

I've found success by not completing the worksheet and not responding at all. This works best when the home was recently purchased for much less its tax appraisal. Last year I had a tax appraisal reduced by $50,000 in this way. In other cases I've found success by completing the worksheet and providing a detailed explanation as to why the tax appraisal was too high.

While I've yet to encounter them, the Board of Equalization is the means of last resort if all else fails. They hear all appeals should the Board of Tax Assessors not rule in your favor.

In my years of appealing tax appraisals, the Board has always reduced the appraised value when I follow the procedures and complete items by their respective due dates. I've become much more systematic in my approach to this process as the times I've not had a change in the tax appraisal are always due to either failing to follow procedure or simply not completing paperwork by a deadline.

Please let me know your experience!