I know that someday you'll find better things.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

I Fought the Law

It's the magical time of year that happens after Mother's Day and before Memorial Day. It's the 'Protest Your Property Tax' window, and you don't want to miss it.

Traditionally, we do miss it, and those sneaky scallywags jack up our property value appraisal because they think we aren't looking. 

And that's because we aren't looking. 

May is a very busy month for everyone. Because, you know, Mother's Day. And Field Day. And Teacher Appreciation Week. And Class Picnic Day. And Mom-Did-You-Remember-I-Need-a-Baton-to-Twirl-in-the-School-Parade. 


Usually we realize we've missed the protest window around October.
Dang it!

But not this year.
This year, I am ready for them. The question is, are they ready for me?

The city--or maybe the county--makes the process painfully easy. The send their appraisal, along with three additional sheets of paper loaded with helpful tips about your rights and what to do if you'd like to contest their assessment. Most of this is in teeny tiny font, because there is so much helpful information.

(Front Side)
(Back Side)

There are a few things that are not in flea-sized font, and these are perhaps the most helpful gems of all:

To request an Informal Review or ask questions:

Now, that's just the requesting part, which if done in person is usually finalized right then and there. Here's where things get a little slippery, because if you request by mail or by phone, then they reserve the right to respond within approximately 15 business days.

I don't know how many business days are in May, but I think it might be around 20. Fewer if you exclude Cinco de Mayo and Memorial Day.

And watch out, because "If you have not received a written response to your informal review before the protest deadline, you may want to deliver your written protest (postmarked on or before the protest deadline OR hand-delivered to our office on or before the protest deadline) to reserve your rights to an Appraisal Review Board hearing. The Appraisal Review Board will NOT accept protests filed via facsimile or email. An informal review does not reserve your rights to an Appraisal Review Board Hearing."

Please note, the menacing use of underline and bold are from the source and not the messenger.

Now, if you are going to make the drive up there to wait in person (typically 45 minutes, usually longer) they recommend that you pack accordingly.

"Please provide contracts, comparable sales data, appraisals, loan documents, repair estimates, photographs, and any other information you deem relevant."

Comparable sales data and appraisals? Don't let that discourage you. This can be easily obtained if you follow the steps from my handy checklist:

Step 1. Use satellite imaging from google to view your neighborhood. Identify your own roof-line, and then try to identify nearby homes with similar roof-lines. These could become your comps. (Pro Tip: The satellite imaging is strikingly clear, so try not to become distracted by neighbors' yard-clutter. Make a mental note to never become the neighbor with yard-clutter.)

Step 2. With candidates in mind, drive around your neighborhood slowly so as to verify that the front and sides of the potential matches are consistent with the basic format of your own. Stay out of the mailman's way-- that guy is on a mission! Stick a post-it note to your steering wheel and attempt to record the house numbers. This may sound tricky, but it can be done. Not done well, just done. (Pro Tip: Try not to write down any words, just the numbers, or you will drive yourself crazy wondering what the heck a "pestaley" is.)


Step 3. After you return home, use a real-estate website like Zillow to confirm the house numbers, just in case you can't read your own handwriting. Next (and unfortunately, this is every bit as creepy and stalker-ish as it sounds) log on to the appraisal district's website and run a property search on the candidates. Confirm square footage. Record important data, like the year their home was built, what they paid in taxes last year, and their home's current and previous appraisal values. What was the appraised value of their land lot? Do they have a pool? Covered porch? Tool shed? What years were these improvements acquired?  Is there anything unusual in the pattern of appraisal growth or decline? Has the property had an unusual amount of turnover in ownership? (Pro Tip: print out this data, since you'll need to use it as proof at the appraisal office (you know, the office that created the data...) And, since you're already in front of the computer, create a google spreadsheet of all those elements, so that you can compare and contrast on the go.)

Step 4. Now that you're armed and ready, wade through the fine print of the paperwork that arrived in the mail until you find the directions for filing an online protest. Aha! If you are eligible, you won't have to drive to the main office two towns away to wait a minimum of 45 minutes. 

Oh, sweet relief. 

What's this? An opportunity to explain why you feel your property has been inaccurately appraised in 1024 characters or less?

It might be a trap. 
Proceed carefully.

(And do spaces count as characters?)

Pro Tip: Count the spaces as characters, but aim to use every last character to really demonstrate your commitment to this matter. Draft your explanation in Microsoft Word, and monitor your character-count often. Revise thoroughly. Revise so thoroughly that your login status with the appraisal website expires four or five times. Aim for a light, friendly tone, as these folks probably get a lot of nasty-grams from the people who are tired of their taxes being jacked up year after year after year.

Here is a 1024 character sample:

Hi! There haven’t been any real improvements to our property in at least as long as we've lived here (and possibly since the house was built!) The floors and counter-tops are made of the original tile that was popular in 1987. Our pool, also original, is showing its age. Renovations/repairs would cost more than building a new one. This winter, we lost several backyard trees and much shade and privacy. Ice destroyed most of our landscaping efforts, too. We tried to replace it with grass, but with the water restrictions, it's been a failure so far. It's pretty sad, actually. We love our home, and we try to take care of it-- it's very clean-- but I was shocked when I compared the data to other neighborhood homes (with pools) with our exact floorplan and builder year. Ours has been appraised much higher than similar properties for the last 3 years (and I know we haven't purchased THAT much duct-tape!) I hope you'll consider reducing our appraisal value, and I’ll happily provide any photos or data to convince you.

Bonus Pro Tip: Take out the parts about the fire-ants, crabgrass, and the neighbor's yappy dog, Julio.

Step 5. Wait. (That's the step I'm currently experiencing.) Pro Tip: While you wait, take pictures to verify your claims. The more pathetic, the better!

Because tile never goes out of style, right?

Pay particular attention to the pool tiles and trees...
(or lack thereof)

Grass (or lack thereof)

I will update you as things progress.
If things progress.
And they better progress.

Update! 5/14/14, 9:04 a.m.: They made their first offer: reducing the appraisal by $5,146 (which leaves essentially $25,000 worth of duct-tape in the past three years.) 

I don't think that's going to work out for me. 

Time to consult the ultra-fine print. 
And maybe take more pathetic pictures...

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