Pay Too Much Property Tax? Try Arguing It Down

Article excerpt

As president of Taxpayers' United of Illinois, Jim Tobin has spent 20 years fighting rises in taxes on income, businesses, and goods.

But when it came to his home in the Chicago suburb of Berwyn, Ill., Tobin hired a lawyer to protest the valuation of the three- storey brick building.

It took at least three appearances before Cook County's tax- appeals boards, but Mr. Tobin has just learned that his tax bill is due to drop by more than $700 a year.

Tobin hired a lawyer after finding one who would only bill a percentage of whatever Tobin saved. But anyone can represent himself or herself in protesting the tax man's valuation of a home.

And more homeowners might want to consider doing so. The National Taxpayers Union estimates that tax assessors overvalue as many as 60 percent of residences.

"It is a major problem," says NTU spokesman Pete Sepp, based in Alexandria, Va. "Property taxes can be one of the single largest sources of tax liability a person has."

And few people are protesting, Mr. Sepp adds. "Owners under 60 barely give it their attention," he says.

Property-tax bills are normally rolled into mortgage payments, which include other items, such as homeowners and private mortgage insurance, as well as principal and interest. As such, changes can be relatively hard to spot.

Further clouding the issue are local rules and valuation procedures. Bills can range from simple statements showing what is owed to lengthy reports on which taxing body gets what.

Assessments may come from one office, with instructions to take complaints within a specified time to another office.

Assessors can be affected by a home's general upkeep, or lack thereof. They may be charged with "penalizing" a homeowner with a higher assessment than that of a neighbor with a comparable house, just for investing in his or her property's appearance.

And, Sepp points out, it doesn't help that valuation formulas may have little relation to the true market value of a home.

Property-tax critics say mistakes happen because governmental bodies will often hire people with limited real estate experience to calculate residence values.

Sheer numbers prevent them from spending enough time with a property to accurately assess it, said George Evers, a property appraiser in New Jersey and operator of the website www. …