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Law Offices of Ronald W. Rutz
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May 24, 2003: Appealing a Real Property Assessment

Q: Like most folks, I was very upset with my new real property assessment so I appealed. What can I do to be more effective and not just go through the motions wasting my time?

A: First, you need to depersonalize this event and focus on the issue of whether the market value assigned to your property is in the ballpark. During the appeal process, it does not matter that the assessed value soared 40% (maybe the property was previously undervalued). Or, although it is heartrending for all involved, the process cannot factor in a person's inability to pay the extra taxes. That is for the elected officials who establish the taxes. And remember, you are not being singled out because of your politics, vindictiveness on the part of a staff member, or the like.

Now as I understand it, there is a 3-step process. Prior to June 1st, either an appointment can be arranged with the assessor's office or material supporting a lower valuation can be mailed. Decisions will be made and results given back to the protestors before July 5th. If that determination is appealed, a panel from the Board of Equalization will hear each protest. If the property owner is still unhappy, one of three appellate choices remains: Take the issue to the board of appeals, agree to binding arbitration, or go to District Court.

Regardless of where you are in the process, the more you are prepared, the better your chances of winning some type of favorable adjustment. But remember, you, not the assessor, have the burden to demonstrate that an adjustment to your assessed value is necessary. Realistically, you cannot expect to show up at a meeting or a hearing with little supporting material and expect that the value will be adjusted just because you disagree. Homework is essential.

Even if you have done so before, examine the assessor's records to verify that the official records are correct. I have found occasionally that basic information such as the number of rooms or even the square footage of the house contained significant errors. If necessary, provide proof to establish your findings.

Look at the real estate sales that the assessor used and see how the "comparables" match your house. The assessor can give you a list of sales in your neighborhood. You can pick the ones that you feel are most similar. A realtor friend can also help by going into the multiple listing service's sold section and provide you additional information. For the computer types, it is possible to go online, punch in (I always liked that phrase) an address and all the recent sales on that street will appear.

Other helpful information would be any appraisal used to refinance, purchase agreements if applicable, or even a valuation opinion from a realtor with three comparables. But all such material must be adjusted to June 30, 2002 by using the value of 0.0055 per month.

Another method I have found effective is to obtain permission from friends with houses similar to yours, but with significantly lower assessments, to use their assessments to contrast your valuation. But be realistic about differences between properties.

Then assemble the material you wish to submit. Organize it in a way to highlight the areas and facts you want emphasized. Make a summary (something like bullet points) and practice your presentation if you have a hearing or a meeting. Do not be too wordy and cut out nonessential points and verbiage. Make a packet for each panel member, the representative of the assessor's office, and yourself with your summary sheet on top.

Put yourself in the shoes of the person or persons who must sit through numerous presentations. A concise, professional, informative presentation will tend to have a positive impact. Do not try to mislead or distort. Such activities will destroy your credibility. If you make an honest mistake, just acknowledge it and go on. Always remember to put yourself in the listener's shoes.

Does this sound like preparation by an attorney for a trial? Well, yes. Do not be nervous. Remember that no one will likely remember what your appearance was like soon after the meeting. But if you capture the moment and everyone's attention, along with preparation, your chances of success increase significantly. And if you enjoy the experience, there is always law school.

One cautionary note: The assessment can also be increased if the facts so warrant. I am told that in 2001, one panel of the Board of Equalization raised a number of assessments, much to the chagrin of everyone else involved, including elected county officials.

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