Have a hearing coming up for you property tax appeal? You’re not alone, especially in Allegheny County where the property assessment system is surely broken. Luckily, here at Flaherty & Fardo, we care about keeping your money in your pockets almost as much as you do. That’s why we’ve outlined the top 10 mistakes made by property owners in their property tax appeal: to keep you from hurting your chances of winning your hearing and getting the assessment you deserve.
Many property owners still ignore appeal notices and hearing dates on assessment appeals filed by the school districts and other taxing entities. For 2010 and 2011, we are still under a 2002 base year system, and your recent purchase price is not indicative of that value. All appeals filed by the taxing entities need to be defended vigorously.
It is also very important to make sure that you read all appeal information carefully. Allegheny County is very misleading on the decision notices which are sent to property owners. All decisions from the appeal process currently state: “the decision of the board is final“. That is not true and is very misleading. To the contrary, all cases at the Board of Property Assessment and Review can be appealed within 30 days of the decision by any of the taxing entities or property owners. Read your notices carefully.
There can be a real risk to appearing in person at an Allegheny County property assessment hearing, with or without representation. The reasons are simple. If the property owner appears, they can be cross-examined, and their testimony can be used against them. The school loves to hear what improvements you have made, and what appraisals may be in your possession. With a 2 tiered appeals process, the school district attorneys will often ask questions at the first hearing in preparation for the second hearing. Thus, it can be foolish to attend, and give the school attorney a free opportunity to question you.
Also, the hearing officers and judges are not happy to see you. Most property owners are overly emotional concerning their property taxes, an can become volatile. Many of the decision makers can be more comfortable dealing with professionals who understand the process rather than angry property owners. Be very humble if you decide to attend.
The primary argument of an assessment appeal should not be comparing “assessments” of your neighbors. You need to argue comparable sales. Although it seems logical to look at assessments, the primary evidence should always be value in the marketplace. The lack of uniformity argument is relevant but usually not sufficient on its own.
More recently, a strong argument for property owners has been the opportunity to show that only certain homes have been appealed in an area. You can focus in certain defense cases, on showing that other recently sold properties are assessed at a fraction of their sales prices, and accordingly, why is the school only trying to raise you. If you use this argument, make sure you compare the entire neighborhood.
We have had some very intelligent property assessment clients who have created magnificent spreadsheets analyzing specific neighborhoods price/sq. foot (building and/or land area). I understand and appreciate the argument, but it should never be the focus. It is too complicated, and there are too many other characteristics involved. In addition, most of the hearing officers simply do not like it.
If the price/sq. foot argument helps you, then by all means mention it as ancillary evidence. But do not rely solely on that argument.
Property taxes create stress. People are upset about property taxes, and some of these tax increases are forcing residents to even sell their property. It is natural to be upset. However, anger at tax appeal hearings does not help reduce property taxes. Avoid getting frustrated with the process.
Niceness counts. For years, I have joked with friends and even advised property owners that niceness may reduce your property taxes. Unfortunately, it is true. Who would have ever thought that mood or personality would affect your property taxes, but it absolutely does. I have witnessed nice property owners get better decisions than property owners who were angry.
KISS: Keep it simple stupid! Less can be more. Each case is truly unique, and depending upon the solicitor or school district involved, it can be best to simply focus on your strongest valuation method (i.e your best 3 comparable sales). The other information is relevant, but should be succinct when presented. An efficient organized case typically increases your odds in the appeal. I like to show the three best comparable sales; a spreadsheet of the street sales and ratios of assessments on that street; and finally a simple spreadsheet on uniformity in the area. If you are organized, a good case can be presented and won in minutes.
There is the first level BPAR (Board Property Assessment & Review), and the second level, BOV (Board Of Viewers). If you are unsuccessful at the BPAR, you have 30 days to appeal de novo (fresh or new) to the county BOV. You start all over with a new process, new rules and often a greater opportunity for success. Do not waive your right to appeal to the BOV. This could be the #1 mistake property owners make, because as stated above, the BPAR decision falsely implies that the Decision is Final.
Some of the attorneys for the school districts may try to bully property owners into unfair settlements. Do not be bullied. At the same time, you cannot make it personal with the attorney. Often, there may be several attorneys, and a hearing master who want the case to settle. Do not be pressured into an unfair settlement.
For all of the reasons above, the biggest single mistake property owners in Allegheny County make regarding their assessment appeals is they try to represent themselves. There is too much money at stake, usually for multiple years, not to use a competent attorney. Representation in these matters is affordable and the cost is usually well worth the savings in property taxes. Remember, as a rule of thumb, 10K in assessments is usually about $300 in total property taxes.
If you have questions about a property tax appeal in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, please contact Flaherty & Fardo for a free consultation. We’re happy to help you take the steps in your property tax appeal to get the assessment value you deserve.