Prop­erty tax protest tales ring true, costly

The Dallas Morning News - - Metro&state - DAVE LIEBER watch­dog@dal­las­news.com

Your sto­ries sent to The Watch­dog about your 2017 prop­erty tax protests show there is no sin­gle statewide stan­dard for what home­own­ers pay. No com­mon­al­ity that’s pre­dictable. Ev­ery Texas county has its own goals and for­mu­las. Neigh­bors on the same block in sim­i­lar homes can pay vastly dif­fer­ent tax bills.

My #Every­body­fileaprotest cam­paign was a suc­cess. More North Tex­ans filed protests than ever. They dug in and learned how to nav­i­gate the con­fu­sion. But our un­even tax­ing sys­tem per­sists.

Th­ese real sto­ries il­lus­trate the un­fair­ness of our “tax-friendly” Texas.

I’m not us­ing names be­cause, as one in­for­mant says, “Fear of ret­ri­bu­tion by tax­ing au­thor­i­ties is real.” I re­spect that.

Here goes. Some­times, it’s too easy. On a whim, S.D. says, she joined my protest move­ment. She sub­mit­ted iphone pho­tos of her prop­erty on­line to her ap­praisal district.

When she got an in­vite to her protest hear­ing, “I was too lazy and not com­mit­ted enough to show up, and I just ig­nored it,” she ad­mits.

“To­day we re­ceived a cer­ti­fied let­ter from the county that our home’s tax­able value was re­duced by more than $13,000. Un­be­liev­able.”

She calls it “the lazy gal’s protest.” Com­pare that to oth­ers who work for weeks to build their case — and

lose.

Be­fore her hear­ing, M.M. met with a county ap­praiser for an in­for­mal ne­go­ti­a­tion. The ap­praiser barely looked at her pho­tos show­ing needed im­prove­ments that should have low­ered her home’s tax­able value. He asked her if she had re­ceived any of­fers to sell her house.

“Yes,” she an­swered. “We get of­fers fre­quently.”

Per­haps, the ap­praiser sug­gested, “This is a good time to take a profit and sell if pay­ing your taxes is go­ing to be a hard­ship.”

Who knew you can get per­son­al­ized — and un­wanted — real es­tate ad­vice from your county ap­praiser?

C.J. also got ad­vice from her county ap­praiser. In an in­for­mal ne­go­ti­a­tion be­fore her tax hear­ing, he told her that be­cause so many peo­ple are mov­ing here from Cal­i­for­nia, and they’ve been will­ing to “over­pay” for houses, we “might as well just get over it be­cause it’s not the ap­praisal district’s fault.”

The ap­praiser told her he bought his house for $171,000, and it’s gone way up in value.

“So why shouldn’t ev­ery­one else’s go up, too?” he asked her.

Same house, not bill

J.C.’S home and his nextdoor neigh­bor’s home are ex­act du­pli­cates. He showed me pho­tos. Both houses were bought around the same time for about the same price. Their tax bills should be close, right?

Yet J.C.’S house has a tax­able value of $266,000 and his neigh­bor’s is $181,000.

“I tried to talk to the ap­praisal district,” J.C. says, “but they were no help.”

Is Texas tax-friendly?

“When I talk to peo­ple who tell me they’re mov­ing here,” E.L. says, “I tell them that it is ex­tremely ex­pen­sive. And the first thing they say is, ‘Well, there is no state in­come tax.’

“But then I point out the prop­erty taxes for cities and coun­ties, school tax, sales tax, toll­way bills, and they go, ‘Re­ally?’”

Wrong square footage

When J.C. put her house up for sale, her Real­tor no­ticed that the square footage listed on the tax rolls was off by 300, and not in her fa­vor. That meant she was pay­ing taxes on a big­ger house than she ac­tu­ally owned. She over­paid for years.

“I would en­cour­age ev­ery­one to check the minute de­tails at the tax of­fice for sim­i­lar er­rors,” J.C. says.

D.G. had the same prob­lem. “I dis­cov­ered the square footage on my house had been mys­te­ri­ously raised 400 square feet,” he says. “I protested, and it took two years of ef­fort, but I was fi­nally able to get a re­fund. It had gone on for sev­eral years be­fore I re­al­ized what had hap­pened. I could only get a re­fund for three years back.”

Tax no­tice er­ror

T.A. looked at his esti- mated tax amount and found a ma­jor er­ror. His es­ti­mated tax bill was $300 lower than it should have been. The rea­son? He saw that the num­ber for the school district’s por­tion was wrong.

He says, “The bot­tom line is that if this cal­cu­la­tion er­ror took place across the board, peo­ple are go­ing to be lulled to sleep about the amount their taxes will in­crease, and they won’t protest.”

He adds, “To its credit, the ap­praisal district tells peo­ple not to rely on the es­ti­mated taxes. How­ever, such a bla­tant er­ror is al­most de­cep­tive and doesn’t give tax­pay­ers suf­fi­cient no­tice.”

Big­gest er­ror of all

The one er­ror that hurts The Watch­dog the most is when I hear about a home­owner who doesn’t know that he or she must ap­ply for a “home­stead ex­emp­tion” on their pri­mary res­i­dence. That’s a huge dis­count on the fi­nal an­nual tax bill that saves hun­dreds, if not thou­sands of dol­lars.

Jor­dan Todd of RealValueiq .com, a tax protest com­pany, tells me that his res­i­den­tial data shows that about 10 per­cent of Dal­las County home­own­ers are el­i­gi­ble for a home­stead ex­emp­tion but they never filed for one.

If true, that’s 1 out of 10 home­own­ers who over­pay ev­ery year and don’t know it.

It’s not their fault. It’s a crummy sys­tem. And this is one more rea­son why.

Todd’s com­pany charges a min­i­mal fee to file, but you can also do it your­self for free at your county ap­praisal district.

If you don’t know if you have the ex­emp­tion, check with your ap­praisal district or look on its web­site for your prop­erty list­ing.

Dear Par­a­site, Signed Host

Fi­nally, let me close with a word from the other side. It’s not easy be­ing a county’s chief ap­praiser — and deal­ing with this mess.

Rock­wall County Chief Ap­praiser Pa­tri­cia Davis said, “I have been called ev­ery name in the book.”

“Like what?” I asked. “They ad­dress their let­ters to me as ‘The Par­a­site.’”

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