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How to challenge a property assessment

(MoneyWatch) Experts estimate that at least one-third of all U.S. homes are assessed at too high a property value for tax purposes. If you think that applies to you, you may be able to appeal your home's assessed value.

The first thing to keep in mind is that an appeal is a process. To successfully contest an assessment, you'll need to have the facts and information that support your claim of a lower property value. A properly documented appeal is clearly much more likely to be successful. By contrast, an appeal that simply grouses that your taxes are too high and that your neighbor pays less is likely to fail.

Just as in the real estate market, the specifics will vary from one locale to the next. In general, though, here's how to go about challenging a property assessment.

Learn the appeals process. Your town's tax assessment office will have specific procedures for appealing a property assessment. Anyone considering an appeal of their property taxes will need to become knowledgeable about how the process works, who to work with, and what forms and information is required to appeal the assessment on your home. You will also need to know the filing deadlines for when any appeals will be heard for the coming tax year. The point is that you do not want to overlook a simple technicality that could jeopardize your chances of winning an appeal.

Review property tax records. All properties assessed a tax are listed in a public document called a tax roll. Get a copy of the tax roll and what is known as the "property tax card" for your home. The information for these records is the basis for the assessed value of your home and the resulting property tax you pay.

Check to ensure that the tax records are correct in describing the number of bedrooms, bathrooms, and dimensions and square footage. Also check to see that the records indicate the correct year the home was built. If you removed any buildings or filled in an in-ground pool, see to it that the records properly reflect this. If the records state you have a fireplace or a finished basement and you do not, this can result in a higher tax assessment. If any of this information is wrong, you have good grounds for an appeal.

Prepare the appeal. The most common appeals for homeowners are based on either errors in fact (for example, incorrect data used by the assessors in valuing your home) or errors in judgment (where the homeowner believes the tax is based on a home value that is too high). Appeals based on errors in fact are easier to win. Appeals based on your belief that your homes tax value is too high will need to include several appraisals and information on similar property with lower values.

Compile a list of property values. Prepare a list of at least three similar properties. You can hire a professional to appraise your home and similar ones for the purpose of comparison, although that will involve additional costs. Professional appraisals may also include several valuation methods, including comparable sales, current use, replacement cost and economic age/life methods. You may feel more comfortable if you believe that a professional appraisal will be more convincing and provide the information you need to support your case. You just need to make sure that the potential savings in lower property taxes is worth the cost of the appraisal.

Present your appeal. Finally, you will need to present your information and follow the process required by your local property tax board. Work with your property tax assessor -- the less formal the process and the fewer people involved, the more effective and efficient the result tends to be. Be aware of the deadlines and dates required by the process; if you send in your corrections after the assessor has sent his final record to the tax board, even before it is certified, it is harder for the assessor to change it. If an assessor agrees with the facts you present, he can intervene before the tax board certifies the tax roll, which saves time and money for all involved.