I live in New Jersey, the state with the highest property taxes in the nation, which means that from the moment I bought a home here, I knew I'd be in for some whopping expenses. What I didn't expect, however, was for my property taxes to climb so drastically from year to year.
The culprit? Annual property assessments. Any time our town assessor determined that my home was worth more than its previous value, my taxes increased -- until one year, when I decided to fight back.
Now, in some areas, you can submit a property tax appeal online or by mail, sit back, and wait for a judgment. Where I live, however, appealing your property taxes means going to court and duking it out with your local assessor face to face. And that's precisely what I did in an effort to make my home more affordable.
A hard-fought battle
I wasn't thrilled with the idea of taking on my property tax assessor in court -- mainly because he had a lot more experience in this arena than I did, and I was nervous about representing myself (it didn't make sense to hire an attorney). But one smart thing I did was come in prepared.
Prior to my hearing date, I took the time to research homes in my town that were comparable to mine and had been sold recently at lower prices than what my house was being assessed at. I largely got this information on Zillow, which lets you search for recently sold homes by zip code. Now my zip code encompasses a pretty wide area, so I had to comb through various listings to find homes that were truly comparable to mine. Once I did, I printed that information and presented it to the judge during my hearing to show that my home was worth about $30,000 less than my assessor claimed.
Once I presented that information, our town assessor tried to argue that my home was worth more than the homes in question. The reason? Mine was new construction when I bought it, and newer than the other homes I’d identified. But I'd done my research and presented evidence that several of those older homes had undergone extensive renovations, and as such, were as updated as mine.
Finally, I had to prove that my home was worth less than a seemingly identical home on my very block that had sold for a high price the year before (and was effectively the basis for my huge assessment hike). That wasn't easy, but I had a few key points that worked in my favor. First, my neighbor's home has a slightly larger yard. Second, it has an expensive stone patio, whereas our patio is more basic. Third, it has a finished basement that offers extra living space, whereas at the time, my basement was unfinished.
Though the judge didn't offer up a ruling on the spot, I could see that based on the details I presented, there was no reasonable way to argue that my home wasn't worth substantially less than my neighbor's. In fact, once my hearing was done, my assessor turned to shake my hand on the way out and actually said, "Good job in there."
A big part of me wanted to reply with some choice words, since his over-assessment was the reason I had to take time off from work, sink hours into research, and go through this whole process in the first place. But in the end, I'm glad I fought the assessment, because the judge wound up agreeing with me and lowering my assessment, and I was able to shave many hundreds of dollars off of my property tax bill that year. Not only that, but my assessments held pretty steady for a couple of years following that hearing, and I think that's largely due to the fact that my assessor, knowing I wouldn't take an increase lying down, didn't want to have to battle it out again.
Appealing my property taxes in person wasn't a particularly easy or fun thing to do, but I'm glad I decided to stand up for myself. If you have reason to believe that your home is overassessed and that your property taxes are higher than they should be as a result, don't hesitate to advocate for yourself, even if that means having to attend a hearing and do something similar to what I did. Stepping outside your comfort zone could save you a fair amount of money, and for that reason alone, it's worth it.