Thinking of filing a property tax protest? Reports suggest 2014 may see one of the biggest property tax increases in Houston ever.
To see a map of the 2014 tax increase in your area, click on this HCAD map. Ugly.
I am not a property tax protest expert. Just a homeowner who believes the computerized tax assessments on my home value are always off-base. I’ve found the most helpful information in protesting my taxes was talking to friends about what has worked for them.
Wanted to use this blog post as a forum to share my (non legal advice) experiences, and ask for you to add any practical, helpful advice that you have in the comments below. (UPDATE July 18, 2016: I do not handle tax protests as a part of my practice, so please do not email me about that. I do my own with mixed success. There are companies out there who do it. I have heard mixed things about various ones. I enjoy creating places on the web that are useful for people, and that’s why I made this blog post. When I first started doing my own tax protesting, I didn’t see a lot of helpful information. I figured if I could gather what has worked/not worked for people in the comments, maybe we would all benefit. I love when comment sections are helpful and not stupid. Personally, I think the whole way that Texas values properties for taxation is broken and wastes everyone’s time. I think if we can send cameras to a specific orbit around Jupiter, humankind should figure out a less time wasting and aggravating way to take my money).
I figure we need all the help we can get this year.
Practical help to win your property tax protest.
First some basics.
1. File your protest.
On the list of things that you might forget, this can be an expensive one. You can use the HCAD website to file it, so you don’t even need a stamp. This is a particularly important year not to forget this given the rise in values.
It’s not enough just to file your protest. You need to remember to show up to the hearing as well unless you get a i-Settle resolution. This is obvious but is a pain to do every year to say the same thing to get the same result.
2. Should you get professional help to protest?
Personally, no. Easy for me to say because the lawyer thing.
But many people have positive results without getting tax agent help. At least one study suggests individuals get better results than experts. For residential properties 41% better.
Why is that so?
Tax agent companies might suggest they tend to have harder cases than the people who feel like they can protest it on their own.
Perhaps it is a matter of motivation and familiarity. A homeowner is very motivated to reduce their tax valuation. They can focus their time on only one property, and knows its problems better than anyone.
I don’t want to pay anybody for things that I’m capable of doing myself and likely do better. Have that view regarding restaurant food too, which is why I often order the fish and skip things easier to cook at home.
3. Spend some time exploring the HCAD website.
The HCAD website contains the logistical procedures of what to expect, what information they consider. They go into a lot more detail than I can reasonably do here.
After you file your protest tax protest and receive an informal hearing date, the website will show you what properties their computerized models are using to compare to yours.
That information won’t be on the site until 15-20 days before your hearing date. It will give a list of comparable properties with basic information about them.
You have to log-in and click around a bit to find this information. (UPDATE July 18, 2016: Commenters/emailers have been asking where to find that info. I always end up forgetting where I found it the last time and have to look for it. HCAD currently doesn’t make it obvious that it exists or where to find it. In fairness to them, there’s a lot of stuff on their site. Fortunately, commenter “Kbum” was helpful and answered this below: “Once you log in here https://owners.hcad.org (and set up a user name/password) Navigate to the “Manage Your Property Accounts” page. You will find it at the bottom left of this page under “View HCAD Hearing Evidence.””)
You may want to actually see those properties in person and photograph the outside to distinguish them from your property. It’s been my experience that the properties that their computerized system used to compare to mine weren’t terribly similar.
4. Should you do i-Settle?
If you don’t use i-Settle, then your filing goes to an informal hearing appraiser and then if isn’t resolved then, to the entire appraisal review board. If you use HCAD i-Settle process, you may get a reduction in your home value such that you feel fine taking it without going to HCAD.
For me, though I asked to use i-Settle in the past, I’ve always received this email back after they considered it:
“Thank you for signing up for our iSettle™ program. Unfortunately, after reviewing the information we have available, we cannot propose an online settlement for your 2012 protest. Since sales disclosure is not mandatory in Texas, we acknowledge that our market information may not be complete and that you may have evidence unique to your property that may support a reduction in your property’s market value. To be sure you have an adequate opportunity to have it reviewed, we will be setting you up for appointments with one of our appraisers and for a hearing with the Appraisal Review Board. The Appraisal Review Board will set a hearing for your protest and notify you of the time, date and place of the hearing by standard USPS mail.”
Perhaps it works better for smaller reductions than what I requested. I ended up getting a informal appraisal hearing and approving their offer after i-Settle gave me no offer.
This detailed property tax protest Examiner blog post from a few years ago called “Appealing Houston Property Taxes 101: Taking on HCAD and winning” advises not using i-Settle at all.
5. What to expect from the informal appraisal hearing?
You show up at the HCAD building and wait for your name to be called. An appraiser brings you to his cubical.
When you go to this, bring all the documentation that supports your view of the market value of your home. Lots of quality pictures of defects with your home that adversely affect market value are crucial.
One year, the detailed info that I brought to the appraiser demonstrated that some of the information they had in their computer about my home was inaccurate, and he changed it in their system.
At one meeting I had with an appraiser, he told me that the most that they have authority to reduce with homeowners is $100,000. I do not know if it is true or not.
In my limited dealings with the informal process, they were reasonable and gave me what I thought was a fair offer worth not going the next step to the appraisal review board.
The panel is comprised of three citizens not employed by HCAD to hear your case. (In my experience, three old white guys. UPDATE July 18, 2016: Since this blog post was originally written, I had a panel not of old white guys, which ended up worse than the old white guy panel actually. Nothing like putting on your case in front of the panel, not knowing their concerns, and then hearing the chair of the panel ruling based on something that was in your packet of evidence but they didn’t ask about. I am not a mind reader, rude guy who chaired my panel).
There is also an HCAD employee who represents HCAD that argues against your point view.
When I did this, I put together a packet of material for me, each of the representatives, and the HCAD employee.
One section was reasons why house should have lower value than what the computerized system suggested due to problems with the property. This section had many clear color pictures of problems with the house.
Another section was details on the properties HCAD in its online materials said were the comparables, and why my property was worth substantially less. To do that, I looked both online with the information contained there, but also went to those properties and took pictures.
Then I flipped through the packet of materials, using it as a visual aid to discuss with the ARB panel. It was fancy looking packet with a cover sheet, good quality color photos to try to show I gave the proceeding some thought, respect and time.
Having everything in a packet is also helpful if you feel shy about talking in front of a group of people. You can just walk them through the packet.
The HCAD employee makes her response mostly based on the comparables. So if you give specifics of why those comparables are inaccurate and perhaps show better ones, it is hard for an HCAD employee who just picked up the file to refute you.
You just killed all her evidence and she doesn’t have any additional evidence beyond the comparables to refute your point.
They consider the information, and you get a final determination from them at the end of the hearing.
7. Be nice, be prepared. Get them to want to help you.
Remember, this process is not really about doing a “property tax protest” and more about discussing the information that justifies what the market value for your house is. Market value being what it would sell on the open market.
The informal appraiser and the appraiser review board folks are human beings. Ones who have a lot of control. So you want to politely and logically state your position, with so much support and in such a friendly way they want to help you.
Under no circumstances should you complain about the tax burden to the informal appraiser or to the ARB panel. Because it ain’t their doing. In fact, one of the first things on the HCAD site is this statement:
“If you’re concerned about tax levels, you should take those concerns to local government officials.”
I am certain they know what you think about the rising taxes. They have heard it a million times. Likely from bat bleep crazy people who said it in bat bleep crazy ways.
But if you want the human beings who control your tax appraisal to help you, you help them by providing good reasons supported by data.
And being the nice sort of person they feel good about helping.
(This is good advice in dealing with most service providers who have control over something you want them to do–making them feel good to want to go the extra mile for you. They just want to do their job, get paid, get off work, maybe go to Applebees, get some beers. You can try to bulldoze service providers into doing good stuff for you, but that is not a high percentage situation when they have more power and control in the situation).
If you win on the ARB level, you’ve beaten HCAD until next year, when the computer spits out the same old wrong valuation and you make many of the same arguments year after year. (So save your documents).
If you don’t get a reduction at the ARB level, then your next choice is district court, which for most homeowners won’t be worth the time and money. There is no guarantee you and the ARB panel will agree with your assessment, so sometimes it may be worth it to take the informal appraisal reduction for the certainty involved.
7. Talk to your neighbors.
You know your property. Your neighbors know your neighborhood. Sometimes they may know gossip that can help you gather helpful valuation information.
One year, one of my neighbors put a spreadsheet in local mailboxes demonstrating the rise of land values on our street relative to nearby streets, showing an improper valuation issue. That connection wouldn’t have occurred to me until I saw that flyer.
Talking to your neighbors can sometimes give you a sense of what works and doesn’t work in doing their property tax protest.
8. Leave a comment here.
As I said, I am no expert in this. What I’d like to do is to start a dialogue about this topic. Where people share their ideas of what works and what they have experienced.
As a Houston homeowner who knows I will be doing this fight every year, I’d like to receive whatever help I can get.