The phrase "nothing is certain but death and taxes" doesn't include any pithy follow-up about doing whatever you can to reduce and prepare for said taxes.
It just wouldn't have the same ring to it.
Lyrical legacies aside, there are things homeowners can do to help gird themselves for the annual pickpocketing by local governments in the form of property taxes.
Typically, property tax payments are paid once or twice a year. Depending on where you call home and its predetermined value (which we'll get to in a moment), these may be sizable bills around which to plan. If you haven't already done so, it's a highly smart idea to set up a savings account just for your taxes and, say, your home insurance so you have the appropriate amount available when those bills come due.
Massive chunks or monthly morsels
You may have the ability to manage this process through your lender and ease some of the your administrative burden along the way.
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Depending on your lender, you may choose to set up an escrow account with it and pay taxes and insurance along with your mortgage payment. These monthly, prorated property tax and homeowners insurance payments would be placed into an account managed by the lender, which would make payments on your behalf by withdrawing funds from the account and sending to the appropriate third party.
Of course, the option of monthly escrow contributions isn't for everyone and might not be an option for many (often it's a requirement), but all it takes is a call to your lender to find out. You may have even been given the choice at the time of your initial home payment setup. Given the reams of papers to digest amid that process, you can be forgiven for not realizing that was an option at the start.
Assess the assessor
The next thing to examine is the actual amount of property tax owed.
The tax is based on the assessed value of your home, and given the real estate market's continued topsy-turvey nature, you might be paying too much. Median home prices nationwide may remain on the low side (a statement that could be considered wildly inaccurate given your current location), but assessments aren't always in lockstep.
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According to a National Taxpayers Union, or NTU, survey of assessors, properties are typically assessed every two or three years, sometimes less. Your home's value might be down, but don't assume the assessment that determines your tax base is as well.
Still not sure it's the right time to challenge your property tax assessment? Maybe these figures will help nudge you along. The NTU, a nonprofit advocacy group, estimates that 30% to 60% of homes in the U.S. are over-assessed. Middle- and lower-income taxpayers are among the most often over-assessed. Although less than 5% of taxpayers challenge their assessments, the majority of those who do earn some type of reduction, according to NTU findings.
This is not an intimidating process, so don't allow it to be. You don't need to hire experts to challenge your assessment. Do it yourself. Ask officials in charge of assessments how home value is determined. The equation often includes appraisals, recent sales prices of comparable homes, or the cost to rebuild your home. Keep tabs on comparable home sales that tilt things in your favor, or ask a local real estate professional for this information.
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Often an informal challenge in the form of a personal visit to your local assessor's office is all that's needed to adjust an assessed value not in line with the present market. However, a written appeal to the assessor's office, backed up with evidence, is another approach that garners results.
With depressed home values across many parts of the country, there's never been a better time to challenge the assessment system and lower your taxes in the process.
One last word of advice, this time to prospective homeowners: Property tax can be estimated before buying. Contact your county assessor's office and request the property tax rates for your area. Property tax is often a forgotten afterthought, but it shouldn't be.
Jim Staats is a technical support analyst at Manilla.com, the leading, free and secure service that helps consumers simplify and organize all of their bills and household accounts in one place online or via the four-star-plus customer-rated mobile apps. He has a bachelor's degree in industrial technology from California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo. Wedged between stints supporting products at firms including Intuit and Sybase, Jim worked as a journalist reporting on real estate, business, technology and other issues for print and online publications.
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