Good grief! My assessment is too high!

Cathy Woodruff The Advocate

Updated 11:14 a.m., Monday, May 23, 2011

If you’ve had a nagging feeling that the property taxes youpay on your house are higher than they ought to be, at leastwhen compared with other similar homes in yourcommunity, the deadline is here to do something about it.

This Tuesday, the fourth one in May, is that special dateknown as Grievance Day in most area towns and cities(there are a handful of exceptions), and it’s your last chanceuntil next year to make a case that your assessment is higher than it ought to be.

Today’s column is dedicated to giving readers a sense of how to go about filing a complaint — or “grieving”– an assessment and what to expect if you do.

The good news is that there are more resources than ever to help an average homeowner decide whether itcould be worthwhile to go through the process and, if so, to help the homeowner build a case.

This year, for the first time, state law required municipalities to post their tentative assessment rolls onlineafter they were finalized on May 1. You can see the rolls by going directly to your city, town or countywebsite or to the state Office of Real Property Tax Services site, which also has links.

I took a look at the tentative assessment for my house in Niskayuna to see if it would be worth taking a shotat lowering my own home’s assessed value. My conclusion was that it’s probably not.

I initially was encouraged when I saw that our immediate neighbors to the west have a noticeably lowerassessment on a house I’d always considered much like ours. But then I looked closer. Their square footageis less. Their house is classified as a “bungalow,” compared to our “old style” house.

Next, I eyed the assessment for the house to the east of us, also “old style” with a bit less square footage.That one actually has a slightly higher assessment.

There also wasn’t much to encourage me on a roster of recently sold homes, with photos. Few were similarto the age, size, style and neighborhood of our house. Those that I thought came close were sold for priceswithin a reasonable range of our full-value assessment.

Still, some houses caught my eye as I perused the list. One house purchased in August 2009 for $138,500has a tentative assessment of $200,000. Maybe the sale price was lower than the actual value for somegood reason — like a transaction within the family or under pressing circumstances such as a job transfer –but, if not, I’d be tempted to challenge that assessment if the house were mine.

These are the just the sorts of issues experts tell me one should research before contesting an assessment.It all can add weight to your argument when you file the required complaint form (form RP-524 on thestate ORPTS website) and if you appear before members of the board of assessment review on Tuesday.

If you strike out with the local Board of Assessment Review, you may want to consider taking yourchallenge another step and seeking a Small Claims Assessment Review in court. But that’s an issue forlater. For now, let’s just concentrate on the immediate options.

There’s not much time left, so complete your four-page RP-524 asap, and call ahead to the assessor’s officeto check on the hours the board will meet to hear cases. Boards in smaller towns are more likely to meet ona date other than May 24 because they may need to accommodate an assessor who works formultiple communities.

In Clifton Park, Assessor Walter Smead says the 5-member board will hear arguments from propertyowners who want to appear in person from 1 to 5 and 7 to 9 p.m. on Tuesday. Since May 1, he has beenscheduling appointments and meeting informally with residents who already have gotten the ball rollingwith an application.

This next detail is important: be clear on just what you are contesting.

“A lot of times, people go in and say they’re grieving their taxes,” notes Geoffrey Gloak, a spokesman forthe state Office of Real Property Tax Services. “The assessor is not responsible for the amount of taxessomeone is paying. Saying ‘My taxes are too high’ is not going to be enough to argue that your assessmentshould be lowered.”

Thomas Lane, a tax accountant who lives in Glenville, has made the case for several friends and relativeswho sought to have their assessments lowered in recent years, after successfully challenging his own a fewyears ago.

He argued that his house, built in 2006, was too highly valued when compared with identical homes in thesame development that were built four years earlier, when sale prices were lower.

This year, he said, he’ll be in Halfmoon on behalf of a colleague. And, as always, he’ll go armed withconcrete examples that support his argument.

That means looking for houses with similar size, age and architecture and gathering documentation onrecent sale prices. Photographs also can help show the assessment review panel hearing your case thatyour house really is much like one with a far lower assessment, Lane said.

“If you know your neighborhood, you can tell what houses are similar to yours,” Lane said. “Gettingcomparable properties is probably the key thing for a person to look at initially.”

Then, lay out the case clearly and politely.

Lane recalls seeing homeowners who misunderstood the implications of a town revaluation a few yearsago, when assessments were converted from partial value to full value, and assumed the change wouldautomatically translate into sharply higher taxes on their property.

“People were outraged, going in unprepared with no proof of other comparable properties. I’m sure theygot denied,” he said. “You definitely want to know what you are talking about.”

David Fontana, who owns Armstrong Appraisals, is one of the people property owners call to help ensurethat they do, indeed, know what they’re talking about.

“Grievance boards turn people down if they don’t have enough research,” he said.

Fontana has been appraising properties in preparation for this grievance period since November and wasstill at it on Friday, aiming to make the best of an especially busy year.

He’s done 130 grievance-related appraisals locally and about 65 others scattered around the state for 2011,which is about double what he did last year, he estimates.

Even though people aren’t, in fact, contesting their taxes through the grievance process, Fontana suspects — as I do — that a tough economy is fueling more grievances.

“I really just think everything is bearing down and something has to give,” he said.

Reach the Advocate at [email protected].

The Advocate appears in print Thursdays and Sundays,and online at Instructions

Almost anything you need to know about challenging your assessment in New York State is on the websitefor the Office of Real Property Tax Services:

Resources there include:What to Do if You Disagree With Your Assessement, a 12-page instructional booklet

A printable copy of complaint form RP-524A brochure: How to Estimate the Market Value of Your Home

Links to online assessment data, local assessment calendars and contact information

Source: NYS Department of Taxation and Finance, Office of Real Property Tax Services.