Trimming your property taxes down to size

Could you be paying far more than you really need to be paying on property taxes?

Most people don't actually know whether the assessment they receive from the government regarding their property's value is accurate or not. They simply accept the number that they see on the "assessed value" statement that they receive from the tax department and pay the bill.

That could be a big mistake. While only 2 percent of homeowners appeal the assessments they receive, it's estimated that about 60 percent of properties are overvalued when they're assessed.

Here are the first steps you can take:

1. Look at your assessment for discrepancies

If your assessment is accurate, there's nothing really to appeal. You need to look at what you believe the fair market value of your property is in order to determine if you have room to lower your taxes.

When making your own assessment, you can access online tools like Zillow to look at how your home is valued there and what homes in your comparable neighborhood are going for when they sell. You also need to check:

  • Square footage

  • Room counts

  • Amenities

  • Zoning

All of these things can be factored into your assessment -- and many may be outdated or wrong.

2. Consider getting an appraisal

You need to approach the tax office with evidence in hand that will support your case (unless there's an error so obvious that the assessor is willing to make the change without an appeal). An appraisal can give you significant leverage and provide solid justification for your request for a lower tax rate.

3. Talk to a professional

Property tax appeals can be complicated -- and you have to adhere to what can be a Byzantine set of procedures and regulations. An attorney with experience handling real estate issues and disputes may be able to help you get through the system much more easily than you could manage on your own.

Finally, while not exactly part of an appeal of your property tax rate, it's worth checking into exemptions. Some areas will offer you a reduction in your taxes, for example, if you're disabled or of retirement age. Some careful inquiries could reveal some opportunities you're missing.