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Lower Your Property Tax Bill – A New Year’s Resolution You Can Keep
For many, the start of a new year signals the time to make some kind of change in their lives and become more like their ideal selves. For others, January is the time to make a different, much easier change: cutting your property tax bill. The tax appeal process in New Jersey involves a series of steps, and using an experienced property tax attorney to guide you through the process will make your New Year’s resolution much easier to keep .
Since tax appeal season in New Jersey is nearing the beginning of the year, reducing your property taxes is a perfect New Year’s resolution. Around the end of January each year, all property owners in New Jersey are supposed to receive their annual assessment. This is the little green card that comes out of the prosecutor’s office. Since all properties in a particular New Jersey municipality are taxed at the same rate, it is the assessment that differentiates one property owner’s tax bill from another and is the true measure of whether a property is properly taxed. fair or not The period in which an assessment can generally be appealed in New Jersey is from the time the assessment is received until April 1st (May 1st if there has been a reappraisal or reassessment).
The first step to understanding if you are being taxed too much is to understand how your property is assessed.
In New Jersey, your assessment is the value your property was assessed at when it was last reassessed. Although the amount the municipality assesses your property by changes from year to year, your assessment usually stays the same. Each year, each municipality in New Jersey is assigned an “equalization ratio,” which is intended to reflect the current value of properties in a particular municipality relative to their value in the year of assessment.
You can find your municipality’s equalization ratio by calling your local tax assessor or county tax board. It can also be found on the New Jersey Division of Taxation website. The “average ratio” is the percentage of “true value” that your assessment is considered to be. In other words, you divide your appraisal by the equalization ratio to get your property’s true valuation. This is the number your assessor actually uses to calculate your property tax, not your assessment.
For many people, the decision about whether to appeal their assessment is easy once they realize the true assessment of their property. For others, especially people who have owned a property for a long time and haven’t thought about buying or selling, the question of whether to appeal an appraisal is less clear.
Here are several general rules to consider when deciding whether to appeal your assessment:
- As your assessment ages and your equity ratio decreases, it is more likely that your assessment will not match the true value of your property.
- Conversely, when an equalization ration exceeds 100% because property values have fallen (as in recent years), this means that, on average, properties are overvalued in these municipalities. The homeowner still has the burden of proving that their particular property is overvalued, but an average ratio above 100% is a good indicator of overvaluation.
- When you live in a housing development or neighborhood where properties are very similar and prices have dropped significantly, your individual property value has likely decreased and your assessment and matching ratio may not have kept pace.
- Whenever a property has unique features that make it very different from others, there is often an argument to be made to lower the valuation. For example, a very large old house in a neighborhood of smaller, newer houses will often be valued as a larger house with the characteristics of the surrounding areas. In fact, these homes tend to be harder to sell and often deserve lower appraisals.
The next step in the process for individuals is to decide if they want to work with an attorney in this process. Although corporations and other legal entities must be represented by an attorney under New Jersey law, a sole proprietor can represent himself. However, there are very good reasons to consider keeping one:
- Many lawyers work on a contingency basis so that there are no legal fees unless taxes are reduced. There are certain fixed out-of-pocket expenses that the landlord pays, but the attorney receives a percentage of the tax savings if, and only if, the appeal is successful.
- A lawyer working on a contingency basis should provide a free consultation and do their own independent research to determine whether an appeal is likely to succeed. If an attorney doesn’t return your calls and takes the time to tell you why they think your rating should be reduced, it’s a sign that you should look elsewhere.
- Above all, there is the comfort of having an experienced professional handle your case. You don’t have to worry about any of the rules that can be onerous and, frankly, arbitrary. (For example, property tax appeals can be dismissed if the petition is not printed on legal paper.) You do not have to testify at a hearing, which is often unfamiliar and inconvenient for the landlord.
- Many people believe that you will end up with a better outcome when you are represented by a lawyer. This additional savings year after year more than makes up for the attorney’s fees.
Take, for example, the case of Stephen and Rachel Pineles, who decided to appeal the assessment of their home in Essex County, New Jersey in 2010. “My town had not had an assessment in over twenty years and my appraisal was outrageously high compared to the actual value of my home,” said Stephen Pineles. “Hiring an attorney to handle the property tax appeal was definitely the right decision for me. I didn’t have to worry about anything. Initially, the tax advisor offered a reduction that was low. In the end , my attorney negotiated a much better settlement and my property taxes were reduced by over $3,700 or almost 30% of my tax bill.”
As with anything else, there is a certain amount of risk in appealing your assessment. In New Jersey, if your case is unsuccessful, you will not recover your out-of-pocket expenses. Also, under New Jersey law, your appraiser has the right to argue that your appraisal is too low. This right is limited, however, to cases where your property is undervalued by 15%. If your property’s assessment divided by the equalization ratio is $100,000, the assessor can only argue that the assessment should be increased if they can show that your property is actually worth at least $115,000. If your attorney has done their research well and determined that there is a good reason to lower your assessment, it is unlikely to happen.
As the new year begins, in addition to some of the more difficult goals and changes people are contemplating, it may be worth thinking about trying to lower your tax bill. It can be one of the easiest and most cost-effective decisions you make.
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