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Fighting the Good Fight
By Diane Rosener

We have a nice house in a nice neighborhood. When we bought it three years ago, we knew we were making a wise decision. Although this house needed lots of work we were confident that in several years we could make it a home we could be proud of -- and probably profit by.

But, of course, that takes time. Since we moved in, we've done some painting, removing of old carpet, landscaping, etc. But we still have the majority of "big" work to do, including remodeling the kitchen and baths.

So, were we surprised when we received the valuation statement from the County Assessor's office? Why? Because our 2000 valuation rose $37,000 from the 1999 valuation!

We had expected the valuation to go up in 1999. After all, the house had been in the same hands for many decades, so the Assessor's Office was primed for a jump when it sold. But why such a big jump in the year 2000? The only thing we could figure out was that someone really liked our house!

After logging on to the Assessor's web site, we were even more dumbfounded. Our frame house was valued second highest on the block, lower only to a full brick Tudor on a double lot. The Tudor has a 2 car brick attached garage and more interior square feet than ours. Even the other brick houses on the block were assessed lower than ours. Our county offers a short window for disputing valuations. A thirty-day time frame has been deemed enough for doing the research and fighting what we decided would be the "good fight."

Having been a real estate broker in another life (alright, it was about 15 years ago), I knew the kind of information we would need to make our case. And having dealt with city and county governments in the past, I knew that the more information we could provide, the better. We set out to get the more information we could provide, the better.

Web sites: We first accessed our county Web site, looking for any pertinent information. There we found the valuations of all the homes in the area. Because of the limited site capabilities, we weren't able to access any other info.

Advice: Call your Assessor's office, or check its Web site, if there is one. Do as much research at home as you can. Digging through records at the courthouse is no fun!

Pictures: We walked the neighborhood, taking pictures of houses that looked comparable to ours. We also snapped pictures of houses that we knew should be valued higher than ours. This included homes that were bigger, were brick, had larger lots or had been remodeled within the last year or two. We also took pictures of recently sold houses in the area.

After having the pictures developed, we walked around again, jotting the property addresses on the back of the appropriate pictures. We also made notes on the back of the pictures we took of the inside of the house, where our focus was on anything outdated, including the 1960's kitchen and bathrooms, the old plumbing and wiring, and the remains of the 1950's family room in the basement.

We took pictures of our problem areas and "works in progress." For example, the plumbing leak in the living room ceilinge, the hardwood floor that has plywood "patches," the entry with a plywood floor and the cockeyed step, and the toilet in the basement that isn't connected to plumbing.

Advice: A picture is truly worth a thousand words. You will be trying to convince someone to lower your property taxes who hasn't seen your house, or maybe hasn't even been in your neighborhood. Take plenty of photos, even if you don't use them all.

The courthouse: Armed with a list of the houses in the neighborhood we wanted more information on, we headed to the county clerk's office at the courthouse. After getting a quick course from an employee on running the computer, we settled in to do our research.

From the computer we obtained info such as square feet, selling price, number of rooms, year the house was built and depreciation value for each of our comparables. This data would prove invaluable in our fight. We also pulled up and printed the information about our house. This was important because of discrepancies between the information the Register's office has and what is accurate.

Advice: Taking the time to do all the research necessary might seem like a pain, but trust me, it's time well spent. Call the tax assessor's (or county clerk's) office in your city before going to the courthouse. They may be able to help you over the phone, or at least tell you when tthe office is least busy.

Other documentation: Because we had purchased our house 2 1/2 years before this valuation, we pulled out the appraisal we received with the loan papers. Although outdated, it provided info such as square feet, comparable sold properties, the condition of the house, and the appraised value.

We also located the property disclosure statement signed by the seller. It told of the cracked windows and slight basement leakage. We gathered the estimates we had for work needing to be done. This included an estimate from a plumber to fix the sewer line from the house to the street that is clogged with tree roots.

Advice: When you are sitting in front of the referee or the valuation board, it's too late to think about all the things you could have brought with you to prove your case. Do your homework and you'll stand a better chance of winning.

Putting it all together: By the time we had gathered our information, the dining room table was starting to look like the table in a war room. Pictures, documents and notes were everywhere. Now we had to combine all this "stuff" into a legitimate case for lowering the valuation on our house.

We started by paper clipping our pictures with the courthouse printouts. Using a highlighter, we marked all the things we wanted to remember, such as the house next door that just sold last month for much less than our house was valued at. It's smaller and has a 1-car garage, but it's brick. Compared to our frame house, full brick adds about $10,000 to the value.

Besides price/valuation discrepancies, we also noted other inconsistencies, such as lower valuations of houses with comparable square feet and the fewer number of rooms in our house compared to others.

After putting all the information into a file folder, we were ready for "the good fight!"

Advice: Think about the people you will be presenting your case to. They know nothing about your house. Whether it's one person or a committee, they will appreciate your thoroughness to detail.

The Good Fight: I went with confidence into the meeting with the referee, who would pass his recommendation on to the county board. I'd done my homework, and could prove without a shadow of a doubt that our house was valued too high for the area.

But -- I thought I was in BIG trouble about 10 minutes into the hearing. The referee was denying all my arguments. I asked about depreciating our 2-year-old garage. He said, nope, too new. I asked about changing the status of the basement to unfinished because we'd torn out the 1950's finish. He said no because there were still some remnants of a room!

I was starting to panic, until we got to the comparable solds. I offered the pictures of each house I was using, along with the printouts of room dimensions, sold price, valuation amount, etc. Then I got into comparably sized houses that were valued lower.

By the time I presented pictures him pictures of the inside of our house that showed the icky basement, plumbing problems, etc., he was agreeing with me that the persons doing valuations really likes our house!

When I was through, he complimented me on being comprehensive. He said many people just come in and ask for a lower valuation, but don't provide any reason for the request.

Advice: My best advice is DO YOUR HOMEWORK. It's easier to prove your point when you can show someone pictures or provide documentation. If you will not get an answer on the spot, leave the documentation with the referee or committee. (Be sure you've made copies for yourself.) You want the person making the decision to be able to look through the documentation and pictures at his own speed, instead of having to rely on his memory.

How did our "good fight" turn out? I'm thrilled to say the valuation on our house was lowered by $15,000!

Copyright 2000 by Diane M. Rosener, the publisher of A Penny Saved.

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