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It's property tax appraisal, and scam, time

A congressional committee's recent look into ways to reform the tax code highlighted the many tax breaks that homeownership offers.

Of course, to get these tax benefits -- most notably itemized deductions for mortgage interest and real estate taxes paid -- homeowners must first shell out some pretty big bucks.

Most property owners are pretty sanguine when it comes to mortgage interest. As a nation of borrowers, we realize that loan interest is just part of the deal.

The interest is also spread over 12 monthly payments, so we don't feel the payment pain so acutely.

And refinancing opportunities have allowed many folks (including the hubby and me) to reduce the amount of interest we pay and deduct.

Real estate appraisal shock: But property taxes are totally different.

Although we can deduct this amount, too, I've never met anyone who's happy about the amount of property taxes they pay each year. Heck, even Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney contested his high-dollar Southern California property's assessment.

Sure, we all want our homes to be worth as much as possible ... when we sell.

Before then, though, it's a different story. If we're planning to keep living in our homes, then that annual appraisal of our residences is usually waaaay too high.

Property tax appraisal issues

The hubby and I got our 2013 Notice of Appraised Value from Travis County officials this week. And has been the case for most of the eight years we've owned our house, its value has increased from the prior year.

That value is what local tax assessors use to figure our annual property tax bill. So if there's a way to get the appraisal reduced, our taxes will drop, too.

Property owners have become more proactive with regard to property taxes. Over the years, appeals of appraised property values have increased.

Appealing property assessments: And so have scams that promise to help homeowners in their property tax fight.

As this week's Weekly Tax Tip notes, there are ways to avoid these property appraisal con artists, who typically charge fees to dispute your property assessment.

First things first. You can challenge your property assessment on your own, free of charge.

Your local officials probably will even offer some help, up to a point. Included with our assessment was a legal-paper-sized, two-sided document from the Texas State Comptroller detailing what property owners can do if they have an issue with a real estate assessment.

The sheet has info on how to protest property values, what can be protest, how to complete the protest form, the timetable to follow, how to prepare for the protest hearing, what to do if you disagree with the hearing result and where to get additional information.

Look out for scams: Many folks, however, don't want to mess with the appeals process. And that opens up a ready-made market for scammers.

When those mailings or phone calls from folks offering to help you reduce your property appraisal start to pour in, experts say you need to watch out for:

  • Letters from private companies that are designed to look as if they are from government agencies.
  • Offers to file a challenge of an assessment -- for an upfront fee.
  • Services that request a certified copy of your property deed.
  • Companies that ask for your Social Security number.

Don't miss the deadline: OK, now you know what you don't want to see.

But there is a key thing to look for, regardless of whether you do it yourself or hire a reputable firm to make your argument for a reduced property valuation: the deadline for filing an appeal.

Here in my part of Central Texas a property appraisal protest must be filed by the end of May.

Make sure you know what the appeals deadline is in your jurisdiction. Check with your local appraisal district or your state tax department for specifics for your location.

If you miss the deadline, all your work to lower your property's appraisal, and subsequently your property tax bill, will be wasted.

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