On average, local governments assess the value of houses and land every two to three years, and according to Kiplinger magazine, 60 percent of properties are taxed too high. If property values drop, it may be a couple of years before the county figures out your assessment is too high. It's possible to lower your assessment and get back money you've paid in, but it may not be easy.
Your county treasurer or tax assessor website should have details about how to appeal assessments and apply for refunds. Pay particular attention to any filing deadlines: San Francisco, for example, requires you file any appeals for the current year between July 2 and Sept. 15. An East Hanover, NJ, homeowner discovered in 2008 that he'd overpaid taxes for 20 years, due to the city assessing his land as 1,800 square feet larger than it is. Because he'd missed all the appeal deadlines, officials refused to refund his money.
If you send in your check and then realize your assessed value is too high, you can get a refund with a successful appeal. The standard method is to find houses like yours — same neighborhood, same size, same features — that sold in the past few months. If the average price is way below your assessed value, you can make a case. You can collect the information yourself, or hire a professional appraiser to do it for you.
Even if the assessor did everything right, you may do something wrong. You write the wrong amount on a check, for instance, or send in two checks for the same assessment. When you realize your error, contact the county treasurer about how to prove the mistake and obtain a refund. Franklin County, Ohio, for example, has an online database of any properties with an excess payment. Residents check the database, fill out a form and get it notarized, then submit it to the county.
Going to Court
Asking for a refund doesn't guarantee you'll get it. If you can't convince the county to grant your appeal, or you missed a filing deadline, you can sue in court to get your money back. Your success depends not only on the facts but past court rulings. New Jersey courts, for instance, have ruled against giving refunds to homeowners who didn't file appeals on time, even if the assessment was wrong. If you need a lawyer's help but can't afford it, there are legal groups that offer free assistance.
A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.