This is the lean on your tax bill

To the good people who moved to Texas last year in record numbers from California, Florida, Louisiana, and a whole host of other places:

I hope by now you have figured out a few things.

Don’t use your car horn if you can avoid it.

High school soccer coaches get paid big. Math teachers? not much.

Chili is the official state dish. Fried chicken steak should be served with white gravy. On the grill, if you want more veggies and salad, head back to California.

Oh, and you are subject to taxes on your property. Someone was supposed to fill you in when you bought this new McMansion with the proceeds from the sale of your California home.

So it’s okay to get confused. In fact, everyone is confused. Even someone like me has lived here for 29 years. I’m confused.

Actually, I’m angry. People lose their homes because they cannot afford the high tax bills.

Since this is the last weekend before the May 16 deadline to formally notify most appraisal districts that they intend to protest, I thought that as The Watchdog I could explain the system to you in the simplest terms, quickly and efficiently, unlike the property tax system.

Let’s go.

In the magical kingdom called Texas, there is no state income tax. Sure, the air is dirty, politics is tough, and one man, Jerry Jones of Arkansas, continues to break people’s hearts by putting losing teams on the football field year after year (but that’s another story).

Yes, there is no income tax, but they deceive you in other ways: they increase fees, as they say, “not taxes.” It is a difference in wording.

Our sales tax on some items is usually 8.25%.

But the real sting comes from the property tax, as they play number games with different denominations. You get an appraised value, separate market value, and even land value.

Follow me here. The assessed value is what your property tax is based on (we’ll get to that). It is capped by an increase of 10% each year. Market value, which has no ceiling, is what they think your home is worth on the open market. You are challenging the market value if you don’t like their numbers.

Who are “them”? “Them” is your county appraisal area, which hires appraisers to estimate the value of your home. They never entered. Most likely, they never even drove down your street. But they pick a number, and you get it by mail. Most people ignore it and move on with their lives.

Five years ago, I launched a movement called “Everyone File a Protest” to make people understand the crazy system. I offered several ways to protest and immediately heard from people who were cutting hundreds or even thousands of dollars off their property tax bill.

Some hire property tax advisors to help them.

In general, if someone protests alone or they hire a consultant, they may lower their tax bill. In the meantime, the neighbors may pay more because they are not paying attention. You can find this scenario in many residential streets. The advantage often goes to the protester.

However, the State Property Owner’s Bill of Rights says that the owners are entitled to “equal and uniform value.” State law states that each property must be valued at its “fair value.”

To ease the burden, politicians have given us household waivers that are used as deductions.

Let’s say your home is worth $100,000. But you get discounts because it’s your primary residence, or for being a disabled, 65+, disabled veteran or surviving spouse.

So with the $25,000 exemption, let’s say, $100,000 of taxable value is down to $75,000, and if you need it maybe even more.

The estimated value is multiplied with the tax rate for each local government, which is determined in the summer. Governments that set the annual tax rate include the school district, city, county, general hospital, college prep and others. The result of this calculation is your property tax bill.

The public, angry at taxes, can show up at these summer budget meetings and demand a lower tax rate, but few do.

It’s a big blame game. The conjecture says that high taxes are the fault of elected officials. Elected officials say assessment districts are to blame. Both are to blame.

We used to get a line on our assessment notice to guess the estimated tax bill. That prompted people to protest, so it was removed from most county assessment notices. Instead, we receive a postcard later in the year that sends us to a website where our tax details are listed. Many people think that the postcard is some kind of fraud and tossing it.

How can you use this weekend to decide whether to file a protest before the deadline? First, understand that protesting is a good thing. It won’t get you in trouble. It’s incorporated into state law promoting protest as your right as a Texan. Your protest is supposed to instill justice in the system. (Cue laughter.)

There are two primary ways to protest, amid other techniques. The first is Comp, or similar properties. You can ask a real estate agent to look it up for you. There should be no charge. Real estate sales prices in Texas are hidden from the public, but not so much from those in the industry.

Comps show home sales in your area, and that should be an indication of the value of your home. So if your value is higher than recent sales, that’s good for you. You can show that they exaggerated you. But that won’t work out well this year for many owners because home sale prices have skyrocketed.

The second method is what I’m trying this year. Suppose you’re in an episode of HGTV’s flip or flip turns out. Take pictures of all the interiors that need an upgrade to make your home stylish for homebuyers. The assessment area does not know what is happening inside your home. Written estimates from contractors can help strengthen your evidence. You can prepare this before your hearing.

An early decision may be made informally, by e-mail, telephone or by personal visit to the assessment office (if permitted). It is clear that regions want to lower their hearing numbers. Some protesters win before the hearing. But for those who go, you encounter a county appraiser and the Appraisal Review Board.

Each county has its own way of doing this. What works in Dallas County may not work in Tarrant County. If everything seems so arbitrary, that’s because it is.

Bottom line (and this is really a bottom line issue): If you need and get your assessment numbers down, they build a lower base for them to use in the coming years. The lower rule means lower taxes.

Remember, for most people, May 16th is the deadline for protest.

Good luck and welcome to Texas.

Final note: The Denton County protest deadline is on track to reach June 30, which is too late for many landlords. I’ll tell you why in the next column of The Watchdog.

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Dallas Morning News Watch Column is the 2019 winner of the first columnist award from the National Association of Newspaper Columnists. A contest judge described his winning entries as “examples of shady storytelling and public service.”

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