Property owners in and around Austin who want to protest their tax appraisal have until May 15 to do it. If you’re a little confused about how to launch an appeal once you get your appraisal in the mail, you’re not alone.
Property taxes are kind of boring and complicated. But they do a little bit of everything: They help educate your kids, fix roads, keep you safe and put out fires – a lot of stuff you count on.
But it’s stuff that runs in the background of your life.
Even paying property taxes is mostly out of your hands; some unseen dollar amount deducted from your checking account each month with your mortgage.
It’s easy for property taxes – and the appraisals they’re based on – to get lost in the thousand other things you have going on.
But for those who’ve felt the sting of a really high tax appraisal, the notices that appear in the mailbox this time of year are a source of some real outrage – or at least some real anxiety.
"I just kind of look at it with kind of a feeling of dread," said Steve Elizalde, a homeowner in Hays County. "When I look at it my stomach goes into my feet, of course, because my appraisal on my house is way overvalued, which increases the property taxes, of course."
Steve and his wife bought their two-story, corner-lot home three years ago and every year, he says, the appraisals have been high – sometimes $50,000 more than market value.
"All I know is, if I can make $50,000 every year on my house, I would never live in my house," he said. "I would just sell it every year."
Growing tax bills have long been a complaint in Travis County, but now those higher assessments are making their way to surrounding counties.
Jen Terrell’s house and yard straddle the Hays and Travis county lines. She says during their first year in the house, they were taxed by both counties on nearly the entire lot.
"There was no agreement between the counties as to who owned the house and who owned the land," she said.
She and her husband filed an official protest – something that hadn’t occurred to them before.
"We never protested in prior years," she said. "I don’t know if we didn’t pay attention to it. I think last year, because we had such a knock in the face around being taxed at nearly two times the pie of what we should have been taxed that it was an eye-opening experience for us. And I think going forward we always will protest."
No one has to take their appraisal as the final word. Here’s a step-by-step guide to seeing if you’re a candidate for an appeal.
Make sure your property is listed correctly. Does it have the correct square footage? Does it include the correct features (bathrooms, garage, porch)?
Does it include all exemptions that you are allowed? A homestead exemption allows your home’s assessed value to be lowered by $25,000 for school districts, the largest beneficiary of property tax. The homestead exemption also limits the leap your home’s taxable value can take from year-to-year at 10 percent. There are other benefits that ease your tax burden depending on your city or county, as well as exemptions for disabled veterans and those over 65.
Before you protest, Elizalde recommends you get a good sense of how much other houses like yours are worth. To help with that, he’s become good friends with his realtor – like, they hang out.
"He’s actually become a good friend of mine," Elizalde said. "And he really helps me out a lot, because I gather information from him on houses that are like mine that have sold in the last six to 12 months."
Also, you cannot appeal your home's current value. You are appealing what its value was last year. So, if sales were really popping in your neighborhood, then values got overheated, but now things have slowed down, your current value wouldn't matter to the appraisal review board (ARB).
If at this point you want to appeal, you can file a protest online in the following counties:
After you submit your appeal online, you will be contacted by an appraiser, who will give you an appearance date before the ARB.
The review boards are made up of residents in every Texas county. They resolve disputes between property owners and county appraisers. They are intended to be independent of the county. State law mandates a minimum 15-day notice before your appearance before the board, so you can prepare your case.
Those 15 days also provide a window for an informal back-and-forth, usually over email, between you and an appraiser to sort out your case. You can submit evidence like photos, comparable listings or letters from builders.
That part of the process worked for Terrell.
"We actually worked with one of their appraisers before our protest date and were able to come to an amicable agreement between the two of us, so we did not go to a formal protest hearing," she said.
If you can’t come to terms with the county appraiser, you will then have to appear before the board.
This is your chance to make a formal argument. It’s like small claims court. The ARB wants to hear the merits of your argument, not emotional appeals. These are quick hearings (like 15 minutes) and your evidence needs to back up the reasons for your protest.
"If you get in there and there is any misunderstanding about what your basis for protesting, they won’t hear any other argument than what they understand you’re going to protest on," Terrell said.
Travis County eventually agreed to give up the claim on the Terrells’ house, but the assessed value on their backyard was higher than they expected.
If you’d like some help before the hearing, the state comptroller has a video that offers tips in building your presentation.
There are also tax protest services that charge a contingency fee based on what you save in taxable value.
Sometimes, the outcome of your protest may not be in your favor. You may save only a few bucks a month for your trouble.
But, sometimes, an ARB could see it your way.
Elizalde’s first protest in front of the board saved him tens of thousands in taxable value, roughly translating to dozens of dollars a month and hundreds a year.
If you are still not satisfied and want another shot at appeal (and you qualify), you could apply for binding arbitration with the state comptroller.
If you want to protest or appeal your appraisal, you have until May 15 or 30 days from the date of your written notice.
ARB hearings start this summer.