Property Tax Protests 101: Easier Than You Might Think

Wednesday is the deadline to appeal property taxes in Harris County, where only a small percentage of property owners challenge values set by the county's appraisal district. As Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports, there's a pretty good chance that if you file a protest, you'll get your tax bill reduced.

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In 2005, out of 1.7 million property tax accounts in Harris County, only about 220,000 protests were filed. Of those, 70-percent were resolved in favor of the property owners. Jim Robinson is the chief appraiser in a county that trails only Los Angeles County in the number of property tax accounts.

"I would not sit here and represent to anybody that with 1.7 million accounts that we can't make a mistake because we're going to make some mistakes. Property conditions change over time. We're not able to go out and physically inspect every property every year, so if somebody has had some unusual deterioation of their property that we don't know about, that would be a reason to file a protest."

Appraised values are up more than 8-percent this year in Harris County, where 428,000 homes increased in value. The value of 600,000 homes was unchanged and 39,000 homes dropped in value.

"It makes no difference to me whether value goes up, goes down or stays the same. Our job isn't to protect the tax base. It's not to see that some jurisdiction gets the most much money it can. It's to see that property is appraised at its market value and if we're successful in that, then both the taxpayers are treated fairly, nobody pays more or less than their fair share, and the jurisdiction is treated fairly, that it gets the revenue that it deserves."

Robinson says the protest process is simple and starts with a written explanation of why the taxes are being challenged. Once the appraisal district receives the protest notice, it schedules a time when the property owner can appear before a 3-member review board. Those hearings typically take less than an hour to complete. But only about 11-percent of property owners protest their taxes, which surprises Pat O'Connor. He's the president of O'Connor and Associates, a Houston firm that helps property owners appeal their appraisals.

"The most typical reason for not appealing is that people think it's going to be complicated. Number two is quote, you can't fight city hall. They don't think they have a chance of winning. And probably the number three reason is that they just don't want to spend the time on it."

O'Connor says it comes as no surprise that appraisal mistakes are made in a county with so many homes.

"Harris County has about 150 appraisers to access about 1.7 million parcels of real property, so they can't go see the properties on an annual basis. They use computer models and sales information to estimate values, but it's not an exact or precise process."

Again, the deadline to protest property taxes in Harris County is this Wednesday.

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