Monthly Archives: August 2011

How to lower your property taxes

Half of All Homeowners May Be Paying Too Much. Here's What You Can Do About It

Home prices are still going down in many markets. But your property-tax bill might well be going up.

The good news: There are ways to fight back.

Property taxes across the U.S. have increased by nearly 20% from 2005 to 2009, the most recent data available, according to an April study by the National Association of Home Builders. The median annual real-estate-tax payment was $1,917 in 2009, up from $1,614 in 2005.

Over the same period, home prices in major urban centers fared badly, decreasing 31%, according to the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller 20-City Composite Index.

Elwood Smith

Property taxes don't move in lockstep with home values because local governments typically don't measure values every year and some have limits on annual property-tax increases, says Natalia Siniavskaia, a housing-policy economist at the home-builders group. That means your current property taxes might reflect your home's value when the market was healthier. Property-tax adjustments lag behind changes in home prices by an average of three years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

There isn't much you can do about your property-tax rate, which is set by your local government. But homeowners can often get their assessment lowered if they appeal to their local assessor. That can translate into a lower tax bill.

More than half of homeowners are paying too much in property taxes, says Jim Kane, Chicago-based managing director of True Partners Consulting, a tax advisory firm.

One key to a successful appeal: fact-checking the assessor's work. About half of all successful appeals come from homeowners pointing out an error in the assessor's description of their home, Mr. Kane says. Such errors can drive up a home's value.

To understand how these mistakes happen—and how to correct them—it is important to keep in mind how your local government assigns a value to your home.

Local officials can assign a value to your home using house-by-house appraisals, computer models or even aerial photos to gauge how many rooms are in a house or whether there has been a new addition, such as a deck or swimming pool. But it's difficult to look closely at each home every year, so officials will also update home values based on recent home sales in your area.

The superficial nature of the assessments means details can be overlooked.

Elwood Smith

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"We can be wrong," says Dusty Rhodes, elected auditor and assessor in Hamilton County, Ohio, which includes Cincinnati.

That is what Lynne Weaver, a Phoenix retiree, discovered after her property-tax bill started climbing. To figure out why, she says, she went on the Maricopa County, Ariz., assessor's website and discovered that a handful of her neighbors' homes were assessed for as much as $205,000 less than her own property.

Ms. Weaver says she didn't think the number was accurate because her neighbors' homes were similar to hers in construction and acreage, but had backyard pools and other amenities. Her home had "grass and flowers" in the backyard and an unfinished basement, she says.

She appealed her assessment nearly half a dozen times over the course of six years before she stumbled on the problem: The assessor had incorrectly said a room used as an office was 300 square feet larger than it actually was.

Armed with that knowledge, she successfully lowered her property assessment by 45% to $390,000 in 2010 from $709,715 in 2009. The lower assessment cut her 2010 property-tax billto $3,257 from $5,597 in 2009. Ms. Weaver, who had already been advocating for cuts to local property taxes, says the experience of appealing her own assessment galvanized her even more. She runs a group that has tried unsuccessfully to get a measure on the state ballot to cap property taxes.

Paul Petersen, spokesman for the Maricopa County assessor's office, says errors of that magnitude are uncommon. But errors can happen, he says, and that's why "we expect the public to help us be more accurate" and appeal if it's warranted. About one-fourth of residential property appeals result in a lower assessment, Mr. Petersen says, adding that the county reassesses properties every year to help reflect the changing market.

While Ms. Weaver fought back herself, you also can hire a tax lawyer or a property-tax consultant to do the legwork for you—if you are willing to pay up.

Some parts of the country have a stronger tradition of residents appealing property assessments because of higher tax rates or more-frequent assessments. Some states reappraise property values each year, while others do it once every several years. You might want to appeal your property value after each reassessment.

In Chicago, properties are assessed every three years. Residents appealed an average of one-fourth of reassessments during the past decade, according to data from the Cook County, Ill., assessor. An average of 18% of those appeals per year resulted in a decrease in the homeowner's assessed property value.

Local officials say they expect appeals from property owners if it's warranted, so don't be shy. "The appeal process is part of the mass appraisal process," says Burt Manning, chief appraiser for Fulton County, Ga., which includes most of Atlanta.

Here's how to do it:

Checking Your Assessment

Most local governments allow residents roughly 10 days to 30 days to appeal their assessment after notification. To figure out the timeframe in your county or city, check your reassessment notice, which is typically sent in the mail, or call your local assessor's office.

Ms. Weaver's case points to the importance of ensuring your assessor has accurately described your property. To do this, you will need to review what is called the "property record card," a summary of the characteristics of your home. Make sure there isn't an extra bedroom, say, or three bathrooms instead of two. Extra features can drive up the value of your home. You can usually find a description of your home on your assessor's website. If not, you might have to visit the assessor's office.

If you have made substantial changes to your home—a refurbished basement or new marble counter tops—you might want to be a bit wary of an appeal, since it could have the unintended effect of driving your assessment even higher. But property-assessment advisers say you shouldn't be too careful. If you feel your property is being overvalued by more than a few thousand dollars, it usually is worth the effort to appeal, they say.

Similarly, look closely at the assessor's description of your home to ensure that any characteristics that would drive down the value of your property—repeated flooding in your backyard, for instance, or a leaky roof that would be expensive to replace—are duly noted.

How to Appeal

The key to a successful appeal of your property value, experts say, is comparable sales, or "comps."

In many states, the appeal process is like a less-formal court hearing, where property owners present their case to several local officials or representatives. The simplest way to convince officials that your property has been incorrectly valued is to provide evidence of the sales price of homes that are comparable to yours, in terms of square footage, amenities and neighborhood characteristics. Bring sale documents and photos of your property, as well as the comps.

The websites of many assessors' offices include recent property sales, or you can check sales prices in your newspaper or with a local real-estate broker. Experts caution homeowners not to rely on home-value data from Zillow Inc. or other online real-estate information and search firms, since their figures aren't official and are unlikely to stand up as evidence in an appeal.

For purposes of comparison, you should consider only "arm's length" sales, meaning a sale between two parties who don't know each other. A sale between two people who do know each other could result in a lower price and is unlikely to be accepted in an appeal. Check for the same last name on sales documents as a clue that a sale isn't arm's length.

The appeal board also might question a home that sells quickly in a bad market, which could indicate an owner who needed to sell in a hurry. That means that sale might not work as a comp. Some property-assessment advisers say you can even use foreclosed homes, if those are the only sales in your area.

Assessors choose a specific date when measuring a home's value, which might be several months before you receive your assessment notice. If your assessor set values on Oct. 1, 2010, and you are looking at home sales in June and July 2011, an appeal board is likely to reject those comps.

The weak housing market means there aren't as many people selling their homes, making it difficult in some places to find comparable sales.

If that happens, you might consider hiring a professional appraiser to value your home. The average appraisal ranges from $350 to $600 for a typical single-family home, according to the Appraisal Institute, a professional association. Appraisers typically charge by the hour to appear at an appeal hearing. (To find an appraiser, go to www.appraisalinstitute.org and search by ZIP Code.)

Another option is to hire a lawyer who specializes in property-tax appeals. That is what Al Hollander did when he bought a house in Springfield Township, N.J., and realized that he was paying higher taxes than a nearby house that sold for about $35,000 more.

Mr. Hollander bought his home for $465,000 in May 2010. It is on 1½ acres and has five bedrooms and 3½ baths. But a nearby house, which sold for about $500,000 in the summer of 2009 and is on 2.2 acres with a swimming pool, paid $1,200 less in 2009 property taxes, he says.

Mr. Hollander, a physician's assistant, hired a friend who is a property-tax lawyer to lower his assessment. "What do I know about property taxes? I go to an expert," the 42-year-old Mr. Hollander says.

The lawyer helped Mr. Hollander lower his assessment from $605,000 to $550,000 for 2011 through an informal hearing with the assessor's office. The cut reduced his 2011 property taxes to $12,000 from $13,100 in 2010. For 2012, his assessment decreased to $500,000, meaning additional tax savings of $1,100. Springfield Township officials were unable to be reached for comment.

Property-tax lawyers often work on contingency and charge 30% to 50% of the tax savings for each year, says John Brusniak, president of the National Association of Property Tax Attorneys, a professional group. Those fees can differ by locality, he says.

Hiring a Firm

Finally, some homeowners choose to hire a property-tax consultant to do the appeal. These firms typically charge a flat, upfront property-analysis fee to determine whether they want to take your case, in addition to any filing fees.

Yet some appraisal offices frown on such services. "We give you the ammunition to beat us up," says Bernardo J. Garcia, director of legal services at the Harris County Appraisal District in Texas, which includes Houston. He says his office gives people a copy of all the comparable-sales data they need to use to make an assessment. The appeals process is straightforward, he adds.

Property-tax consultants say they can often get customers a better deal—and save them time spent in making court appearances.

"We know all the ins and outs of the process," says Paul Henry, a principal at Tax Reduction Services in Greenport, N.Y. "The process is cumbersome and riddled with paperwork that needs to be precise, so petitions are not thrown out."

Experts warn that homeowners should be cautious. "One must always be wary of scams in these areas," says Richard Roll, founder of the American Homeowners Association, a Stamford, Conn., homeowners' membership group. He recommends getting local references and checking the consultant's credentials before signing a contract.

In the last three years, the Better Business Bureau has received nearly 650 complaints nationwide about property-tax consultants. More than half of the complaints involve advertising and refund problems.

Short Sales: Are They Worth the Trouble?

For anyone who has braved the housing market in the past four years, short sales have become synonymous with high risk and high reward. But with so many discounted properties on the market today, are they really worth a buyer's trouble? Maybe — if you have a lot of time and a strong stomach.

Yes, you can get a below-market price, says Dallas Realtor Loni Parmelly, who specializes in short sales, but it's going to take patience because these deals are slow and difficult.

Unlike foreclosures, in which the owner has walked away and the bank is looking to unload a vacant — and sometimes, vandalized — property, a short sale isn't a distressed home that will sell at a rock bottom price. The homeowner is underwater (meaning he owes more on his mortgage than the property is worth), and he has a financial hardship such as a job loss. But to limit the damage to his credit rating, he has agreed to stay in the house (often continuing to pay his mortgage bills) and to help sell it, at which point the bank has agreed to eat the loss. According to RealtyTrac, short sales typically went for nearly 10 percent less than the market price in the first quarter of 2011. (Foreclosures sold at a 35 percent discount.)

What makes the transaction tricky for the buyer is that you're negotiating not only with the homeowner but the bank — and that creates three big headaches:

1. It takes a long time.

Normally, when you make an offer on a house, you'll hear back within days, or even hours. But banks move very slowly these days because their representatives are overloaded with cases. You might wait 30 to 60 days for a response, perhaps longer if there's a second mortgage on the property and therefore a second bank. The total process can easily take as long as six months from start to finish. "For someone moving a family or relocating for a new job," says Parmelly, "that kind of timeline is incredibly difficult."

2. Your offer can't be contingent on selling your current home.

Banks generally won't accept offers on short sales if they're contingent on selling your current house to get the funds you need. "Even if the buyer is already under contract, there are just too many things that can go wrong," says Parmelly, "and then all the dominoes fall." So unless you're a first-time homebuyer, you don't need the equity from your current home, or you're a real estate investor, it's unlikely that you can make a short sale work.

3. It's an as-is sale.

Banks also typically won't consider short-sale offers that have inspection contingencies in them. So you can either do your inspection before you make your offer — which would mean spending $500 to $1,000 on the outside chance that you can make a deal (and less than a quarter of short-sale offers lead to a purchase ) — or do what most people do, and go without an inspection.

As long as you're prepared for these hurdles, you may just land yourself a bargain. But make sure to work with a veteran Realtor because you want someone who knows the ins and outs of the process and can protect your interests throughout the negotiations. And since short sales aren't necessarily identified on Realtor.com or the part of the MLS data sheet that buyers see, always ask your agent whether any house is a short sale before bothering to look at it.

Then, if you fall in love with a house that's a short sale, get yourself a mortgage pre-approval — another short-sale requirement — and make a lowball offer. Sometimes you can do that without putting down any money, but if the bank requires a deposit, have your Realtor put language in the offer letter stating that if you don't have a response by a certain date (perhaps 60 or 90 days out — however long you feel like you can wait), you have the option of retracting the offer and getting your deposit back. That gives you an out, just in case.

When the bank finally replies, it will more than likely counter with whatever value its appraiser gives the house, says Parmelly. "Offer them 15 percent less than that," she says, "and see what happens."

How to prevent identity theft: Five tips

As many as 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Identity thieves may use your personal information to access your financial accounts, open credit cards, even rent an apartment in your name. Here are tips from the FTC, National Consumers League and Gibson Research on avoiding identity theft:

Never click on links sent in unsolicited emails. They could lead to legitimate-looking websites aimed at tricking you into entering your Social Security number, user name or account passwords. Also, don't give out financial or account information to unsolicited callers, even if they say they're from your bank.

Get off mailing lists for pre-approved credit offers. These lists are a "gold mine" for identity thieves, said the National Consumers League. Call (888) 5-OPTOUT ([888] 567-8688) or go to http://www.optoutprescreen.com to remove your name from national lists. You will have to provide your Social Security number.

Don't put your full date of birth on Facebook, or anywhere else online. If you want your friends to know your birthday, use only the month and day, not the year. Date of birth is one of the key pieces of information that many companies use to confirm identity.

Use long passwords. According to Gibson Research, a password that is 10 characters is vastly harder to crack than one that's nine characters, provided it is not a real word. The best thing to do is use a mix of letters, numbers and characters, like this: !co4D4)f%z.

Shred charge receipts, financial account statements, insurance forms, medical bills and other items with personal information when it's time to throw them away. ID thieves have been known to look through trash for account numbers and other identifying information, the FTC warned.

By Scott J. Wilson, Los Angeles Times


 

Google to Buy Motorola Unit: Android Game Changer?

Google to Buy Motorola Unit: Android Game Changer?

Analysts are calling Google’s announcement on Monday that it plans to buy Motorola Mobility a “game-changer” for its Android smartphone market, and a move that puts it in steeper competition against rival Apple. 

The Motorola unit purchase allows Google to "create a range of products that enable very rich, multi-device experiences in the same way that Apple does across iPhone, iPad and Apple TV," Forrester Research analyst Charles Golvin told the USA Today.

Google approved on Monday a $12.5 billion deal, its largest to date, to purchase the Motorola Mobility, which creates wireless phones, cable modems, and cable TV boxes. (The deal must clear antitrust review to be final).

Google’s Android already boasts the leading operating system, holding 43 percent of the market compared to Apple’s iOS operating system with 18 percent. But Android’s open-source smartphone software is available to any handset-maker, which means Google has less control over its phones. 

More than three dozen cell phone manufacturers currently make Android phones. Google CEO Larry Page says Android would remain open-source and available to other manufacturers, despite the Motorola Mobility purchase, and that Google plans to “run Motorola as a separate business.” 

Analysts say that the Motorola deal will finally allow Google to gain more control over some of its phones, at least the ones made by Motorola Mobility that have the Android name. 

"They were always getting beaten up by Apple because Apple could control the whole experience — hardware, software, packaging," says Carl Howe, research director at Yankee Group. "Now Google can play that game, too."

This also could help the Android phones be more attractive to app developers, who have reported challenges in creating software for different companies’ Android phones. 

Source: “Google Buys Motorola Mobility to ‘Supercharge’ Android OS,” USA Today (Aug. 16, 2011) and “Google’s Deal to Buy Motorola Mobility Could Shake Up Smartphone Market,” The Philadelphia Inquirer (Aug. 16, 2011)

Read More:
Buyer's Guide: 2011 Smartphones

Zillow: Market to Reach Bottom Possibly by 2012

Zillow: Market to Reach Bottom Possibly by 2012

With so many housing markets still facing falling property values, a “bumpy road ahead” remains for real estate and the market may not finally reach bottom until 2012, at the earliest, reports Zillow in its latest report. 

More metro areas are seeing price declines in homes, with 142 — or 92 percent — of the 154 markets Zillow analyzed seeing home values decrease year-over-year, according to Zillow’s latest Home Value Index. However, about 61 percent — or 94 — did see value increases quarter-to-quarter. 

"While there are many positive signs in the second quarter, and it is clear the post-tax-credit free-fall of home values is over, we're not out of the woods yet," Stan Humphries, Zillow's chief economist, said in a statement. "It is very encouraging that two-thirds of markets in our report experienced home-value appreciation, but we have to remember that this is coming on the heels of one of the worst quarters since the housing recession began.

"We expect a bumpy road ahead. There will be many ups and downs in home values before this is over, and we continue to expect a true bottom in 2012, at the earliest. There are still hazards in the form of a full foreclosure pipeline, high negative equity, and fluctuations in demand."

Nationwide, home values have dropped 28.8 percent since its peak, the report said. In the second quarter, about 26.8 percent of home owners with single-family homes owed more on their house than it was worth, according to Zillow. 

Pittsburgh, Pa., was the only metro area in the country’s top 25 that boasted a median price appreciation — up 2.7 percent to $110,400. 

Zillow’s report follows a day after the National Association of REALTORS® released its latest quarterly report. Read more

Source: “Zillow: Expect a ‘Bumpy Road Ahead’ for Real Estate,” Inman News (Aug. 10, 2011)

Read More

NAR: 2nd Quarter Metro Area Prices Mixed

Fed to Keep Interest Rates Low Until 2013

In an unusual step, the Federal Reserve vowed Tuesday to keep interest rates low for at least the next two years. 

The Fed said it’ll keep its key benchmark interest rate near zero through mid-2013. The Fed’s commitment was welcome news to many in the real estate industry who see it as a positive move for the housing industry, allowing buyers more time to take advantage of ultra low mortgage rates. 

The Fed said in a statement following its regular policy-setting meeting Tuesday that the overall economy has grown "considerably slower" than it expected and that consumer spending "has flattened out." Some economists in recent days have expressed concerns that the U.S. is heading for a double-dip recession.

Fed officials "are very nervous about the economy," says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics. "This is unprecedented for the Fed to indicate they are ready to keep rates low for two more years."

Still, the Fed continues to forecast a moderate pick-up in growth for the economy in the second half of the year. 

Source: “Fed says it Will Hold Rates Fast Until mid-2013,” MSNBC.com (Aug. 9, 2011)

Read more:  Why the Federal Role Is Vital

Will the S&P Downgrade Affect Interest Rates?

Standard & Poor downgraded the U.S.'s credit rating on Friday, despite Congress reaching a deal in the final hours on the debt ceiling crisis last week. And now many of your customers may be asking: What does this mean for interest rates?

“The impact on your wallet of the Standard & Poor's downgrade of the nation's credit rating is similar to what would happen if your own credit score declined: The cost of borrowing money is likely to go up,” the Washington Post explained in the aftermath of S&P’s decision.

Read the whole story…

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                                            <p style="letter-spacing:normal!important;font-family:Arial,sans-serif!important;margin:0;float:left;width:373px;">Protect against break-ins with a security check that shows where the entrances to your house—your doors—are vulnerable. <a target="_blank" style="color:#16a8d3!important; text-decoration:none!important;" href="http://www.houselogic.com/articles/do-it-yourself-home-security-check-doors-are-first-line-of-defense/">Read</a></p&gt;
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                                                <a href="http://www.houselogic.com/articles/home-security-check/&quot; style="letter-spacing:normal!important;font-family:Arial,sans-serif!important;color:#16a8d3!important; text-decoration:none!important;">
                                                    <img style="border:0 none;" src="http://c0263062.cdn.cloudfiles.rackspacecloud.com/content/images/sized/home-security-check-deadbolt-schlage_1x1_83be5ff4b41afa50cb0a75923d03b0ff_jpg_80x80_q85.jpg&quot; alt="How Secure Is Your House Online Home Security Check" title="home-security-check-deadbolt-schlage" />
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                                            <h3 style="letter-spacing:normal!important;font-family:Arial,sans-serif!important;float:left;width:373px;margin:0; font-size:16px!important; font-weight:bold!important;"><a style="color:#16a8d3!important; text-decoration:none!important;" href="http://www.houselogic.com/articles/home-security-check/&quot; target="_blank">Home Security Check</a></h3>
                                            <p style="letter-spacing:normal!important;font-family:Arial,sans-serif!important;margin:0;float:left;width:373px;">The first step toward protecting your home from break-ins is to conduct a home security check that will show where your property is most vulnerable.  <a target="_blank" style="color:#16a8d3!important; text-decoration:none!important;" href="http://www.houselogic.com/articles/home-security-check/">Read</a></p&gt;
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                                                <a href="http://www.houselogic.com/articles/home-office-security-check/&quot; style="letter-spacing:normal!important;font-family:Arial,sans-serif!important;color:#16a8d3!important; text-decoration:none!important;">
                                                    <img style="border:0 none;" src="http://c0263062.cdn.cloudfiles.rackspacecloud.com/content/images/sized/home-office-mediasafe-fireking_1x1_afb94226ae08fe57e690a6a3f2d49836_jpg_80x80_q85.jpg&quot; alt="Media safe for storing DVDs and other digital media" title="home-office-mediasafe-fireking" />
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                                            <h3 style="letter-spacing:normal!important;font-family:Arial,sans-serif!important;float:left;width:373px;margin:0; font-size:16px!important; font-weight:bold!important;"><a style="color:#16a8d3!important; text-decoration:none!important;" href="http://www.houselogic.com/articles/home-office-security-check/&quot; target="_blank">Home Office Security Check</a></h3>
                                            <p style="letter-spacing:normal!important;font-family:Arial,sans-serif!important;margin:0;float:left;width:373px;">This quick home-office security check will help you protect computer equipment, electronics, and personal data from theft, fire, and other dangers. <a target="_blank" style="color:#16a8d3!important; text-decoration:none!important;" href="http://www.houselogic.com/articles/home-office-security-check/">Read</a></p&gt;
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                                        <p style="letter-spacing:normal!important;font-family:Arial,sans-serif!important;margin:0 0 12px!important; color:#000!important; font-size:12px!important;">Visit <a style="color:#16a8d3!important; text-decoration:none!important;" href="http://www.houselogic.com">houselogic.com</a&gt; for more articles like this.</p>
                                        <p style="letter-spacing:normal!important;font-family:Arial,sans-serif!important;margin:0 0 12px!important; color:#000!important; font-size:11px!important;"> Copyright 2011 NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®</p>
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