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The Watchdog: Property tax protest tales ring true, costly

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Dave Lieber, The Dallas Morning News

Your stories sent to The Watchdog about your 2017 property tax protests show there is no single statewide standard for what homeowners pay. No commonality that's predictable. Every Texas county has its own goals and formulas. Neighbors on the same block in similar homes can pay vastly different tax bills.

My #EverybodyFileAProtest campaign was a success. More North Texans filed protests than ever. They dug in and learned how to navigate the confusion. But our uneven taxing system persists.

These real stories illustrate the unfairness of our "tax-friendly" Texas.

I'm not using names because, as one informant says, "Fear of retribution by taxing authorities is real." I respect that.

Here goes.

Sometimes, it's too easy.

On a whim, S.D. says, she joined my protest movement. She submitted iPhone photos of her property online to her appraisal district.

When she got an invite to her protest hearing, "I was too lazy and not committed enough to show up, and I just ignored it," she admits.

"Today we received a certified letter from the county that our home's taxable value was reduced by more than $13,000. Unbelievable."

She calls it "the lazy gal's protest." Compare that to others who work for weeks to build their case — and lose.

Unwanted advice

Before her hearing, M.M. met with a county appraiser for an informal negotiation. The appraiser barely looked at her photos showing needed improvements that should have lowered her home's taxable value. He asked her if she had received any offers to sell her house.

"Yes," she answered. "We get offers frequently."

Perhaps, the appraiser suggested, "This is a good time to take a profit and sell if paying your taxes is going to be a hardship."

Who knew you can get personalized — and unwanted — real estate advice from your county appraiser?

Blaming Californians

C.J. also got advice from her county appraiser. In an informal negotiation before her tax hearing, he told her that because so many people are moving here from California, and they've been willing to "overpay" for houses, we "might as well just get over it because it's not the appraisal district's fault."

The appraiser told her he bought his house for $171,000, and it's gone way up in value.

"So why shouldn't everyone else's go up, too?" he asked her.

Same house, not bill

J.C.'s home and his next-door neighbor's home are exact duplicates. He showed me photos. Both houses were bought around the same time for about the same price. Their tax bills should be close, right?

Yet J.C.'s house has a taxable value of $266,000 and his neighbor's is $181,000.

"I tried to talk to the appraisal district," J.C. says, "but they were no help."

Is Texas tax-friendly?

"When I talk to people who tell me they're moving here," E.L. says, "I tell them that it is extremely expensive. And the first thing they say is, 'Well, there is no state income tax.'

"But then I point out the property taxes for cities and counties, school tax, sales tax, tollway bills, and they go, 'Really?'"

Wrong square footage

When J.C. put her house up for sale, her Realtor noticed that the square footage listed on the tax rolls was off by 300, and not in her favor. That meant she was paying taxes on a bigger house than she actually owned. She overpaid for years.

"I would encourage everyone to check the minute details at the tax office for similar errors," J.C. says.

D.G. had the same problem.

"I discovered the square footage on my house had been mysteriously raised 400 square feet," he says. "I protested, and it took two years of effort, but I was finally able to get a refund. It had gone on for several years before I realized what had happened. I could only get a refund for three years back."

Tax notice error

T.A. looked at his estimated tax amount and found a major error. His estimated tax bill was $300 lower than it should have been. The reason? He saw that the number for the school district's portion was wrong.

He says, "The bottom line is that if this calculation error took place across the board, people are going to be lulled to sleep about the amount their taxes will increase, and they won't protest."

He adds, "To its credit, the appraisal district tells people not to rely on the estimated taxes. However, such a blatant error is almost deceptive and doesn't give taxpayers sufficient notice."

Biggest error of all

The one error that hurts The Watchdog the most is when I hear about a homeowner who doesn't know that he or she must apply for a "homestead exemption" on their primary residence. That's a huge discount on the final annual tax bill that saves hundreds, if not thousands of dollars.

Jordan Todd of RealValueIQ.com, a tax protest company, tells me that his residential data shows that about 10 percent of Dallas County homeowners are eligible for a homestead exemption but they never filed for one. If true, that's 1 out of 10 homeowners who overpay every year and don't know it.

It's not their fault. It's a crummy system. And this is one more reason why.

Todd's company charges a minimal fee to file, but you can also do it yourself for free at your county appraisal district.

If you don't know if you have the exemption, check with your appraisal district or look on its website for your property listing.

Dear Parasite, Signed Host

Finally, let me close with a word from the other side. It's not easy being a county's chief appraiser — and dealing with this mess.

Rockwall County Chief Appraiser Patricia Davis said, "I have been called every name in the book."

"Like what?" I asked.

"They address their letters to me as 'The Parasite.'"

Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

ABOUT THIS COLUMN

The Watchdog Desk works for you to shine light on questionable practices in business and government. We welcome your story ideas and tips.

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Email: watchdog@dallasnews.com

Call: 214-977-2952

Write: Dave Lieber, P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, TX 75265