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Why you should appeal your Atlanta property taxes this year (and how to do it)

UPDATE AUGUST 9, 2017: Fulton County has decided to roll back 2017 property tax assessments to 2016 levels. The revised assessment notices were mailed last week. Even though these valuations are much more reasonable, if you haven’t appealed in the last two years, you should still consider appealing this year. Worst case, you will freeze your assessment at current levels for the next two years.

ORIGINAL ARTICLE FROM JUNE 9, 2017:

If you own real estate in Fulton County, Georgia, you likely got a nasty surprise in the mail last week.  The Fulton County Assessor’s office has mailed out their 2017 Annual Notices of Assessment, which list the County’s proposed fair market value for each property in Fulton County.  Fulton County was widely expected to raise assessments this year (a backdoor tax increase), and the assessment notices I received last week certainly confirm this.  For example, Fulton County is proposing a 49.6% increase in assessment over last year’s fair market value for the home my wife and I own Buckhead.  If the assessment stands, we will owe about $4,000 more in property tax this year than we did last year.  I also operate some rental properties in Fulton County.  On average, the County is proposing an increase of 50.8% on these properties since last year.  On one property, they increased the assessment by 100.3% from 2016.  I know that the Atlanta real estate market has been strong over the last year, but it has certainly not been that strong!

Background

Under state law, each property must be taxed based on its fair market value.  Each county’s Board of Assessors is responsible for determining and tracking the fair market value of each property.  However, the assessors do not have the resources to perform a comprehensive appraisal on each property in the county.  So, they rely on top-down guess-timation.  For example, the recent assessment notice I received on my home stated the reason for assessment increase as “CPI Cumulative Growth.”  While it is true that real estate prices tend to increase with inflation, the consumer price index is an awfully imprecise way to appraise an individual property.  And, unsurprisingly, Fulton County’s methods tend to err on the high side because, all else being equal, higher fair market values generate more tax revenue.

You have a right to appeal

Fortunately, state law provides some protections for citizens who disagree with their county’s assessment, including a formal appeals process.  The most important part of this process is meeting the deadline.  If you do not appeal your assessment within 45 days of the notice date, you are out of luck.  This year, the deadline in Fulton County is July 5, 2017.

You have a few options when filing an appeal.  For most homeowners, the best option is to appeal to the Board of Equalization, which is a panel of citizens empowered to conduct hearings to resolve disputes between the Board of Assessors and property owners.  There is no charge for this appeal.  After the hearing, if you disagree with the Board of Equalization’s decision, you have the right to elevate the appeal to the Superior Court for a fee of $25.00.

Why you have nothing to lose and much to gain

Most property owners have nothing to lose by appealing due to a state law (Georgia Code 48-5-311(e)(9)) that prevents your assessment from being raised by the Board of Equalization if you have not appealed in the previous two years.  For property owners covered by this law, the worst that will happen is that your appeal is denied and the Assessor’s valuation is confirmed.

Best case scenario, the Board of Equalization agrees with you and lowers the assessed value of your property.  This will reduce your tax bill.

Either way, whatever the Board of Equalization decides, under another state law (Georgia Code 48-5-299(c)), the Board of Assessors is prohibited from raising your assessment for the next two years after the year of the appeal, unless you physically change your property in a way that makes it more valuable.  In a rising real estate market, this two-year freeze is quite valuable, whether you win or lose your appeal this year.  Please note, to obtain this two-year protection from increased assessments, you or your representative must actually attend the Board of Equalization hearing and present some kind of written evidence.  In some cases, agreeing to a settlement with the Board of Assessors prior to the hearing will not give you a two-year freeze, so make sure you fully understand the settlement offer before agreeing.

How to file the appeal

If you own property in Fulton County, you can appeal online in less than five minutes (detailed instructions below).

All you need to do to timely file your appeal is to tell the County the basis of your appeal and the amount you believe your property is worth.  It is that simple. If you have not appealed your property tax assessment in the last two years, it is in your interest to take the time to file this appeal before the deadline.

You have three choices for the basis of your appeal:  value, uniformity, and taxability.  Value is the most common basis for an appeal, which simply means you disagree with the Board of Assessor’s estimation of the fair market value of your property.  You may also choose to appeal based on uniformity, which means you think the Board of Assessors has assessed the value of your property inconsistently with other similar properties.  If you believe that the county does not have a legal right to tax the property in question, you can appeal based on taxability, though this is less common.

For the estimate of what your property is worth, you don’t need to over think this.  In fact, you can revise this amount later if you want.  The important thing is to file the appeal before the deadline.  One approach is to simply state last year’s assessed fair market value as the amount you believe it is worth this year.  In other words, you can assert that you agree with the Board of Assessor’s valuation as of December 31, 2015, and believe that your property has not increased in value as of December 31, 2016.   For many properties in Atlanta, this will be a reasonable assertion.

Step-by-step instructions for filing an appeal online
  • Go to the Tax Assessor’s website at fultonassessor.org and click on “Appeal.”
  • Scroll down to the bottom of item #1 and click on “APPEAL RESOLUTION CENTER.” This will take you to a third party software vendor, Modria, that is administering Fulton County’s online appeal program.
  • Once there, click on the yellow “File an Appeal” button. You will need to create an account on Modria (name, address, email, password, etc.).  Once you have established an account, click on “File a New Appeal.”
  • On the “Select the Property” screen, enter the parcel ID for your property, which can be found on your notice of assessment or looked up in the property records section of fultonassessor.org. You’ll need to enter the number without hyphens, but leaving a space between the first two digits and the other numbers.  Yes, this is odd, but it is how the software works.  Click submit.
  • On the “Parcel Details” screen, you will see the address of the property and the name of owner of the property on file with the tax assessor.  If you bought the property recently, this could be the previous owner.  If not, it should be your name.  Either way, select the radio button at the bottom “Continue to File Appeal” and click submit.
  • On the “Contact Details” screen you will see the mailing address the assessor has on file for the owner.  Even if this is wrong you can’t edit it online, so click submit.
  • On the “Tell Us About You” screen, click the radio button for “Self” and click submit.
  • On the “Filer Contact Information” screen, enter your phone number(s) and click submit.
  • On the “Tell us About the Appeal” screen, enter check marks for the basis of your appeal (this will be “Value” for most people). Make sure “Board of Equalization” is selected as the Appeal Process (this should be the default).  Enter your opinion of fair market value.  Enter a brief reason for appeal.  Something like “The assessor appraised my property above fair market value” would be sufficient.  Choose whether to be billed at 85% or 100% of the assessor’s value, noting that this will have no impact on the total taxes you eventually owe.  Click submit.
  • On the “Appeal Preview” screen you can review the information you entered in the previous steps. Click submit.
  • On the “Would you like to upload supporting documentation now” screen, select “Upload later” and click submit.
  • On the “Electronically Sign Appeal” screen, type your name and click submit.
  • You will receive a dialog box that says “User Action executed successfully.” You should shortly thereafter receive a confirmation email from “Appeals” confirming that your appeal was filed successfully.
  • You’re done for now. Wait to hear back about your hearing date.
Preparing for the hearing

You will need to present at least one piece of written evidence at the hearing.  If you are appealing based on value, you can bring evidence showing the value of comparable properties as of December 31, 2016.  The best evidence would be sale prices of comparable properties near yours that sold in late 2016.  For the purposes of this hearing, properties that sold after December 31, 2016, are irrelevant.  Ideally, you will find at least three comparable properties (similar square footage and bedroom count) near your property that sold for less than the amount the Board of Assessors valued your property.  It doesn’t have to be perfect.  The important thing is that you bring at least one piece of written evidence to the hearing.  This will ensure that, even if the Board of Equalization rules against you, your assessment will be frozen for two years.

How do you find data for sales of comparable properties?  The easiest way is to ask a Realtor®, if you have a good relationship with one.  They can pull comps in a few minutes’ time.  If you want to do it yourself, one easy way is to use Zillow.com.  If you go on Zillow and enter your property address, you’ll see a map of nearby properties for sale.  If you go up to the menu bar and select “recently sold” properties instead of “for sale” properties you’ll see these show up on the map with yellow dots.  You can then find out the amount and date each property sold for.  Remember, only properties that sold during 2016 are relevant.  Your comparable sales evidence will be even stronger if you then go to www.fultonassessor.org and pull up the property details for each of these recent sales to show the Board of Equalization that they are, in fact, comparable to yours.

If you are appealing based on uniformity, you will want to visit the tax assessor’s website at www.fultonassessor.org and review the assessed values for comparable properties in your neighborhood.  If you find evidence that the Board of Assessors is valuing your property inconsistently with other similar properties, you can present that evidence at the hearing.

At the hearing

In my experience, the hearing process takes about an hour from start to finish.  When you show up at the appointed time and place, you will be asked by the receptionist to sign in and sit in a waiting area.  When it is your turn, you will be sent to a small room with a representative from the Board of Assessors and the three fellow citizens who comprise the Board of Equalization.  The Board of Assessors representative is a full-time employee of Fulton County who is looking to convince the Board of Equalization to uphold the county’s assessment.  The Board of Equalization members are usually retired individuals who are interested in serving the community.  They are paid a small amount for each day of service.  Board of Equalization members have been through 40 hours of mandatory training but are not experts in real estate valuation.

The county representative presents first, since the county has the burden of proof to convince the Board of Equalization that their assessment is valid.  Keep in mind that the county probably won’t have invested much time in your case, since they have hundreds of appeals to deal with.  You will then have an opportunity to present your evidence.  At the conclusion of the hearing, the Board of Equalization will decide immediately whether to uphold the county’s value or to reduce it.  In the majority of cases, they rule for the county.  However, there is a bit of randomness in the process, because the members of the Board of Equalization are not experts.  They are just fellow citizens making their best estimate of value.

If you win, congratulations.  If you lose, you still have the right to appeal to the Superior Court.  If you choose to appeal, you might consider consulting a lawyer (though you are not required to).  If you do not appeal to the Superior Court, your valuation is still frozen as a matter of law for the next two years.

You can do this yourself

If you are like me, you probably received a solicitation in the mail from Equitax and/or another outfit that will handle your property tax appeal for a fee plus a cut of any tax savings they achieve on your behalf.  These are legitimate services as far as I know, and in many cases using these services would be better for property owners than doing nothing.  But you should know that all they will do is follow the same process outlined in this article.  If you invest a couple hours of your time, you can do it yourself and achieve the same result.

Have you ever appealed your property taxes?  Are you frustrated by Fulton County’s across-the-board tax increase this year?  Do you have questions about the appeal process?  Please leave a comment below or contact me directly.

Your biggest expense

Why am I so obsessed with taxes?  I guess I’m wondering why you aren’t.  I’ll bet you know your monthly mortgage or rent payment.  Do you know your monthly tax bill?  If your family is like mine, you pay more in taxes than in housing and transportation expenses combined.  It’s probably your biggest single expense, but chances are you don’t spend much time thinking about it, except once a year when it’s “tax season.”

Contrary to the narrative on TV and in the papers, the US Tax Code does not punish the rich.  The punishment is reserved for people with high-paying jobs, especially two-income couples.   People who earn high salaries are not usually wealthy.  They are people who have chosen high-skill careers (like medicine or engineering), often live in high-cost areas, and are often working to pay off six-figure student loans.  The rich, by contrast, do not generate wealth through wages, they generate it through investments and business ownership.  Because they do not need to live off their paychecks, wealthy families can control the timing and character of their income to defer or eliminate taxes.  The rich can also afford expert advice that is not available to the merely affluent.

The folks left holding the bag are working professionals raising families in urban areas.  Does any of this sound familiar?

  • Your earnings put you in a high tax bracket, but due to the high cost of living in your area, your lifestyle is far from extravagant
  • You and your spouse both work full-time, resulting in a much higher tax rate than you would pay if you were single
  • You have student loans but the IRS says you earn too much to deduct the interest
  • You pay tens of thousands of dollars in childcare costs so you and your spouse can work, and none of it is tax deductible
  • Your income makes you ineligible to contribute to retirement and college savings vehicles that are available to most Americans
  • Your city or county charges high property taxes, but you cannot deduct them due to the Alternative Minimum Tax rules

For many mid-career professionals, reducing taxes can drop more cash to the bottom line than increasing investment returns.  Yet I find most of these individuals devote significantly more time and attention to their investment portfolio than their tax situation.  Most high-earning families could benefit significantly from even basic tax planning.  I’m not talking here about the once a year tax preparation exercise where you give your accountant your shoebox of receipts.  I’m advocating proactively planning and managing your finances in a tax-aware manner:

  • Where possible, managing the timing of compensation income and deductions to minimize total taxes over time
  • Where possible, earning compensation as business profits instead of wages (e.g., joining a partnership, starting a business, opening a practice)
  • Using the tax deferred accounts and savings plans that are available to you
  • Locating capital gain assets (e.g., stocks) in taxable accounts and income generating assets (e.g., bonds) in tax deferred accounts like IRAs
  • Selling stocks that have declined in value and replacing them with similar stocks (tax-loss harvesting)
  • Funding your family’s charitable donations with appreciated stock or, where appropriate, using a private foundation or donor-advised fund
  • Investing in real estate, especially if you or your spouse are a “real estate professional” as defined by the IRS
  • Converting traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs in years with lower-than-normal taxable income
  • Using life insurance and annuities where appropriate

I get it.  Taxes are complicated, frustrating, and boring.  Dealing with the government can be intimidating.  Because taxes are automatically taken out of your paycheck its easy to forget just how much is going out the door.  Given how much is at stake, it’s worth paying attention.  Or, if you can’t or don’t want to spend time thinking about taxes, it’s worth getting some help.

What do you think?  Do you know your monthly tax expense off the top of your head?  What do you do to reduce your tax expenses?  Please leave a comment below.

 

The seven-figure asset you’re probably ignoring

Do you have a high-risk, high-reward career?  If you do, model portfolios marketed by fund companies may not be right for you.
Your most valuable asset
If you are younger than 60, chances are your most valuable asset is not your home, or stocks and bonds.  It’s your human capital, that is, your ability to earn money using your knowledge, skills and physical labor.  This human capital has characteristics that can be measured in the same terms as financial assets – it can be valued, it has a time horizon, it has a liquidity profile, and it is subject to risks (both predictable and unpredictable).  It is the illiquidity of human capital that tends to separate it from most financial assets – human capital can generally be liquidated only one day at a time through work.  While there are many creative compensation schemes out there, as a general rule you will not be paid for your future labor until you actually perform that labor.
How it adds up
To provide an example, a 37-year-old who expects to earn $250,000 from her job each year for the next 30 years would have human capital worth $3.8 million today (using a discount rate of 5%).  Of course, few people earn exactly the same amount for 30 years.  Our subject could die or become disabled during this period.  She would likely earn raises or promotions in some years.  There could be one or more period of unemployment.  She could decide to change careers or retire earlier or later.  While these assumptions about the future will significantly impact the value of our subject’s human capital, it is unlikely that she will possess financial assets in excess of the value of her human capital until she is much older (unless she receives an inheritance, is uncommonly frugal, or earns outsize investment returns).
Why you should care

Mainstream financial planners don’t explicitly consider human capital in advising their clients.  While it is true that good comprehensive planners may implicitly consider human capital when, for example, assessing client’s readiness for retirement, imputing income fluctuations in setting budgets, recommending term life and disability insurance, etc., the characteristics of human capital rarely find their way into decisions related to the investment of financial assets.  This is, in my view, a major failing of financial advisors who delegate investment management to outside parties, whether it be the advisor’s parent company, a third-party “turnkey” asset management provider, or robo-advice software.  In all these cases, a third party provides a set of model portfolios that seek to optimize the allocation of the financial assets, without regard to what, for most clients, is their most valuable asset.

Prior to starting True Square Financial, I worked for a big mutual fund company.  One of my responsibilities was to research and collaborate with robo-advisor firms.  What I learned is that robo-advisors generally base their investment recommendations on the same two questions:  1) How close are you to retirement (or sometimes, another goal, like college)? and 2) How do you feel about risk on a scale of 1 to 10?.  Then they use the answers to these two questions to assign clients to a model portfolio, typically from a menu of fewer than 10.  That’s it.  That’s the whole algorithm.

 There are three main reasons why mainstream financial advisors do not advise clients more holistically.  The first reason is risk management – large firms only allow advisors to consider the assets they have under management because they are not willing to accept the risk related to assets that they do not directly control.  The second reason is efficiency – putting all clients in one of a few model portfolios is takes less work than creating and managing a unique portfolio for each client.  The third reason is skill – by not asking advisors to deal with the nuances and fluctuations of clients’ careers, firms can hire less experienced advisors with narrower skill sets.
What to do differently
I recommend that clients consider the rewards, risks and liquidity of their financial assets in the broader context of the rewards, risks and liquidity of their human capital.  For individuals with stable or consistently growing cash income, such as tenured university professors, federal judges, career civil servants, or senior airline pilots, a more aggressive allocation of financial investments would generally be appropriate.  For individuals whose income is highly correlated with US equity markets, such as investment bankers, hedge fund managers, and corporate executives with significant holdings of company stock, a conservative or even counter-cyclical approach may be best.  While this process may not be an exact science, it is far preferable to the simplistic one-size-fits-all approach that model portfolios are built on.
To be clear, I am not the first person to notice this or write about it.  I have seen the topic discussed in wonky industry research papers and in a recent mass market book.  However, I feel this shortcoming in our industry is at least as important as other issues that get far more press.
What do you think?  How do you think about your financial investments in the context of your education, skills, and career choices?  Please leave a comment below.