If assessment unfair, file appeal, experts say

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Pamela Brickner is already building a case to appeal the new property tax assessment on her Beechview home, and as a real estate attorney, she has the kind of legal background that should make the county assessment board take notice.

She says the assessed value of the three-bedroom, one bath house she bought in 2007 increased by a whopping 148 percent.

The lowest-priced home on her block rose by 103 percent and the average house on her block jumped 123 percent in assessed value.

"I intend to go into the appeal with evidence of my wet basement and 50-year-old windows and other things that were not considered in the assessment," said Ms. Brickner, an attorney at Voelker & Associates in Allison Park.

"My plan is to appeal based on my house being assessed at higher than I paid five years ago, and I don't believe I can sell it for what [the county] claims is the new assessed value."

While many homeowners who plan to fight the county's new property assessments do not have a law degree, they can still make an appeal to reduce their assessed value as long as they have some guidance.

Robert Peirce, a former Allegheny County commissioner who has for more than 20 years been representing taxpayers in property tax appeals, said homeowners who want to dispute the new values should request an informal hearing by Jan. 13. Taxpayers have until Feb. 10 to request a formal review.

The phone number to schedule both the informal hearing and the formal review is 412-350-4600. The Board of Property Assessments Appeals and Review handles both informal and formal appeals.

Homeowners challenging incorrect data -- such as the wrong number of bedrooms or square footage -- that was used to reach the new assessed value can probably win through the informal appeals process. But a formal appeal is necessary if they plan to dispute point-by-point information concerning comparable home values in their community.

"The county will use comparable recent sales, but homeowners should point out that even if one house sold for a certain price there are many more that did not sell and no one is even looking at them," said Mr. Peirce, a partner at Peirce & Associates, Downtown.

"If you can find a sale in your neighborhood comparable to your home and the sales price of the similar home is lower, you can point that out as a comparable sale."

Rising tax assessments have frustrated homeowners across the nation, according to the National Taxpayers Union, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group whose goal is to lower taxes.

Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, said the organization estimates as much as 60 percent of taxable property in the country is over-assessed, but few homeowners protest their assessments.

"I contend that even in this recessionary period, when home values are down yet property tax collections are steady -- even rising -- the residential appeals rates generally don't rise above 5 percent in most places," Mr. Sepp said.

"Plus, from what I'm able to tell, the success rates for appeals are good, but not spectacular -- still in the 20 percent to 40 percent range. I happen to think that a 20 percent to 40 percent success rate for property tax appeals is not bad at all."

Taxpayers do not need an attorney to represent them in the appeals process, but it could give them an advantage.

Most attorneys in tax assessment appeals cases charge clients a percentage of the tax savings they were able to achieve. Mr. Peirce said there may be no fee if an attorney is unable to lower a homeowner's tax assessment.

Allegheny County residents who fail to request an appeal by the Feb. 10 deadline will be stuck with the new assessed value even if they never received a notice of the increased value.

"It's your responsibility to find it even if it wasn't mailed to you," Mr. Peirce said, adding that sometimes the new assessment notice is mailed to the mortgage company instead of the homeowner.

Taxpayers who live in the suburbs but own rental property in the city also may not receive the new assessment notice.

Mr. Peirce said even if taxpayers win their appeals before the review board, the school district they live in could still appeal the decision arguing that the value is too low.

While it costs nothing to appeal an assessment to the county's review board, homeowners must pay a $103 filing fee to fight a school district appeal in Common Pleas Court.

Tim Grant: tgrant@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1591.


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