If you think your home's assessed value is off base, get ready to do something about it. With a little bit of research, you can contest the figure and possibly have it reduced.
The dates and deadlines for the challenge process vary by town, but the preparation involved in making a persuasive challenge is the same.
The first thing to do is check whether the municipality has correct information about your house, said Robert P. Strell, who provides real estate advisory services and has extensive experience in assessments.
Obtain a comprehensive information report about your property to see what it says about your home. Many municipalities make this information available online, but it is also available at the assessor's office. Look for obvious errors, such as the amount of square footage, the number of rooms, or whether your single-story home is listed as a two-story. A big mistake can skew your assessment and give you a strong case for a reduction.
One of the most important parts of a successful challenge is your list of "comps," or what comparable homes in the neighborhood have recently sold for. Assessors use that data to help determine the market value and assessment for your home; you can do the same type of research to bolster your argument.
But be realistic about which homes you use for comparison purposes, said Harry Williams, the Town of Amherst assessor. The homes should be similar to your own in terms of age, condition and location. Don't try comparing a 5-year-old home to a 50-year-old home.
Also, check if the equalization rate for your town is 100 percent or something less than that. For instance, if a town has an equalization rate of 90 percent, and a home is assessed at $100,000, the home's market value translates to $111,111. In towns where the equalization rate is below 100 percent, look at the market value when you are considering whether to challenge.
Assessors say the objective of the process is to determine the market value of your home, or what it might sell for if you put it on the market.
"When we put a value on a property, it's not pie in the sky," said Martin Kennedy, commissioner of Buffalo's Department of Assessment and Taxation. "We don't pull it out of the air."
Donna Strom of Amherst challenged her assessment in 2004 and 2009, and was successful on both occasions when she went to the Board of Assessment Review.
In 2009, she got a $43,000 reduction in her assessment. Strom made good use of the Internet to gather information on properties like hers and to print out pictures to support her case.
Strom said she found the process intimidating, but said she went into prepared to back up her claims.
"It was worth it every time I did it," she said. "I can't just imagine sitting there and saying, 'That's fine.'"
Strom said she just wanted what was fair. "I wasn't asking for something that wasn't true."
Not everyone will come away from the challenge process satisfied, Kennedy said. "But we do make a very, very concerted effort to be fair and honest and as correct as possible."
If you think you have a good case for a challenge, step No. 1 is to schedule an informal hearing or meeting with the town's assessor. Strell says many cases are resolved at this step.
In a busy year, Amherst might have 300 to 400 of these informal hearings, but activity this year has not been as brisk, Williams said. When homeowners make their case, some follow-up might be necessary.
"If we have to go out and look at the property, we'll do it," he said.
Bring to the meeting photos showing what your property contains, Strell said. "You've got to give [the assessor] the mind-set of what you see every day when you go home."
Just believing your assessment is too high and contending it ought to be lower is not a winning argument. You need to make a case, supported by evidence, as to why the number is wrong, and submit your own recommended figure as a substitute.
"The property owner has to put down what the market value is," said Peter Allen Weinmann, an attorney who assists clients with higher-end property assessment challenges.
Many times, no one is in a better position to know that market value than the homeowner, Weinmann said. But you still need to base your argument on sound comparisons. Weinmann said an appraisal conducted by a professional can give you the independent analysis you want, and, depending on its conclusions, can help support your case.
If the assessor gives you no reduction, or a reduction less than you requested, you can proceed to step No. 2: the Board of Assessment Review.
Municipalities appoint these panels, with three to five members, to hear complaints from homeowners. Most towns hold Grievance Day on the fourth Tuesday in May (this year, May 22), but the date can vary somewhat, so check with your town.
Towns typically have a filing deadline, sometimes ahead of Grievance Day, to participate. You will have to fill out a document -- New York State Form RP-524, called the complaint on real property assessment -- but the process is free.
Strell said he believes showing up in person before the Board of Assessment Review, rather than just filing your documents for consideration, helps your case. When you do appear, you will be sworn in. Be prepared and succinct, since lots of other homeowners will be making their case, too, he said.
"You can say all you need to say in five to seven minutes," Strell said. "You don't need an hour. You've got a hundred people behind you."
Bring multiple copies of photos or documents about your house, so that the board members do not have to share one copy during your meeting, he said.
Be honest in making your case, Williams said. The board members are experts like real estate agents, who will know your neighborhood, if not the inside of your own home.
In the City of Buffalo, less than 500 cases are going before the Board of Review this year, out of about 96,000 residential and commercial parcels.
Last year, 73 percent of city property owners who filed challenges received some kind of reduction. But Kennedy says that statistic does not offer a complete picture: only 1 percent of property owners actually launched challenges.
The board will notify you of its decision by mail. If you don't agree with its conclusion, you can move to step No. 3: a judicial review through a Small Claims Assessment Review. This step involves a $35 filing fee, but it is still less costly than launching a formal tax certiorari proceeding through state Supreme Court. (The filing fee may also be refundable if you prevail in your claim.)
The SCAR program is administered by the state Office of Court Administration, with a neutral arbitrator reviewing your challenge. The hearing officer will contact you to set a time, date and location for a hearing, and hear the town's side, as well. Again, the burden of proof is on the homeowner to prove the assessment is incorrect.
The City of Buffalo is on a different schedule for the assessment-challenge process. The deadline has passed for scheduling a hearing with the Board of Assessment Review for this year.
The board's determination letters are scheduled to be mailed March 1. City residents who have gone through the board review process and are unsatisfied with the outcome will have until March 31 to file a petition for a Small Claims Assessment Review.
Some tips from experts on how to proceed:
*Check to see whether the information the municipality has about your home is accurate, such as square footage, bathrooms, etc.
*Be mindful of filing deadlines your town or city has for making a challenge.
*Gather data on the sale of comparable nearby properties to support your case.
*Bring along supporting evidence, like photos from the inside of your home.
*Come up with a figure for what you think the market value of your home is.