A Word on Property Taxes

 Written by Barbara Alsheikh, who works for King County Tax Advisor Office.

Ah, November! My favorite month of the year! While most of you are busy planning a holiday-themed get together with friends and family, I am relishing the slowing pace at King County’s Tax Advisor Office. All of the assessment notices have been mailed and now it’s past the deadline to start an appeal; the October frenzy caused by lost property tax billings has ended. Any comp time I might have accrued all summer preparing comparable sales reports for home owners should be taken now, before late bills (including the 8% non-refundable penalty) are mailed December 1st to all of the home owners who refinanced this year but decided to pay taxes themselves and then forgot to contact the county for a new property tax bill. Phone calls will pick up then!

For home owners who did pay the tax bill on time, the next frenzied round of calls will begin when the annual property tax statement is mailed in February, 2011. Thousands of homeowners who watched values decline in 2009 and 2010 will howl if they see that the tax bill has increased for 2011. “How in the world can that happen?” they will scream into the phones. “Doesn’t anyone down there know what is going on in the real estate market?”

Of course, we do. The real answer is that our property taxes aren’t based on some set percentage of our assessment like most other states.  In Washington State, our property tax system is budget-based.

Property taxes fund public services. The cost of providing public services isn’t related to the ups and downs of the real estate market. Our public services budgets include labor and benefit costs, energy and facilities costs, materials and transportation just like any other business. These costs increase over time but each total levy budget is limited to a maximum of 1% increase each year. Voter-approved increases are additional in the first year (about half of your property tax bill is voter-approved levies).

Although you can’t appeal your tax bill, you can appeal your assessment, which is mailed to every property owner each summer on an Official Value Notice, a large postcard that shows your property’s old value and new value, and value after exemption, if any. Don’t worry about how the land and building values are allocated, the important one is the total value.

Your total value is hypothetical market value based on actual sales that closed during the previous two years. The value date is always January 1st, about six months before you get the Notice. So the assessment value isn’t what your property would sell for today, it is what you might have sold it for a year ago (two years ago by the time you pay the tax bill!).

Should you disagree with the Assessor’s opinion of value for your property you can file a petition to appeal the value. It is important to remember that you can only do this if you file within 60 days of the mailing date on the card. Like other legal challenges, there are firm deadlines you must observe.

Our office, the King County Tax Advisor Office, works under the direction of the Metropolitan King County Council’s Office of Citizen Complaints-Ombudsman. So we are completely separate from the Assessor’s Office. You can call us for general questions about your property taxes, and if you plan to appeal next summer, you can call us for help finding comparable sales and other evidence for your board hearing (but wait until after you get your Official Value Notice).

If you want to complain about your tax bill when you get it in February, please read this article again!

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