It seems like a cruel joke to play on a homeowner in the current market. Despite the drop in property values, a letter arrives from the assessor's office detailing a proposed increase in a parcel's assessed valuation.
Yet that is exactly the type of notice area homeowners have been, or will be, getting.
County assessors have been telling upset residents that increases in their assessed valuations may level off in the next two years, as 2007's and 2008's lower sales prices are taken into account.
That, however, doesn't help homeowners now. So the key word to read in the notice is "proposed" because homeowners can appeal the new valuation, and county assessors are trying to make the process more transparent. Many offices have scheduled public meetings to explain the assessment and appeal process to homeowners.
The Will County Supervisor of Assessments office has run six education forums this year, each of which has drawn several hundred people, and will offer four more in the next two months because proposed assessments will be mailed in August.
Assessors also have upgraded their Web sites to make them easier for consumers to navigate. The Cook County Assessor, www.cookcountyassessor.com, is introducing a redesigned Web site in the next few weeks.
Homeowners are encouraged to carefully read about the assessment process and keep track of appeal deadlines because the formulas and timetables vary by county. It may be a surprise, but assessor's offices say they suggest homeowners appeal if they believe their property is being unfairly assessed.
"It is alarming when people are getting these bills," said Maura Kownacki, a spokeswoman for the Cook County assessor's office. "We do encourage appeals and every one is looked at by an analyst."
Other than factual errors, like a mistake in a home's square footage, the best chance for winning an appeal is a lack of uniformity between one home's value and those of comparable homes in the same neighborhood. Finding those homes has become much easier because of information available on county assessor Web sites, in local community newspapers and the Chicago Tribune's Community Intelligence pages at www.chicagotribune.com/classified/realestate/communities/.
"There are certain tools out there to see whether you're on the high end of a three- or four-block radius," said Andrea Raila, a real estate tax and public policy consultant in Chicago. "Given that [Cook County] has a superior Web site, we as individual homeowners should be able to file our own [appeal].
"No homeowner should feel that they have to hire a professional bigwig to do it unless they are strapped for time or they feel a bit intimidated. Try to do it on your own, at least on the ground level at the assessor's office."
Raila recommends finding five or six comparable homes. If the other homes' values are $5,000 or lower than the one in question, she recommends filing an appeal and beefing it up by adding data on the past few years of market prices for the neighborhood. Kownacki, at the Cook County assessor's office, suggests homeowners who see a perceived $1,000 mistake in value should appeal.
Homeowners shouldn't worry that if you file an appeal, field personnel from the township or county assessor's office will visit your home and note the kitchen that was remodeled without permits. Officials aren't allowed to come into a house but may measure its outside square footage.
Citizens Action Project, a Grayslake-based group formed 11/2 years ago in response to growing frustration over property assessments, has found that homeowners who showed real evidence of why their valuation was wrong were most likely to win their appeals.
Group spokesman Thor Madsen also knows the best way to kill an appeal—with the emotional argument that the proposed valuation will raise property taxes so much that the homeowner can't afford to remain in the house. "We advise people to not even bring that up because it's totally ineffective," Madsen said. "I literally saw someone with a small kid in tow, dressed as pathetically as they could be, and said they were going to lose their home. They were being totally honest. It has zero effect. Don't even waste [the assessor's] time."
One other tip from Madsen: Homeowners shouldn't be shy about filing appeals each time they get a proposed change. The first experience will take the most time, but it will get easier with each year, he said.
THE LOCAL SCENE