How And Why To Appeal St. Louis-Area Property Assessments | St. Louis Public Radio

How And Why To Appeal St. Louis-Area Property Assessments

May 26, 2019

If you own a home or business in St. Louis or St. Louis County, you may have received a letter about your property's value going up.

Residential property values on average went up 12% in the city and 15% in the county, according to assessors’ preliminary calculations.

That’s mostly good news, said St. Louis Assessor Michael Dauphin. Increasing property values mean that real estate investments are worth more. But for some, they could also mean higher tax bills.

If you don’t think you could sell your property at its new appraised value, you might want to reach out to your local assessor’s office. They will re-evaluate their assessment based on a number of factors and may change their final decision.

“The most popular sport in St. Louis County can sometimes be complaining to your neighbor about your assessment,” said St. Louis County Assessor Jake Zimmerman. “But your neighbor can’t help, and we can.”

Appeal season runs from May through September. Property owners can start with informal appeals, then proceed to Board of Equalization hearings or even the State Tax Commission if they’re unsatisfied with the assessors’ decision.

Why did property values go up?

Zimmerman said the county is continuing to recover from the foreclosure crisis that spurred the Great Recession. Preliminary data shows that prices are rising most consistently on mid-priced properties in the county, Zimmerman said. That means areas that are less expensive than places like Ladue or Clayton, but not the cheapest areas, either — for instance Lemay, said Zimmerman.

In the city, Dauphin said property assessments in some neighborhoods have lagged behind the growth their markets have seen. Some homeowners will see their assessments catching up to their home’s fair market value.

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What signals that an assessment might be off?

Assessors said that they want to hear about any assessment that doesn’t value the house fairly.

“The bottom line is that if we get it wrong, if we give you a house with three bedrooms, when you really only have two, then you’ll have an unfair value on your home,” Zimmerman said. “And at the end of the day, you’ll be staring at an unfair property tax bill.”

The goal of the assessment, Zimmerman said, is to value a house for what its owners could actually sell it for.

“The first thing you have to look at is what the assessor says the fair market value is,” said Cathy Steele, an attorney who specializes in commercial tax law and used to practice residential tax law.

There are three main reasons, Steele said.

First, you bought your house within the last year, but the assessor says it’s worth more than you paid. If you made major improvements after purchasing, or bought your house for far below market value, a higher assessment might be appropriate. Otherwise, double-check. Assessors look at comparable house sales and consider market trends, but a recent appraisal is likely more accurate.

Second, if the assessor raises a home value more than 15%. The market has increased this year, but Steele said that you should still check that the assessor’s office has recorded the correct property features.

Third, if there’s something expensive wrong with your house. There are any number of reasons two houses of identical size, with the same amenities, might not be actually worth the same amount of money. 

How much will I have to pay in property taxes?

Nothing’s final yet. The assessment doesn’t directly control your tax bill. Depending on where you live, any number of factors — like fire departments, schools or new tax laws — could influence your tax bill before it’s due in December.

However, the assessment does influence tax bills. Your local tax rate will be applied to the estimated fair market value of your house.

Are there reasons I should not appeal an assessment?

Steele warns that if you appeal your assessor's appraisal, your local Board of Equalization could assign your house an even higher value. For instance, if you paid more for the house or built an addition sometime before Jan. 1, Steele recommends against appealing.

If you plan to sell your house soon, a higher assessment value might even be beneficial. “If you’re trying to sell your home, you want that [value] to be as high as possible,” said Dauphin, the city assessor.

I want to appeal. What’s my timeline?

If you have documentation like a recent appraisal, you may want to schedule an informal appeal. During the meeting, an assessor might adjust your home assessment right there.

St. Louis residents can schedule an informal conference within 15 days of receiving their assessment notice. The deadline is June 21 to request an informal appeal.

St. Louis County schedules informal conferences on a rolling basis and doesn’t have a strict deadline. Representatives said that the meetings tend to book quickly.

Formal appeals must be filed by July 8 for both city and county residents. You’ll be assigned a hearing date with the Board of Equalization, where you’ll have about 15 minutes to make your case. Bring all your evidence to back up your appeal.

You can appeal the board’s decision by Sept. 30 or within 30 days of receiving the decision. That pushes the process up to a State Tax Commission.

What type of evidence do I need?

Every situation is different. You could bring a recent appraisal, a sales contract and photos of any damage to the house. Additional documentation — like comparable sales the assessors may have missed — could help.

“The silver bullet, what I tell people, is if they have a recent appraisal,” Dauphin said.

He said appraisers often see inside the home, which gives them a better understanding of its value and problems. Assessors only see the outside.

The burden of proof is on the property owner, so you should bring any paperwork that backs up your case. ‘My taxes are too high’ won’t cut it, said Steele.

“It’s not enough evidence just to come in and say, ‘This is too much; I know I couldn’t sell my house for this,’ without, for example, sales information about other similar properties that have sold for lower values,” Steele said.

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