How to challenge rising property taxes

Excerpts from Money Talks News by Stacy Johnson, 12/06/17

Depending on where you live, property taxes can range from a slight inconvenience to a crushing expense.

According to the National Taxpayers Union, 30 percent to 60 percent of taxable property in the U.S. is overvalued for property tax purposes, yet less than 5 percent of homeowners challenge them. In my experience, appealing tax bills isn’t all that difficult. And because it can result in saving hundreds — even thousands — every year, if you think you have a case, you should try it.

Step One: Learn the rules of the game

The way property taxes are computed, and how they are appealed, differs from state to state. But property taxes all start from the same place — the value of your property.

So step one is to check the value your county is placing on your property. Historically, doing this meant waiting to receive an annual appraisal in the mail. These days you can often find this information online in seconds.

However you find it, if it seems too high, take the next step: Look online or contact your local property assessor’s or appraiser’s office and find out exactly how they arrive at values. Then determine how the appeals process works.

When property values were plunging here in South Florida during the Great Recession, it seemed that my appraised value was way too high. Then I learned the assessor’s office was using prior year values to determine current year assessed values. For example, my 2012 tax bill, due in November 2012, was based on the value of my home between Jan. 2, 2011, and Jan. 1, 2012. So where I live, they’re using values beginning nearly two years before bills are sent out.

The point is, before you start challenging values, be sure you understand where they came from.

It’s also important to understand how properties are appraised. In my county, the appraiser’s office uses property sales to determine values, placing more weight on more recent sales. To find out how properties are appraised where you live, either call the applicable county office, or do an online search for “How property values are determined in (your county, state).”

After understanding how appraisals are conducted, if you think you have a case, do another search: “How to appeal property taxes in (your county, state).” You’ll probably find simple instructions. As an example, here’s what I found with those search terms for my county:

If you believe the market value as shown in the box “Your Property Value This Year” is higher than the market value of your property as of this past January 1, we encourage you to contact us. One of our Deputy Property Appraisers will happily meet with you and discuss your market value and how it was calculated. After this conference, if you still feel your market value is too high, you can file a simple petition with the VAB [Value Adjustment Board]. The VAB appeal application forms are available on our website and are also available online on the VAB’s website (and you can also check the status of your filed petition). The VAB has a statutory $15 filing fee, which must accompany the application. The VAB does not accept petitions on valuation cases after the mid-September filing deadline.

Note the above description comes off as fairly friendly. While it may seem you’ll be entering a hostile environment by challenging your local taxing authority, in both instances when I’ve challenged my property taxes, the people at the respective county offices were both friendly and forthcoming. While I obviously can’t guarantee you’ll have the same experience, you might be pleasantly surprised.

Step Two: Winning the game

You won’t win a property tax appeal based on a belief your taxes are unreasonable or because you have a gut feeling your appraised value is too high. If you can’t make your case with facts and figures, you’ll lose.

When it comes to challenging a value, the first thing to do is make sure there are no mistakes. Does the county have your correct lot measurements? How about the square footage and age of your house? Verify everything.

Next, see if there are arguable differences between the nearby comps used by the county and your property. Ask the county for the comparables they used. See how those homes differ from yours.

The goal is to show how the comparables used by the county weren’t really all that comparable. Was the home that sold down the street a few months ago really like yours? Or was it newer, nicer or otherwise an unfair comparison? Arm yourself with recent sales and comparables that support your home’s lower value, along with evidence the homes used by the county weren’t comparable after all.

You can find current comparables yourself online (do a search for “recent sales (your ZIP code),” or ask a real estate agent for help.

Your ultimate weapon in challenging property taxes, however, is an appraisal. If the county says your home is worth $200,000, but a licensed, independent appraiser says it’s worth only $150,000, it’s going to be a hard argument for the county to win. An appraisal will set you back a couple hundred bucks, but depending on your county’s rules, it may be necessary. A simple call to the appraisal office should tell you.

The bottom line

Another option is to hire help in the form of a local real estate attorney or one of many services that will fight for you. But my advice, especially if the amounts aren’t major, is to go it alone. Best case, you’ll put some money in your pocket. Worst case, you’ll get an interesting civics lesson.

Does having a solar system increase my home’s value? Well…it depends.

From John Jennings, III (BRE# 01982171) via

As it currently stands, if you do not own the system, its value can’t be included in your home’s appraisal. In fact, leased/PPA solar agreements may cause homeowners problems when they sell their home. One such problem is the monthly cost of the solar lease; it can be included in a buyer’s debt to income ratio. This reduces the number of people who can afford your home. However, if you own your system there is good news.

The FHA (Federal Housing Administration) REQUIRES a solar system be included in the value of your home if you OWN the system. Not only do you have reduced electricity costs, but the value of your home is increased.

There are a couple different metrics for determining the increased resale value. One study shows that on average, a solar system increases the home’s value by $5,911 for every1 kilowatt (kW) of power installed. Thus, a NEW 5kW solar system adds an average value of $29,555 to the home.

Another way of determining the value of your system is the 1:20 ratio. For every $1 in energy bill savings, you increase the value of your home by $20.

Solar can force appreciation, but only if you OWN the system. Not only does your home’s value go up, but homes with solar can sell 20% faster than homes without it. When all the benefits are factored in, solar can potentially pay a 200%+ return on your initial investment. Sounds like a “bright” idea to me.

How Screened Porches Bring the Outdoors In

Excerpts from of article JUNE 2016 | BY BARBARA BALLINGER

Growing concerns about bug-borne illnesses and overexposure to harmful rays have boosted the appeal of the screened porch, which offers a protected, front-row seat to nature.

Before air conditioning became widespread, the screened porch was considered a necessity in many areas as a respite from intense heat, especially as a safe, cool place to rest at night. Then, as different notions of “outdoor rooms” for all sorts of uses caught on, its popularity waned.

Now the screened porch is re-emerging with gusto on different styles of homes, in a wide range of prices, and all over the country, from warm climates to cold. In northern Minnesota, just below the Canadian border, builder Matt Balmer’s Lands End Development company builds mostly vacation homes. “We’re finding that consumers want them in their new houses without exception, [and] are also adding them on to existing homes,” he says. In much warmer San Antonio, many of Lake Flato Architects’ projects, mostly new homes, include at least one and sometimes two screened porches. “We love how they expand clients’ living space to enjoy morning coffee or watch a sunset with a cocktail,” says Rebecca Bruce, an architect and associate with the firm.

This time around, heat is not the only impetus. It’s joined by bugs and the serious health issues they bring. Mosquitoes represent the number one pest concern for home owners because of the Zika virus, says Cindy Mannes, vice president of public affairs for the Pest Management Association in Fairfax, Va., which represents 7,000 pest management companies.

Second on their list of health concerns are ticks. Lyme disease is no longer just along the East Coast, where it flourished in the past. The ticks that carry it have been found in the Midwest due to the recent mild winters, which allowed them to live through the season and thrive, Mannes says.

Enter the screened porch — a functional, attractive alternative. “You feel like you’re outdoors, but you’re safely indoors,” says architect Lou Balodemas, a principal in his eponymous architecture firm in Washington, D.C., a city that can be both hot and bug-filled. Similarly, the developers of Heritage Harbor Ottawa, a 142-acre marina community in the southwest Chicago area, find their location on the banks of the Illinois River translate to a desire for insect abatement strategies. And that’s why 80 percent of the condos and town homes they’ve built so far have a screened porch. “We’re by the water so it helps keep insects away, but the porches also add a nostalgic touch since so many associate them with their parents’ and grandparents’ homes,” says Tammy Barry, the firm’s director of marketing.

Whether your clients are searching for a new place with a screened space or they’re looking to market their listing with a nod to the outdoors, buyers and sellers alike need your expertise. Talk over these considerations with your clients, as well as the importance of hiring a professional skilled in screened-porch construction.


Screened porches provide their greatest enjoyment when they take advantage of nature, light, and views. But it can be tricky to do that with existing homes, and it’s often easier to incorporate a screened porch in a new house instead, says Chicago architect Julie Hacker of Stuart Cohen and Julie Hacker Architects. The porches tend to be used most if located adjacent to or near a kitchen since they serve a casual eating—and living—function.

However, they also should be oriented so they won’t block views and light from adjacent, interior rooms. Skylights in a ceiling may compensate, Balodemus says; so may windows in the side walls of adjacent rooms, when possible. In warm San Antonio, the pros at Lake Flato Architects try to place porches where they may catch a breeze. And though it may not be technically deemed a screened porch, a detached building with screens is another option for those who have the land and don’t want to sacrifice light.


Since the porch may get damp, it’s important to build it using weather-resistant materials and extend eaves 2 to 3 feet away from a roof to decrease rain coming in through the screens, says Connecticut-based architect Duo Dickinson. Good weather-resistant floor choices are flagstone, porcelain, and certain woods like ipe, cedar, and teak. Dickinson staples screening to floor joists before laying a top surface to keep out insects from the ground up, since many live and hide underneath where they can damage semi-outdoor surfaces without being detected.

But your clients don’t have to be limited to only outdoor materials. Dallas home owner Misty Quinn and her architect, Will Snyder of Boerder-Snyder Architects, decided on a fancier floor of black-and-white polished granite and Carrera marble to fit the elegance of her 1939 Georgian-style home. “The porch opens to a formal living room and kitchen and, when we have parties, we like to open all the French doors and have people circulate through all three rooms,” she says. Quinn painted existing brick walls the color of interior rooms to meld spaces visually. Many other screened porch walls and ceilings are framed in wood, sometimes in old-fashioned bead-board style. Architects at Lake Flato often suggest steel options that enhance its crisper, more contemporary designs while also offering more durability.


Yes, even the screens have evolved. Openings have gotten larger and the mesh finer, both reflecting a contemporary influence. Designers are also working to minimize pieces that frame and support both screens and room structure. “Why break up screening with vertical and horizontal elements that block the view?” asks Chicago architect Allan J. Grant.

And improvements in technology and design permit home owners greater flexibility, too, since some companies design screen systems on retractable tracks. With the push of a button on a remote control, the room is opened to nature again. John Forehand, president of the Orren Pickell Design Group outside Chicago, which now includes screened porches in 90 percent of its custom homes, likes to use this type of retractable option, especially from companies that almost conceal the track.


As with any room, the porch should be large enough to accommodate a home owner’s plans for how to use the space. Quinn’s porch measures an ample 16 by 20 feet to reflect its use as overflow space for large parties. But they also wanted it to work functionally for casual lounging and snacking after swims in the family pool. “This way, family and guests aren’t going in and out of the house in wet suits,” she says. Broker Ann Peterson, ABR, SRES, of Ann Peterson Realty Services in Rochester, Mich., warns her clients against being overzealous and building a screened porch that takes up the entire yard and eliminates the beauty of the site.


In their earlier iterations, screened porches included just the basic furnishings, typically wrought iron or wicker chairs and tables. Some home owners still prefer that no-frills approach. But the overall ramp-up in the style and complexity of outdoor furnishings is showing up in screened porch choices, too. Many are almost indistinguishable from their interior room counterparts. Upholstery is just one example. “There’s a lot more choice than the original Sunbrella stripes,” says Susan Fredman of Chicago’s Susan Fredman Design Group.

Consumers are also faced with decisions about whether to include outdoor rugs, fireplaces, TVs, dimmable lighting, portable heaters, art, window treatments (for both shade and privacy), and wind protection. Some may want cooking equipment, but caution your clients that thorough venting is crucial to avoid fire hazards, and that some communities won’t permit such features for that reason.

Return on Investment

How much screened porches help resale is unclear. Peterson says many of her firm’s buyers consider them to be an important extra area for entertaining and enjoying the outdoors. But salesperson Kimberly Cantine, with H.H. Hill Realty Services Inc. in New York’s Hudson River Valley, says while her buyers may love having the amenity, they won’t include it in their must-haves. “Few tell me ‘I want a screened porch’ when they’re looking,” she says. In her experience, buyers are more excited to see a nice deck or stone patio. “Some out-of-town buyers are even suspicious if a home has a screened porch and think it must be a buggy area. So buyers comparing two identical homes in the same location may be willing to pay more for the one with the screened porch, but may be just as happy to pay less for the one without.”

But the overall consensus appears to be that when home owners do gain a screened porch, they usually get plenty of use out of it. “We added one on the back of our house, which is small, and it opens up the entire house to the outside,” Forehand says. “My family, including my teenage sons, find ourselves congregating on the porch much more than I thought possible.”

Porches Are Making a Comeback

Daily Real Estate News | Friday, October 06, 2017

More new homes are coming equipped with front porches. Sixty-five percent of new single-family homes started in 2016 included a porch, according to a Census data analysis from the National Association of Home Builders. It’s only the second time since tracking began that new single-family homes with porches have moved back above 65 percent. For comparison, in 2005, 54 percent of new homes had porches.

Certain regions of the U.S. are showing higher preference for porches. For example, the East-South-Central region of the U.S. had the highest share of new homes started in 2016 with porches at 86 percent.

The Census data from the Survey of Construction report does not indicate much information about the look of the porches. However, the NAHB reports that the Annual Builder Practices Survey, conducted by Home Innovation Research Labs, shows that front porches on new homes tend to be more common than side porches. Also, most new home porches are open rather than screened.

The average size of a front porch on a new home is about 60 square feet, according to the report. The materials used often tend to be concrete and treated wood. However, some regions—like the Mountain and Pacific areas of the U.S.—tend to favor redwood over treated wood for their front porches.

Source: “Share of New Homes With Porches Back Over 65 Percent,” National Association of Home Builders’ Eye on Housing blog (Oct. 5, 2017)

20 Great Things to Do In Your Home, New or Old

Excerpts from various web searches


Make a Prioritized List

Keep this overwhelming task list manageable by keeping a notebook in a central location and write down every action item you or your family thinks of throughout the day. After 24 hours cut the list off, and prioritize each item with a 1, 2, or 3. First priority should be items completed that week – such as safety concerns, cleaning, unpacking essentials, etc. Priority two should be tasks completed within the next two months – related to organization, maintenance and remaining unpacking. Priority three tasks should be non-essentials, but improvements and projects you’d like to complete within the year – renovations, landscaping, and large purchases.  Set up a schedule so your mind will be syncing to-dos with dates and budget.

Below are a few ideas that might get you started in the right direction:


You Can Refinish Your Own Hardwood

Intimidated by this seemingly daunting project? Don’t be. If you have the will and a whole day (or two) to yourself, you can refinish the hardwood floors in the major areas of your home. You don’t necessarily need to sand, but if the floor is damaged enough to warrant buffing, check out your local hardware store and rent the equipment for anywhere from 4-48 hours.


Clean Refrigerator Coils or Pay Unnecessary Repair Bills

Refrigerator condenser coils are located on the back of the fridge or across the bottom. When coils are clogged with dust, pet hair and cobwebs, they can’t efficiently release heat. The result is your compressor works harder and longer than it was designed to, using more energy and shortening the life of your fridge. Clean the coils with a coil-cleaning brush and vacuum. A coil-cleaning brush, which is bendable to fit in tight areas, does a thorough job. Look for one online or at appliance stores.


Clean Out the Lint for Dryer Efficiency and Save up to $25 a Year

A clogged lint screen or dryer duct drastically reduces the efficiency of your dryer, whether it’s gas or electric. Clean the lint screen after each load and clean the exhaust duct once a year. The Linteater has an auger brush that attaches to a drill to clean out the ducts.

Electric dryers use about $85 of electricity annually. A dirty lint screen can cause the dryer to use up to 30 percent more electricity, according to the Consumer Energy Center. Lint buildup is also a common cause of fires.

Dry loads of laundry back-to-back so the dryer doesn’t cool down between loads (a warm dryer uses less energy). And only run the dryer until the clothes are dry. Overdrying damages your clothes and runs up your electric bill. If you’re in the market for a new dryer and already have a gas line in the house, go with a gas dryer. A gas dryer is more efficient.


Install a Detachable Toilet Seat

It seems like no matter how hard you try, you can never get the hinges on the toilet seat clean. There’s always a bit of cleaning solution that seeps underneath and creeps out later. Installing a detachable toilet seat solves the problem. This Bemis brand seat is easy to remove by just twisting two hinge caps about a quarter of a turn. Then you have easy access to clean under the hinges. Detachable seats cost about $20. Installation is straightforward and only requires a wrench.


Get to know your new house before making big changes

Live in your new home for 12 to 18 months before undertaking any major renovations such as additions or knocking down walls. What you initially think you want may change after you’ve lived there for a while.


Renew Wood with Mineral Spirits

If the finish on your furniture or woodwork is dull and murky, it may need refinishing. But before you take on that project, take a tip from furniture restorers and clean it with mineral spirits. Mineral spirits—sometimes labeled ‘paint thinner’—is a gentle solvent that dissolves years of grime and residue from cleaners or polishes without harming wood finishes. Get it at a home center or paint store. Just soak a soft cloth and keep rubbing until the cloth no longer picks up grime. Work in a well-ventilated area and remember that the fumes are flammable. Hang the cloth outdoors to dry before throwing it in the trash.


Replace the furnace filter.

One of the fastest ways to create problems with a forced-air heating and cooling system is to forget to replace the filter. Locate the furnace filter and buy replacements if the previous owners didn’t leave you a stash. Replace the filter (and get in the habit of doing it every month).  I buy mine for the year and change them every month (after giving the dog his heartworm preventative!)


Clean Air Conditioner Condensers and Evaporators

A little sweat equity now will help both your wallet and your comfort level later when summer’s heat sets in. Most of the job can be done without the help of a professional, and by servicing and testing out your cooling system now, you will have plenty of time to make an appointment with an air conditioning contractor if there’s any unforeseen issues. After cutting off the electricity to the unit, vacuum the outdoor condenser’s exterior fins with a soft-bristled brush, and clear away bushes, weeds and overgrown grass within two feet of the unit. Indoors, replace the furnace filter on the evaporator unit, vacuum the blower compartment, and clean the condensation drain.


Locate your home’s main water shutoff valve.

Know where you main water shutoff valve is in case you need to shut off the water to your entire house.

Almost all homes have one main shutoff valve directly before the water meter and another directly after. Where the meter is located depends on the climate in your area. In cold climates, the meter and main shutoff valves are located inside, usually in a basement or other warm area to prevent freezing. In milder climates, the meter and its two shutoff valves may be attached to an exterior wall or nestled in an underground box with a removable lid.

Between the water main in the street and the meter, there’s also usually a buried curb stop valve (accessible only by city workers wielding special long-handled wrenches) and a corporation stop, where your house water line hooks up to the water main. Your city absolutely doesn’t want you messing around with these valves. Turn your water off or on using the main valve on the house side of the meter. This valve will normally be a gate-type valve, with a round knurled handle, requiring several full clockwise rotations to turn off. In newer homes, it could be a ball valve.

Locating the turn off for just the sprinkler system can be helpful also, if those are the only things leaking.


Locate the electrical panel.

Find the electrical panel so you know where to shut of the power to you whole house or an individual circuit.

You’ll usually find the main circuit breaker panel—a gray, metal box—in a utility room, garage or basement. Don’t worry about opening the panel’s door. All the dangerous stuff is behind another steel cover. Behind the door is the main breaker for the entire house (usually at the top of the panel) and two rows of other breakers below it, each controlling individual circuits. If you’re lucky, there will be a guide that indicates which outlets and receptacles are served by each circuit.

If the breakers are not marked, mark them using permanent marker when you discover what they control.


Inspect crawlspaces and the attic.

It’s good to familiarize yourself with the farthest corners of your home. Check for leaks, bugs, mold and other issues that you should address sooner rather than later. If your crawlspace doesn’t have a vapor barrier, install one.


Make one room a sanctuary.

You won’t be able to make all of the home improvements you want to make right away and it’s best to live in your new home for at least a couple of months before starting any major projects. Something that seems like a must-do when you first move in may quickly fall to the bottom of the wishlist after you’ve actually lived in your home for a while.

So, choose one room that doesn’t require too much work and make that space your home getaway for those multi day projects. You’ll have a place, in your colors and style, where you can relax and dream about the day when every room in your home is just the way you want it.


Meet the neighbors.

It’s wise to reach out and extend a friendly gesture to your neighbors as soon as possible. You want to know those around you so that everyone can look out for each other. It’s hard to know if a situation is suspicious if you don’t know the people involved. Establishing yourself in your neighborhood can also give you access to inside information, like who’s the best plumber in the area and which roofing company to avoid. Even if you’re an introvert, you’ll be happiest if you’re in good standing with your neighbors.


Check smoke and CO detector dates and replace, as needed.

It’s important that you know where your smoke and CO detectors are located and that you make sure they are working. Smoke alarms may be the cheapest, easiest and most effective means for protecting your family and your home from a fire, as long as they’re functioning.

Replace the batteries every year in your smoke and CO2 detectors (New Year’s day is my choice), whether you think you need to or not.  Batteries are not expensive but protecting your home is priceless!


Test your sump pump before the beginning of the rainy season

The most common time for a sump pump to fail is the first heavy rainfall after months of not being used. The submerged or partially submerged portions of cast iron pumps can rust and seize. And they’ll burn out when they switch on. Don’t get caught with your pump down and the water rising. After a long dry (unused) spell, pour a bucket or two of water into the sump to make sure the pump kicks on.

And do you have sump pump backup? A good sump pump installation should include a backup system for breakdowns and power outages.


If you don’t have keyless entry, hide a key.

If you don’t have keyless locks, be sure to hide a house key so you don’t get locked out. Consider a location other than under the welcome mat, like in a garden hose or under a flower pot.


Add Inexpensive Door and Window Alarms

Keeping doors and windows locked is your first line of defense. Make wireless alarms your second. Burglars hate noises, so even a small alarm usually sends them running. The alarms are available at home centers. Or check out Intermatic or Door and Window Alarms. The alarms don’t provide the same security as pro-installed monitored systems since the wireless devices are activated by doors or windows opening (not glass breaking). Use the alarms for doors and windows in ‘hidden’ areas of the house where you don’t normally gather and that are often dark.

Attach the alarm to the door or window (with a screw or double-sided tape) alongside the magnetic contact strip (they don’t have to be touching, but within 1/2 in.). When the door or window opens, breaking magnetic contact, the alarm shrieks (these little units have a piercing alarm). The door alarm has a delay feature, giving you time to set the alarm and leave, then open the door and deactivate the unit when you come home, without setting it off. The window unit has an on/off switch. The alarms will work on any door or window, and the batteries last two to three years.


Make a homeowner’s journal

Buy a ring binder and keep insurance papers, repair receipts and all other paperwork pertaining to the house in it. Storing all your house information in one handy place makes life easier for the homeowner and can be a sales ‘plus’ when selling the house later.


Within the first six months:

These are additional things you don’t need to do immediately, but doing them keeps you ahead of potential problems.

Install a whole house surge protector to prevent your plug-in electronics from voltage surges.

Replace traditional rubber washing machine hoses with no-burst hoses to prevent a costly flood.

Flush the water heater to remove sediment that reduces efficiency.