Contesting Your Property Assessment

This series of 6 articles was authored by Diana Brown, Broker for Brown Bear Real Estate. The articles will begin appearing in the Ferry County View Extra! edition, starting January 2012. We've posted the entire series here for your convenience.

#1 Property Taxes
#2 Finding Evidence to Contest Your Value
#3 Understanding the Board of Equalization Review Process
#4 How the Washington State Board of Appeal Process Works
#5 How the Washington State Board of Appeal Process Works cont'd
#6 Board of Appeal Result - Where Do you Go From Here?

#1 - Property Taxes

If you are like most people in Ferry County who own real estate, around May you will open an envelope from Assessor indicating a market value on your property. You may or may not know how those values are set and what you can do to become involved in the process of contesting your property value. In this series of articles I will attempt to share my own experience with you in hopes it will take the mystery out of the experience, answer some questions, and offer some assistance to get you through the process should you decide to take formal action.

Once you open that envelope in May, you will have 30 days from the date on that advice to contest that Assessor value. Most, like me, will call the Assessor office to set an hour apt. with the person within the office who can discuss your opinion of value in comparison to the office of Assessor. It is at this point I would highly suggest you go to that meeting with several comparable sales supporting the value you believe your assessment value should be.

The specific regulation in the state of Washington is that the value must reflect present sale market value. To learn more about this aspect, you can go online and just type into the search field RCW 84.40.030 which will take you directly to the information you need to read. After which, I strongly suggest you type in the following: RCW 84.40.0301. It is here you will find the directive as to what criteria is needed to overturn the Assessor value.

So, returning to the hour apt. with the Assessor valuator, you will have an opportunity to discuss how you obtained your value and they, as well, will have an opportunity to show you how they obtained the value on your notice. I cannot over emphasize how critical it is for you to go to this meeting with cold, hard evidence supporting your value. It will do you absolutely no good to yell, swear, or tell them you can’t afford to pay the assessment. You may be laughing as you read this, but believe me; I heard all of this going on in the Assessor office right before my appointment. If you gain only one message from these articles please be aware, this Assessor office, can, at any time they determine, reduce your value. Resist every inclination you have to be rude, upset or anything in between. Think about the dog that bites the hand that feeds it and understand that your best chance at reduction is facts delivered without emotion. After you have delivered your facts, and the valuator has delivered theirs ASK them to reduce your value based upon your evidence. This could be where your quest ends, with the result you want. If they decline, they will give you an application for hearing before the County Board of Equalization. You must fill out and submit that application within 30 days. You can also obtain this application online at http://ferry-county.com, then select OTHER OFFICES at left, then click on Board of Equalization. Here you will find valuable information as well as applications you will need to go forward with the contesting process.


#2 Where Do I Find Evidence to Contest My Real Estate Value?

For those of you who may have missed the first article entitled Contesting your Assessment Value, as a recap, that article takes you through opening up the Assessor change in value notice through the sit down meeting with the Assessor valuator as well as outlines specific state of Washington code in which you must observe during this process.

There are two primary areas you will find evidence to support market sale value in this county. The first is the Assessor website. The easy way to get there is to type in your search field http://ferry-county.com, then click on the assessor link at left, then look at the upper right for the box that says: TAXSIFTER. Click there and that will bring you to the site where you can search county records by name, parcel number or even by address. If you need assistance with this just call your friendly real estate office (there are many you can choose) and simply ask if you can come by and have someone help you become familiar with this search. I think you will find it invaluable to your efforts. Next, talk to the friendly real estate office and ask them to help you search the MLS for sales. In doing this you will find even more detailed information, in compliment to the TAXSIFTER Assessor data. Be sure to write all of this information down so that you have the evidence you want to use in your quest to get your Assessor value reduced.

Next, start a list of reasons to further support your request for reduction. For example, if the property is unimproved land with little ability to build, or challenging access, gather that by photos. If the property is improved with say a cabin, or a house, and it is unfinished, or doesn’t have a foundation or is in any way compromised, document that in any way you can. I cannot impress on you how important it is for you to illustrate what you say even though you will be asked to swear that the testimony you give is true.

After you compile your data, feel comfortable with what you have before you, then decide if you want to go a step further and make an appointment for hearing with the County Board of Equalization. You have already had your appointment with the Assessor valuator so you know the material they will use in the next step. Plus, you have already asked them to reduce your value which they may or may not have agreed to do. If they agreed to give you some reduction, and you feel it is adequate, your mission ends here. If they did not give you a reduction you feel is adequate, then I recommend you consider the hearing before the Board of Equalization.

Timing wise, if you received your valuation notice in May and had your appointment with the assessor valuator say in June, you are likely to be heard before the Board of Equalization that fall, before your taxes are due the following year.

 


#3 Understanding The Board of Equalization Hearing Process

Here in Ferry County, the Board of Equalization is presently comprised of three people and they are appointed by the three County Commissioners. They serve on the Board for a specific term and you might see advertisement in the local paper for applicants periodically. If this is of interest to you, consider making application. The Commissioners will interview people for the appointment and you just might be selected to serve. This Board is what I would refer to as the tax payer’s advocacy Board. They all receive training as to property valuation and act as an aid to work for a resolve between the Assessor position of value and your opinion of value. Usually hearings run for 45 minute intervals and once you send in your request for hearing before this County Board you will be notified as to the date and time of your hearing. All of these hearings are recorded.

I would highly recommend, at least on the day of your hearing, you go in to listen to a few cases before your case is heard before the Board. These are all open to the public and you can go there, take a seat in the back of the room and listen to how the Assessor valuator addresses the Board and how the tax payer does the same. This will make you a lot more comfortable with the process and you might just learn a few pointers you can incorporate into your presentation before the Board.

Before your hearing, keep in mind, the Assessor can, at anytime, call you to make a deal and ask that you drop your case before the Board of Equalization. This is also true if you decide to go even further like say to the Board of Appeal, Superior Count in Olympia or even to the Supreme Court if you decide to take it that far. The reason I state this is because it is in your best interest to keep your temper in check, be as courteous as you can possibly be, and recognize these people have the power to give you what you are asking for so don’t blow it up by creating a situation that could backfire on you. You may think I am exaggerating, believe me, I am not. I saw it, and I say, don’t do it.

Before your hearing, take all the material you gathered, put your position on 3X5 index cards, or a lined yellow sheet of paper, so you can remember to mention all the comparable sales you found in your presentation to the Board. Bring your photos if you have them, and you will be asked to submit all you have to the Board in advance so they can look at what you have. Know this material well, plus, you already know what the Assessor had because you already had your meeting with them before you set your appointment with the Board of Equalization. If you found errors in the Assessor material, mention that in your hearing. You will also be able to ask the Assessor questions before this Board. Afterward, the Board will notify you by mail as to what they decided. Either you or the Assessor can contest this value to the Washington State Board of Appeal.

 


#4 How the Washington State Board of Appeal Process Works

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In this series, you have decided you have not accomplished the reduction in value you set out to accomplish, or, the Assessor has decided to contest the amount the Board of Equalization granted you.

If you elect to take this next step, and you did receive some sort of reduction in your value by the process at this point, you are risking the loss of whatever reduction you were able to obtain up to this point. In short, it’s like that game show: All or Nothing where you risk all you have obtained by going to the next level.

There are two ways you can accomplish this next phase. One is through an “Informal Process”, the other is through a “Formal Process” where you actually travel to Olympia for a hearing in a court room before a three panel hearing Board. If you elect to go this route, I highly recommend you enlist the help of an attorney who deals primarily with real estate law. If, on the other hand, you elect to go through the” Informal process”, which is the avenue I am most familiar with, you must decide to do so within 30 days of obtaining notification from the Board of Equalization as to their decision of your property value.

To obtain necessary forms, the easy way is to go online and type in the search field: Washington State Board of Appeal or you can call them in Olympia and ask that they mail you a package to complete and send to them. Follow the prompts to obtain all you will need to complete needed forms.

By now, you have entered into the tax year in which you need to make a decision as to how to pay your property taxes come April 30, and October 30. I recommend you pay the property tax owed and send along with your payment a STATEMENT THAT YOU ARE PAYING THE TAX UNDER PROTEST pending court action. If you do not pay the taxes you are contesting on time you may loose the right to recover a reimbursement of money you have already paid, plus, I it is my understanding that you may not be able to seek a higher courts jurisdiction in your claim if you are not successful with the Washington State Board of Appeal. As I see this, you want to do all you can to maximize your chance at obtaining your value reduction. By now, you may have already paid the first and second installment of your contested property tax fees and the hope is to get part of it back in your pocket.

 


#5 The Washington State Board of Appeal Process (continued)

(refer to diagram above)

After completing and sending in required forms you found online or called and asked for them to be mailed to you from the Washington State Board of Appeal directly, you will be notified by mail of the date and time of your hearing before the Washington State Board of Appeal. In my case, the hearing was done by teleconference, Informal process. This process connects the Assessor, yourself and the people at the hearing Board in Olympia by telephone. Ten days before your hearing you will be required to send in copies of your presentation to both the Board in Olympia and to the assessor office. The Assessor office is also required to give you a package that they intend to present. As soon as you receive the Assessor package become familiar with all the facts they intend to present. If you have questions on the material, list them on your notes so that you will remember to ask them at the hearing.

It is at this time I suggest you once again contact the real estate office of your choice and ask them to help you organize your presentation of facts for your hearing. Practice presenting your material so that you are familiar with it and have the opportunity to answer questions the real estate professional might ask you. Keep in mind that you cannot add new material after that 10 day period before your hearing but you can incorporate this step even before I have placed it here within the process, say, even before you get the notice of hearing date and time. The point here is to get your presentation to be clear, cogent and convincing to this Board membership. Practice makes perfect.

You may at this point ask why any real estate professional would agree to help you in this process. This answer is simple. We deal with this information and material every day in our business. We welcome opportunity to share what we know and help our neighbors accomplish any goal they have relating to real estate. When you win, we win, and, we can offer you much more than a market analysis to sell your home or represent you on any real estate purchase. Use all the resources you have in this quest. Don’t be shy to ask for help and don’t be afraid or intimidated by this process. Its not brain surgery and you can do it and learn about market sale values within this county in the process. If you are like most people, the real estate you own is among the greatest asset you have. I would encourage you to make the most of all the information you will learn through a process like this and become your own greatest resource.

The hearing is set and you are prepared, professional and present all your facts as well as answer all questions skillfully. Online you will see the anticipated time for this hearing is 45 minutes. Prepare for 45 minutes and if you get more time consider it a bonus.



#6 The Washington State Board of Appeal Result - Where Do You Go From Here?

So, at this point you have had your hearing before the State of Washington Board of Appeal. Since the Assessor office never called to make you an offer to withdraw your case, or settle with you, prior to the hearing, you will be informed by mail of the decision between 60-90 days after the hearing took place.

The graph illustration used in these last three articles reflect that if you paid your taxes on time, and obtain a satisfactory result from the Board of Appeal, you have accomplished your goal and should be eligible for a reimbursement of already paid property taxes if you paid them under protest as outlined in article #4

If you receive an unsatisfactory result from the Board of Appeal, and you have paid your property taxes under protest, as outlined in article #4, you may decide to file your next case for hearing with the Washington State Superior Court. If you decide it is in your interest to bring your case to the Superior Court, or in any capacity beyond that level, I strongly suggest you engage the help of a qualified real estate attorney as you will be required to be familiar with all court protocol in addition to your own material. Many people have asked me if it is mandatory to have an attorney. I have never found that to be a requirement, however, it is my opinion that if you decide to take this avenue then you better be prepared for what is to come. Most people like you and I don’t have a clue how courts operate and we spend time avoiding all contact with the court system. The point here is to win and have as little cost associated with this process as possible as well as to obtain result quickly. A qualified real estate attorney can help you analyze the cost of these phases vs. the amount you would stand to gain if you are successful. You need this help to determine the quest pay-off. In most cases you can obtain a one hour consult with an attorney and get all you will need to determine if going forward with your quest is worth the financial investment.

One final thought in this process Id like to share with all of you. What I have learned is that the people we elect to office, in this case the Assessor of our County, holds tremendous power. Presently, it is their position that is the only valid, legal opinion of value even if it is in error. It is our responsibility to provide clear, cogent and convincing evidence to the contrary. At any time in the process this office can call you and settle your claim so deal with them accordingly. I wish you luck in all you decide to do!


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