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Property Tax: What It Is and How to Save

Here's how the math works, where the money goes and how you can save.
Oct. 25, 2018
Home Ownership Costs, Homeownership, Income Taxes, Property Taxes, Selling Your Home, Taxes
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Property tax is a tax on real estate and sometimes other property you own. The amount of tax is largely based on where the property is and how much it is worth.

How property tax is calculated

Property tax is typically determined by multiplying the value of the property by a tax rate. Here’s how the value of your property and the tax rate might be determined.

The value of the property

  • Assessors (sometimes called appraisers) who work for the local taxing authority track the value of every piece of land and real estate in a taxing district, such as a city or county. They maintain databases of local property values, often using sophisticated mapping software.
  • Your home’s assessed value will likely be less than its market value. By how much will vary by location, but it’s common. (Think of it this way: The higher the value, the higher the tax.)
  • While you own your home, the county can have many ways to detect changes in your home’s value, including inspections, permit applications from a remodeling project, reports from neighbors or regular updates.
  • Cars, machinery and other property might be subject to personal property taxes too.

The tax rate

  • Property tax rates are often based on the “millage rate,” where one mill is equal to one-thousandth of a dollar. Your property tax rate might not be expressed as a percentage, but rather as some number of mills.
  • For example, if the local property tax rate on homes is 15 mills, homeowners pay $15 in tax for every $1,000 in assessed home value. Accordingly, a house with a $200,000 assessed value would be taxed $3,000.
  • Some taxing authorities apply the property tax rate only to a portion of the home value rather than to the full home value. That can reduce the property tax bill.
  • The local taxing authority, again likely your county but possibly your city or town instead, typically determines the tax rate.

Where property taxes go

  • Generally, property taxes go to the local government. They often fund school districts, police and fire departments, road construction and other local services.
  • Failing to pay property taxes can result in the taxing authority placing a tax lien on the property. A tax lien is a legal claim against property or financial assets you own or may have coming to you. It’s not a seizure of your assets, but it is a claim on them. If you sell the asset, the government could be entitled to some or all of the proceeds. Buyers and sellers often discover liens on properties by doing a title search.

How to dispute your property tax bill

If you disagree with a property tax bill on your home, you can challenge the home’s assessed valuation. You’ll need to show that the assessed value doesn’t reflect your property’s true value.

  • Gather comparable listings or ask a real estate agent to pull records of comparable sales for you.
  • Call your assessor’s office to learn the dispute process. Aim to show that homes with similar tax values are better than yours. Start by discussing your findings by phone or in person.
  • If you’re unsatisfied, you might be able to pursue the case with an independent tax appeals board.

How to pay your property taxes

Typically, there are two ways to pay property taxes on a house:

  1. Write a check once a year or once every six months when the bill comes from the taxing authority.
  2. Set aside money each month in an escrow account when you pay the mortgage.

Don’t assume you’re paying property taxes when you give money to the escrow company. Think of that as “saving up” for the property tax bill. The escrow company uses the money in your escrow account to pay your property taxes when the bill arrives.

How to deduct property taxes on your tax return

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