Tax Breaks for Older Homeowners Can Lower Property Tax Bills

Learning the ropes

Most states give property tax breaks to homeowners 65 and older through programs that could save them hundreds of dollars a year. But many of these breaks are underused, observes Adam Langley, an associate director of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and coauthor of a recent report about property tax relief. “There are a lot of seniors unaware of these programs or who miss application deadlines.”​

According to Álvaro, this is true in his community, especially among people for whom English is a second language. The results can be catastrophic. “The fact that some people lose what they’ve worked for their whole lives because they can’t afford it and they didn’t fill out the exemption forms — it breaks my heart,” he says. (Keeping Felicitas’ senior freeze in effect filing an income-disclosure form annually.) As the director of constituent services for a Cook County, Illinois, commissioner, starting in 2010, Álvaro worked to help people learn about these and other benefits that might be difficult to find. “I treated everybody who came into our office as if they were my mother, because I knew what that struggle was like,” he says. That work continued when, in 2016, he joined AARP Illinois as an associate state director, focusing on advocacy and outreach. “I didn’t realize until I was working at the county just how easy it is” to get property tax breaks, he says. “But anybody can forget to fill out the renewal notice, especially older adults who get a lot of junk mail.”​

How to fight back

Using these senior exemption programs isn’t the only way to lower your property taxes, Álvaro explains. You don’t have to wait until you’re 65 to take advantage of another way. The heart of that strategy is to challenge the assessed value of your home, which your county or city determines on a regular basis — usually —every year or so. If your assessment seems too high, you usually have a clear-cut procedure for appealing.​

In Cook County, this is the routine (check with your local city or county assessor’s office or treasurer’s office to see how yours compares): Properties are reassessed every three years; you have a 30-day window that year (and in the off years, too) in which to file an appeal. Before and during that period, “lawyers send you tons of mail offering to fight the assessment on your behalf, and they take a percentage of the savings,” Álvaro says. “In most cases, you don’t need a lawyer to help you, especially at the first level.”​

To start the process, you typically log in to the website of the assessor’s office and examine your property’s listing for any mistakes, such as footage inaccurate square or number of bedrooms. To correct any inaccuracies, you can upload evidence, such as an appraisal. “Any documentation describing the property will be helpful,” Scott Smith, a spokesperson for the Cook County assessor’s office. If you’re appealing based on a recent purchase price, you can upload your closing documents. If you think your home is valued too high relative to similar properties, you can search online, using various filters, for properties you think are comparable. You can include up to six comps — recently sold comparable properties — in your appeal. (Other areas might not have such tools available; in that situation you’d have to search for comps yourself or get them from a local real estate agent.)​

If you lose the first round, you can appeal online to a board of review, which you can also do by yourself. (You can also request a hearing if it’s difficult to explain your case or present evidence otherwise.) “I’ve seen many cases where the assessor denies an appeal, but then the property owner appeals at the board of review and will get it,” Álvaro says.​

If you lose that appeal, you have one more chance — you can go to Cook County court or to the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board. “That’s where you really might need a lawyer,” Álvaro adds.

While time frames and steps to appeal vary throughout the country, you can typically get help from the assessor’s office or your local elected officials, he says. Nonprofits, such as the AARP Foundation Property Tax-Aide program, may also offer help in your area. “Every state has a different way in which they tax, so it’s important to find out how that works,” Álvaro advises.

In addition, whenever you get a chance to lower your property taxes, tell your friends. At a regular older-adults get-together at a nearby park, he says, Felicitas would talk about property relief programs, just like she’d share information about local goings-on. “People should be taking advantage of these programmes. That’s what they were set up for,” Álvaro emphasizes. “Spread the word.”​


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