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Fewer South Floridians appeal property tax bills The Miami Herald

By Toluse Olorunnipa

When frustrated homeowners come into her office clutching unexpectedly high property tax bills, Broward County Property County Appraiser Lori Parrish shows them records for her own home, which has a higher tax bill this year, despite its declining value.

She also shows them the tax bill of a colleague who bought a condo at the height of the market, and has seen her home values and tax assessments decline.

Parrish says that exercise has been helpful in explaining the bill-inflating side effect of Florida's Save Our Homes law on long-time property owners, and county officials say fewer homeowners are seeking relief from higher taxes by appealing property assessments this year.

After three years of increasing property value appeals, homeowners in 2010 seem to have come to grips with falling values and the SOH law, and are filing fewer petitions.

"Last year at this time we had a lot more appeals," said Miami-Dade Clerk of the Court Harvey Ruvin. "It's a good thing because it does give us some relief from the record high appeals from last year."

In Miami-Dade, there were fewer than 25,000 property appeals filed as of Friday, compared with 140,000 last year. Jo Bieber, manager of Broward County's Value Adjustment Board, said Broward property owners filed about 6,000 petitions as of Friday, compared with more than 34,000 in 2009.

Of course, there's still time for last-minute filers to hand their petitions in.

If you're one of them, Monday is the deadline to file with the value adjustment boards in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. In Palm Beach County, that deadline was Sept. 16.

You can file the petition online, by mail or in person at your county's value adjustment board office. After paying the $15 filing fee, you'll be entered into a queue and, eventually, present your case before a special magistrate during a hearing. Officials are still working through 2009 appeals, so it may take a year or more before petitioners get a hearing. On average, about 40 percent of appellants succeed in having their home values adjusted, county officials said.

There are a few different explanations for why the stack of tax appeals might be thinner this year compared to the previous two years.

For one, 2010 was the third straight year of declining property values -- they dropped 13.4 percent in Miami-Dade County and 11.7 percent in Broward -- and many homeowners have seen their tax bills shrink.

"A lot of people are complacent because of the fact that the values have gone down," said Barry Sharpe, president of the Real Estate Tax Appeal Group, a Hialeah-based property tax appeal company.

Others have simply grown frustrated with the appeals process.

In 2008 and 2009, a surge in petitions clogged the system in South Florida. Hearings for 2008's more than 150,000 appeals in Miami-Dade and Broward weren't completed until March of this year, and hearings for 2009's even larger crop of petitions just started a few months back.

The huge backlog of appeals means 2010 petitioners will likely have to wait at least a year before they can present their case before a special magistrate at an appeals hearing. Some will have to file appeals for 2010's assessment without knowing the outcome of their 2009 petitions.

Stan Jacobs, of Kendall, is sitting out the process out year, after two years of frustrating petition experiences. He filed appeals on four of his rental properties after their assessed values jumped in 2007 and 2008. One of those properties, a two-bedroom townhome near Kendall, saw its 2008 assessed value jump 33 percent to $198,000.

Using sales of other homes in the neighborhood Jacobs convinced a special magistrate that the county appraiser had overvalued the property, which he purchased for $50,000 back in 1979. But the payoff was paltry in comparison to his $4,000 tax bill, he said.

"He put the value down to $190,000," he said. "They gave me a check for $118 and said if you want more you have to go to circuit court."

Two months later, Jacobs got his 2009 Truth in Millage notice in the mail, and the same property that had been re-assessed to $190,000, was valued at $206,000, indicating that the property's value had increased in 2008. He appealed again, pointing to the recent reduction and the falling real estate market. After a 14-month wait, he got a hearing and his value was reset back to $190,000, netting him $318. His appeals for two other properties were rejected.

"Unless you have a big, expensive property, it's not worth it," he said.

Still, many tax appeal firms say now is an opportune time for homesteaded owners to challenge their county-assessed values, because locking in a low assessment this year will pay dividends in the future, when housing values eventually go up.

Florida's Save Our Homes law limits the increase in assessed values to 3 percent annually for homesteaded owners.

Sharpe, who is filing appeals for all of his personal properties, encourages his clients to challenge their assessments this year to take advantage of the Save Our Homes law.

"Think about the additional advantage of the cap of 3 percent [moving forward]," he said. "It's like resetting the base."

In order to be successful at a hearing, homeowners must present a strong case that their homes have been overvalued by the county's property appraiser, Bieber said.

"As a petitioner, you need to provide us evidence that reasonably supports the contentions on which you're basing your petition," she said. "Evidence of comparable sales -- that's very important."

Sharpe said one of the strategies he's used successfully is getting a professional Realtor to survey the property, and write down all the improvements that need to be made in order to make the home sellable. Presenting the costs of those improvements at an appeals hearing could help get the assessment reduced, he said.

In the end, property owners know their property better than anyone else, kind of like their spouse, he said, using a light-hearted metaphor.

"My wife in my house looks completely different than when she's going out to see her fancy friends," he said. "That's the real McCoy -- what you see outside is just the surface. That's what the county sees with your house when they look from the outside."