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For homeowners, property tax news is a little better this time around The Miami Herald

By Toluse Olorunnipa

Preliminary property tax notices are hitting 1.8 million mailboxes across South Florida this week, but most owners of residential and commercial property don’t need to be as anxious this time around.

Overall property value declines have slowed considerably — with some cities seeing increases — and elected officials have held tax rates steady or cut them, signaling that property owners can expect fewer surprises than in the past couple of years.

Property values declined 2.8 percent in Miami-Dade County and 1.6 percent in Broward County in 2010, after sinking double-digits the year before. However, changes in individual property assessments will vary based on where you live and when you bought your house, said Miami-Dade County Property Appraiser Pedro Garcia.

“You have areas that the influence of the foreclosures is very heavy — like Florida City and the Homestead area — and some of those values are way down,” he said. “Then you have areas like Coral Gables, Key Biscayne and Miami Beach, where the values have increased a little bit.”

Miami-Dade County commissioners voted last month to do away with last year’s unpopular tax rate increase, rolling the county’s preliminary millage rate back to 2009 levels. For property owners, the reduced rate could translate to savings of 12 percent or more. However, in cities like Sunny Isles Beach, where average values rose 3.9 percent in 2010, some of the rollback might be offset by higher assessments.

In Broward County, where property tax notices went out last week, the County Administrator has indicated that rates will remain flat. But in cities like Weston, where the average property value increased by 1.5 percent, taxes could increase for some homeowners.

City and county commissioners will meet in September to settle on the final tax rates, which can be lower, but not higher, than the preliminary rates. Final tax bills will be sent in November.

In the meantime, homeowners can choose to challenge the assessed value of their property before Sept. 19.

Those who disagree with the property appraiser’s assessment can file a petition with the county value adjustment board and pay a $15 filing fee.

Property appraisers for both counties acknowledged that the assessment process is not an exact science, and homeowners know the details of their property best. About 40 percent of appellants are able to successfully challenge property assessments.

“When you use a mass appraisal system, we get as close as we can get,” said Lori Parrish, Broward County’s property appraiser. “We don’t [assess] 900,000 properties individually, so it’s not an exact science for every single home.”

Although appeals fell considerably last year, property tax consultants are encouraging more homeowners to challenge their assessments this year, as the market seems to be at or near a bottom.

“Because values are at an all-time low, [property owners] should take advantage of this and try to reset the bar even lower, so that for years to come, they’re at a lower rate,” said Barry Sharpe, president of the Real Estate Tax Appeal Group, a Hialeah-based property tax appeal company.

Florida’s 1992 Save Our Homes law stipulates that assessed values can only increase by 3 percent each year, so setting a low bar this year could provide tax savings for many years to come, Sharpe said.

For longtime homeowners, a side effect of that 3-percent cap is that property assessments continue to go up until they catch up with market values. That means some property owners will see their taxes increase even as home prices slide.

There are a few new rules that homeowners should keep in mind this year:

People appealing property assessments are required to pay at least 75 percent of their tax bill before April 1, or the appeal will be rejected. The state Legislature enacted the rule earlier this year to prevent people from using the appeals process to game the system.

Military personnel deployed overseas are eligible for a new exemption this year. Those who were stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan during 2010 will received a tax exemption based on the length of their deployment. For example, someone deployed for six months during 2010 would receive a 50-percent exemption of Ad Valorem taxes this year.

“We’re going to give them an additional exemption,” said Garcia. “We understand some of them are currently deployed, so anybody in their family can come to our office and apply for that exemption.”

For the next three weeks, the property appraisers offices in Broward and Miami-Dade counties will devote additional resources to fielding questions from property owners about taxes, exemptions and assessments, Garcia and Parrish said.

“We have 25 days that people can come to our office with questions,” said Garcia. “They don’t have to make any appointment. They can just show up.”