Property-tax assessment illustration
Illustration: Christopher Silas Neal
You wanna fight the power, eh?

You're not alone. With property taxes continuing to rise nationwide, many homeowners are starting to challenge what they see as exorbitantly high demands made on them by their local assessor's office. Follow their lead, and you have a 50 percent chance of succeeding, says Pete Sepp, a spokesperson for the National Taxpayers Union.

First, a primer. The amount of property tax you pay is determined by multiplying your city's tax rate by the assessed value of your property and all of the structures on it. The value of those structures can change dramatically if you make improvements, like putting on a new family-room addition. Most homeowners pay property taxes once or twice a year; they can also be amortized into monthly mortgage payments.

To determine the value of your house, assessors will either stop by for a detailed inspection during the town's reassessment period, or simply check real estate documents to see how much you paid for the property. In some cases, they'll just look at the median price paid for homes in your area and base their calculations on that.

Reasons for disputing assessments vary. Maybe you suspect that the assessed value of your property exceeds its true market value. Or you might discover that your neighbors, who live in an identical four-bedroom Colonial down the block, are paying less in taxes than you are. There's also the possibility that you're entitled to exemptions that weren't taken into account. In some jurisdictions, for example, homeowners renovating historic properties can get a partial property-tax reduction.

You don't typically need a lawyer, since most municipalities are more than willing to walk you through the appeals process. So where do you start?

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