It's getting near decision time for Charleston County property owners who are considering appealing their results from the countywide reassessment.
Questions for them to consider, and really, for people in any county, because assessments can be appealed any year, are just how much trouble it's worth to challenge a property's taxable value and whether to consider paying for professional help.
Property taxes aren't what they used to be in South Carolina.
For people with businesses, rental properties and high-value homes, property taxes can be expensive. Commercial property owners tend to pay close attention to the taxable value of their properties and seek reductions when the opportunity arises, often with the costly help of lawyers and appraisers.
But for people who live in the homes they own, property taxes are low in South Carolina compared to other states, and they are much lower than they used to be prior to the statewide tax changes in 2006. And there are limits now on how much a property's assessed value can rise, so long as the ownership hasn't changed, and those limits have reduced the potential impact of reassessment on a property tax bill.
The cap is a 15 percent increase in the taxable value of a property during the countywide reassessments that are conducted roughly every five years. In Charleston County's reassessment, more than two-thirds of property values increased by less than that.
So, if you have an owner-occupied property, it hasn't changed ownership since 2005 when Charleston County last reassessed and you haven't made expensive improvements to the property that would have changed its tax value, then you may not have much at stake. You might save more money by reducing your home energy use or shopping your homeowners insurance around for better rates.
Does that mean you shouldn't appeal your assessment? Of course not. Just as people should pay the taxes they owe, people shouldn't pay more than the correct amount.
But you should figure out the costs and benefits of appealing.
Filing an appeal on your own doesn't cost anything, but it can be a confusing process. Basically, you need to prove that your property was worth less at the end of 2008 than the county calculated.
Why 2008? Assessors use property sale information, along with other data, to calculate changes in values, so counties always look back a few years when they reassess. The last day of 2008 is the date that values were pegged to in Charleston County's latest reassessment. The 2005 reassessment used values from the end of 2003.
So if you appeal, you'll need to look up 2008 sale prices for homes comparable to yours, look at your neighbors' assessments, and so on, in order to show that properties like yours were worth less at the end of 2008 than the county says your property was worth.
If that all sounds daunting, there are attorneys and speciality businesses that will handle your appeal, for a price.
The deadline to file an appeal in Charleston County is Sept. 28. Appeals are filed in writing, ideally using the form that came with your reassessment notice.
Would it make sense to pay a company to file your appeal?
If your home is assessed at less than $200,000, like the majority of owner-occupied homes in the county, there would be little chance of significant savings. The cost of help varies, but a local firm I came across says it will appeal an assessment for as little as $99 and 45 percent of the first-year tax savings, so there could be little financial risk involved.
Let's run the numbers:
For an owner-occupied home in Charleston County, every $10,000 in assessed market value adds roughly $50 to the annual tax bill. So, if you think your property was over-valued by $10,000, you could save about $50 each year until the next reassessment if you were to appeal and win.
One thing that all homeowners should do, regardless of any appeal, is make sure they are getting the favorable tax treatment for owner-occupied homes. The "ratio" box on your assessment notice will say "0.04" if your property is taxed as an owner-occupied home.
And, if you were 65 or older by last Dec. 31, make sure you're getting the Homestead Exemption, which requires filing a form with the county auditor.
Here’s how you can use Charleston County’s online information to research property values and assessments:
At http://prcweb.charlestoncounty.org, you can look up the sale history of any property and search sales, by date, for entire subdivisions. This is helpful for researching sales from 2008 to prepare an appeal. To search for sales throughout a subdivision, on the main webpage look near the bottom where it says “click here to search by sale date.” That will take you to a page where you can enter a subdivision name and a range of dates. You also can look up property tax bills, which include assessment information, at http://taxweb.charlestoncounty.org.
Another county website has updated market values, aerial photos, sale prices, square footage of buildings and more. Go to http://ccgisweb.charlestoncounty.org, click “Start” and look up properties by owner name, address or parcel number. You then can click on neighboring properties on the map to see their information (click the “i” at the top of the webpage, then click the property on the map).
Charleston County also has a website that explains reassessment and the appeals process in detail. Go to www.charlestoncounty.org and click the “2011 reassessment” link.