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Unappealing Taxes

Unquestionably, there is progress.  The average American now pays out twice as much in taxes as he formerly got in wages.

H.L. Mencken

So, I went to the my property tax appeal yesterday.

No, this isn’t the start of a lame joke and no, I didn’t appeal my property taxes.

The City of Pittsburgh appealed my taxes to the County of Allegheny (yes, these ones). Apparently they, like most municipalities and school districts in the area, do this automatically when a house is sold.  They have a formula that helps them figure out whether to appeal or not, but basically, at the core, the heart of the matter is… they want more money.

My job was to fight the appeal.

Quick description of property taxes in Allegheny County: Taxes are based on what your property would probably have been worth in January of 2002.  Since most houses are not the same as they were in 2002, we can only guess what the assessment might have been in 2002.  So what they do is collect some comparable houses that were sold in 1999, 2000 and 2001 and use that to estimate your assessment, which they then tax you on.

Yes, this is really stupid.  Yes, it doesn’t produce anything like a fair assessment of value for the county or the owner.  Yes, it seems to boil down to who can do the most research via the really crappy website. Yes, it leads to a lot of people doing lots of work for no real gain.

I did my research.  I scoured the property site for houses that were similar to mine. I complied lists long lists that I weeded down.  I even went in with a friend to see what the process looked like.

Basically, it was an officer behind a desk (a guy or gal in an off the rack suit) in a very bare office with a representative of the city or school district (also in an off the rack suit) and the poor hapless owner.  Of course, my friend is a little… well, unique.  He showed up with a very spiffy suit, complete with a tie chain (all the rage in Canada, not so much here) and had a brief case that would have been more at home if he had a pair of handcuffs for it.

The whole show is recorded. The city gets a turn. The owner gets a turn. All the evidence is handed in to the officer. The officer make a report of all the evidence to a review board that then decides what to do. An eight week process, apparently.

I have to admit I wasn’t looking forward to this.  I hate forms. I hate official things. I hate stuff I only get one chance at.  I hate talking to people (I suck at it; it isn’t a skill I’m good at). So this is pretty much the epitome of what I don’t like.

Waiting wasn’t that bad. The guy from the City was very busy. I mainly listened to all the other attorneys (almost all were from the various municipalities) chat with each other. They all knew each other, regardless of which side they were on.

Eventually our name was called and we were led to one of the bare offices. We still had to wait for the city guy, named Mike, to get out of another hearing.

Mike apparently had been part of a city program that used to teach people how to do appeals and defend against them. That program was canceled and now he found himself working against the land owners. From Mike and my friends hearing it was very clear that these guys basically are handed a printout generated by either software or by people in an office. While they know how the data will be formatted, they won’t know the actual data.

I took advantage of this in my planning, since I knew the area very well. I picked houses within a few blocks of my house. I chose houses that are part of the same neighborhood. While the city’s houses were all near a rather ritzy street on the other side of squirrel hill and were not representative of my house.

From the research, I began to think my how was over-evaluated anyway. Of course, this data is probably skewed, since very few houses come up for sale percentage-wise (it’s a family neighborhood). However, playing the game with the rules given, it was too high.

I had 5 comparable, houses that were similar size and age, averaging at about $30,000 less than mine and one outlier, a house that was about double mine in all ways, still $10,000 less than mine.  I asked for my house to be lowered by $24,000.

My hands started shaking violently almost right away.  I had to struggle to not speak quickly or make assumptions about what was obvious and jumping around in the conversation.  My vision sort of narrows down, like when you’re drunk; everything requires more effort.

Somehow, I made it through. Afterwards, I went to the rest room and Mike joined me a moment later.  He started up a urinal conversation (why the hell do guys do that? It creeps me out) and said that he thought I did well.  I suppose he could have been just yanking my chain, but I think he meant it. We talked a little and I mentioned that we bought the house based on it’s proximity to the grocery store, not parks or anything else; the price on the web site didn’t show why we thought it was worth that and if the market would agree with me.

Upon leaving the bathroom, we shook hands and said goodbye.  I rejoined Robin. About then it all sort of hit me, like a ton of bricks, at that point and I started feeling pretty nauseous. I’m glad I didn’t actually throw up but it felt like I could have.

Did I mention that this is really not what I like to do?

We walked around a little so I could catch my breath and feel better.  We visited Nicholas Coffee, I had some SoupMan soup (aka, the Soup Natzi from Seinfeld - I paid extra for bread and fruit), which was good.  Then we came home and I pretty much hid the rest of the day.

Did I mention that I don’t like this?

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The personal blog of Christian Höltje.
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