Are you contemplating a formal appeal of your latest home property assessment? If so, you may want to reconsider it.

Once again, my new “notice of assessment of land and structures” reflected an increase of nearly 10%, slightly higher than the average increase (8%) in Porter County, where I live. Once again I wondered if I should file an appeal, so I sat down with Porter County Assessor Jon Snyder and contacted Lake County Assessor LaTonya Spearman for insights and context.

I learned that appeals in our region for this tax year, so far, have been “very light.” The deadline to file is June 15.

“What we try to get people to focus on is what their house would sell for in the current housing market,” Snyder told me. “Our office’s property assessments are based on scientific data from multiple sources.”

Spearman added, “Homeowners are most likely to be angry when they don’t fully understand the process.”

The process can seem quite complex for homeowners like me who are undereducated about property tax issues. I’ve never appealed my assessments. I typically do nothing, instead allowing my bank to adjust the escrow amount with my mortgage payments. I asked both county assessors for a crash course.

“We start by explaining that the current year’s taxes are based on the previous year’s assessment,” Spearman said. “Next, we explain that assessed values fluctuate with the market and that valid sales are the best indication of market trends. Finally, we advise them that assessments are done on a mass appraisal basis but should reflect the amount a typical buyer would pay to purchase their home. And that they have a right to appeal if they disagree with the value.”

A few readers have contacted me to complain that it’s unfair for the assessor’s office to raise property value estimates after an economically devastating year due to the pandemic. Some homeowners hoped to find financial relief from a lowered or stagnant assessment.

An informational flier mailed with assessments by the Porter County Assessor’s office addressed this obvious topic: “Even with the pandemic, property values throughout the county saw significant increases in 2020. This is due to increased sales volume and lack of available housing inventory.”

Snyder said the new assessments are not inflated to serve as an added revenue stream for the county, as some homeowners have alleged.

“That’s just not the case,” he said.

Spearman said, “Based on the interactions we’ve had this far, we have not seen the pandemic play a significant role in how taxpayers respond to increased assessments. Very few of them have suggested that the pandemic has negatively impacted their home’s values.”

Lake County has roughly 240,500 property tax parcels, and Porter County has roughly 80,000 parcels, meaning this many notices had to be mailed. Porter County’s appeal rate is less than 2%. Lake County’s is 1.44%. As a layman, I expected much higher appeal rates, if anything based on those homeowners who habitually complain.

I’ve heard substantiated stories about assessor’s office staff members who’ve been threatened by angry property owners. Every county office has its share of “repeat customers” after assessments were mailed out. Any increase over 5% often raises a flag for people. Closer to a 10% increase, such as for my home, raises that flag much higher.

“Some neighborhoods are seeing 20% increases this year,” Snyder said.

It all comes down to a hot housing market, especially in much of Porter County. As Snyder put it, “The high tide lifts all boats.” Even if many of those boats are modest homes that don’t seem worth their new evaluation.

“We typically suggest homeowners start with our website where they can search sales information for homes within their neighborhoods,” Spearman said. “We also suggest using other free resources, such as GNIAR (Greater Northwest Indiana Association of Realtors) or Zillow to search for current list prices. Both will help inform taxpayers of what homes in their neighborhoods are currently being listed or sold for.”

“These automated valuation models are popular to use, and they are free,” Snyder added.

These automated models can’t be used for a formal appeal — an appraisal is not required — but they’re helpful to gauge a property’s market value. If the county orders an appraisal during the appeal process, which can take up to six months, a property owner’s assessment could go up, by statute.

Officials said people need to bring market evidence in most cases. That can be a Realtors’ market analysis, an appraisal or your own comparable research.

“Or the county can suggest to the homeowner to just drop their appeal,” Snyder said.

In Porter County, an appeal can be filed through the assessor office’s website, an uncommon amenity in the industry, at https://engage.xsoftinc.com/porter. Or by filing in person or via mail, as with the Lake County Assessor’s office. Its website is https://engage.xsoftinc.com/lake. (Both counties use the same online system.)

“2019 was the first year that appeals were able to be submitted via email,” Spearman noted.

After compiling information from Snyder and Spearman, I did some research into my home’s current market evaluation. My new assessment increased to $241,100 from $219,300 the previous year. This jump caught my attention, prompting this column.

Out of curiosity, I visited Zillow.com for an automated estimate based on my neighborhood and this hot housing market. Home values in my ZIP code have increased 10% over the past 12 months, with a prediction to increase 8.5% more in the next year, the site states.

Within seconds, a photo of my home popped up along with the website’s “zestimate” — $278,529. I seriously doubt my home is worth this ridiculous figure. But once again, I won’t be filing an appeal with the assessor’s office.
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