The painful truth is that if you don’t appeal your Cook County property tax assessment every chance you get, you’re a fool.
Seeking a reduction after your reassessment arrives every three years is a free shot at saving big money on your tax bill. Not only does it cost nothing, there is no chance — zero, according to Tom Shaer, spokesman for Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios — that officials will examine your appeal, take a closer look at your home and similar surrounding properties and say, "Hey, thanks for calling this to our attention! Your place is actually worth more than we thought."
"Citizens are guaranteed equal protection under the law," Shaer explained. "Everyone must be assessed using a formula based on the pattern of sale prices and market conditions, and we won’t change that on you just because you avail yourself of the right to appeal."
The no-risk nature of such appeals is standard practice nationwide, according to Larry Clark, director of strategic initiatives for the Missouri-based International Association of Assessing Officers. "Increases on appeal are virtually unheard of," Clark said, even when homeowners ask for them in an effort to boost the market value of their properties.
Another reason you’re a fool if you don’t appeal is that your free shot is likely to hit the mark. A little more than 50 percent of reduction requests were OK’d at the first stage in 2016. Of those that go on to the Cook County Board of Review, 80 percent are approved.
My spot checks in other nearby counties found initial success rates for appeals running over 40 percent, though Will County reported a success rate of just 2.4 percent.
And the reason this is a painful truth is that I have been just such a fool. In more than 30 years of owning property in Cook County, I’ve appealed my assessment just once.
I deferred in part because the assessments have generally seemed reasonable to me — about what I expected. And also in part because I was under the false impression that an appeal was a gamble I might lose.
It wasn’t laziness. I found the process easy the one time I tried it. Going through the assessor’s website I found several houses in my neighborhood that were similar to mine but assessed at a lower value, filled in a few blanks and clicked "submit." A couple of weeks later I received a note that I’d earned a modest reduction.
Shaer said finding comparables in one’s neighborhood takes about seven minutes, and filling out the forms takes about five minutes. Further, county employees can help homeowners find appropriate comparable properties.
Do you need a lawyer to walk you through the process? No. It’s a very straightforward process. And contrary to what I’d always assumed, a lawyer doesn’t even seem to help.
Shaer said that residential appeals filed with the help of an attorney had a 53.9 percent initial success rate in 2016, while those filed without the help of an attorney had a 55.3 percent success rate.
In 2015 the spread was a bit wider, 52.3 percent success with an attorney, 56.7 percent without.
But although filing an assessment appeal isn’t technically difficult, costs nothing even if you hire an attorney (they typically work on a contingency basis and take a cut of your tax savings, if any) and can be accomplished relatively quickly, it still requires a certain savvy and comfort with the system. And it’s a lot easier if you have ready access to a computer and know how to use it.
So, in fairness, you may not be a fool like me if you don’t appeal. You may be intimidated by the bureaucracy, confused by the lingo and misled by the myths. You may not be able to afford internet service or have the time to go to one of four assessor’s office locations for help.
These realities tend to skew the benefits of the appeals process toward people in higher income brackets, a phenomenon thoroughly documented in Tribune reporter Jason Grotto’s recent series "The Tax Divide."
Over time, wealthier neighborhoods like mine, where a greater percentage of people file appeals, tend to become under-assessed. And since property taxes are a zero-sum game, poorer neighborhoods become over-assessed.
Shaer said the county is trying to rectify this problem by focusing tax-appeals seminars in low-income neighborhoods.
But given how easy he says it is and how often appeals result in lowered assessments, why not incorporate appeals directly into the assessment process? Why not automatically run every property though the Assess–o-meter and introduce more fairness into the system?
Shaer said this would be a waste of time and resources, as only 19 percent of owners of residential properties appealed last year — 14 percent if you don’t count condos, which appeal at a very high rate. "It can’t possibly be that the other 81 percent don’t know how to appeal," he said. "They don’t appeal because the assessor’s office initial figure is far more in line with market value than we get credit for."
Or they’re fools like me.
The winner of this week’s reader poll for funniest tweet is one of the most stolen jokes on the internet: "At my funeral, I want the organist to start playing ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ really slowly, until everyone is staring at the coffin in dread."
I have no idea who first thought of juxtaposing the jolly jack-in-the-box tune with a body lying in state, but Google finds nearly 80,000 such references, none that I’ve seen reliably attributed.
Here, for the benefit of my editors and other punctuation lovers, is the third-place finisher out of 14 finalists: "Good Cop: You’re under arrest. Bad Cop: Your under arrest," by @JB4Realz.