Q. My neighbors and I received letters from a company offering to get our homeowners' property taxes lowered. The fee is $200, paid only if and after the company's successful. Is this legit?
A. Why pay when you can probably achieve the same results yourself for free or just a few dollars?
What these companies do, usually for about $200, is file for a property reassessment on a homeowner's behalf — which you can do on your own at the local tax assessor's office, paying just whatever application fee there is.
No matter who files the documents, the fact remains that many applications are successful these days. That's because the real estate collapse that began in 2007 drove many homes' market values down, but the assessments on which taxes are often based were never readjusted to reflect the drop.
Some people question the ethics of this kind of "convenience service," but it's perfectly legal. In other variations, firms charge to secure copies of property deeds, to register voters or to get visas at foreign embassies.
Come-on letters from property-tax firms may bear seals and official-sounding names, perhaps implying they're from a government agency. Some letters falsely warn that failing to respond to the offer will make you "ineligible for future tax reassessments" or that delaying could result in "late fees."
In recent years, several state attorneys general filed suits against companies sending such letters.
Sometimes the purpose is an outright rip-off: Scammers collect service fees upfront and disappear, having done nothing for you.
The bottom line: If you get one of these letters, consider just contacting the assessor's office yourself.
But be aware that a lower tax bill is not a sure thing. If your last assessment was done after the big drop in values began, you may get no benefit from a new one. And depending on where you live, your taxes may be based not on assessed value but on replacement costs or other criteria.
If you do decide to go with a service company, first check out whether it's legit. Contact your assessor's office or your state attorney general's office.
Also of interest: Tax rules for second homes. >>
Sid Kirchheimer writes about consumer and health issues.