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How to play the online property tax protest game

By Dave Lieber Star-telegram.com

Everybody loves a good game. Here's one that could help many Tarrant County residential property owners save money.

The county tax appraisal district calls it an online tax protest.

The Watchdog calls it the tax version of The Price Is Right.

A property owner registers online and picks a number that he or she believes the property is worth.

A click of a computer mouse can then knock thousands off a property's taxable value. It did for me.

I began with my 2011 Property Value Notice, which contains the personal identification number needed to start the process at www.TAD.org.

I estimated what my house should be worth. The computer program's algorithm liked my answer. My taxes will be lower.

This is the second year for online tax protests in Tarrant County. Last year, 3,100 owners played the online protest game. This year, as of last week, only 632 had taken a swipe at it.

But it's a no-brainer. Everyone interested in lowering a property's taxable value ought to play before the May 31 deadline. If an offer is rejected, the case automatically goes forward to a tax protest hearing. But that can be canceled.

Don't let a decline in your property value stop you from playing, either. My property value actually decreased $4,800 in the past two years.

In the past, to contest the preliminary value, I would have compiled a booklet's worth of information to present to the Appraisal Review Board. It would have included valuations for similar neighborhood properties, flaws in my house that dropped its value and other supporting details such as photographs.

This year, I did have a spreadsheet prepared by a friend comparing my home with the others on my street.

TAD also supplies you with its own list of comparables on its website to help you come up with a number.

Turns out, in my case, none of that was needed.

Instead, to come up with my number, I figured that a neighbor down the street has the same house I do, and his assessed value was $2,800 lower. Then I remembered that he has an extra full bath, where I have a half-bath. So I lopped off $500 more for a total of $3,300.

A second after entering the number, I got the happy news: "Your protest has been filed and there is a settlement offer." I accepted the new lowered value. Total time: 10 minutes.

My first thought. Yipee.

My second? I should have entered a lower number.

In Tarrant County, the acceptance rate for online protest offers last year was 24 percent. In Houston, the first city in the nation to offer online protests, in 2006, the approval rate has been two to three times as high, depending on the year.

Under state law, all counties must offer online tax protests by 2013. Down the road, online protests for commercial properties in Tarrant County are possible, says Jeffery Law, TAD's chief appraiser.

Law likes the online protest system because "I don't have to have a person sit down and process your paper for a protest."

For those who don't have an Internet connection, Law suggests filing a tax protest from a library computer or from a computer owned by a relative or friend.

The game can't be played offline.

When I mentioned to a local mayor last week about how online tax protests are one of Tarrant County's best-kept secrets, he said that this Watchdog report could cost taxing entities a lot of money. He's correct. If more homeowners are successful in knocking down their taxable values, governments will lose revenue.

But Jim Robinson, chief appraiser for the Harris County Appraisal District in Houston, told me that a tax appraiser's job is not to get more money for governments. An appraiser's job is to give an honest estimate.

And why, if the computer program quickly accepts lowered values, doesn't it offer those lower taxable values in the first place?

The chief appraisers say a property's value is never known for certain, but there's an acceptable range from low to high called a "tolerance." Appraisers aim for midrange, but the computer accepts numbers that are lower as part of this tolerance.

May 31 deadline. What are you waiting for? The price is right. Come on down.