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Bill Healy/MEDILL

How Cook County homeowners can appeal their property taxes

by Bill Healy
Nov 13, 2008

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Did you know...?

• The Cook County Board of Review has the largest volume of tax appeals in the country, more than New York City and Los Angeles, according to Andrea Raila, a board member of Citizens for Fair Assessments & Taxes. “Even before the collapse of the housing market we were doing the largest volume of appeals,” she said.

• In Cook County, 23 percent of a re-assessment district will file appeals, Raila said. In most jurisdictions, it’s closer to 2 to 3 percent, she said, citing statistics from the International Association of Assessing Officers.

• More than half of your property tax bill goes toward school spending, according to Maura Kownacki, spokeswoman for the Cook County Assessor.

• Your property tax bill is split into two installments: The first one is half of last year’s tax bill. The second is the recalculated remainder, according to Edward Balscik, a real estate lawyer on the city’s North Side.

• At a recent Board of Review outreach day in Cicero, 1,500 people came, and more than 1,200 appeals were filed.

When Anthony Smith moved into his four-bedroom house in Park Ridge more than six years ago, he noticed that the previous owners’ property taxes seemed high.

“The previous owners were getting screwed,” Smith said.

“When I moved in, I decided I wasn’t going to take it,” he added.

So the following year, Smith, an unemployed computer programmer, appealed his property taxes.

When Smith appealed in 2003, the housing market was stable.

Now falling home prices have made appeals all the more desirable, with Mayor Daley and his suburban counterparts calling on homeowners to challenge their property taxes.

Individuals interested in lowering their assessments will want answers to some basic questions about the appeals process before they begin. Here is what homeowners need to know:

Why would a homeowner appeal?

Before the housing bubble burst, the market caused homes to become overvalued, Mayor Daley said recently.

Since homes are re-assessed every three years, many homes’ assessments do not reflect their lower present-day values, he added.

For this reason, homeowners who feel their homes are overvalued should appeal their taxes now, the mayor said.

“Based on the dire economic situation nationally and locally, we’re willing to consider any evidence” that might demonstrate lower home values and thus reduce property tax bills, said Scott Guetzow, a spokesman for the Cook County Board of Review, which is expected to handle many of this year’s new appeals.

In addition to the argument that lower home values should translate into lower property taxes, there are other reasons for appealing.

The most common of these is that your neighbors are charged less in property taxes for a similar property, according to Maura Kownacki, a spokeswoman for the Cook County Assessor, whose office also handles appeals.

The second most common reason is a miscalculation in the home’s characteristics, as was the case with the square footage in Anthony Smith’s home.

Who should a homeowner appeal to?

The majority of homeowners wishing to immediately appeal should contact the Cook County Board of Review.

There are three tiers to the appeals process in Cook County: the assessor, the Board of Review and the state property tax appeal board.

Cook County is split into 38 townships. Each year, residents of every township have a 30 day period to file an appeal with the assessor, according to Kownacki.

For this year, most of the assessor’s deadlines have passed.

The Board of Review has its own set of filing dates, though, and all of these are open for now, said Guetzow. The Board of Review will stop accepting appeals for certain townships beginning Dec. 1.

Homeowners can also appeal to the review board if they missed the assessor’s deadline or are dissatisfied with his decision.

(You still have a limited amount of time to appeal to the assessor if you live in Proviso, West Chicago, Wheeling, Orland, Northfield, Thornton, Hyde Park, Schaumburg, Rich, Niles, Bloom or Hanover townships.)

If a homeowner is still dissatisfied after the review board, they can turn to the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board at the state level.

Should a homeowner hire a lawyer or go it alone?

Some homeowners hire a lawyer for the sake of convenience.

A property tax and real estate lawyer on the city’s North Side, Edward Balcsik, said, “You call us. We send you a couple of forms to fill out and then you’re done.”

Others hire a lawyer so that they don’t lose track of filing deadlines.

But, “I think the average person could do it on their own and get decent results,” Balcsik added.

One thing to consider is that for most lawyers in this line of work, “If we don’t save them anything, we don’t charge,” he said.

When the assessment is lowered, lawyers typically charge a percentage of the first year’s savings.
Still, there are homeowners, such as Anthony Smith, who choose to appeal themselves.

What kind of documentation do I need?

For the most basic cases at the Board of Review, homeowners simply fill out a complaint form, with their name and their home’s Property Index Number (PIN). These can be downloaded and mailed in or turned in at the Board of Review’s downtown office or satellite offices.

“If they don’t know the PIN number we can help them find it,” Guetzow said.

For the assessor’s office, homeowners can file their appeal and pull up comparable properties online, Kownacki said.

In both instances, however, the more complex the case for appeal, the more likely it is that it will require added paperwork. And if an attorney is hired, additional forms are needed.

Anthony Smith used his neighbor’s house across the street as a comparison to argue that he was being overtaxed.

Because his case dealt with square footage and because he wanted the savings to go back several years, he needed to provide additional documentation.

“If they want to submit data on comparable homes…what they would do is find homes in their area that are assessed at a lower value per square foot than their own home,” Guetzow said.

Though this information will be taken into consideration at both the assessor’s office and the review board, it is not necessary.

How long will it take?

Homeowners appealing to the assessor typically wait two to three months for a decision, said Kownacki.

“You can track it [the appeal] online, when it goes to the analyst department, when it goes to be mailed out,” she said.

At the Board of Review, homeowners can get a face-to-face hearing with an officer to discuss their case, though people often waive this right, Guetzow said.

“The whole process takes about two months,”  he said.

Smith, however, said the process can get messy.

“The whole process took [me] about 6 months,” he said. Smith said he grew increasingly frustrated when he asked for his square footage to be recalculated and it came back incorrect.

He also said that repeated phone calls to the Board of Review went unreturned and that other loose ends of his case played out over years instead of months.

Guetzow, the review board deputy, said that while he was unfamiliar with Smith's case, it sounded atypical.

What kind of response do homeowners typically get?

Balcsik, the real estate lawyer, said the typical reduction he sees is between a 5 and 20 percent reduction of a home’s assessed value.

The Board of Review consists of three commissioners and complaints are looked at by all three, each of whom has a say in the case’s outcome, Guetzow said.

The final decision is based on a consensus from them.

Anthony Smith’s assessment  was eventually lowered, though he was not able to make it retroactive.

“I went through all these hassles to get it right,” he said.

He added, “A lot of people probably don’t even bother.”