For many, the beginning of a new year signals a time to make some sort of change in their lives and become more like their ideal selves. For others, January signals the time to make a different kind of change, one that is much easier to make: trimming their property tax bill. The tax appeal process in New Jersey involves a number of steps and using an experienced property tax attorney to lead you through the process will make that New Year’s resolution much easier to keep.

Since tax appeal season in New Jersey is toward the beginning of the year, lowering your property taxes is a perfect New Year’s resolution. Toward the end of January of each year, every New Jersey property owner is supposed to receive their annual assessment. That’s the little green card that comes from the tax assessor’s office. Since all properties within a particular municipality in New Jersey are taxed at the same rate, it is the assessment which differentiates one property owner’s tax bill from another and is the real measure of whether a property is being taxed fairly or not. The period in which one can generally appeal an assessment in New Jersey is from the time the assessment is received until April 1 (May 1 if there was a reassessment or revaluation).

The first step to understanding whether you are being taxed too much is understanding how your property is being valued.

In New Jersey, your assessment is the value at which your property was appraised at the time of the last revaluation. Though the amount at which the municipality values your property changes from year to year, your assessment typically remains the same. Every year, each municipality in New Jersey is assigned an “equalization ratio,” which is intended to reflect the current value of the properties in a particular municipality in relation to their value in year of the valuation.

You can find your municipality’s equalization ration by calling your town’s tax assessor or the county tax board. It can also be found at the New Jersey Division of Taxation website. The “average ratio” is the percentage of “true value” that your assessment is deemed to be. In other words, divide your assessment by the equalization ratio to obtain the true valuation of your property. This is the number your assessor is actually using to compute your property tax, not your assessment.

For many people, the decision about whether they should appeal their assessment is an easy one once they realize the actual valuation of their property. For others, especially people who have owned a property for a long time and have not been thinking about buying or selling, the question of whether to appeal an assessment is less clear.

Here are several rules of thumb to consider in deciding whether to appeal your assessment:

  • As your assessment gets older and your equalization ratio gets lower, there is greater likelihood that your assessment has fallen out of line with your property’s actual value.
  • Conversely, when an equalization ration rises above 100{cf291cfc7269490771c2e5c8f8cab8cac79ddb0009ca0d6c13a6d788af335a8c} because property values have fallen (as they have in recent years), that means that on average, properties are overassessed in those municipalities. The property owner still bears the burden of proving that their particular property is overassessed but an average ratio of over 100{cf291cfc7269490771c2e5c8f8cab8cac79ddb0009ca0d6c13a6d788af335a8c} is a good indicator of overassessment.
  • When you live in a development or neighborhood where properties are very similar, and prices have dropped significantly, your individual property value has probably decreased and your assessment and equalization ratio may not have kept pace.
  • Whenever a property has unique characteristics that make it very different from those nearby, there is often a case to be made for reducing the assessment. For example, a very large old home in a neighborhood of smaller, newer homes will often be assessed as a larger home with the characteristics of the surrounding areas. In fact, such homes tend to be more difficult to sell and often warrant lower assessments.

The next step in the process for individuals is to decide whether they want to work with an attorney in this process. While corporations and other legal entities must be represented by an attorney under New Jersey law, an individual homeowner may represent him or herself. Nevertheless, there are very good reasons to consider retaining one:

  • Many lawyers work on a contingency basis so that there are no legal fees unless your taxes are reduced. There are certain fixed out-of-pocket expenses that the property owner pays but the lawyer receives a percentage of the tax savings if, and only if, the appeal is successful.
  • A lawyer working on a contingency basis should provide a free consultation and do his or her own independent research to determine whether an appeal is likely to succeed. If a lawyer does not return calls and take the time to tell you why they believe your assessment should be reduced, it is a signal to look elsewhere.
  • Most of all, there is the convenience of having an experienced professional handle your case. You do not have to worry about any of the rules which can be burdensome and, frankly arbitrary. (For example, property tax appeals can be dismissed if the petition is not printed on legal paper). You do not have to testify at a hearing, which is usually unfamiliar and uncomfortable for the homeowner.
  • Many people believe you will end up with a better result when you are represented by a lawyer. This extra savings year after year more than offsets the lawyer’s fee.

Take for example the case of Stephen and Rachel Pineles, who decided to appeal the assessment on their Essex County New Jersey home in 2010. “My town had not had a revaluation in over twenty years and my assessment was outrageously high in comparison with the actual value of my home,” said Stephen Pineles. “Hiring an attorney to handle the property tax appeal was definitely the right decision for me. I did not have to worry about anything. Initially, the tax assessor offered a reduction that was on the low side. In the end, my attorney negotiated a much better settlement and my property taxes were reduced by over $3700 or almost 30{cf291cfc7269490771c2e5c8f8cab8cac79ddb0009ca0d6c13a6d788af335a8c} of my tax bill.”

As with anything else, there is some amount of risk in appealing your assessment. In New Jersey, if your case is unsuccessful, you will not recover your out-of-pocket expenses. In addition, under New Jersey law, your assessor has the right to argue that your assessment is too low. This right is limited, however, to cases where your property is undervalued by a measure of 15{cf291cfc7269490771c2e5c8f8cab8cac79ddb0009ca0d6c13a6d788af335a8c}. If your property’s assessment divided by the equalization ratio is $100,000, the assessor can only argue that assessment should be increased if he or she can prove your property is really worth at least $115,000. If your attorney has done his research well and has determined that there is a good case for lowering your assessment, it is unlikely to happen.

As the new year begins, in addition to some of the more difficult goals and changes people contemplate, it may be worthwhile to consider trying to lower your tax bill. It could be one of the easiest and most profitable resolutions you make.