Tax breaks for older homeowners can reduce property tax bills

Learn the basics

Most states provide tax breaks to homeowners 65 and older through programs that could save them hundreds of dollars a year. But many of those breaks are underutilized, observes Adam Langley, associate director of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and co-author of a recent report on property tax relief. “There are a lot of seniors who don’t know about these programs or don’t meet the application deadlines.”​

According to Álvaro, this is true in his community, especially among people for whom English is a second language. The results can be catastrophic. “The fact that some people lose what they’ve worked for all their life because they can’t afford it and they haven’t filled out the exemption forms, it breaks my heart,” says -he. (Maintaining the Felicitas senior freeze requires filing an income disclosure form each year.) As Director of Constituent Services for a Cook County, Illinois commissioner beginning in 2010, Álvaro has worked to help people learn more about these and other benefits. it might be hard to find. “I treated everyone who came into our office like they were my mom, because I knew what that struggle was like,” he says. This work continued when, in 2016, he joined AARP Illinois as Associate State Director, focusing on advocacy and outreach. “I didn’t realize until I worked in the county how easy it is” to get property tax breaks, he says. “But anyone can forget to fill out the renewal notice, especially seniors who get a lot of spam.”

How to defend yourself

Using these senior exemption programs isn’t the only way to lower your property taxes, says Álvaro. You don’t have to wait until you’re 65 to take advantage of another way. The heart of this strategy is to question the assessed value of your home, which your county or city regularly determines. almost every year. If your rating seems too high, you usually have a clear process for appealing.

In Cook County, it’s routine (check with your city or county’s assessor or treasurer’s office to see how yours compares): Properties are reassessed every three years; you have a 30-day window that year (and other years as well) to file an appeal. Before and during this period, “lawyers send you tons of mail offering to challenge the valuation on your behalf, and they take a percentage of the savings,” says Álvaro. “In most cases, you don’t need a lawyer to help you, especially at the first level.”​

To start the process, you typically log on to the appraiser’s office website and review your property’s listing for any errors, such as inaccurate square footage or bedroom counts. To correct any inaccuracies, you can upload evidence, such as a review. “Any documentation describing the property will be helpful,” notes Scott Smith, spokesman for the Cook County Assessor’s office. If you are appealing based on a recent purchase price, you can upload your closing documents. If you think your home is overpriced compared to similar properties, you can search online, using various filters, for properties that you think are comparable. You can include up to six listings (comparable recently sold properties) in your call. (Other regions may not have such tools; in this situation, you will need to research comps yourself or obtain them from a local realtor.)

If you lose the first round, you can appeal online to a review board, which you can also do yourself. (You can also request a hearing if it is difficult to explain your case or otherwise present evidence.) that,” Álvaro says.

If you lose that appeal, you have one more chance – you can go to Cook County Court or the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board. “This is where you might really need a lawyer,” adds Álvaro.

Although the timelines and steps for appealing vary across the country, you can usually get help from the assessor’s office or your local elected officials, he says. Nonprofit organizations, such as the AARP Foundation’s Property Tax Assistance Program, may also offer assistance in your area. “Each state has a different way of taxing, so it’s important to know how it works,” advises Álvaro.

Also, whenever you have the opportunity to lower your property taxes, tell your friends about it. At a regular gathering of older adults at a nearby park, he says, Felicitas would talk about homeownership assistance programs, just as she shared information about local activities. “People should take advantage of these programs. That’s what they were created for,” says Álvaro. “Spread the word.”​

Penny D. Jackson