- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 5, 2006

The joke in the Washington area is that your house could make more than you do in a year. When it comes to the annual tax bill, however, it’s not very funny.

Fairfax County is a tough location to purchase and maintain property, especially when it comes to the real estate tax rosters. The county has enjoyed several years of huge jumps in tax assessments and reduced the tax rate by 13 cents last year.

Last year my house increased in value by $95,000, according to my local tax assessment. So, my tax bill only goes up $950 this year. That works out to $79.16 per month on my mortgage payment.

Now, the Board of Supervisors might contend that they lowered the rate so my increase would be “only $79 per month,” but it has been increasing that way for several years. I am now paying $2,785.95 more per year on my tax bill than I was five years ago. But I digress.

This column is about how you can access your tax records — and your neighbor’s — to keep up with information about your property, at least from your county or city’s perspective.

A few years ago, the best Web site to search tax assessments from around the country was maintained by a graduate student at the University of Virginia. Apparently, soon after I printed that, the student graduated and the site went stale and is now off the Internet radar.

However, a host of sites has arisen in its place.

First check with your county or city to see if your government has placed the records online. Then look elsewhere. Many commercial sites require membership and charge a fee, but most are free for limited information. You pay a fee for more details.

Digging through standard search engines returns upward of 50 million sites for “property tax records.” Your best bet in narrowing the search is to simply enter your county and city name in the search.

For small towns and counties, you may still have to research your tax records the old fashioned way — go to the courthouse and look them up. But for a growing number of jurisdictions, the process of digitizing the records is becoming so affordable that it appears soon most jurisdictions will have the records online.

If your records are available online, look them up as soon as possible. Next to your credit report, this is another piece of information every homeowner should look over at least once a year, primarily to make sure the tax assessor got it right.

I have seen some tax records with such erroneous information that the homeowner could protest and get thousands of dollars refunded from the jurisdiction. The process of appealing your record is determined by every jurisdiction’s rules and regulations, of course, but don’t let the records come in and sit there — look them up and find out if your house actually matches the county’s description.

Another good use for tax records is to check up on a home seller marketing a property. Sometimes, the agent or owner may get a little “positive” about the property. A “bedroom” may actually be an office/den/bonus room if it doesn’t have a regulation exit.

The lot they’re touting as a third-acre (.33), may actually be just a little larger than a quarter acre (.25). While it might not sound like much, the .08-acre difference makes up almost a third more land, which would affect the price.

When you’re looking at a house that has an addition or finished basement, if the tax record doesn’t reflect those changes, you may have an addition or finished basement that was installed without permits — without building and safety inspections.

Get to know your tax record, and you’ll get to know your house even better.

M. Anthony Carr has written about real estate since 1989. He is the author of “Real Estate Investing Made Simple.” Post questions and comments at his Web log (https://commonsenserealestate.blogspot.com).

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