This article is by staff writer April Dykman.

Today I present the second and final installment of my property tax saga — the informal hearing. (You can check out the first post here.)

To briefly recap, I’m a new homeowner and my assessed property value shot up by 31 percent from last year. So that, along with the fact that I have a tax-protesting father to please, landed me in County Appraiser Brad’s cubicle for an informal hearing.

The bad news

First, County Appraiser Brad pulled up three comparable properties, meaning they were in my general area and fairly close in size, year built, etc.

“Well,” he said, “the thing is, you bought right before we hit a seller’s market. So you got a great deal, but now you can see that similar properties in your area sold for much more, because a seller’s market means higher sales prices.”

He showed me the comparables, and how the values compared to my house when adjusted for the market and differences in square footage and other improvements.

“So you can see here that what your property is assessed at is actually lower than the average of these comparables,” he said.

Hmm. This wasn’t looking good.

“Okay,” I said. “But I thought that property taxes on a homestead couldn’t increase by more than 10 percent from one year to the next. That’s what I read on the county’s website. Does that not apply here?”

“Were you living in the house on January 1 of last year?” he asked.

“No, we closed on January 18.”

“Well, you have to be living in the home from January 1 for that 10 percent rule to apply.”

“Huh,” I said. “So I miss it by 17 days and my taxes can go up 31 percent? That is sneaky!” (I said this in jest, and it seemed to amuse him.)

Knowing that I didn’t really have an argument on those points, I moved on.

My Hail Mary

“Okay, Brad, but I have this other issue,” I said. “When my septic system was inspected, the inspector said she recommended a full replacement. The system is 40 years old, too small by today’s standards, and it had a leak. When she found out that the city was annexing our area, she said that repairing the leak would suffice until city sewer was available.”

County Appraiser Brad asked for the septic inspection report, which I handed over.

“Well,” he said, “the problem is that the septic is working right now.”

“So I would have to have a non-functioning septic system right now to get my property value lowered?” I asked. This seemed kinda crazy to me. If the septic wasn’t working, I’d of course have to have it replaced or fixed immediately. The point was that the thing was running on borrowed time.

“Okay, do you have an estimate to have it replaced?” he asked.

“No, we’re not going to replace it,” I said. “We’re going to hook up to the city sewer now that it’s available.”

“Do you have estimates to do that?”

Ugh. No, I didn’t. I knew I should have done that, but I just plain forgot. Also, the city just finished installing the pipes on our street not too long ago.

“We’re just now in a position to have the work done, so no, I don’t have estimates with me,” I said. “I could get that this week…”

“You would have had to have brought it in today,” he said.

“I’ve talked to my neighbors, and they’ve paid between $8,000 to $12,000, depending on how far back their house is from the street,” I said. (This was 100 percent true, but I knew that without an estimate in hand, my argument was pretty weak here…)

“Okay, how about this?” he said. “Since you don’t have estimates, I’ll split the difference and take off $5,000.”

“Sold!”

“You drive a hard bargain, April Dawn.”

The recap

So $5,000 off isn’t too bad. I certainly felt it was worth my time, especially because next year my assessed value could go up as much as 10 percent. That means that keeping the value as low as I can saves me money now and in the future.

In review, the best thing I did was to bring documentation about a major repair/replacement issue — the septic system. On the other hand, my biggest mistake was not getting written estimates before my hearing for connecting to city sewer. Had I done that, I probably would have been able to lower the assessed value even more. Lesson learned!

One last thing…

Finally, I want to touch on something that I should have explained better in my first post about property taxes.

In the comments on my previous post, some readers had questions about whether it’s a good thing to have your assessed value lowered.

“It seems like if you are planning to sell in the next few years, it would be better to have it assessed higher,” wrote one reader, “or am I looking at it wrong?”

And reader “cd” had a great explanation:

“Your tax appraisal value and your market value are different things. I don’t think many people use the property tax amount as a gauge for how much to pay for a home. Also, the appraised value is what your home was worth last year. In our county, tax appraisals can vary widely (always lower) than what homes actually sell for. Supply and demand should dictate what your home is worth, and your buyer will be required to get a third party appraisal in the selling process anyway by a company that does not assess values for taxation.

“Most importantly, getting the value lowered works the same as compound interest. If you get it lowered by 5 percent one year, that’s less you pay every year forward. In addition, if they raise prices as a percentage of your current home value, then shaving dollars off that value saves you money in future increases as well. It’s a no brainer for a few hours of work.”

That actually clarified a couple of things for me too!

So, readers, that’s what the property tax protest process was like for me. I’m happy with the result, especially because I think County Appraiser Brad was being pretty lenient. And that reminds me of one final tip: Be nice. Appraisers are people too, and they’re not out to screw you over.

On that note, maybe don’t accuse the appraiser of being sneaky, although it seemed to work out okay for me. It’s a judgment call, really.

This article is about Taxes

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This article is by staff writer Lisa Aberle.

Although I have liked almost every job I’ve ever had, I decided early on in my professional career that the most important thing to me was schedule flexibility. And so, I gravitated toward jobs that were flexible, and each new job had more flexibility than the last. I haven’t had a strict schedule since 2007, and I have to say, I like it like that.

After we planned to have children, I knew that, once they arrived, I wanted a job I could do totally from home or at least have a very flexible schedule. While I didn’t realize how challenging a flexible schedule could be, I like knowing that I will be home when the kids are done with school. If they need new pants at school because the button fell off (true story), I can quickly take them a spare pair of pants … instead of being one hour away at my old workplace.

Can you work from home?

If you also like flexibility, you may want to seek at-home employment. But here are the things to keep in mind. Working from home is filled with distractions (especially if you have kids), a blurring of boundaries, and competing priorities.

Distractions

Kids are my main distraction. In one of my recent articles, a couple of readers commented that parents could not (or should not) work from home while they had children at home to care for. According to a 2013 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, I found that adults who lived in a household with at least one child under six spent 5.4 hours per day doing secondary childcare. That means they were caring for the child AND doing something else (but not necessarily working). Compare that to two hours per day doing primary childcare.

Anyway, I see the readers’ point. But it’s clear that many adults are multitasking when they have children to care for, not just me. And not just when they’re working. And there is no question that it is very challenging.

Strategies for getting work done with kids at home

  • Fortunately, my kids love to read. After a trip to the library today, all three of us are hanging out in the den. They are reading, and I am writing this article. Of course, I get interrupted. But quiet time gets me up to an hour of work time.
  • Take advantage of sleeping kids. Our kids must stay in their bedrooms until 7 am. I am usually up at 5:30, so I get 90 minutes of work time. I also get 90 minutes of work time after they go to bed. And I still get seven hours of sleep on most evenings.
  • I have mentioned it before, but my friends and I trade babysitting. Even when I am babysitting kids, especially if they’re older (like 10 to 12), they and my kids play even better together. (Read: fewer interruptions.) Of course, I still need to supervise. I do get a lot of work done during my kid-free hours.
  • My husband has a flexible summer schedule which is helpful when the kids are out of school for the summer. Occasionally, he can take one child to work with him, which helps me get more work accomplished. Even if he can’t take them to work with him, many summer evenings, he can work or play with the kids while I continue to get work done.
  • Our kids spend very little time with electronic devices, but that’s also a way to keep them occupied while you work.

Boundaries

When I first started working from home, I didn’t turn down social plans. You want me to come over for coffee? Sure! But I quickly realized that I had to create a schedule that allowed me to accomplish my working goals for the day. My schedule was flexible, but my job’s demands weren’t. Since I must put in 20 hours per week for my main job, I have created a schedule. While I deviate from the schedule sometimes, both from planned outings and emergencies, I have to find another hole in the schedule to replace my work time. It’s not always easy.

But blurring of boundaries is more than that. Sometimes I feel pulled in too many directions. Sometimes I crave the clearly divided responsibilities I used to have when I was gone to work all day. Even though I have always also worked from home since we’ve had our kids, I can see how not having any extra work (other than household chores) would be freeing.

And a weekend without pulling out the laptop and working? That would be nice!

Competing priorities

Going along with boundaries, sometimes priorities compete as well. In order to meet our family’s budget requirements, I must work. There is no allowance in the budget for childcare costs. And yet, there are days when it would be lovely (and perhaps better?) to send the kids to childcare, or not have to work as much.

While I can do much of my work during any hours I choose, occasionally I have to take part in a conference call or webinar. I try to schedule these when the kids aren’t around, but I did have to leave a conference call once to play referee. Professional? No. But that’s the reality of working from home with children sometimes.

In conclusion, is it better to send your kids to daycare while you work from home? Your work time and your time with your kids is more defined. However, you have the expense of childcare, which, according to Child Care Aware of America, is expensive. In fact, the cost for center-based care for two children exceeds the median annual rent payments in all 50 states, and exceeds the housing costs for those with a mortgage. Or is it better to work from home with your kids? Your work time is not defined, but you are available if they need something, even if you’re not always available for their wants.

It’s a personal decision, of course, one that should be made by your family, by carefully weighing the pros and cons. While working from home with kids is not easy, it is possible.

Which strategies have you used to be both a worker and a parent? I am particularly interested in those of you who have worked at home with an infant or toddler as I have not done that.


This guest post is by reader Mike in New Hampshire. Mike wrote an Ask the Readers article last year, looking for ideas to help his dad get set for retirement. He wrote to us recently and asked if he could update their story. We were only too glad to provide a forum for them.

It has been a little over a year since I wrote in looking for suggestions on how I could help my father retire. I want to thank everyone so much for the comments, ideas, and support – they came at a time when I really needed it. In the end the solutions came not from me but from the relationships he had formed and the sacrifices he had made over the years. Everyone loves a story with a happy ending, right? Let’s get to it.

I know the community gets annoyed when specifics are not available so I will try to be as detailed as possible on the financials. Last May when I wrote the initial piece my father was going to turn 65 in December and worked in a career that he could no longer stand with no retirement savings. He made about $45K per year, had a mortgage of around $400-500/month, and had about $20K in cash savings that was offset by nearly the same amount in credit card and home equity balances.

He also had about $12K in college loans that he continues to pay as part of a promise that if I did well, he would help with the costs. (Funny side note: a few people commented that I should just pay these off without telling him. He would have been insanely ticked that I messed with his second-favorite tax deduction!) At that point I was considering multiple options and was even entertaining the idea of finishing my basement so he could move in and utilize his house as an income property. He was miserable and I was getting there as I ran out of ideas to help the man who had given up so much for me.

And then…

Over the summer a couple of really important things happened. An old friend who runs an auto repair shop offered to give him a part-time job working in the office for about $300 per week net income. This was perfect for three reasons: the work was right in his wheelhouse without being stressful, it was only three days a week with plenty of flexibility, and, in addition to needing money, he needed something to do since drinking beer and watching TV is not a legitimate hobby.

Will his part-time job affect Social Security?

I went with him to his meeting at the Social Security Administration office and we learned that even working part time he could still get his full benefit (93 percent based on retiring at 65), which came to a little less than $1,850 per month. This part was actually very surprising in terms of how much he could earn and still be able to collect his full benefit – it was a LOT higher than we expected. Between the $1,850 from SS and the $1,200 from his part-time job, he suddenly had replaced his income while being able to work three days a week in a stress-free environment. Not a dream retirement on an island, but for someone who never really planned or saved, it’s a great deal.

Getting medical care via the VA

The only thing left to worry about was the elephant in the room: health benefits. My father had proudly served in the Army and was stationed in Germany for several years in the ’70s, but he had never set foot in an actual war zone. As a result, he was told repeatedly that he did not qualify for full VA health benefits. Through a friend he learned of a gentleman who specialized in representing veterans to help with getting their approval, free of charge. Not sure how he did it or why a veteran would even need someone to fight for this cause but, politics aside, my father eventually was approved for his full benefit.

I had heard some interesting stories about VA hospitals, but from my perspective he is getting better-quality care there than he was before. He came back from his initial physical asking me about a new word he learned – obesity! It’s not funny, but it was a little comical after years of his regular physician just prescribing pills and telling him to keep doing what he was doing, much to my dismay.

The happy beginning

He didn’t always make the right decisions and I have chosen a much different path for myself, but in the end it worked out OK. This was mainly due to him having pretty low expenses in the needs department and realizing that it was time to tame his wants/waste, utilizing the resources/network available to him, and not giving up or easily accepting no as an answer.

On the 4th of July I was able to drink a beer and watch some World Cup with my pops. The World Cup is a fairly rare occurrence as it comes around only once every four years. Even rarer than that, it was Dad’s first summer holiday off in nearly 40 years. He was happy, I was happy, and we even had some new things to talk about. The man who once said he would just work until he died has suddenly become a big fan of budgeting, paying off debt, and managing to build his savings.


This article is by editor Ellen Cannon.

I’ve been single since I was divorced in my 30s, and I’ve been planning my retirement on the assumption that I will be single till the end of my days. I’m feeling comfortable financially with where I am in my plan. Yet when I was offered the opportunity to talk to Jacob Gold, a Certified Financial Planner and retirement coach with Voya Financial, about women and retirement, I said yes in a hurry.

On average, women outlive men by five or six years, so even if a woman is married now, chances are she will be living some of her retirement as a single. Gold is based in Scottsdale, Arizona, a popular retirement destination and he works with a lot of retirees. “More and more, a large segment of our practice is individuals who are single or newly widowed,” Gold says. “Often they have not discussed being single in retirement.”

Basic planning is the same

So, what differences are there in retirement planning for a single versus a couple?

“When someone is married, they have a level of comfort and security – you have someone to rely on,” he explains. “When you’re single, you have some uncertainty. The need for long term care is definitely elevated when one is single. You don’t want to be a burden on family and friends. We see a lot of single individuals purchase long-term-care policies, something that will take the edge off their financial situation and give them more security.”

As for a single needing to save more or less than a couple, Gold says you still need to do a retirement needs analysis. “Everyone needs to determine their desired income in retirement and then back that into an equation. It’s all mathematical,” he says. “The withdrawal rate is the same for a couple as it is for a single – usually 5 percent. The question is always ‘How much money do you want to come into the household every year?’”

More than money

I’ve been focused on saving for retirement and I am a sucker for every retirement calculator out there. How much money do I need? What’s my number? But when I asked Gold if there was anything special single women — or women who may be married now but may be widows in the future – needed to do to be ready for retirement, his answer surprised me. It wasn’t about money.

“A client once told me, ‘In order for someone to be happy in life, they have to love someone, look forward to something, and they have to be doing something,’” Gold relates. When he is working on a financial plan for clients, he says, he makes sure this aspect is part of the discussion. “Individuals need to have a good support group – neighbors, friends, animals. They also need a support group for economic issues, financial discussions. People get overwhelmed with noise, conflicting information. A support system is quite important in finances.”

For singles, he says, “a support group is necessary to have people to bounce ideas off, to get opinions in a non-intrusive environment. If someone doesn’t have that support system, people are reactive” to the fluctuations of the stock market and the economy.

Investing in a support group

This idea of a support group made me think of women’s investment clubs, which were the rage in the go-go ’90s. “The Beardstown Ladies’ Common-Sense Investment Guide” was a best-seller because the group consisted of 16 investing novices who had success investing in stocks. They claimed an annual return of 20 percent on their portfolio, and were the darlings of the media, especially at a time when people were quitting their jobs to become day traders. Well, after all the hype, reporters actually looked at their books, and their ROI was much lower – less than 10 percent annually, or what anyone could have earned in an S&P 500 Index fund during that time.

So I asked Gold what he thinks of investment clubs for women. “I think they’re fantastic. Any environment that helps them learn about finance, talk about economics, the financial world, is a good thing.”

He says that many of his clients want something with “sizzle” so he encourages them to open a low-cost brokerage account, invest a small amount, and play with it. “They learn from experience, they get wounded, but they learn to appreciate the conservative, balanced approach to investing. People fear what they don’t understand, so learning about investing makes it less intimidating.” Whether you go it alone or learn about investing with a group, it is important to overcome the fear of investing.

So, readers, are you thinking about retirement as a single? Are you making a plan to be single even if you’re half of a couple now? Men, do you ever talk to your partner about the prospect of being single in retirement? Do you have a support group?

For me, developing a stronger support group is my next step in retirement planning.


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