Where to turn when you think taxes are too high

Local township assessors offer free help; for-profit options exist as well

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

Chances are, if you live in Oak Park or River Forest, you're familiar with the many businesses who offer to help reduce your property taxes. Every year shortly before those bi-annual bills arrive, mailboxes are flooded with offers from firms that specialize in helping homeowners win a reduction in their homes' assessed values. 

From attorneys to tax reduction firms to business people looking to make a buck off of Cook County's complicated property tax system, there are many options for local residents, some costly, some not so much.

Both Oak Park and River Forest townships employ assessors who aim to help residents with their property tax issues, free of charge. 

Oak Park Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar has been on the job since 2001 and notes that most appeals can be handled by homeowners themselves. 

Many residents who have questions or who are not comfortable filing an appeal alone come to his office for a little help navigating the process.

During his tenure with the township, ElSaffar says he's worked on over 6,800 exemptions alone for local homeowners. For the fiscal year ending April 30, 2018, he helped over 473 Oak Park residents with exemptions for their property taxes, saving them approximately $620,000. 

He notes that over 40 percent of those appeals came in during July and August, shortly after residents received their second-installment tax bills.

ElSaffar, noting that 2017 was a reassessment year for Oak Park, called the first appeals period, "the busiest month of my life."  

His office handled a total of 3,418 appeals for homes and condos, equal to about 20 percent of residences in the village. In 2014, the previous reassessment year, the office handled 2,502 appeals of assessed values.

In River Forest, Township Assessor Pam Kende has been on the job for 12 years. She says the majority of appeals filed by residents of that village are based on comparable properties, but that people also appeal when they have recently purchased a home and find their assessed value does not line up with the purchase price or when there is a descriptive error in the overall square footage of a home. 

When a resident calls her seeking help with an appeal, she prepares an individualized appeal packet with detailed instructions. Residents can then take the packet and file an appeal themselves or sign documents and have Kende file on their behalf.

The office also helps residents with claiming exemptions and keeps a running log of local senior citizens who might need help to remember to file yearly. 

"We call or mail them," Kende said. "It's very personalized service. We really like to take care of residents here."

Kende, who has noted a marked uptick in the number of appeals during her 12 years with the township, expects to see a surge of residents making appointments when the second-installment tax bills reflecting the recent reassessment are mailed this summer. 

For-profit tax relief

There are hundreds of professionals throughout Cook County who work solely in the property tax relief field, and it's more than likely you've received one of their solicitations in the mail. 

While the specifics might vary, most attorneys or firms involved in property tax appeals charge a certain percentage of your first year's tax savings for a successful assessment appeal. 

Typically, the charge is between 30 and 50 percent of your estimated first year savings. Some firms tack on a small fee to review your property tax records before deciding whether or not to take your case.

Oak Park resident and attorney Richard Holland has worked on numerous appeals for family and friends, but says he doesn't charge the majority of the time. 

"When I first moved to Oak Park, I used one of those firms, and I felt like they charged me a lot of money," Holland said. "It's not hard most of the time."

He points out that the large-scale mass mailings some firms conduct are very expensive and calls the high fees charged by most tax appeal attorneys ridiculous for most uncomplicated appeals.

"I'm not saying that all lawyers who do this are worthless," Holland said. "There's value in their work in difficult cases."

Holland's personal philosophy is to appeal every year, because tax rates change and assessed values change. Calling the property tax system "complicated," he says ultimately, it is the state formula of tying education to property taxes which is problematic in the long run.

Focus on exemptions

After realizing that he was missing out on the homeowner's exemption himself, in spite of using a firm to help him appeal his assessment, CPA Matt Myjak did some research into exemptions for property taxes and determined that 1-in-14 Cook County homes are not claiming all of their exemptions and are owed refunds for missed exemptions, with an average refund owed of $2,300.

He created a business called Entitled Refunds, which utilizes an online method of filing the paperwork and says his is the first business in Cook County to focus solely on helping homeowners with exemptions. Myjak calls the electronic filing process "super simple," noting that a homeowner can fill out the initial on-line form in about 15 seconds. 

Myjak acknowledges that homeowners can correct the record themselves, for free, if they are not receiving the appropriate exemptions, but says that for many homeowners, it may be worth the convenience factor and the peace of mind to know that the process is being handled correctly and quickly. 

"We speed up the filing process, and we give you updates during the period you're waiting for your refund," Myjak said. "For many clients, the appeal is finding money they didn't know they had."

ElSaffar says that filing an exemption request or refund for missed exemptions is a lot easier than filing an appeal of a home's assessed value, and said that many Oak Park homeowners might want to do the work themselves or go to the township and work with him to do it for free.

That said, he believes there may be times when a service like this might be helpful. 

"For example, if a child was helping an elderly parent," ElSaffar said. "This sort of service could also let people know they are due a refund that they don't know about, and there's some value in that. If you're a senior on a fixed income, any amount can help."

Kende says she does not recommend that residents pay for appeals or exemption help. 

"We always encourage residents to use us. They save money, and we do pretty much what the lawyers do."

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