Homeowners in Pennsylvania must pay property tax each year to the local taxing authorities. The date when payment is due varies, depending on the county where you live. And some counties allow you to make installment payments.
Opening your tax bill can be a cause for shock, if not outrage. But by learning how property taxes are computed in Pennsylvania, you can investigate whether the assessed value of your home is too high, and the basis of an excessive property tax bill. This article describes the tax assessment process in Pennsylvania. It will help you determine if the taxable value of your home is higher than it should be. If so, there are measures you can take to have that value reduced. You may be able to knock some dollars off your property tax bill.
In Pennsylvania, two factors determine your tax bill: the taxable value of your home, and the tax rate (that is, the percentage of the taxable value that the local tax authorities use to compute your property tax). Here’s an overview of these factors.
The process starts when a local public official – the county tax assessor – determines your home’s taxable value. In Pennsylvania, the taxable value of a home is a percentage of its “actual value” – basically, what the home would sell for on the open market. The Pennsylvania State Tax Equalization Board sets the percentage each year; the percentage can vary among the counties, but can’t be more than 100%. The percentage figure is also known as the assessment ratio.
The taxing authorities multiply the taxable value of your home by the tax rate to arrive at the tax you’ll owe. Let’s say the taxable value of your home is $300,000 and the tax rate is $10 for every $1,000 of taxable value. Your property tax for the year will be $3,000 (300 x $10 = $3,000).
Local officials set the tax rate, so the rate varies depending on where you live. You can’t do much about the tax rate except to vote wisely for the elected officials who determine the tax rate, and carefully consider revenue issues that appear on the ballot. But the story is different for the taxable-value factor. Here, you have more leverage. If the taxable value assigned to your home is too high, you may be able to get it reduced – and save a bundle in property tax. A $500 reduction in your annual tax bill would add up to $5,000 in savings over a ten-year period. Not bad!
Example: Larry and Joan own a home in Pennsylvania. The county tax assessor has placed a taxable value of $400,000 on their home. The local tax rate is $10 for every $1,000 of taxable value. This means that their annual property tax is $4,000. Larry and Joan do some research and conclude that, based on recent sales of comparable homes, the taxable value of their home should be $350,000. They successfully appeal their assessment. Now, their tax bill is $3,500 a year instead of $4,000.
You can get contact information for your county tax assessor by calling your county government switchboard. Some counties post the information online (search for "[name of county] property assessor or assessment office").
The tax record for your home may contain inaccurate or incomplete information that leads the county tax assessor to place too high a value on it. You can get of a copy of the tax record at the tax assessor’s office. If you’re not sure where it’s located, call the county government phone number or check online. Also, check to see if the assessment record is available online.
Review the tax record for errors. Among other things, check the following:
If there’s wrong or incomplete information, let the tax assessor know so that the record can be corrected and the taxable value adjusted. But even if the tax record is accurate, you may disagree with the tax assessor’s conclusion regarding the market value of your home. In that case, you’ll need to do more.
Two types of information can help you establish that the tax assessor has placed too high a taxable value on your home. The first (and most important) is how the assessor has treated homes similar to yours. The second is how much homes like yours are currently selling for.
Review the assessment records for homes in your community that resemble your own. You’ll find those records at the tax assessor’s office. Finding comparable homes will take time and effort, but can be worth it if you believe that your home is truly over-valued. Try to find homes that have approximately the same square footage as yours and, preferably, are located in the same neighborhood or a nearby one. If similar homes have a taxable value lower than yours, this is strong evidence that you’re over-assessed.
Example: Todd and Liz own a three-bedroom ranch-style home in a subdivision with many homes like theirs. The taxable value of their home is $375,000. They believe this amount is too high. They check the records for a dozen similar homes in their subdivision and discover that the average taxable value of those homes is $340,000. What’s more, most have finished basements and Todd and Liz don’t have this amenity. Todd and Liz have good evidence for claiming that the taxable value of their home is too high.
If you bought your house recently, the price you paid is excellent evidence of its current value. Regardless of when you bought your home, you should gather information about recent sales prices of similar homes in your community. Finding these sales prices may take some doing. For advice on gathering this kind of evidence, see the Nolo article Listing Your House: What List Price Should You Set? Some online resources such as Zillow can be useful. Try to avoid transactions in which the buyer has purchased a home from a relative, or at a foreclosure or property tax sale. The sales prices in such transactions may be artificially low and won’t be convincing evidence of true market value.
You can also consider asking an experienced real estate broker to give you information about recent home sales in your area from the Multiple Listing Service database. You may need to pay a modest fee for such assistance. If the stakes are high, you can hire a real estate appraiser to gather the information and provide a written report, though this will be more expensive. A local lender or real estate broker may be able to recommend a qualified appraiser. If not, check out the Appraisal Institute website (here you can search for a professional assessor by zip code).
Tip: If you recently re-financed your home or took out a home equity loan, the lender probably ordered a professional appraisal. Get a copy of it. It may give you powerful ammunition in your quest for a reduced taxable value.
After investigating the taxable value of your home, you may conclude that the number set by the county assessor is too high. To find out what measures you can take to reduce the taxable value, see the companion article, Procedures for Challenging Your Property Tax Assessment in Pennsylvania.
To learn more, you can read about the Real Estate Assessment Process in Pennsylvania.