• Did you know your property will be reassessed in 2019?

    10/25/18

    By James W. Chipman

    Beginning on January 1, 2019, every property assessment in Illinois outside of Cook County will be fair game for assessors. Here’s what you need to know.

    Illinois law requires a general assessment of all property in the state to be made every four years, except in Cook County.*

    In less than three months, assessing officials will begin the painstaking process of systemically reviewing each property in their jurisdiction. A general assessment, also known as a “reassessment” or a “quadrennial assessment,” helps ensure that properties are assessed at or near a required level of assessment, which in Illinois is 33 1/3% of market value. Keeping assessments up to date equalizes property values and helps eliminate unfair assessments or “sticker shock” that taxpayers can experience when assessments are not periodically reviewed.

    During general assessment years, assessors must value a large number of properties in a relatively short period of time. That’s why they often rely on “trending” and “mass appraisal” models to assist them. Trending is applying a positive or negative factor to a designated group of properties to reflect changes in market conditions over a period of time, usually the three intervening years between general assessments. Thus, a 10% trending factor would indicate that property values have increased by 10%. Mass appraisal involves developing values for a large group of properties by using current data that is based on one of three accepted approaches to determining value—cost, market or income.

    Relying on these rigid valuation models can often lead to errors in valuing property because of their inability to recognize differences in the physical characteristics of properties in a given area. Additionally, use of either model doesn’t mean that all the properties in a jurisdiction will be uniformly and equitably assessed.

    WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2019

    1. Assessors are required to “actually view” each property in a general assessment year.** This may involve simply driving by your property to document any exterior changes, or making a formal request to take a look inside. If you receive such a request, you have options.
    2. Mailers may be sent asking you to correct or update your property’s information. Accurate information on your property record card is critical and pointing out errors to the assessor can work in your favor.
    3. Finally, you’re entitled to notice. Every four years when property is reassessed outside of Cook County, a complete list of assessments must be published in a local newspaper of general circulation. Publication also serves notice on taxpayers that they have 30 days to challenge their assessments. Taxpayers who don’t file within this time frame must wait until the following year.

    History tells us taxpayers should expect assessment increases in a general assessment year based on market changes that took place three years earlier. Making sure your assessment is fair and equitable in the first year of a general assessment can eliminate the need for appeals in the next three years. If that sounds appealing, talk to a property tax attorney once your 2019 assessment is published because the 30-day clock will be ticking.

    For more information on the how the quadrennial event could impact you and your assessment, contact Donald T. Rubin at DTRubin@GCT.law or 312.696.2641.

    Sources:
    *35 ILCS 200/9-215 & 9-225 (Property in Cook County is assessed triennially under 35 ILCS 200/9-220)
    **35 ILCS 200/9-155

  • Repealed personal property tax can have real consequences for business owners

    10/4/18

    By James W. Chipman

    Although the Illinois tax on personal property was eliminated nearly four decades ago, the approach to classifying real and personal property remains controversial.

    Before Illinois’ personal property tax was abolished, both real and personal property were assessed and taxed the same. Nobody cared if property was called “real” or “personal.” But when the tax on individuals was eliminated in 1970 and its corporate counterpart was phased out nine years later through a constitutional amendment, classifying property as real or personal suddenly became a big deal. Since then, only real property has been taxed.

    BEATING A DEAD HORSE

    The personal property tax, however, has died a very slow death. After its elimination, the courts and Property Tax Appeal Board (PTAB), a quasi-judicial state agency that reviews local assessment disputes, began hearing multi-million dollar appeals where businesses claimed assessors were arbitrarily switching property classifications from personal to real to replace lost tax revenue generated by the old tax. The practice still occurs today.

    A 40-year track record of these appeals suggests a subtle erosion of the personal property exemption and raises the question of whether the tax really was eradicated. Throughout its history, the tax was regarded by many as burdensome, unfair and even scandalous. Personal property returns were often not filed or grossly understated, and little effort was made by assessing officials to verify figures or ensure that all taxable property was accounted for.

    Before the personal property tax on corporations was repealed, lawmakers had to come up with a replacement tax. They chose to impose a corporate income tax surcharge and an invested capital tax on regulated public utilities that would be state collected and, it was thought, have a far greater annual growth rate than its predecessor tax.

    STATUS QUO UNIFORMITY

    The replacement tax, however, only solved part of the problem. Because there was no statewide classification scheme when the personal property tax was eliminated, the legislature decided to preserve or freeze the pre-1979 assessment practices of assessors in each county over time to prevent widespread reclassification of property. Essentially, each county’s 1979 classifications of property as real or personal would control current and future classifications.* This preservation of the status quo meant there would be uniform treatment of property within a county, but not across county lines, meaning it was legal to have different classifications for the same type of property from one county to the next.

    During the past four decades, classification disputes have focused mainly on process machinery and equipment, which were once listed among 36 classes of personal property in an old state law and assessor manuals.

    Litigation over reclassification began shortly after the tax was eliminated in 1979 and continues to this day. Many of the lawsuits were decided based on agreements made by the taxpayer and the assessor** or on the pre-1979 assessment policy of the disputed property in a county.***

    BE VIGILANT

    Today, some assessors may occasionally engage in selective reclassification when a new business locates in their jurisdiction or machinery and equipment are upgraded in an existing manufacturing plant. Whether acting in good faith or not, assessors must interpret and apply the law, however confusing. As time passes, historical classification practices from the 1970s are difficult to ascertain as participants change and business records are destroyed.

    As assessments are reviewed and updated every four years, businesses should be on guard for signs of reclassification, particularly in 2019 when the entire state will experience a reassessment. If your business’s property assessment rises significantly in just one year, call a property tax attorney to help you pinpoint the cause and advise you on how best to proceed.

    Sources:
    *35 ILCS 200/24-5
    **Central Illinois Light Co. v. Johnson, 84 Ill.2d 275 (1981)
    ***Commonwealth Edison Co. v. Property Tax Appeal Board, 219 Ill.App.3d 550 (2d Dist. 1991), appeal denied; Oregon Community Unit School District #220 v. Property Tax Appeal Board, 285 Ill.App.3d 170 (2d Dist. 1996)

  • Corporations need property tax attorneys, too

    9/12/18

    By James W. Chipman

    Any corporate taxpayer contemplating an appeal should call a property tax attorney sooner rather than later.

    A corporation is considered a person under the law, albeit an artificial one. It sounds like an odd concept, but it’s been around for a while. Odder yet is that corporate personal rights exist and are expanding. Pro se or self-representation is a right that’s as old as our Constitution. In the property tax appeal process, an individual can always represent themselves, but does the same rule apply to a corporation? It depends.

    UNSETTLED LAW

    Illinois has a multilevel property tax appeal system. The taxpayer must file locally with the county board of review. They also have the option to go the state Property Tax Appeal Board (PTAB). These two administrative bodies decide most of the appeals that are filed statewide each year. Because administrative agencies are considered quasi-judicial bodies and not courts, they aren’t bound by strict rules of procedure. They can write their own rules of practice and enforce them as long as they comply with the law.

    The PTAB hears appeals from the boards of review and is the final arbitrator in the administrative process before court. The PTAB bans corporations, limited liability companies (LLCs) and other similar entities from appearing on their own behalf at any stage of a board appeal.* That rule was put into effect based on the assertion that the representation of anyone other than themselves constitutes the practice of law that can only be done by a licensed attorney. There’s also the matter of conflicting interests—attorney representation of a corporation ensures that a company’s legal interests come first and don’t conflict with the interests of a director, officer or agent.

    While many boards of review have taken the PTAB’s lead and required a corporate taxpayer to be represented by an attorney, the rules vary from county to county. Some boards allow a corporation to be represented by other parties but may require the company to sign an authorization form. Other boards don’t even address representation in their rules.

    The question of whether corporate representation by an attorney is required in an administrative hearing was considered by the Illinois Supreme Court just last year. The case involved a limited liability corporation represented by a non-attorney in the City of Chicago’s department of hearings over what constitutes due process in an administrative hearing. The court declined to answer the representation question, finding it wasn’t necessary for a resolution of the case.**

    THE SAFE HARBOR APPROACH

    Deciding to appeal your company’s property tax assessment can be a complicated undertaking that requires a great deal of time and expertise. Companies shouldn’t attempt to represent themselves at any board of review hearing, even if the practice is allowed.

    It’s always wise to engage the services of a property tax attorney, whether or not it’s required, because while some mistakes can be fixed, others can’t. Proceeding on your own could mean missing a deadline, not knowing what evidence to submit or lacking a detailed understanding of the rules of practice and procedure. These elements are often challenging for any person—natural or artificial—to navigate, thus having an experienced property tax attorney on your side is the way to go.

    Sources:
    *ILL. ADMIN. CODE tit. 86, §1910.70 (c)
    **Stone Street Partners, LLC, v. The City of Chicago Department of Administrative Hearings, 2017 IL 117720

  • Leveling the playing field at board of review hearings

    8/24/18

    By James W. Chipman

    While the appeal process now includes more transparency, understanding the best way to proceed and succeed often requires the assistance of a trusted property tax attorney.

    Each county in Illinois has a three-member panel called the board of review, which acts as an intermediary between township assessors and taxpayers. Boards hear and decide assessment complaints after giving taxpayers an opportunity to be heard. They also make rules so that the appeal process is orderly and fair.

    In the past, however, the process might have seemed anything but fair to property owners or attorneys who showed up for a board hearing only to learn that a taxing district had intervened or that the assessor had evidence supporting his value in the appeal. It’s no wonder this practice became widely known as “hearing by ambush.” Fortunately, things have changed.

    FAIR IS FAIR

    Public Act 99-0098, which took effect on January 1, 2016, allows taxpayers to take some comfort in knowing that everyone is now playing by the same set of rules. PA 99-0098 requires taxing districts to file a notice to intervene at least five days prior to a hearing. In addition, if the board of review requires the taxpayer to submit evidence in advance, any evidence supporting the assessor’s or intervenor’s value must be submitted at least five days before the hearing to the board and the property owner or their attorney.

    PA 99-0098 also applies the mailbox rule to boards of review. This is a rule of contract law that says an offer is considered accepted at the time the acceptance is mailed. Under PA 99-0098, documents sent by US mail or another delivery service are considered filed as of the postmark date or the shipper’s tracking label or in the case of email, the date the correspondence is sent. This law, however, does not apply in Cook County.

    FURTHER ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT

    While PA 99-0098 makes the process more fair and balanced, taxpayers still face additional challenges. Boards of review aren’t obligated to correct an assessment even if the complaining taxpayer has proven their case. All they are required to do is review an assessment and change it “as appears to be just.”* Taxpayers that are denied relief must go one step further and either file a lawsuit in court or appeal to the state Property Tax Appeal Board (PTAB)—but you can’t do both.

    A property tax attorney who is skilled in the appeal process can explain the pros and cons of going either to court or the PTAB. They’ll also have valuable insight about the filing deadlines, burdens of proof, expected turnaround times and the types of evidence that are likely to succeed in each venue.

    * Source: 35 ILCS 200/16-55 (a)

  • Are you taking full advantage of your property tax breaks?

    7/23/18

    By James W. Chipman

    No matter where you live or what type of property you own, you may qualify for any number of special tax incentives that could save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

    Illinois may be second in the nation when it comes to the highest property tax burden, but the Prairie State offers its fair share of tax breaks too. Here are a few of the laws designed to help homeowners and businesses cut their taxes.

    Exemptions that reduce the assessed value of your home:

    • General Homestead: Taxpayers can receive a maximum exemption of $6,000 for an owner-occupied residence ($10,000 in Cook County).
    • Senior Citizen: Homeowners age 65+ can receive a $5,000 exemption for an owner-occupied property ($8,000 in Cook County). An annual application is required.
    • Senior Freeze: Senior citizens who live in an owner-occupied home and meet certain income levels may have their assessments frozen. An annual application is required.
    • Home Improvement: Owners can make up to $75,000 worth of property improvements without an increase in taxes for at least four years from the date of completion and occupancy, or until the next reassessment, whichever is later.
    • Returning Veterans: Veterans returning from active duty who own and occupy a property as their principal residence are entitled to a $5,000 exemption for two consecutive years.

    Special valuation incentives for homes and businesses:

    • Open Space: Land containing 10+ acres that is used exclusively for maintaining natural or scenic resources or promoting conservation of natural resources for the last three years is eligible for an assessment based on “use value,” which is significantly less than market value. Public and private golf courses qualify. This law can help residential owners with large undeveloped tracts and businesses holding excess land for future expansion.
    • Farmland: Land is eligible for a farmland assessment provided it meets the definition of “farm” and has been in that use for the two preceding years. This can include any property used solely for a variety of agricultural purposes with no acreage requirement. Farming must be the primary use of the land, and like open space, this assessment is based on use value.
    • Solar Heating and Cooling: When a solar energy system is installed on a property, the owner may apply for an alternate assessment. The improvement is then assessed as if heated or cooled by conventional means and with the solar energy system—the alternate valuation is the lesser of these two values.

    Special valuation incentives for businesses only:

    • Model Home: A dwelling, condominium or townhome used as a display or demonstration model for prospective buyers is to be assessed at its value prior to construction or a zoning classification change. The home can be furnished and even used as an office. The lower assessed value remains in effect until the home is sold or leased for use other than a model home.
    • Developer’s Exemption (excludes Cook County): This exemption encourages real estate development by protecting developers from paying higher taxes until a return on investment can be realized. It applies to acreage in transition from vacant land to a residential, commercial or industrial use. The tax break ends when a lot is sold or used for a business or residential purpose, or a habitable structure is built on a lot.

    For more information and to determine whether your property is eligible for an exemption or incentive, contact a property tax attorney today. They’ll take you through each step required to qualify your property for these tax reducing benefits.

  • Do assessors have the right to inspect your property’s interior?

    7/9/18

    By James W. Chipman

    As an owner, you’re entitled to your privacy. However, denying a request for an interior inspection could work against you without a property tax attorney to assist.

    Township assessors will begin giving all properties in their jurisdiction a look when the 2019 reassessment period begins on January 1. State law requires property in Illinois to be reassessed once every four years, while it’s every three years in Cook County. But just how close of a look are assessors entitled to take?

    Assessors often gather data from a variety of sources in order to calculate your property’s market value. If there is not enough information, or in the case of new construction, assessors may ask to inspect the interior of your property.

    LET THEM IN? IT’S YOUR CALL

    Deciding whether or not to allow access depends on your situation. Letting them in could seem reasonable in order for the assessor to carry out his or her duties. On the other hand, you are entitled to your privacy and might see an interior inspection as unnecessary and intrusive.

    There is no law in Illinois that specifically gives assessors a right of entry into your property without permission. The courts made it clear in 1986 that interior inspections are not required for assessment purposes, stating “[t]here is a distinct and palpable difference between inspections necessary for the public’s safety and well-being and an inspection to determine real estate assessments on private property.”*

    In other words, your ability to exclude others is a fundamental part of your right to the enjoyment of private property. It can only be infringed upon in very limited circumstances when the government has a legitimate concern for public safety.

    DETERMINE WHAT’S BEST FOR YOU

    While refusing the assessor access is within your rights, that decision requires them to make certain assumptions about your property that may not work in your favor. For example, without an inspection, the assessor may overestimate your property’s size or miss deferred maintenance issues that affect its condition. If you believe your taxes are too high, it could be because the assessor made prior incorrect assumptions about your property. You can file an appeal based on the erroneous information, but the burden of proof will be on you to show that the assessment is wrong.

    Property assessments are intended to reflect market values so equity and uniformity can be maintained. While market values can change dramatically between reassessment periods, once properties are reassessed, assessments typically stay the same until the next cycle, unless there is substantial cause to change them.

    If an assessor wants access to your home or business, contact a property tax attorney immediately to determine what approach is in your best interests. It could very well be a situation where your attorney can answer and address any questions or concerns about your property without an interior inspection.

    *Source: County of Fulton v. Property Tax Appeal Board of the State of Illinois, #3-86-0125 (1986)

  • Is your property record card accurate?

    6/21/18

    By James W. Chipman

    Reviewing your property record card for errors or misjudgments could lead to a reduction in your assessment and overall tax liability.

    An easy way to reduce your property’s assessment—and ultimately your tax liability—is to find and correct any inaccuracies that appear on your property record card.

    The Illinois Freedom of Information Act makes property tax assessments and other public records subject to inspection and copying, with certain exceptions.* That’s just one more reason to periodically check your property record card for errors, discrepancies or outdated information.

    Property record cards are kept locally by either your assessor or the county assessor. Most cards are two-sided and contain details ranging from a property’s age and size to its sales history and other data used to determine the assessment. With that much information, mistakes are bound to happen. Here’s a closer look at what you’ll find on your property record card:

    FRONT

    • Owner’s name and address
    • Legal description
    • Parcel identification number (PIN)
    • Sales and assessment history of the property
    • Picture of improvement(s), if applicable
    • Square footage of the site or land, front footage and depth or acreage
    • How the land assessment was computed

    Adjustments to the land may be made for factors that negatively affect its value, such as location, traffic, topography or aesthetics. Site information may include a “neighborhood” factor commonly used for calculating assessments—land assessments should be uniform for each property within the same neighborhood. Make sure the land dimensions are correct and cross check the assessor’s figures with any other property documents you have in your possession (i.e., real estate contract, deed, title or appraisal).

    Finally, one often overlooked situation that can affect the value of your property is the presence of an easement, a legal right to a limited use of another's property. For instance, your neighbor may have an access easement to cross over your property to enter or exit their own property.

    BACK

    • Drawing of improvement(s) made by an assessor’s employee who visited your property
    • Style (one-story, two-story, tri-level, etc.)
    • Construction (brick, frame or stone)
    • Number of baths, bedrooms and amenities, such as fireplaces, garages (one- or two-car; attached or detached) and basements (crawl, partial or full; finished or unfinished)
    • Building class and condition of the improvement(s)

    It is critical to review and confirm all of the above elements for veracity.

    Generally, for residences, each section of a dwelling is measured from the outside dimensions. The sections separate livable areas from non-livable areas, such as garages, basements, attics, porches and patios. Check each structure’s measurements and the math done to compute a total living area or square footage. This figure plays a key role in the assessment process, as it is used to calculate a unit value or price per square foot for the improvement.

    Building class and condition are judgment calls made by the assessor based on the physical age of the improvement and the rating assigned to the structure definitely impacts your assessment.

    The assessor takes all of the specific information obtained about the improvement and arrives at a “cost to replace new” based on uniform cost calculations. After current cost conversion and class factors are applied, the replacement cost is then reduced by a net depreciation which determines the building value and the assessment. Cost estimates, while an acceptable approach to valuing property, often times are not representative of the marketplace, and thus, are not the preferred method of valuation.

    IMPORTANCE OF ACCURACY

    Inaccuracies on your property record card may be the result of a mathematical error or a degree of discretion or judgment. A significant change in any of your property’s characteristics or features will most likely result in some assessment relief.

    If there is no plausible explanation for an error, a taxpayer has several remedies. Consulting a property tax attorney is the best way for determining how to resolve the issue.

    *Source: 5 ILCS 140/1 through 140/11.6

  • 5 reasons to hire a real estate tax attorney

    6/5/18

    By James W. Chipman

    From understanding complicated laws to knowing how to dispute exorbitant assessments, having an expert on your side can ensure you’re not overpaying when it comes to property taxes.

    Property taxes affect us all, whether we’re paying them directly or receiving services or benefits covered by the tax. That’s especially true in Illinois, where property taxes are the 2nd highest in the nation, behind only New Jersey.*

    As the owner of a home or a business, your taxes help pay for education, public safety, infrastructure, emergency response and a variety of social services. But you don’t want to pay more than necessary, something a real estate tax attorney can ensure by considering the following factors:

    1. Illinois reassessment in 2019: Township assessors are required by law to view, inspect and reassess each property in their jurisdiction once every 4 years. In Cook County, property is reassessed every 3 years. Reassessments ensure assessments are fair and equitable on a countywide basis—given there are typically more individual changes made in general assessment years, significant increases often occur.

    2. Vague, complex tax laws: Frequent changes in these laws only compound the problem. Different interpretations can create legal uncertainty and possibly result in different tax consequences for property owners.

    3. Differences for businesses vs. residential properties: In Cook County, businesses are assessed at 25% of market value, while single-family homes and multi-family properties are assessed at just 10%. Businesses can be singled out and experience higher tax burdens than residences.

    4. Inconsistent, subjective and unknown methods of valuation: Some assessing officials use a “mass appraisal” approach in which a large number of properties are valued simultaneously using standardized procedures. However, one size does not fit all. Many properties are not typical and require special individualized attention.

    5. Ability to challenge unfair and excessive assessments: Taxpayers who wish to appeal their assessments have several options. Each option, however, comes with its own set of deadlines. One common mistake many taxpayers make is to wait for the tax bill to arrive in the mail. By then, appeal periods have expired and the only recourse is to pay the tax and wait until the following year to file an appeal.

    A real estate tax attorney can represent you in all stages of the property tax appeal process, from the research, preparation and filing to representation before the assessor and local and state boards. The benefits of having an expert on your side heavily outweigh the cost of service, or even worse, the potential cost of making a mistake.

    Most people and many attorneys are overwhelmed by the complexity of property taxes. Hiring a real estate tax attorney is the best way to make sure you pay your fair share—and no more.

    *Source: Chicago Tribune, April 5, 2018