CHICAGO — The Cook County Assessor’s Office began mailing out tax assessments for Jefferson Township properties this month and many residents are surprised at the increase.
“It was shocking,” resident Maureen Taylor said. She owns a two-flat in Old Irving Park and according to the assessment she received this month, her property’s market value increased year over year from $371,410 to $638,410.
According to the assessor’s office, Jefferson Township — which includes Old Irving Park, Portage Park and Lincoln Square — saw an increase of median sales prices from $272,000 in 2015 to $320,000 in 2017.
Howard Silver also owns a two-flat in Old Irving Park and says his assessed valuation went up about 50 percent this year, which he also considers a pretty big increase. He’s lived in his home for the past 20 years and has filed his own appeals for the township’s past seven assessments.
Typically, he spends about two hours on the assessor’s website to gather the information needed to file an appeal, he said.
“It’s really not complicated, you just have to grind it out,” Silver said. “Once you get the hang of it, it’s not a big deal. The assessor’s website is pretty lame, but it’s better than it used to be.”
Property taxes are calculated in a different way than income taxes.
Essentially, an assessor doesn’t create new taxes for residents. Instead they create an assessment of property values that informs how a taxing body — like the City of Chicago and Cook County — figure out their expected budget and how much tax revenue they’ll need — like property taxes — to cover that cost.
Silver tries to anticipate how much he’ll need to pay in property taxes after each assessment and puts away money every month towards his property tax bill.
“But I don’t know what my final property taxes are going to be, and the government doesn’t know either. So it’s hard to know how much money to put away in advance,” he said.
In practice, properties with a higher assessed value pay more in taxes than properties with a lower value. However, the way outgoing Cook County Assessor Joseph Berrios’s office has handled assessments has been controversial for some time.
Last year, ProPublica Illinois and Chicago Tribune published “The Tax Divide,” an investigation of the assessor’s office assessment practices. Their review of how values were assigned showed that the office’s assessments were riddled with inaccuracies — overvaluing many low-priced properties while undervaluing many higher priced ones.
But regardless of what the property’s assessed value is, the first step to appeal it is the same.
Residents will need the 14-digit property index number (PIN) of their property, which can be found by reviewing the property’s deed or tax bill.
If those documents are unavailable Cook County residents can visit the assessor’s interactive map and enter their home address to find it. The “class” designation of a property can also be found on that map using the PIN.
Next, property owners can review between three and five comparable properties of the same “class” with lower assessments using that map.
These comparable properties can be a block or two away within the neighborhood and must have similar characteristics — like size, type of construction, age, construction materials and general condition.
When filing his own appeals Silver says he uses the assessor’s website to note the house valuation, not the land valuation, and the house square footage for comparable properties.
“Divide the house valuation by the square footage and you will have the dollar by square foot valuation for that property,” Silver said. “Do this for all the houses in your classification on your block and surrounding blocks. Compare your results with the assessor’s valuation and chose those properties with the lowest valuations for your appeal.”
Property owners can then enter the information they’ve collected using a variety of appeal forms that include additional instructions for homes, empty lots and even commercial properties.
Ernie Lukasik, a coordinator with the Northwest Side Housing Center, a nonprofit group that offers counseling and financial education for homeowners, said that property owners should also review their options when it comes to the exemptions available to them.
“In neighborhood’s where assessments have increased sharply, the homeowner exemptions available can help greatly,” he said.
Longtime homeowners, senior citizens, owners pursuing home improvements and military veterans are just a few of the exemptions that exist.
Lukasik also said attending workshops held throughout Cook County on how to file an appeal is a great resource for homeowners because they can sometimes get assistance filing their appeal during the event.
“Every year, property owners get two chances to appeal the assessed value used to calculate their property taxes: first before the Cook County Assessor, and then to the Cook County Board of Review,” said Ald. Margaret Laurino’s office in an newsletter sent to 39th Ward residents. “If you want to go all out to lower your taxes, you should appeal both times.”
And if a property owner just doesn’t have the time to attend a workshop or if an appeal seems too complex, they can also choose to outsource the process to a law firm or service specializing assessments for a fee.