The Procrastinator’s Guide to Disputing Your Philadelphia Property Tax Assessment
You'd better act quickly if you want to challenge your 2022 assessment. And you'd better be prepared to do some paperwork, and fast.
If you’re a homeowner in the city of Philadelphia, chances are you’re scratching your head over the amount the city says your property is worth.
The city reassessed property values for the first time in three years this past summer. Because the city doesn’t conduct annual reassessments, and since the local real estate market has taken a wild ride upward after that last assessment, many property owners got a shock in the mail: assessments that rose by 31 percent on average.
But that’s on average. There has been some online griping from property owners who say their assessed values have gone up as much as 200 percent from where they were the last time the city conducted a reassessment, in 2019.
If you fall into that category, or even if you don’t but still think the city got your property value wrong, you still have time to do something about it (though not much). But it will require some paperwork, and it will help if you get some professionals to assist with the steps.
Appealing your assessment in Philadelphia is a two-step process because different agencies conduct the assessment and the appeals — though it is possible for you to skip one of the steps.
The agency that conducts the assessment is the Office of Property Assessment (OPA). In an ideal world, the OPA is supposed to reassess property values individually every year. But ever since a 2014 attempt to make the values it had on its books accurate, it hasn’t really been able to do this.
This latest assessment is known as a “mass reassessment,” which is a computerized process that takes aggregate data to come up with figures that more or less reflect the real value of individual properties. If you have the time and the intestinal fortitude, this document (PDF) explains the methodology used to conduct the assessment.
Vern Anastasio, an attorney who is one of the city’s leading experts on real estate and zoning law, says that the city’s practice of infrequent mass assessments, as opposed to more frequent individual ones, builds in errors that many homeowners then need to fix.
“I think the city made an attempt” to make assessments accurate and fair some time ago, he says. “There was even this issue of actual value assessments that they were getting to.” Here he’s talking about that 2014 effort, the Actual Value Initiative (AVI). That project also introduced the two-track appeal process that we have in place now.
“But,” says Anastasio, “I see no evidence that they’ve actually addressed the serious issues of assessment.”
One reason for the three-year lag in reassessments was that the OPA wanted to upgrade its aging computers and clear a backlog of reviews generated by the last major reassessment. The COVID pandemic slowed both processes.
Then, further gumming up the works this year, the OPA said that an envelope shortage prevented it from mailing notices of proposed assessments to homeowners as state law requires. Homeowners cannot request reviews or file appeals until they receive those notices in the mail. The city released the proposed 2023 property assessments in May, but notices were not sent out until early this month.
That puts a time squeeze on anyone who wants to contest their assessments. But there’s still time to act even at this late date. Here are the steps you need to follow.
1. Ask yourself if you really can appeal your assessment. Anastasio says that before you start down the appeal road, you should ask yourself a serious question: “If I were to list my house for sale tomorrow, what would I ask for it?”
“If the number you would ask for is equal or pretty darn close to the assessed value,” he says, “then I wouldn’t bother appealing.”
Even if you have no plans to sell your house, ever, doing this little mental exercise will be worth it. But if you’d rather not ask that question, there is another way to determine whether your appeal is likely to succeed. The city has an interactive map site, atlas.phila.gov, where you can find sales history and assessed values for individual properties citywide. You can use this site to look up the values of properties similar to your own in your neighborhood and compare the city’s proposed assessment with those figures.
2. Request a first-level review. The next step in contesting your assessment is called “first-level review,” and it takes place within OPA itself. In the first-level review, the OPA checks its math to determine whether it may have made a mistake in calculating its assessment.
You should have gotten a request form with your notice of proposed assessment. If you lost or don’t have the form, call the OPA at 215-686-9200 to request a replacement. Because the city was so late in getting the notices out, the OPA extended the deadline for requesting first-level reviews two weeks, to Oct. 14th.
3. Appeal your assessment formally. In most cases, the first-level review is unlikely to find an error that would cause the OPA to revise its assessment. In that case, the only way you can contest it is to file an appeal with the Board of Revision of Taxes (BRT), the city agency charged with hearing assessment disputes.
If you’re certain that your assessment is out of whack, you can proceed directly to this step. But before you file an appeal, Anastasio says, “Find an appraiser and secure an appraisal of your property. If the appraisal is, in fact, less than the assessed value, then you’ve got something upon which you can build a real appeal.” That appraisal, he cautions, should not be of the “drive-by” variety, where someone just drives past your property and eyeballs it.
Whether you go straight to the appeal or wait for the first-level review, Anastasio says that “you can then file your appeal to the BRT, and you’ll be able to rely on the appraisal that was furnished to you by an appraiser.”
You can obtain the appeal forms from the BRT website. If you decide to appeal your assessment to the BRT, the state-mandated deadline for filing your appeal is the first Monday in October. That’s Oct. 3rd this year.
And there’s nothing stopping you from filing an appeal while waiting for the result of the first-level review, according to a City Hall spokesperson. That means, however, that you have a lot to do in order to get your appeal filed by Monday.
If you can’t do all that, you will need to file a special form to petition the BRT for a late appeal of your assessment, which you can do at any time after Oct. 3rd. A provision in state law allows property owners to file such petitions, but the late appeals are granted only under specific circumstances. Specifically, when instances of “fraud or its equivalent, duress or coercion” have caused the delay. State law considers “negligence on the part of administrative officials” to be the equivalent of fraud for purposes of filing a late appeal request.
Carla Pagan, executive director of the BRT, says that the city’s tardiness in getting out notices might be such a case, and it sure seems that the two-week extension of the first-level review deadline would also qualify. But, she says, it’s up to the individual homeowner to provide evidence showing that they received their assessment notice or first-level review too late to file an appeal by the deadline.
If you file an appeal using the BRT’s nunc pro tunc (“now for then“) late appeal request form, the BRT will consider it. “The BRT will handle the requests on a case-by-case basis,” she says, “but I cannot predict what the board will decide.”
Providing all the information requested on the “Petition Seeking Permission to Appeal Market Value Late (Nunc pro Tunc)” form will increase the odds that the BRT looks favorably upon it, so get your documents ready if you do go down this path. Here, you might want to consult an attorney who can assist you in this matter. Anastasio also recommends you consult one before your actual appeal goes before the BRT, and the city also allows you to have an attorney or other individual submit the review requests and appeal documents on your behalf.
And whether or not you get that attorney, you should be prepared for your case to take a while. The last time the city conducted a reassessment, in 2019, the BRT was unable to clear all of the more than 10,000 appeals it received by the end of the calendar year.
Updated Sept. 27th, 9:15 a.m., to clarify the relationship between the first-level review and the appeal to the BRT.
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