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How to fight your property taxes

Kamala and Wesley Paul are retired school teachers


HOUSTON – Seventy-one-year-old Kamala Paul and 81-year-old Wesley Paul are living the American dream.

"This is our first home ever in America," said Kamala. "We're both retired schoolteachers."

And after living in the U.S. for 17 years, they finally saved enough money to buy their very first home.

"Although we are old, we can take care of ourselves," said Kamala.

But this part of the American dream comes with responsibility. The Pauls will have to pay about $2,500 a year in taxes on their Walnut Bend condo.

The good news -- they can cut down that bill.

It's not a big secret.

The Harris County Appraisal District, or HCAD, actually  wants to help you keep more of that money in your own pocket.

It's hosting 20 community meetings to help save.

"When they said 'tax discounts, find out how,' I said, 'We are going!'" Kamala said.

"If you don't feel your property value is correct, you should file a protest," said Jack Barnett, who works for HCAD. "Because if it's not correct, you could be getting taxed at a higher rate than you should be."

So how do you do it?

There are three ways.

One:

"In your property tax notice you get in the mail you also get a protest form, it's a green protest form. You can fill that out and mail it in to the district. It's easy as pie," said Barnett.

Two: You can do it online by clicking here or here.

"It's a program we call iFile," Barnett said. "You go online and there is an iFile number that is in the form that you get in the mail. You enter the number and submit the protest."

Three:

"iSettle is another option we offer for property tax owners," said Barnett. He added, "We would look at their value that they think their property is worth and we would respond back to them whether they're accepting that value or rejecting it."

If you don't like the county's offer -- you can fight it in person.

Do it yourself -- or hire someone to do it for you.

If you hire a firm, it could charge you 35 to 50 percent of what you save.

Which method works best?

We crunched the numbers from HCAD. Over the last six years, we found homeowners were more successful than the paid professionals.

"No one knows your property as well as you do," said Barnett. "So if you have the time to come in and protest yourself, that's probably a really good way for you to start saving some money."

But firms are gaining ground.

In 2010, homeowners were 89 percent successful, compared to agents' 68 percent. In 2015 homeowners were 94 percent successful, but firms jumped up to an 87 percent success rate.

Before you show up, make sure your case is rock-solid.

Evidence is key. You can see examples here and here.

Find out if nearby homes are selling at a lower price than your home's value.

Bring photos --- are there cracks in your foundation?

Are you in a flood plain?

Do you need new plumbing?  Bring in a repair estimate.

Do you live off a busy street? Show a map.

Even if you decide not to protest, you can still save a small fortune.

"Make sure you have all the exemptions you are entitled to," said Barnett.

You're basically handing over money that's yours if you don't claim exemptions.

You qualify if you're over 65, a veteran or disabled, and this is the big one -- a 20 percent discount called the homestead exemption.

"(To get it) in Texas you have to own your own home, and reside in that home as your primary residence," Barnett said.

If you have a $100,000 home, in Harris County you could save almost $800 in a year. That's $8,000 in 10 years.

So how do you apply for this mega exemption?

Grab your driver's license and your smartphone.

Download HCAD's app here.

Enter your email address, take a photo of the front and back of your driver's license and submit. Just like that, you can save hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

You only have to apply for the homestead exemption one time.  You keep it until you sell or move.