Property Tax Myths, Misconceptions, and Terms

Separating Property Tax Truth From Fiction

Senior couple sitting on porch outside house
••• Johnny Greig / Getty Images

More than a few property tax myths have been circulating for years. Part of the problem is that these taxes can be a complicated issue, full of mysterious-sounding terms, which can make it even more difficult to separate fact from fiction. Here are a few myths you might have heard, along with the facts behind them.

Myth #1: Assessors Determine Property Taxes

False. Assessors determine the market value of a property. This assessment is then multiplied by the prevailing tax rate to come up with the actual dollar amount of property tax that appears on your property tax bill. 

You would pay $6,000 a year in taxes if your home were assessed for $300,000 and if your local property tax rate were 2%.

Property tax rates are usually set by local governments, such as city legislatures, county legislatures, or school districts.

Myth #2: Taxes Are High Because of Assessments

Yes and no. Assessments are only one part of the big picture. A high assessment can contribute to high property taxes, but the tax rate is really what determines how much tax will appear on your property tax bill. You'd pay only $4,500 in taxes annually on a $300,000 property if your tax rate were to drop from 2% to 1.5%.

Now change the numbers around: your home assessed at $200,000, and your tax rate is 3%. You're up to $6,000 in property taxes. You can have a low assessment, but you’re going to have a high property tax bill if it's subject to a high tax rate.

Your assessment is usually the only part of your property tax bill that you have any control over. Check with your local assessor’s office to find out how to file an appeal if you receive an assessment that seems to be way off.

Assessments can be somewhat subjective, so most localities have procedures in place that allow you to appeal if you feel that your assessment is too high or not reflective of market value. 

Myth #3: Taxes Are High Due to State Budget Shortfalls

False. Property taxes are the number-one source of revenue for local governments and school districts, not for states. The state's budget generally has no influence. Some states allow localities and school districts to keep all the revenue.

States that lack a sales tax, an income tax, or both typically rely more heavily on property taxes than others. Some states have enacted special state property tax levies to increase funding for public schools.

The average across all states in 2017 as to how much revenue they received from property taxes was about 31.9% of their overall tax revenues. This is the last year for which statistics are available.

Myth #4: Equalization Corrects Unfair Assessments

This myth is totally false. Equalization rates are not meant to correct individual assessments.

The equalization rate is the ratio of the total assessed value of properties in a community to those property’s true market values.

Equalization ratios are municipality-wide measurements that are meant to ensure that assessments within the entire district are close to market value. They can also be used to ensure that the property taxes paid by multiple communities are divided in proportion to the total market value for each community. This is accomplished by requiring certain assessment-to-market-value ratios for all municipalities.

Myth #5: Bills Are Good Indicators of Increases

Not true. Again, a property tax bill results from two factors: the assessment of the property’s value and the tax rate. You might not see a change in your property tax bill, even if your tax rate increases, if property values are falling. 

Likewise, tax rates could fall, but tax bills could increase if home values increase significantly. The amount of property taxes depends on both factors.

Myth #6: Assessment Caps Lower Property Taxes

Assessment caps require that assessments not increase more than a set percentage each year. Capped properties that are increasing in value more rapidly than others could be under-assessed. This could happen because the cap doesn't allow these homes to be assessed at their true market values.

Suppose custom homes in a high-end neighborhood are increasing in value more rapidly than older homes in a less desirable part of town. The high-end homes are increasing in value at a rate of 25% each year. The older homes are increasing in value at just 10% per year. The cap limits assessment increases to 15% per year. 

This cap would therefore prevent the high-end homes from being assessed at their true market values—they'd fall 10% short. Meanwhile, the older homes would be assessed at their full market values. 

This decision would leave the owners of the older homes holding the bag, because the high-end homeowners wouldn't be paying their fair share. Of course, this isn't always the case, but it's a potential flaw with the assessment caps system.

Those Confusing Common Property Tax Terms

Property taxes come with a lot of jargon. We've defined some of the more common property tax terms in plain English:

  • Abatement: Forgiveness of a debt in whole or in part
  • Ad valorem tax: A tax based on value, such as a property tax
  • Arrears: This term is used when taxes due and owing in the current year represent the taxes owed for a previous year.
  • Assessment/Appraisal: The process of determining the value of a property for property tax purposes
  • Circuit breaker: Any property tax relief that limits or reduces property taxes for certain individuals
  • Comparable sales method: Using sales of similar properties to estimate the market value of a property
  • Equalization rate: A ratio of total assessed value for properties in a community to those properties' true market values
  • Homestead deduction/exemption: An assessment reduction given to homeowners who use their homes as their primary residences
  • Tangible personal property: Property other than real estate that can be held and touched, such as a car or office furniture. Some states and cities tax the value of tangible personal property.

So there you have it. Your property tax bill should seem a little less mysterious now.