Can a Website Help Reduce Your Property Taxes?

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A company called ValueAppeal has been blanketing homeowners in Connecticut, Ohio, and New Jersey, among other places, with claims that it can help them appeal their home revaluations and reduce their property taxes—for a fee of $99. Is the service worth the money?

Local officials say no, not at all. They say that letters sent out by ValueAppeal, a Seattle-based company started in 2009 that promises to help homeowners appeal their taxes in as little as 10 minutes, are misleading, if not worse.

The Hartford Courant reported that a half-dozen communities in Connecticut have received letters from ValueAppeal alerting homeowners of the likelihood that they’re overpaying for property taxes. “New Britain County tax authorities may have made an error when they recently assessed your property,” one set of letters stated.

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A couple problems with that: There is no “New Britain County”—Connecticut doesn’t have a county government—and New Britain Mayor Tim O’Brien says the city hasn’t had a new assessment in several years:

“I don’t want to see the residents of New Britain lose their money to a company that’s giving them inaccurate and misleading information,” O’Brien said Friday.

Officials in one New Jersey town, meanwhile, felt it was necessary to warn homeowners that ValueAppeal’s letter was an advertisement, not an official government document—apparently, there was some confusion. A similar alert was issued by Boulder, Colorado, officials last spring.

In Ohio, a Columbus Dispatch columnist concluded that ValueAppeal tended to undervalue most properties—unsurprising because lower values would mean homeowners are paying too much in taxes—and also that paying ValueAppeal’s $99 fee is unnecessary because anyone can gather all of the information necessary for an appeal for free.

So … what do you get for $99? First off, ValueAppeal allows any homeowner to enter their address and current property assessment to get a near-instantaneous estimate as to whether one’s property taxes are too high. I gave it a shot, and was informed that I wasn’t overassessed. So the site doesn’t automatically say that everyone is overpaying.

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For homeowners who are deemed to be overassessed, and therefore overpaying on property taxes, ValueAppeal’s $99 service steers owners through the appeals process, helping them find comparable homes, describe the condition of one’s property, and so on. Do you need to pay ValueAppeal to appeal? Of course not. Even ValueAppeal admitted as much when responding to a Courant inquiry:

“People can always do the research and file an appeal themselves if they have the time and resources, exactly like people can file their own income taxes,” the company said in an email to the Courant last week. “As with income taxes, getting help can be very useful, especially in a process such as property tax assessment appeals in which there are timing, comparable sales regulations and other localized factors that can be confusing, time-consuming, and even intimidating for people to navigate on their own.”

As someone who has appealed a property assessment with no help whatsoever, I can vouch that the process is, indeed, confusing, intimidating, frustrating, and time-consuming. All in all, it’s pretty horrible. My experience consisted of filling out some paperwork, then showing up in a rundown New Jersey county building to wait for hours in a crowded room with dozens of other people who were equally agitated—not only because they felt like they were paying too much in property taxes, but because they had to waste a day off from work in order to try to prove it. Some people had lawyers to help them, and they let the hired help do the talking. Most, like me, did not, and rambled on about why their assessment was absurdly off base.

Net result: A couple months after my hearing, I received a letter notifying me that our taxes would be reduced by about $200 per year. Why? There was no explanation, so I really have no idea. I guess I made my point. Or perhaps they just threw me and the others who bothered to show up a bone in order to make us stop fighting.

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In any event, it is possible to appeal without any outside help. That’s how most homeowners do it, in fact. Could I have wound up paying less if I’d paid more upfront by hiring a lawyer or the services of ValueAppeal? It’s hard to say.

ValueAppeal pitches itself as a cheaper alternative to hiring a lawyer, and its $99 fee is indeed much less than what any attorney would charge for his or her time and effort. But it all comes down to: Which, if any, services are worth paying for?

At ValueAppeal’s “Press & Testimonials” page, there are links to posts such as this one on appealing real estate taxes from Forbes. The only time that ValueAppeal is mentioned in the piece is here:

Charles Walsh, founder of ValueAppeal, an online appeal service, calculates that on average 25% of homes are overassessed.

This and most other links on the page seem to fall more into the category of “Press” than “Testimonials.” The company does guarantee a full refund if you pay the $99 fee, appeal using the resources and facts provided, and fail to get your assessment reduced.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.