From Houston Public Media:
If you’ve taken an economic hit because of COVID-19, the last thing you want to see is another big bill.
Harris County homeowners get the chance each year to negotiate the appraised value of their homes, which determines what they’ll have to pay in taxes. Like so much else, the ongoing pandemic has complicated that process and the Harris County Appraisal District, or HCAD, has had to adapt.
More homeowners are accepting initial settlement offers online, but with delays in the availability of remote hearings they may have missed out on the typically better offers HCAD normally makes if people reject those settlements and move forward with an appraisal protest.
Allison Tanton moved to a one-story ranch house in Houston’s Lazybrook neighborhood three years ago. Every year since then, she’s seen her property taxes go up. And every year, she’s protested. This year, she suspected she might have to arrange her hearing remotely. Instead, she was pleasantly surprised.
“This year, it’s been easier, because the past two years I actually went to the hearing with HCAD in person,” Tanton said.
By the time she requested a hearing this year, COVID-19 had already hit Harris County. “After I requested a hearing, I got an e-mail of a settlement offer, even though I didn’t ask for one, and they lowered what they were originally proposing, and so I accepted their new, lower offer,” Tanton said.
HCAD spokesman Jack Barnett said the district has been doing what it can to make the appraisal process easier during the pandemic.
“We certainly are encouraging people to do things remotely and use the different options that we have provided,” Barnett said. “Even early on, we encouraged them by postings on our website and through social media to consider using iFile to file their protest, rather than using a paper copy or trying to bring something into the appraisal district. We also encouraged them to use iSettle to be able to resolve their protest.”
iSettle is the process where a homeowner can protest their appraisal online and accept a settlement offer without a hearing.
But Houston Public Media confirmed it took HCAD roughly three months into the pandemic to offer the option of a remote hearing. As of early June, letters from HCAD to property owners said homeowners could accept an iSettle offer or protest a hearing in person. There was no mention in the letters or on HCAD’s website of how to obtain a remote hearing at the time.
“As that has gone on and the virus information has changed, we have continued to upgrade our systems and try to think outside the box and offer other alternatives for people, such as a remote hearing,” Barnett said.
By mid-June, HCAD updated its website to include remote hearings.
According to HCAD’s records, the number of people who opted to use iSettle is up nearly 50 percent from July 2019. The number of people who’ve actually accepted their settlement offer rather than moving forward with their protest is up more than 50 percent over the same period.
What’s not entirely clear is why. Did people accept the settlements because they were satisfied or because they worried they might have to risk their health by protesting in person?
Paul Bettencourt, when he’s not working as a state senator, is CEO of Bettencourt Tax Advisors. “What was happening is that surprisingly the initial responses that people were getting on their automatic settlements, that was the vast majority of them, were getting values lower than last year,” he said.
Bettencourt said the lower offers are surprising because Harris County has some of the highest increases in property values, “so I think that’s why those settlements increased dramatically, because the offers were low.”
That said, homeowners typically can save more money by rejecting the iSettle offer and going forward with a protest hearing.
The fact remains, a remote hearing wasn’t an option well into June, long after the deadline for filing property tax protests passed on May 15. People who initially arranged to protest in person can call HCAD to switch to a remote hearing, but that doesn’t help those who had already settled.
HCAD has been taking steps to reduce the risk of infection in its building, both for those who choose to protest in person and for its own employees. To get inside, you need to pass a temperature check, and masks and social distancing are required.