Frequently Asked Questions

1. I just bought a piece of real estate and would like to find out if my taxes are correct. How do I check?

2. I don’t understand my real estate tax bill. How do I find out what it means?

3. When I look at my assessment or tax bill, are there any areas that might suggest an error or the likelihood that it could be changed?

4. Aside from such assessor discrepancies, are there external factors that can lead to changes?

5. How often should I consider filing a tax appeal?

6. Do I stand to lose anything by appealing? What will it cost me if I don’t get my taxes reduced?

7. If I appeal my assessment or tax bill, how much can I save?

8. How do I go about filing an appeal?

9. How long will the appeal process take?

10. Is an appraisal useful when appealing my assessment?

11. What exemptions am I entitled to?

1. I just bought a piece of real estate and would like to find out if my taxes are correct. How do I check?
A. Compare the market value of the property – the amount you paid for it – with the assessed value. You can either multiply the market value by the assessment level or divide the assessed value by the assessment level. For example, if you paid $1 million, your assessment level is 1/3 and the assessed value is $333,333, then the taxes will be correct.

If you bought the property at some time in the past, determine the market value by looking at other properties in your area, particularly similar properties that have sold recently.

The assessed value, while it is 1/3 in most Illinois counties, will differ in Cook County (Chicago). In Cook, properties are assigned to categories and categories have different levels. Categories include commercial, industrial, residential, non-profit, multi-unit residential buildings with six or more units and a variety of others. The Cook County board recently passed an ordinance resetting assessment levels for these categories. For example, commercial and industrial properties are now assessed at 25 percent of market value, down from 38 percent and 36 percent, respectively. Single family residences are now 10 percent, down from 16. Check your county assessors website for more details.



2. I don’t understand my real estate tax bill. How do I find out what it means?
A. Your tax bill can certainly appear convoluted, and the details depend on the county and municipality in which you live. But it breaks down fairly easily. In brief, the amount of taxes you’re billed is a function of your assessment, the state equalization factor (often called the multiplier) and the tax rate.

The tax rate is the sum of the rates of all the taxing bodies in which your property lies. These include municipalities, school, park, library and sanitary districts, etc. Properties across the street of each other may have different tax rates depending on the location of these bodies.

Oddly enough, poorer areas may have higher tax rates than more wealthy ones, even when the poorer taxing body has a smaller budget. This is because market values are also lower but still have to cover the expenses.

The multiplier is figured in to meet a state requirement that all everyone in Illinois must be assessed at one third of true market value. In most places, the multiplier is at or near one. However in parts of Cook County, it may be closer to three.

For an explanation of all the key terms, click here.



3. When I look at my assessment or tax bill, are there any areas that might suggest an error or the likelihood that it could be changed?
A. There are some numbers on your assessment notice that may suggest problems, but keep in mind that something that feels and looks major to you may have little actual impact on your bill. For example, in Cook County the assessment notice gives quite a bit of information, such as property descriptions – more than it does in other counties. You should check the description for accuracy and correct information you know is wrong. But consider whether to handle it as a correction rather than as an appeal if it will make little difference. Square footage could be very relevant and, in Cook County, make sure its category is correct. A small building with retail stores and a couple of apartments is not classed as commercial. Make sure the age of the building is correct and look at its amenities and the possibility of functional obsolescence. A small industrial building might once have placed great value in having one loading bay with a nine-foot ceiling. However, today three bays with 18-foot ceilings may be the standard and your property’s market value is, accordingly, lower.



4. Aside from such assessor discrepancies, are there external factors that can lead to changes?
A. First, look at market conditions: what’s selling nearby. This is pretty obvious today, when market values have been dropping sharply.

Second, look at major events that have affected your property: fires, floods and tornadoes will lower its value. So will legal issues, such as condemnation or a new ordinance that changes zoning. While you may be grandfathered into your current use, buyers might not be able to retain that use or alter the property as they wish, and that makes it harder for you to sell.



5. How often should I consider filing a tax appeal?
A. You have the right to challenge your assessment or tax every year. However, the best time to reevaluate is when a reassessment is scheduled. Traditionally, this is every three or four years, but all counties are moving toward annual reassessments. Though you may not actually file a challenge with the assessor or county board of review each year, it is a good idea to look at your assessment every year.

Moreover, if you know there has been a substantive change in the property’s situation, and that a new assessment is coming up, consider notifying the assessor’s office before the assessments come out. This can save you a lot of time in the long run over appealing later.



6. Do I stand to lose anything by appealing? What will it cost me if I don’t get my taxes reduced?
A. If your taxes aren’t reduced, you will pay at the level you were billed; they will not go up because you appeal, unless the appeal prompts a visit from an assessor who discovers enhancements previously not known. This is unlikely to happen, however, unless someone files an underassessment complaint against the property. Such a complaint is rare though it could be filed by any tax payer, but most come from taxing bodies (most often school districts)

In most situations, the assessor or county board of review does not charge a fee for filing an appeal. If the decision goes against you and you decide to take the case further, to the state’s property tax appeal body or the courts, then you will be charged a fee. This will not be returned if your appeal is turned down. For certain specific tax objections in Cook County, there is also a filing fee, and you may need to have already paid the taxes to have standing to file.

As to legal fees if you hire an attorney, many cases are handled on a contingency basis and cost you nothing unless you win. Some attorneys a charge nominal fee ($50 to $75) to open a file and, for a major property, the attorney may have a fee structure for voluntary tax management services. However, in all cases, fees are negotiable. Discuss details with your attorney.



7. If I appeal my assessment or tax bill, how much can I save?
A. This will vary with location, timing and the value of the property. Since housing values have been dropping, it could be a good time for an appeal. (For examples of savings, click here.) If your property tax bill is in the thousands of dollars, you might save a few hundred. However, on an industrial site or major Loop building, savings could be millions of dollars each year. (And in both cases, once an appeal is granted, the lowered assessment will have a positive impact on your taxes each year going forward.)



8. How do I go about filing an appeal?
A. While you can file yourself, particularly for smaller residential properties, (see your county assessor’s web site for instructions), if you have larger properties you can benefit from the expertise of an experienced attorney who can review the situation and explore if there’s a worthwhile basis for a challenge.



9. How long will the appeal process take?
A. Unless it’s immediately successful, the appeal process can take months. Early success is often based in filing within the time specified with your assessment notice and even then it could take up to two months. If filing is delayed, it could be months before it reaches the board of review and a couple of months beyond that before there’s a decision. If you end up appealing to the state property tax appeal board or in the courts, it could take years to get a refund. The moral is to file in a timely way.

If you know the basis of your appeal before you get your assessment card, you should go in early and get it lowered for the coming year. Your assessor often looks at such items quickly since resolution will mean one less complaint to the board of review.



10. Is an appraisal useful when appealing my assessment?
A. An appraisal can be useful, and may be necessary for certain kinds of property and certain levels of review board or court. The necessity increases if the property is owner occupied.

If you’re appealing based on market value, your sale is the best evidence. For a residence, uniformity may be the best basis. If the property is vacant and you’re trying to rent it, income may make the best scenario: Unrented, it’s worth less then rented. If you had an appraisal done for another purpose, say a refinancing, and the value came up short, you can use that appraisal as the basis for appeal.



11. What exemptions am I entitled to?
A. Most common exemptions are age related, such as homestead or senior citizen exemptions or the circuit break program. See your county assessor’s site for details and other possibilities.

One example may be a non-profit exemption, though if you are in cook county this is accounted for in the property’s classification. Properties that may qualify include houses of worship, universities and hospitals.