Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Property Tax Protests at record levels

During my recent visit to the County Tax appraiser, I asked if the number of protests were up this year. “Yes”, the appraiser responded, “we set a record.” I figured it was because of the economy and the housing crisis, but what surprised me was that he thought it was a result of tax consultants sending out flyers advertising they will protest for you in return for half the tax savings. He showed me a couple of the flyers and yes I had received one of them. I’ll admit it did make me re-think the situation and research my neighborhood valuations.

That’s when I found that my property was overvalued in comparison. It would have been easy to call the tax consultants and let them do the work, the hearing, etc. Then the appraiser said, “but they would do the same thing that you have done.” Ah, gee, thanks Mr. Appraiser.

Maybe the tax consultants would have gotten a little more, but by the time we split the tax savings, it wouldn’t have mattered. The appraiser then went on to say that some of the firms want a portion of your tax savings for the next five years!

I decided to protest my own property taxes not just to avoid splitting the money, but also for the experience. And, I was a little nervous going in. One of the first things the appraiser said was, “I see you called in earlier.” I think he could tell I was taken aback that my call had been recorded and he responded apologetically with, “it’s just a question.”

I had to laugh. Okay, so I am a little paranoid based on a few horror stories that I have heard from folks who couldn’t get their taxes adjusted at all and their meetings ended in harsh words and slammed doors.

When I mentioned that I had never been to a hearing, the appraiser kindly volunteered more information about how the hearing is conducted and also that a group of retired folks sit on the appraisal review board. He said it was a decent job with good pay and even suggested that I apply! IMO, I think that might be an unpleasant job, since I doubt if too many people are happy to be at a hearing protesting their taxes.

It reminded me of what my dad used to say about his auto parts business. He enjoyed everything to do with automobiles, but he said that when most folks come in they are not in a good mood because their car is in need of repair. He thought that it would be much more pleasant to be in a business where people are happy to come in to your store and spend their money on wants (toys) rather than needs (car parts).

Monday, July 14, 2008

How I saved Money this week

I signed up for the 10% off coupon at both the Home Depot and Lowes moving web sites. Lowes e-mailed the coupon within 3 days, while I still have not received anything but junk e-mail for Home Depot. I initially thought that I would be able to print out the coupon immediately after signing up but it didn’t work that way. I sent an inquiring e-mail to Home Depot about the coupon and was told that it would take 4-5 business weeks!

I tend to frequent Home Depot more often than Lowes. That is not because I like it any better than Lowes, it’s just closer to home. So, during my last shopping trip, picking up 6x6 posts for my pergola, I asked the clerk if they accepted competitors coupons. And sure enough they do, so I pulled out the Lowes 10% off and got a nice little discount, which made my day!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Meeting with the County Tax Appraiser

Going in to this, I really wasn’t too worried. I felt confident. I had a reasonable and logical argument. LOL.

I mailed in a protest of my property taxes on June 2nd. I then received a hearing notice set for July 16th. I called the county appraisers office and was surprised to hear that I would only get 5 minutes to talk about my case, then the appraiser would defend the county’s position for 5 minutes then the board would discuss it for another 15-20 and deliver a decision. The clerk encouraged me to come in ahead of time to settle this with an appraiser. I agreed.

At the appraisers office, I made my way to the fifth floor, signed in and waited in a line of 4 or 5 others. My appraiser, Jack, called me to his office. He looked all the part of a beaten down government worker with a dry sense of humor.

I began by comparing land values based on price per square foot. He would have no part of that. He said he couldn’t change the valuations and I would have to take it up with the board at my hearing. I complained that #1 - I didn’t want to make another trip and #2 - I was told he could make such judgments. He told me that all of the lots were set at one price and my lot was at a 30% higher premium because it has a creek running through it. What a shocker! This “creek” is actually a mosquito infested, beaver swamp and I am being charged extra for it? He said, “it’s all in how you look at it” This was going nowhere.

So, I switched tactics and showed him an estimate for repair on a retaining wall. He balked a little at first saying they don’t normally accept that kind of thing. I explained that the wall was critical to the home foundation. Since I had taken the trouble to get the estimate, he agreed to take the cost of the new wall off the market value of the house. He then asked me if I was going to come see him at the mission when he loses his job for doing this?

Believe it or not, I felt sorry for the guy.

Even so, I pressed on and showed him an estimate for the cost of replacing my roof. I told him what the insurance company had paid me and what it was going to cost me. He quickly agreed to slash that amount from the house value. He said that they would probably re-appraise the house later when the roof was replaced – so expect it to go up next year. Fine, I will take my chances on that.

All told, I was able to get my appraised house value decreased by $25,370. Based on my local tax rates, I figure I will save about $600/year. The county typically appraises every three years, so I will probably reel in about $1800 in savings from this little protest. Not bad for a few hours of my time.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Selling a car on Craigslist

I finally came to the conclusion that I no longer wanted to mess with trying to fix my Toyota Supra. I had spent some time investigating the issue and narrowed the problem down to one or two possibilities – both of which are more costly to repair and more trouble than I am willing to take on. Plus, in the back of my mind, I kept thinking that when you are dealing with a 20 year old car there is always going to be something that needs repair. I started dreading doing any work on the vehicle and got to the point where I was ready to part with it. So, just like that I wrote up a description, slapped a price on it and posted it with some photos on Craigslist.

The listing was free and very easy to execute. I wrote a quick paragraph describing the car, submitted it and few minutes later received an e-mail from Craigslist with a link to be used to publish the listing. The same link can be used to edit or delete the post at a later date. The listing runs for 45 days.

It didn’t take long – within three hours I had a couple of e-mails with phone numbers of the interested party requesting to set up a viewing time. I knew right away I had a really good hit. The first guy to respond actually rebuilds Supras and was looking for a car just like mine to use to rebuild his damaged racing/show car. I liked the idea of only showing the car once; the fewer strangers visiting my house the better! We arranged a date and time set for three days later for him to “meet” my car. In the meantime, I received many more e-mails from people interested in the car. Most folks wanted to trade. I had offers for vans, cars, two motorcycles, a fish/ski tri-hull boat and a registered yearling quarter horse. I rejected all offers to trade, as I was trying to get rid of something and didn’t want to add any more stuff to my collection.

The Craigslist site does a good job of warning sellers about common scams. For instance, cashiers checks can be easily faked and the individual cashing the check is held responsible! The only way you would want to take a cashiers check, nowadays, is if you called the bank and verified it on the spot.

I also read through their scams FAQs and it really made me wary of even cash! It’s not that hard to counterfeit bills and since I don’t deal with cash on a regular basis, I don’t have a counterfeit bill detector pen. Even so, it probably would have been worth it to pick one up for a few bucks just for the peace of mind.

In preparation for the showing, I found a bill of sale form on the internet and an application to transfer the title. As usual the buyer tried to low bid my price, but I held firm. The car had generated a lot of interest, so I knew I could sell it given more time. He finally relented but had to go to an ATM to get the remaining cash. Evidently he was confident he could talk me down, because he had initially arrived with $500 less than I was asking.

I signed over the title, completed the bill of sale and made copies of both. He arranged to pick up the car the next day. It was obvious that he was excited about getting the car, so it made me feel good that I had found the right home for my Supra. In fact, its got a whole new exciting life ahead for it as a model show car!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Updating my Holographic Will

Being so frugal or maybe even something worse, I didn’t want to fork over the money on an attorney to create a will. And, of course it takes time, appointments and trust in an attorney. Instead, several years ago, I did a little research using a book on Texas probate which was sent to me as a gift by a local funeral home!

The book gave some examples of wills, some common errors, what not to do and helped me hand write my first will. This is perfectly acceptable in the state of Texas and is referred to as a holographic will. It must be written only in the hand of the testator and signed by the testator; no date, no witnesses and no notary public are required. Perfect.

I made a copy of the document, stored the original in a fire resistant safe at the house and kept the copy locked in a safe at my place of employment.

I have not thought much about it since then, but of course, things in life change over the course of several years and the will needs updating. By chance, I also caught the Suze Orman show last Saturday where she provided a gift code to get a free copy of her online Will & Trust kit.

I had not watched her show in quite awhile and had forgotten how amusing it is to see her reaction to some of the unbelievable financial moves that people make. A lot of her advice seems like common sense, but every now and then she hits on something new to me.

In addition to the will, her software allows you to setup a revocable trust, Financial Power of Attorney, and an Advanced Directive / Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare.

What a deal! Of course, using her software will require two witnesses and a notary public. I figure it’s probably worth going through the questions to get info on these other documents and maybe add that wording to my soon to be updated holographic will. I signed up for the offer and created an account. It appears that I can go back at any time to work through the questionnaires and generate these documents.