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Property Tax: What It Is, What It Does And How It’s Calculated

7-Minute Read
Published on May 3, 2021

Property taxes have been used to fund government functions for millennia. These government functions can include local and community services, schools, infrastructure and other projects. The amount of property taxes you owe can vary from location to location, but it’s generally based on the property’s value.

Because all homeowners pay property taxes, it’s important for prospective and new homeowners to understand how they work. When you have a good idea of the property taxes you’ll be expected to pay, you can better determine your budget, and how much house you can afford before you even start house hunting.

Let’s take a closer look at what property taxes are, how to calculate them and how to think about them during your home search.

What Is Property Tax?

Property tax is paid by an individual or entity on an owned property. Property taxes are a type of “ad valorem” tax, which means they’re based on the assessed value of real property and some tangible personal property, such as boats or cars.

In the U.S., these taxes are generally levied by state and local municipalities and used to fund school districts, community amenities and other local expenses and projects. Property taxes can vary widely between states and even adjacent municipalities.

How Does Property Tax Work?

When calculating property tax by state, local and state laws are both considered. Nevertheless, property taxes are evaluated using the property’s value and the city’s tax rate. Let’s talk more about these two factors.

There are many factors that affect property value, including the physical home and the land it sits on. This value is determined by an assessor who works with a local taxing authority and keeps track of the local property values. Because a home’s property value is closely monitored, changes to a property can cause a property tax increase or decrease.

A home’s tax rate is determined by a local taxing authority and can vary based on a home’s location and property type.

The Role Of Tax Assessors

As we previously mentioned, a tax assessor is responsible for estimating the market value for all property owned within their jurisdiction. When assessors prepare the property tax assessments that are sent to all property owners, they take into account the value of the actual home, its land and other personal property such as cars or boats. The tax assessor may also work with the local taxing authority to keep track of local property values.

The Role Of Local Officials

In addition, local officials oversee setting the property tax rate for their municipalities. When local officials determine a local property tax rate, they consider the property type, along with the state and county where it’s located.

Property Taxes Vs. Real Estate Taxes: What’s The Difference?

Essentially, property taxes and real estate taxes are the same thing. The term “real estate tax” refers to a tax on owned real estate. Real estate tax and property tax can usually be used interchangeably unless you are talking about personal property tax. Personal property tax includes movable assets like cars, boats and planes but excludes homes or real estate.

How To Calculate Property Tax

If you’re interested in estimating the value of your property taxes yourself, you can follow this formula:

Property Tax = Assessed Value × Tax Rate

Since there are many factors that go into each portion of this equation, the answer you come up with will only be an estimate and may not mirror how much you actually end up paying in property taxes – but it can be good to see an estimate to get a feel for your potential tax bill.

The property value in this equation is the assessed value of your home. Your assessed value can be estimated by looking at comparative properties or calculated by someone like a home assessor. Your tax rate will vary depending on where you live; it is usually decided by your county, city or town. However, it’s important to note that the assessed value doesn’t necessarily match the appraised value. Many states have laws that limit assessed value to a percentage of your appraised fair market value.

Here’s an example: Let’s say you live in Chicago, Illinois, and the assessed value of your home is around $280,000. The average tax rate in Chicago (Cook County) is about 2.1%, so how much should you expect to pay in property tax?

Property Tax = ($280,000) × (2.1%)

$5,880 = ($280,000) × (2.1%)

According to this example, you could expect to pay about $5,880 annually. If you’d like to try the formula for yourself, you can likely find your city or county’s average tax rate online. There are also many online property tax calculators that can find that information for you.

Being able to calculate your prospective property taxes will ultimately help you figure out how much house you can afford. Keep this property tax calculation in mind when you’re budgeting for your next home purchase so, when it’s time to get preapproved, you’ll already have a price range to aim for.

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What Is Property Tax Used For?

Whether you realize it or not, property taxes are used to fund many initiatives and services that may affect your daily life. This includes local government initiatives such as law enforcement, fire protection, community pools, libraries, city road work and other community projects.

These services are what attract some home buyers to purchase in one neighborhood over another. For example, good school districts and safe neighborhoods are two of the many neighborhood amenities that can attract prospective homeowners to a particular neighborhood. But because homeowners in certain neighborhoods can enjoy these services, it’s only fair that the services are all funded by the taxes paid by current homeowners.

If you’re a potential home buyer who’s comparing different neighborhoods with different services offered to community members, make sure to take a hard look at your budget and consider how those property taxes will affect it. This might mean you’ll have to pick and choose what community benefits are best for you and your family.

How To Pay Your Property Tax

Most property tax payments are part of the homeowner’s monthly mortgage payment, making them easier to pay. This is because mortgage servicers often collect the tax payment in monthly installments as part of your mortgage payment and it's put in an escrow account. This account is then tapped to make the payment when it’s due.

Homeowners can also choose to make annual or semi-annual payments directly to their tax authority when they’re due. Mortgage lenders may put their own restrictions on this option so that they can be reasonably sure your home won’t be taken in a tax foreclosure.

For example, Rocket Mortgage® requires that you have at least 10% equity before removing escrow on a VA loan and 20% equity for conventional loans. Escrow accounts are always required on FHA and USDA loans.

Property Tax FAQs

To learn more about property taxes and what they require from homeowners, read on to get the answers to all of your questions.

How are disputes over assessments handled?

If you disagree with your property tax assessment, there’s a process to appeal it. This process varies according to applicable law. If you’re a homeowner interested in appealing your property tax assessment, start by contacting the assessor’s office.

From there, make sure to ask how the assessment was prepared, and then do your own research. We’d suggest looking at comparable property sales or other factors that you believe reflect the true value of the property more accurately.

What is my property tax rate?

Property tax rates vary across jurisdictions, so you’ll have to check with your local taxing authority. You may need to look up your property’s tax rate area number by your address, and then look up the tax rate for your designated area. To find your county’s tax collection agency, you can search by ZIP code using the Public Records Online Directory.

What are property tax exemptions?

In some cases, homeowners can qualify for a property tax exemption, which is just one way taxpayers can lower their property taxes. Some of the most common property tax exemptions are available for seniors, veterans and homesteaders. These property tax exemptions will reduce, but don't usually eliminate, property taxes.

Can I deduct my property taxes from my federal taxes?

State and local taxes have traditionally been deductible in full from federal income tax. However, there were tax changes enacted in 2017 that capped these deductions at $10,000 that could affect those in high-tax states.

What happens if I fail to pay my property taxes?

If you fail to pay your property tax bill for some reason, your municipality will place a tax lien on your home. Therefore, it’s very important that as a homeowner, you’re able to afford your property tax payments and stay up to date on them.

When there is a tax lien on your home, the creditors will be notified that the government has legal rights to your home. If you still fail to pay after this, the tax lien can become a levy, which means the government can seize your property to satisfy the debt. In some cases, your property taxes may be taken out of the profits from a sale.

There are many other consequences for refusing to pay or paying your taxes late. Under some circumstances, the taxing authority may transfer your account to a private collection company. A private tax collector may use aggressive tactics to get you to pay, so as mentioned earlier, it’s best to pay your property taxes.

The Bottom Line: Property Taxes Are An Ongoing Expense

As you search for a new home, consider the accompanying property taxes because they will be a continual expense. It’s crucial that as a homeowner you’re able to afford your home’s bills as well as the property tax payments.

To get started with finding a property and applying for a loan in your price range, get preapproved today with Rocket Mortgage.

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Andrew Dehan

Andrew Dehan is a professional writer who writes about real estate and homeownership. He is also a published poet, musician and nature-lover. He lives in metro Detroit with his wife, daughter and dogs.