Real Property Abatements
What Is A Property Tax Abatement?
An abatement is a reduction in your property's assessment that you can apply for if you believe that assessment does not accurately reflect the property's market value.
What grounds may I have to get my assessment abated?
You should seek an abatement if you believe one of the following applies to your property:
- Overvaluation: you believe that the assessment on your property does not reflect its fair cash value accurately.
- Data Error: you've found an error with your property's data on it's property record card.
- Incorrect Classification: we have your property classified incorrectly (i.e., we have your single-family home listed as a two-family).
How does the application process work?
The timeframe in which to file for an abatement is dictated by state law and is the same for every community in Massachusetts. Being a quarterly billing community, Orleans includes the most recent Dept. of Revenue-certified assessed value on your 3rd and 4th quarter tax bill mailing, which is always issued no later than December 31st. The day you receive those bills starts the abatement window and it runs until close of business on February 1st (the following Monday if it falls on weekend). If by some chance Q3/4 tax bills go out after December 31st, the due date then becomes 30 days after their mailing date.
If you're mailing your abatement application to us, it must have a USPS postmark date (not FedEx or UPS) of no later than February 1st for us to be able to consider it. We only accept email submissions of applications after prior discussion with the assessor. The Board of Assessors does not have the statutory authority to consider applications that are submitted or received after that date.
You can pick up an abatement application at the Assessing office whenever we're open. We're also happy to mail or email copies to you. If you'd like to download a copy, please click this link.
How should I prepare my abatement application?
You should treat the process like you would any other court proceeding. In this instance, you're the plaintiff so the burden of proof rests squarely with you. The assessors did their part and proved to the Department of Revenue through comprehensive analysis of reams of data that your assessment reflects your property's fair cash value. You have to prove that we're wrong.
How you approach completing the application goes a long way towards winning the Board to your side. Take your time with the application, be clear and concise, and submit ample evidence to make your argument. Making a good effort with your application is appreciated! Here are some tips that will help you make the best case you can:
- Read the application and fill it out completely. Don't feel constrained by the space limitation of the application itself; feel free to attach a written explanation if you feel that it helps you explain your perspective more clearly. Very important: make sure you include an opinion of value on your application!
- If you're claiming that you're overvalued, you MUST provide comparable sales evidence that supports your claim. Assessed values for each fiscal year are derived from analyses of arms-length transactions that took place in Orleans during the last full calendar year, meaning that Fiscal Year 2023 assessments were derived from analyzing sales that took place in 2021. Our office makes a sortable, filterable Excel spreadsheet of those sales available to the public for exactly this purpose (click here). You should use that spreadsheet to narrow down the sales sample to properties that are as similar to yours in as many respects as possible and then examine their sale prices. These prices are a good indicator of what your home would likely have sold for during that year. If you choose sales for non-comparable properties or sales that took place outside of the one-year time frame the assessors used, they will not be considered. Important: "comparable" does not mean "exact match."
- If you're claiming that there are data mistakes on your property record card, please describe them in depth. Print a copy of your field card (our online database is right here), note the errors, and submit it with your application. Unless your property sold or took out a building permit, we only inspect once every ten years to keep up with state requirements. Furthermore, we do our ten-year inspections in the spring when a sizable chunk of our homes aren't occupied, so there are properties in this town that we go 10-20 years without getting into. A lot can change in that time! We'll always take every opportunity to make sure our data is as accurate as possible, so let us know!
- The assessor may reach out to you to schedule an inspection of the property if we haven't been there in a while. Not only is this a good opportunity to ensure your property data is accurate and possibly clear up errors that lower your property's value, but its a good chance to get some face time with the assessor to hash out any differences of opinion. We understand that a lot of our property owners don't live in Orleans, so we're happy to work with you to find a time that works best for you.
On the other hand, there are common pitfalls you should absolutely avoid when completing your application. Doing any of these things with your application will almost always net you a denial:
- If the assessor does call to schedule an inspection, do not refuse. We make every effort to be respectful of private property rights and privacy concerns, but if you're going to contest your valuation we have to be sure that your property data is correct and we can't do that without inspecting your property fully. If you refuse an inspection, the Board won't even look at your application.
- Don't file an abatement because you think your taxes are too high. The abatement process is not the appropriate venue to do so. We really can't make this point any more strongly: WE HAVE NO CONTROL OVER HOW HIGH OR LOW YOUR TAXES ARE! At the local level, Orleans is a direct democracy; the voters of Orleans decide how high or low everyone's taxes will be when they approve of various spending articles at the annual and special town meetings. The appropriate venue for voicing concerns about high taxes are the public comment sessions held at the start of every open Orleans Select Board meeting, not through the abatement process.
- In a similar vein, don't apply because you're shocked by your property's value increase. First off, look at the assessment on your bill and ask yourself one very important question: would you sell your property for less than that? If the answer is no, you don't have a case. The sales spreadsheets we make available to the public will give you all the indication you need. Assessment increases are driven entirely by the realities of Orleans' real estate market. If properties like yours are selling at record prices, your assessment is going to increase at similar levels. That's how it works. Filing an abatement request because you think your property's 30% value increase is too much "just because" or because "its never gone up that much before" is a non-starter.
- Don't submit value estimates from third-party listing services like Zillow, Trulia, Redfin, etc. The algorithms that generate these values are highly suspect, not based on any kind of local expertise, and based on market activity that has taken place outside of the time window the assessors used to do their work. More often than not, they're not even a good indicator of what the property would sell for right now.
- Don't challenge your living area measurements by measuring the interior of your home. Professional appraisal standards required of all assessors in the US dictate that we use exterior measurements. Also, the per-square-foot figures on your field card are informational only. Someone having a lower PSF-value than you is not grounds for an abatement. Under no circumstances will we change your living area to match what you claim to have measured. If you challenge your home's square footage, we will insist on remeasuring the building ourselves.
- This is a big one: don't compare your property value or value change to your neighbors. This theory only applies in places that display a high degree of homogeneity, or uniformity. Places like The Villages in Florida, blocks of three-decker apartment buildings in Fall River and New Bedford, and rigidly planned suburban subdivisions are good examples of such uniformity. Drive down any street in these places and you're likely looking at similar homes built around the same time and sitting on similar lots. That is not the case in Orleans. Almost every street in this town features a variety of property types, styles, sizes, ages, conditions, qualities, etc.; nothing about Orleans is uniform. Because of our heterogeneous makeup, comparing your value or value change to your neighbors is a quick way to get your application denied. Under such conditions, properties in the same geographic area changing in value at different percentages is completely normal because the market values different properties differently.
- You can include a bank appraisal with your application, but understand that not all appraisals are equally useful. Appraisals can be done up for literally hundreds of reasons, not all of which arrive at a true fair cash value. Appraisals that use comparable sales outside of the same window the assessors used, that are more than one year old, or were ordered for novel purposes like a division of assets (marital or estate) won't be considered.
- If you're a commercial property contesting your assessment, the assessor might send you a Section 61A request for income and expense information. You should make every effort to complete this form and return it within 30 days. If you use bookkeeping software to track your income and expenses every year, feel free to print out and attach all of the info for the years we're asking you for. If you earn rent for your property, copies of all of operating leases should be included. It also wouldn't hurt your case to include sales of roughly similar properties, but commercial sales can be hard to come by, which makes the 61A info that much more valuable. A property's income-generating potential is the prime driving force behind estimating how much it could sell for, so this information is critical to us if we're going to value your property fairly. Also, if you send us an opinion of value for your income-generating property derived using a depreciated cost approach, it will not be considered.
What happens after I submit my application?
The Board has three months from the date you submit your application to act on it. After February 1st, the assessor might contact you to ask a question or schedule an inspection; you should cooperate with these efforts and be as forthcoming as possible.
If you'd like a hearing before the Board, you can request one. Hearings are not a back-and-forth affair; you'll be allowed 5-10 minutes to make your case before the Board and they'll deliberate on your case afterwards. They may not decide on your case until the following meeting. Meeting space at Town Hall is in short supply, so please give as much notice as possible if you'd like to go this route so we can procure a room for you.
There are three outcomes for every abatement application:
- Grant: if the Board grants your application, your property's assessed value will be adjusted accordingly and you will be mailed letters showing the reductions in your assessment and taxes owed. If you paid Q3, the amount due for Q4 will be reduced. If you paid Q3 and Q4, you will be refunded the amount of tax that was abated.
- Denied: if the Board denies your application, your property's assessed value will not be adjusted. You will be mailed a letter stating that your application was denied.
- Deemed Denied: if the Board does not act on your application within three months, it becomes Deemed Denied. The same rules as a denial apply here.
What if I don't agree with the Board's decision?
If you don't agree with the Board's decision, you have three months from the date the date of the Board's decision to file an appeal with the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board, the neutral third-party arbiter that hears valuation disputes between taxpayers and municipalities. You can call them at (617) 727-3100 and speak with one of the Clerks or visit their website for more information. The ATB also has a terrific online guide for citizen taxpayers that you should make yourself familiar with; click here to read it. The ATB commissioners are almost exclusively lawyers, so they're sticklers for procedure and timeliness. If you follow their guidelines, you should have no problems getting your case heard.
There are three major ways that you put your appeal rights with the ATB in jeopardy:
- Not paying your taxes on time. If you pay any of the four quarterly tax payments even one day late, the ATB has no jurisdiction. The Board of Assessors decision becomes final.
- Refusing an inspection of the property AND
- Refusing to respond sufficiently to a 61A request. In both of these cases, the ATB may still decide to hear your case, but rest assured that the assessor will move to dismiss your case and you will have to explain to a Commissioner at a motion hearing why you're not cooperating.