It’s one of those forms, says Fort Wayne real estate agent Gina Zimmerman, that should have had a big red message stamped on the envelope:
DO NOT THROW THIS AWAY! IT COULD COST YOU A LOT OF MONEY!
As it was, the form came tucked inside envelopes bearing Allen County homeowners’ spring tax bills.
County Auditor Tera Klutz says that because the form was printed on pink paper, she thought it was rather eye-catching.
But even she acknowledges that many taxpayers apparently missed it – indeed, as of last week, about 18,000 of them.
That’s the number of county homeowners whose names appeared last week on an online list of those who had not returned the form or otherwise confirmed that they still qualify for a homestead deduction on the property taxes for their primary residence. The deadline to do so is Dec. 31.
I suspect that most of the 18,000 are people who have their property taxes escrowed every month and paid through their mortgage companies and don’t even open their tax statements, Klutz says, adding that those who haven’t verified represent about 25 percent of those previously eligible.
I think people are just not aware of it (the deadline), she says.
But those caught napping, Zimmerman says, could lose big.
After she learned that if the auditor’s office isn’t notified, homeowners could lose their deduction and owe double this year’s taxes next year, she combed through her client list, matched names against the 18,000 and started calling and emailing them to alert them to the deadline.
It was pretty low-key. It almost looked like a piece of junk mail, says Zimmerman, with North Eastern Group Realty in Fort Wayne, of the official notification. I did a couple of calculations, and we’re talking more than a thousand dollars, two thousand dollars, in some cases between what would be owed with and without the deduction.
And that, Zimmerman says, was for only one year’s taxes. I wanted to overcommunicate, so if they hadn’t filed (the verification), they would, she says.
Klutz says the homestead deduction essentially provides a discount on property taxes for the place where a homeowner spends most of his or her time.
When someone buys a home as a primary residence, securing the deduction often is facilitated by real estate professionals and completed shortly after closing. Homeowners traditionally have been told that they need to file for it only once – and must update county officials only if the home’s status changes.
But in 2009, the legislature passed a new law requiring individual homeowners to verify by the end of this year the address of the property and that they are receiving only one deduction. Officials are creating a statewide database of deductions to make it easier for auditors to track abuses, Klutz says.
She says in the long run, the database could decrease the tax burden on homeowners. If it’s found that many people are improperly claiming the deduction, that would increase the taxable value of all property and (of) taxes taken in, and could, in theory, reduce the overall tax rate for all property owners, she says.
In Allen County, homeowners can check whether they’ve filed and verify online. But that may not be true in any surrounding counties.
One area county, Steuben, will accept a phone call as verification of the deduction, but most county auditors require forms be mailed or dropped off at their offices – something that is complicated by upcoming holiday closings. Some offices are not open on Dec. 24 and 25, and some are not open Dec. 31.
Auditors say they have leeway in how they will deal with those who don’t meet the deadline, but are permitted to send notifications prior to removal of a deduction.
In Wells County, letters to about 1,100 non-filers warning that their exemption will be discontinued if they don’t verify will go out Monday, Auditor Beth Davis says, adding there may be a follow-up letter next year. About one in four previously eligible homeowner households has yet to verify, she says.
Whitley County, where 1,064 homeowners, or about 10 percent, had not verified as of Tuesday, Auditor Jennifer McGuire says her office sent last reminder letters to non-verifiers earlier this month. Taxpayers were notified of the need to verify in 2010, 2011 and earlier this year, she says.
If there’s no response by the deadline, We’re going to go ahead and remove them (the deductions), she says. There’s been some talk about letting it go another year, but my feeling is that the ones who haven’t come in – there’s a reason. There’s something wrong. It may be because of a death or a divorce – or it may be the house is now being rented and doesn’t qualify.
Klutz says her office hasn’t decided what to do with homeowners who miss the deadline but doesn’t want to overpenalize them.
She says some auditors worry that unaware homeowners may be unable to pay their next, substantially higher, tax bill or not be able to pay their higher monthly mortgage payment. She doesn’t want homeowners to fall behind or lose their homes unnecessarily through tax sale or foreclosure down the road.
She encourages residents to use upcoming holiday gatherings to tell friends, co-workers and neighbors to verify.
The law intended homeowners to get one deduction, she says, and we want to grant that.