Step 1: Visit your local assessor. Your tax bill should give the office’s location. (Typically it’s in a town or county building.) Inquire in advance about which forms you must fill out and when the deadline for filing is. (You usually have 60 days or less from the time your annual assessment was mailed to lodge an appeal.) While there, get a copy of your property card, which contains information about your house, like square footage and the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, that the assessor uses to determine its value.
Step 2: Check the property card for mistakes. Look for math errors (property taxes are generally based on a percentage of a property’s value, multiplied by a tax rate set by the local government); clerical errors, such as how your property is classified (commercial vs. residential); and inaccurate descriptions that indicate your home is worth more than it is (a mention of a nonexistent porch, say). Catching such simple mistakes may lead to a reduced assessment.
Step 3: Compare your home’s value with that of others in the neighborhood. This public information can be found at your local municipality or online at valueappeal.com or domania.com. Look up homes that are close to yours in terms of location, age, size, and amenities, then note their appraisals. “If your home is valued at least 5 percent higher than houses comparable to yours, you have a case,” says Jim Lumley, the author of Challenge Your Taxes (John Wiley & Sons, $25, amazon.com).
Step 4: File an appeal. While the rules for appeals vary from one state to the next, most require you to submit a written statement to a county board explaining why the evaluation is inaccurate. You must support this claim with hard evidence: property cards, other house valuations, and even photos can be useful when comparing your home with others. And be sure to mention your home’s flaws (a leaky roof, termite damage). Those problems might save you enough cash that you’ll be able to afford to fix them.
Myth: One Credit Card Is All You Need
Fact: Before the recession began in 2007, that may have been true. But since then issuers have been closing accounts and cutting limits, even on customers with good credit histories, says Linda Sherry, a spokesperson for Consumer Action, a San Francisco–based watchdog group.
As a result, you need at least two credit cards (excluding store cards), since you may never know when an issuer will slash your limit or close your account, says Gerri Detweiler, a personal-finance adviser for Credit.com, an independent education website. Also, the average limit on a new card is now just $3,972, down from $4,897 in 2008, according to Equifax, and at times you may need to make larger charges.
Your main card should be a rewards card, ideally a no-fee cash-back version, which will give you a rebate of up to 5 percent on everyday purchases, from gas to groceries. (See The Top 5 Rewards Cards for great card suggestions.)
The second card should be a backup, to be used primarily for emergency expenses, says Detweiler—for example, your refrigerator dies and you need a new one right away. Make sure the card has a low interest rate (look for an annual percentage rate, or APR, in the midteens, ideally lower than 12 percent) and a high limit, such as $5,000 or more. Then remember to use the backup card occasionally—for a tank of gas or a dinner out—since you could lose the account if your card is inactive. “You won’t have an established history with the issuer, so they may view you as a liability, since you have all this outstanding credit that you could tap into suddenly,” says Barry Paperno, a consumer-operations manager for MyFICO.com, the consumer division of the credit-score company FICO.
If you already have more than two cards, as lots of people do, don’t rush to close the extra accounts. Keep them, as long as you’re using them responsibly—meaning, you pay the balance every month and maintain a credit-utilization ratio under 10 percent. But if you have problems keeping on top of all of them—you don’t always pay your bills on time and often carry a balance on multiple cards—then you might want to reduce the number you’re