For those who had the credit and the need, last year was a great time to buy a home. Prices were low and the First-Time Homebuyer Credit was high.
But some who jumped on those opportunities got a stunning piece of mail last month: their property tax bill. It turns out, however, that many of those bills were defined by a big mistake. And it's fixable.
Ed Conarchy, a mortgage planner based in Vernon Hills, figured something was wrong when clients who recently bought homes in Cook County started calling him about a drastic increase in this year’s property taxes.
“They saw big jumps. I think someone had a $4,500 tax bill that took a jump up to $6,400. It was like a 46 percent increase. And then another client that went from $3,000 to $4,000 -- a 33 percent increase," Conarchy said about his "frantic” clients.
In Mt. Prospect, Dave and Courtney Thomas were among those with the unwelcome news in their mailbox.
"We opened the bill and saw the $2,000 difference, and it was pretty shocking when you get that bill," said Dave Thomas.
Conarchy did some digging and found the answer within the Cook County Assessor’s website. It turns out that many clients didn't receive the Homeowner Exemption figured in to their taxes as they should have.
When Conarchy explained the problem to them, he said none realized the onus was on them to ask the county for an exemption; they assumed it would rollover from the previous homeowner. In counties surrounding Chicago, they would have been correct. Lake, DuPage and Will automatically roll the exemption to the new homebuyer, if one has been in place. Cook County does not.
In his 20 years in the business, Conarchy said he has never seen such a rash of shell-shocked new homeowners.
"I was never aware of it. You know, is that the attorney’s job here to point it out? Is it the real estate agent’s job? Who’s really going to do that?” Conarchy asked.
The Cook County Assessor’s office said it does reach out to recent homebuyers, but only once per year. Every March, the office sends out a four-page booklet to the previous years’ buyers that outlines available exemptions, a spokesperson for the office told NBC Chicago.
Is that enough to inform new homebuyers? The Assessor’s Office said it has not received a high number of complaints about the process, but at least nine recent homebuyers contacted by Conarchy said they never received the booklet in question.
"Cook County claims that they do send out information, but what we came and found is that people say that they never received or remember receiving it. And if they did receive it, it didn't really stick out in any way," explained Conarchy.
Homeowners can get their bill revised by going to one of the Assessor’s offices and filing for the exemption and for a Certificate of Error on the spot. Alternately, they can file online and wait for a revised bill.
Dave Thomas went to the closest office and said he’s glad he had the day off from work.
"It seemed like a lot of people in front of me, and I was number 41 or something like that. And then the line behind me must have been 100. That was at eight in the morning when the assessor’s office opened,” Thomas said.
All told, he said it took him two-and-a-half hours but he got the bill revised that day.
"It turned to be $1300, so that was a significant chunk of change," he said.
A finance-guy-turned-gumshoe, Conarchy said his office will now direct new homebuyers to apply for the Homeowner Exemption in Cook County, but worries there may be many out there who assume the exemption rolled over.
"How many people are out there today that are due exemptions that could have an exemption that they’re not aware of?” he wondered aloud.
To find out what other kinds of exemptions exist and if you qualify for any, visit the website of your county: