If your home's value has plunged in the downturn, you could get some relief

Home prices still are far below their highs just a few years ago. One bittersweet perk for homeowners is that property taxes should be lower, too.

If your home's value has tumbled, you may be able to slash hundreds of dollars from your tax bill by appealing its assessed value. That's because local governments generally don't reassess homes every year, meaning the values they use to levy property taxes may be outdated.

Just how much you could save depends on your real estate market. But nationally, home prices still are about 30 percent below their peak in 2006.

The appeal process varies depending on your area, but here's a guide on the steps you'll need to take.

Property taxes are assessed on a local level. Most homes are only assessed by one jurisdiction, whether it's a town, city or county. But if your home has more than one assessment — for example, if you live in a village within a town — you need to file appeals with both jurisdictions since they operate independently.

You can start by searching for your assessor's Web site, where you'll find the form to file an appeal. It will probably be a page or two, and ask for basic information and your home's parcel or lot number. The latter should be listed on your mortgage or property tax bill, or you might be able to look it up on the assessor's Web site.

Deadlines for appealing an assessment in a particular year are often in the spring, so get moving if you're seriously considering it.

Filing fees vary; it could be free, it may be a flat fee of $15 or so.

There are two important technicalities to understand, but they're simple to grasp and shouldn't daunt you.

The first is your home's assessed value. This is the basis for your property tax, and isn't always the same as your home's market value.

Some local governments assess homes at a fraction of their market value. For example, if the assessment rate is 60 percent, the assessed value of a $1 million home would be $600,000.

The appeal form will likely ask for assessed values, so you may have to do a little math once you've collected market values on comparable homes.

Assessment rates can change from year to year too, depending on the area's funding needs.

It's also important to know the date your area's assessments are based on. In New Jersey, for example, homes are assessed by local governments on Oct. 1 of the previous tax year. So if you're requesting a new assessment for 2010, you'd need to research home prices from around Oct. 1, 2009.

If you're having trouble finding either the assessment rate or date, don't be afraid to call your assessor's office and ask.

The bulk of your work will be collecting the evidence to make your case.

There are several ways you can do this. The first is to go to your assessor's office, which might keep a database of all sales in the area.

You can also search free Web sites such as ColdwellBanker.com, Remax.com, MoveUp.com and Zillow.com. It's best to get actual sale prices, but listed prices should provide a good baseline if there haven't been any recent sales in your area.

Collect data on three to five properties. Make sure they're similar in size and style, and were built around the same time. Point out why the houses are comparable to yours, and note any significant differences that could affect values, such as proximity to a busy street.

Also note if your home is near any foreclosed or vacant homes, which are known to lower property value.

It's important to show you did your homework, but there's no need to submit a 50-page appeal, said David Wilkes, an attorney who specializes property taxes and assessments at Huff Wilkes & Cavallara in Tarrytown, N.Y.

Given all the information online now, most people should be able to put together an appeal on their own. But if you're truly daunted, you can pay for a new appraisal. Just be sure the appraiser you hire is licensed. Many real estate brokers offer appraisal services, but may not have official licenses.

On the high end, Wilkes said an appraisal might cost about $500.

It's wise to check on the status of your appeal a few weeks after you file. But don't panic if you don't hear back right away. Local assessor offices often are swamped with appeals and may take months to get back to you.

If your appeal is denied, you're usually given a window of time to request a hearing in tax court.

This isn't as intimidating as it sounds, and you probably still won't need a lawyer, Wilkes said. It may just be that you have to state your case more clearly to the review board.

"It's another bite at the apple," Wilkes said.

In the meantime, continue paying your property tax bills. If you ultimately win your case, any money you overpaid should be refunded.

If you have a consumer question or comment you'd like to share, e-mail Candice Choi at cchoi@ap.org.