The taxation of different types of property has been a vital means for local governments to collect revenue since the early days of the American republic. Property tax is not a source of revenue for the federal government, though. All property taxes, on both real and personal property, are based on state statutes.
Real property taxes are used across the United States to pay for a wide range of public services, including the costs of public schools, police and fire protection, road maintenance, and other municipal services.
A property tax is what is commonly known as an “ad valorem” tax, one that is assessed based on the assessed value of goods or services provided. Though property taxes may apply to many types of property, from real estate to household goods or even intangible property, the most common type of property tax is on real property—all states have some form of real property tax. Typically, property taxes are paid on an annual basis.
The American colonies had well-established property tax systems in place long before the American Revolution. Property taxes in colonial America generally took one of two forms—either a fixed tax on a specific item or an ad valorem tax. It’s a little-known historical fact that the assessment and collection of property taxes to fund the Revolutionary War caused significant tension within the colonies.
At the beginning of the 19th century, no uniformity existed across the states with respect to property taxation, but by the end of the century, most states had amended their constitutions to make all property taxes based on assessed value. Most other aspects of the real property taxes in the United States have remained unchanged since the American Revolution.
Though the details of the process vary somewhat from state to state, the general process for assessing a real property tax looks essentially the same everywhere. The first step involves the determination by an elected official (the tax assessor) of the fair market value of the property, based on improvements, location, and other factors. Once the property is assessed, the taxing authority multiplies that value by the “mill levy” or “millage tax” to determine the amount due.
In 2020, the average American homeowner paid just over one percent (1.1%) of the assessed value of his or her home in property taxes. That amounted to an average of $3,719. The real property tax rates vary dramatically, though, from state to state, with Hawaii, Alabama, and West Virginia boasting the lowest rates (0.37, 0.44 and 0.51 respectively) and New Jersey, Illinois, and Texas levying the highest rates (2.2, 2.18 and 2.15 respectively).
While real property is assessed at its fair market value, that does not include consideration of any increase or decrease in value because of negotiations involved in the sale of the property. The assessed value includes the impact of any improvements to the property, such as a pool, and factors in the location of the property. Taxpayers have the right to appeal the assessed value of their property if they believe it is too high.
Though the rules are different in every state, it’s common for certain entities, such as religious organizations or governmental bodies, to be excluded from liability for property taxes. Furthermore, many states provide special exemptions for individuals in certain classifications, such as veterans, seniors, or persons with a disability. Most states offer some level of homestead exemption for people living in the property being taxed.
In virtually every state, the penalties for non-payment of a property tax are progressive and time-based. Commonly, if you don’t pay your real property tax when due, interest will immediately start to accrue on the amount due (usually around 1% per month). After a period of time, that rate will jump and will continue to do so. For example, the rate after three months may go up to 5-6%, but the rate after one year may be as much as 40%. Most states allow the tax authority to put a lien on your property for the unpaid taxes. If you fail to pay the arrearages by a certain date, the taxing authority may exercise the lien, take your property, and put it up for auction at a tax sale.
There is no difference between a real property tax and a real estate tax. A real property tax, however, may be distinguished from a “property tax,” a general term that includes not only taxes levied on real property but also on personal property such as vehicles, boats, and other items. About half of U.S. states levy annual property taxes on vehicles.
In the United States, all property taxes are paid to local governments. There is no federal property tax. Every state has some form of real property tax and, while there are minor differences from state to state, real property taxes are generally ad valorem taxes, assessed on the value of the property. The failure to pay property taxes when due can potentially lead to the seizure of your property and its sale at auction.
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