Massachusetts homeowners paying more than they should in property taxes

Mistakes in your property records could cost you a lot of money on your tax bill. But as Boston 25 News discovered, towns are protected by the state from paying you back - so it's up to homeowners to find those mistakes.

Norwell resident Lisa Sylvester told Boston News anchor Nicole Oliverio that she did a double take when she checked her property record on her town's online database.

"I almost fell over because I noticed that I had a large addition, it was a garage," Sylvester said. "And it didn't belong there because it's not on the house."

She went into the Norwell Assessors office and looked at her property card.

The address was hers, but the picture of the home and many of the features were not.

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"This isn't just a mistake, everything is wrong here," Sylvester said.

Across town, Carolee Kelley had a problem with her assessment too.

"When I built my garage in 2006 - a garage - they charged me for two houses!" Kelley said.

She asked the town's building department to pull the original plans on her split-level home.

"It's not my house. It's not [my] plans. And I went 'Oh my God,' 32 years that's been in that file," Kelley added.

For years, both women have been paying more in property taxes than they should for homes that were incorrectly coded and for features that don’t exist. If the women hadn't checked, they never would have known anything was wrong.

Boston 25 News has learned that, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the onus is on the homeowner to find the mistake.

"There's not really a regular system of notifying each person of each and every change," said Norwell's Chairwoman of the Board of Assessors, Joan Osborne.

Osborne told Boston 25 News she couldn't speak about specific owners' property records but admitted there can be mistakes.

"Errors do happen. It could be a matter of an outside contractor who is doing a drive-by assessment of a particular area," Osborne said. "I think this is a statewide issue, I don't think it's relative to just Norwell."

Representative David DeCoste hopes to change that.

DeCoste knows about the problems first hand, after being taxed on a garage and other features that didn't exist on his home.

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He's looking to file legislation that would benefit the taxpayer, hopefully in the fall.

"We're all human and the records aren't perfect, but there really needs to be a better way to verify what's on the cards with what actually exists," Rep. DeCoste said.

Homeowners can take steps to make sure they're not over-paying:

  • Every year, check your property record either online or in person.
  • Keep an eye on square footage, outbuildings, and home style.
  • If you find a mistake, apply for an abatement.
  • If your abatement is denied, you can take your case to the appellate tax board.

According to state law, even if you win, you can only recover one year's worth of losses.

Sylvester and Kelley are both still fighting their assessments.

"I don't think I'll ever be able to establish what I was being inappropriately charged," Sylvester said.