Who should represent you?
In recent weeks, there has been a battle raging between Allegheny County Council and the Allegheny County Bar Association over whether appraisers and real estate agents should be able to represent homeowners at their formal hearings for real estate tax assessment appeals. Homeowners can choose to represent themselves at the hearing or hire a representative. The representative can be a real estate agent, certified appraiser or attorney. Only licensed attorneys can represent people in court. However, because the formal hearing is not held in a court, real estate agents and appraisers have been allowed to represent homeowners in the past.
The Allegheny County Bar Association expressed concern over this. The Bar Association feels that while the formal hearings are not held in a court, the real estate agents and appraisers are acting like attorneys and violating the law by practicing law without a license. The Allegheny County Board of Property Assessment Appeals and Review, which holds the formal hearings, agreed with the Bar Association and made a rule that only licensed attorneys could represent homeowners at their formal hearings.
Affordable representation for homeowners
Allegheny County Council, which oversees the Allegheny County Board of Property Assessment Appeals and Review, struck down the rule allowing only licensed attorneys to represent homeowners at their formal real estate tax assessment hearings. Council members didn’t want homeowners to be faced with the choice of paying money they didn’t have to hire an expensive attorney or not having any help to fight their real estate tax assessment. They think that allowing non-attorneys to handle the formal hearings provides a less-expensive alternative for homeowners. The Allegheny County Bar Association was understandably upset by Allegheny County Council’s actions and it is unlikely that we’ve heard the last of this issue.
In the meantime, who should you hire if you have a real estate tax assessment appeal hearing upcoming? Are attorneys really more expensive than a real estate agent or appraiser? Are real estate agents and appraiser acting like attorneys when they represent homeowners at formal hearings?
While the issue is still being resolved, it is always safest to hire an attorney instead of a real estate agent or appraiser to represent you at the hearing. Even though your formal assessment hearing isn’t held in front of a judge or in a courtroom, it is very much like a court hearing, because you must be sworn in to testify, your testimony is recorded and you must present evidence in order to win. I think it is likely that this dispute will be resolved in the Bar Association’s favor. Also, if you would need help at the next level of appeal, the Board of Viewers, only an attorney can represent you there.
Quality is worth the price
The fees charged by both attorneys and non-attorneys differ from person to person and case to case. In my experience, attorneys are not significantly more expensive than non-attorneys. It is important to remember that the fees are not as important as the end result. If you save $100 by hiring a non-attorney (or a bad, inexperienced attorney for that matter) over an experienced attorney, but lose your case, you still have wasted the money you spent. Most people would prefer to pay the extra $100 to get a good result, especially when that good result could save you thousands of dollars in real estate taxes over the years.
There are still tens of thousands of Allegheny County homeowners that are waiting to have their formal real estate tax assessment appeal hearing. The outcome of the conflict between Allegheny County Council and the Allegheny County Bar Association will have a big impact on these homeowners. If you are one of these homeowners, be sure that you choose your representative wisely and only trust your case to someone that truly qualified to perform the job at hand.