The autumn wave of real estate property tax bills came due starting in September – and across the country, homeowners are panicked about rising property tax bills in the face of substantial property value declines.

It isn’t just that property values are down as much as 55 percent from the high point several years ago. It’s that many local communities and states are broke, and are increasingly relying on expected property tax revenues to support flagging income and sales tax revenue.

Getting your property tax bill adjusted may not be easy – but it is doable, provided you take the time to prepare.

Step #1: Call your tax assessor’s office or tax collector’s office or go online to find out what exemptions you’re entitled to take – and make sure any tax reductions you are entitled to are reflected on your real estate tax bill.

The first step you need to take in protesting your property taxes is to make sure you get every benefit — every reduction — you are entitled to.

Each county offers slightly different property tax exemptions. And each state and county has its own government agency that handles real estate taxation. For example, in Fulton County, Georgia (which includes Atlanta), the Board of Assessor’s website lists “tax relief” programs that residents may be eligible to take, including a basic homestead exemption, a $10,000 statewide school tax exemption, several senior (age 65+) tax exemptions, a tax exemption for the surviving spouse of a peace officer or firefighter, a veterans tax exemption, and an exemption for the surviving spouse of a veteran.

In Cook County, Illinois (which includes Chicago), residents may be eligible for a standard homeowners’ tax exemption, a senior tax exemption, a senior property tax freeze, a home improvement tax exemption, a returning veterans’ tax exemption, a disabled veterans’ tax exemption or a disabled persons’ tax exemption.

You may qualify for one or more exemptions. Your local tax assessor’s office website or the website for the office that handles real estate taxes is the place to start.

Step #2: Figure out the timing of your appeal to protest your property taxes.

When most taxing bodies change your property’s valuation, they send out notices to homeowners. Homeowners have a certain amount of time to contest or protest the proposed valuation of the property. You may have as little as 30 days to file a property tax appeal with the property taxing body.

In some states, each individual township will have a different tax appeal deadline for contesting your property taxes or protesting your property taxes. In others, the entire county must file an appeal by the same day. If you blow the property tax appeal deadline, you might have to wait until the following year or tax cycle to appeal any issues you might have with your bill.

Step #3: Figure out on what basis you’re contesting and protesting your property tax bill.

Mistakes happen. It’s possible that your tax bill contains errors. If you’ve seen a copy of your property record card (it may be available at the tax assessor’s or other taxing body’s office or online), you can check it for errors. For example, the tax office may have your house listed as having five bedrooms, when you only have three. Or, the square footage of the house or lot could be off. Fixing these kinds of errors can reduce your property tax bill.

In some counties, frontage counts. That means if your property lot has 50 feet of water frontage on a lake, you pay more than someone that has 40 feet of water frontage, even if the lots are the same square footage. If the taxing authorities mix up your information and your lot is 200 feet by 50 feet with 50 feet of lake frontage, but they have your property down as having 200 feet of lake frontage, you tax bill may be way off and you’ll need to fix that mistake.

Is your property tax bill higher than other similar homes in the area? You can check your property’s tax classification and other elements that go into computing your real estate assessment, and then pull the tax bills of other homes in the area. If you’re being charged more than other similar homes, that could be the basis of an appeal and give you the right path to fight your property taxes.

Step #4: Document the basis of your appeal.

Documenting why your property is being overtaxed is where many homeowners fall down on the job. You have to prove the basis of your claim to an overworked government employee who is looking for reasons to deny your claim.

Once you’ve figured out the basis of your appeal, you need to take photos of the properties in your tax classification that are similar to yours, whose owners are paying less in property taxes than you are. Next, gather all of the pertinent tax information about these properties. Create a file folder of this information that you can present at your appeal or contest (and leave for further review). Make sure you keep a copy of your appeal application and supporting documentation.

Step #5: If your appeal fails, find out if there are further appeals open to you to fight your property taxes.

In some counties, the property tax appeals process allows you to go beyond the initial appeal if you’re turned down for a tax reduction, or if you don’t like the reduction you’re given. Some states have multiple step appeal process that may start at the local level and work its way up to the state level. Make sure you understand these deadlines and any other documentation you’ll need for a further appeal.

Step #6: Consider hiring a tax appeals attorney.

There are attorneys who specializing in handling property tax appeals cases. The nice thing about using one of these attorneys is that they understand what has to be done – this is what they do, day in and day out.

Also, these attorneys tend to charge you only a portion of the savings you’ll realize from any reduction you receive in your tax bill. In some cases, where the savings may extend over several years, they may structure their fee based on a percentage of the first years’ savings. But you don’t pay them unless you receive a tax reduction.

To find an attorney, talk to your friends, relatives and neighbors to see if anyone has had luck with a tax appeal attorney. You can also call your local bar association for a referral.

For more information, read these other articles protesting property taxes:

Fighting Property Taxes When House Values Drop: Tax Sale Home Purchase

Fighting Property Taxes When House Values Drop