Property tax tips for seniors

Oak Park assessor details ways to freeze, lower, or defer liability

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

If you own your home or condominium in Oak Park or River Forest, your most recent property tax bill should have just landed in your mailbox. Oak Park Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar says that for local seniors, there is a new policy this year to be aware of and a couple of existing policies that bear repeating.

The Senior Exemption is available to all homeowners aged 65 or older, regardless of income. The exemption reduces the Equalized Assessed Value of a senior's home by $8,000.

Because Cook County taxes in paid arrears, ElSaffar said this means that if an owner of a property was born in 1954 or earlier, and was 65 or older in 2019, they can claim the exemption if they used the property as their principal residence in 2019. 

For married couples, the first person to reach 65 qualifies the household for the exemption.

ElSaffar said that last year, a little more than 3,500 senior exemptions were issued for Oak Park, which represents about 23 percent of Oak Park households. He adds that for most in Oak Park, the Senior Exemption resulted in savings of about $1,000 last year.

 

Senior Exemption renewal dropped

The new law taking effect this year, which applies only to the Senior Exemption, eliminates the annual renewal requirement for the Senior Exemption. Senior citizens who qualify for the exemption one year, will continue to qualify in the future without having to submit renewal applications each tax year. 

ElSaffar stated it has been at least 10 years since the county had auto-renewal for the Senior Exemption. He notes that the new law makes things easier. 

"No one had created a fountain of youth that rolled back the clock," ElSaffar said. "Once you qualify, you continue to be old enough to qualify."

ElSaffar says that if you qualified for the exemption last year, the county will mail you a postcard to confirm the continued exemption, a cost-savings move. ElSaffar stresses the new seniors still have to apply to receive the exemption the first year. 

Residents who are new senior citizens, that is born in 1954 and turned 65 in 2019 and just became eligible for the exemption, should apply for the exemption by accessing the exemption application on the Cook County Assessor's website (cookcountyassessor.com) or reaching out to the Oak Park Township Assessor's Office (708-383-8005) for more information on the exemption.

The return to the automatic renewal will be an efficiency for local township assessors like ElSaffar. He states that residents would forget to renew the senior exemption and not realize it until they received their second installment property tax bill in the summer. 

"We'd have to file for certificates of error for a lot of people in that situation," ElSaffar said. "It was a lot of paperwork and time."

Unlike the Senior Exemption, the Senior Freeze continues to have to be renewed on a yearly basis. ElSaffar says it is important to distinguish the freeze from the exemption. The Senior Freeze provides additional tax savings for low- to moderate-income seniors. Because it is income-based, it must be applied for every year. If the combined income of all members of the household is less than $65,000, and if the senior has been an owner occupant of the property since Jan. 1, 2018, they can qualify for the freeze.

Any senior who received the freeze last year should have received their renewal application in the mail the week of Jan. 13. Seniors who are qualifying for a freeze for the first time this year should visit the Cook County Assessor's website for a freeze application or go to the Oak Park Township Assessors Office, 105 S. Oak Park Ave. 

The forms must be returned by Feb. 13, but ElSaffar encourages any senior who is having trouble meeting the deadline to bring their paperwork to the township assessor's office.

 

Tax deferral option

A third, less-frequently utilized program available for senior homeowners is the Property Tax Deferral Program. Under this program, senior citizens aged 65 or older who are struggling to pay their property taxes can defer payment until their homes or condominiums are sold. 

This program allows seniors to defer as much as $5,000 of their property tax bill each year. Applications for deferral are due March 1.

ElSaffar says the program is not used a lot, noting that there are only roughly 2,000 households in Cook County who use it.

"For those that qualify, it's nice program," ElSaffar said. "It's sort of similar to a reverse mortgage. A lot of seniors are house rich and cash poor once they've paid off their homes and stopped working. This is for those situations."

He points out that the 6 percent interest collected is simple interest, not compounded. To assure repayment, a lien is placed on the senior's home that will prevent it from being sold until the debt is repaid. 

In order to qualify for the program, the annual household income must be less than $55,000, the equity in the home must exceed the sum of property taxes deferred, and the homeowners have to have lived in their homes at least three years. Properties such as two-flats that generate income are not eligible for the program.

ElSaffar notes that seniors interested in learning more about the deferral program and other tax benefits available to seniors can contact his office at 708-383-8005. He stresses that those homeowners who are eligible for the deferral are also eligible for the Senior Exemption and Senior Freeze, so it makes sense to apply for all available senior benefits prior to seeking a deferral in order to reduce the property tax liability.

At the end of the day, ElSaffar says it's important the local senior citizen population is aware of all three programs. 

"It's a nice idea. They are designed to keep people in their homes," ElSaffar said. "It's good public policy to keep people in their homes as they age."

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