Is your car really worth what the tax office says? Here’s what happens if you appeal.

You might wonder, as its owner did a few months ago, how tax officials could decide a rusty 1957 Chevrolet sedan with 250,000 miles on the odometer is worth $35,200.

It turns out the Charlotte car had been incorrectly listed on rolls as a restored classic, the Chevy Nomad station wagon. The Mecklenburg County assessor’s office acknowledged the error and assigned it a new value as an antique auto: $500.

Welcome to the rarely-visited world of motor vehicle tax values, which may raise your eyebrows when the bill comes but Mecklenburg residents rarely bother to challenge.

Those who do stand an excellent chance of winning, according to county data, typically seeing reductions in value of several thousand dollars.

Residential real estate values, which the county mailed out in July, more likely make taxpayers cringe. A new property revaluation and county budget meant most property owners will pay more taxes. A troubled revaluation in 2011 prompted thousands of property owners to dispute their valuations, and the county issued about $100 million in refunds.

But the county also taxes motor vehicles, with the bills payable when state registrations are renewed each year. Vehicle valuations are set by the state but, like home values, can be appealed to the county.

Of the more than 800,000 Mecklenburg County vehicles taxed in the fiscal year that ended June 30, county data show, only 188 valuations were appealed. Seventy percent of the appeals succeeded, shaving an average of 34% or $8,349 off the vehicles’ appraised values. That reduction at last year’s tax rates would save a Charlotte resident $109.

The savings are modest, but some taxpayers say they’re worth their effort.

Charlotte driver Bob Hackney, who co-owns a car service, racks up miles on his 2016 Lincoln sedan. His appeal in January of its $23,000 tax value, which Hackney felt didn’t reflect the car’s high mileage, was straightforward. But resolving it took six months, a delay for which he said tax staff apologized and blamed on a new office system.

Hackney submitted the car’s most recent inspection report to back up his claim, as well as Kelley Blue Book values that showed the car was worth much less than the tax value. The assessor’s staff was persuaded by the mileage but not the Blue Book. The 28% reduction he was granted, to $16,589, won him a refund of about $80 from his tax bill. Hackney figures the reduction was actually worth more than that because it will apply in future tax years.

“Eighty dollars is more than I had when I started,” Hackney said. “Now that it will be carried forward, it’s definitely worth it.”

State supplies vehicle values

Unlike real estate values, which are generated in-house, Mecklenburg County gets vehicle values from the state Department of Revenue. The department, in turn, feeds sales data from state-registered car dealers to a vendor, TEC Data Systems, which then calculates median values for all makes, models and years. Median values are adjusted for depreciation and market values are provided to counties.

The median values are viewed as guides that can be adjusted based on more specific information, department spokesman Schorr Johnson said.

“Prices are estimates of vehicles assumed to be in average condition for their age,” the department advises counties. “Any vehicle that is not in average condition should be adjusted on an individual basis according to the best information available.”

Vehicle values may be appealed by filling out a form and sending it to the assessor’s office within 30 days of the tax due date. Owners have to first pay the tax, then get a refund if the appeal is granted.

While formal appeals go to the county’s Board of Equalization and Review, most are resolved informally by staff members. Adjustments typically are made for factors such as high mileage or body damage, county assessor Ken Joyner said. Owners have to document their claims, and staff reviewers verify them.

The Observer reviewed records for a sampling of appeals, those filed in January. Each of the 14 appeals filed that month received reductions in value. Many cited National Automobile Dealers Association value estimates, which can be obtained online.

Joyner won’t speculate on why, in light of the high success rate, relatively few taxpayers appeal their vehicle values. But he downplays the notion the county could lose millions of dollars in revenue if more taxpayers challenged the values.

He says while he routinely hears from the public about home values, “nobody mentions vehicle values.”

“I get a significant number of calls in a year on motor vehicles, probably two to four a month,” he said. “The majority have sold the vehicle or are turning in a (license) plate and want to pro-rate the taxes. I’m not sure the last time I got a phone call about the actual value of a vehicle.”

Carrie Hintson, who lives in Davidson, has some experience with appealing car tax values — she and her husband have done so three times and gotten reductions each time, once saving nearly $300 in taxes. She says the process isn’t consistent. Twice she was allowed to email paperwork and finished the appeals by phone.

When she appealed for a third time in January, Hintson, a flight attendant, said she had to call repeatedly to learn the resolution. Her BMW SUV was assessed at $35,000 but the tax office agreed to reduce it to $27,000, in line with the NADA value that Hintson submitted.

“It is a little frustrating that you have to jump through hoops,” she said. “I think most people look at the bill and just pay it.”

Even so, Hintson says the appeals are worth the effort.

“Absolutely,” she said. “I feel like we pay enough in taxes. Even though it’s just $50, it’s my $50.”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer