How Are Property Taxes Calculated in California?

By: Ryan Cockerham | Updated December 27, 2018

In the state of California, property taxes can be a complex proposition. Due to a variety of statutes, exemptions and special taxes, knowing how to begin calculating your annual property tax obligation requires extensive knowledge and research. Although it is possible to simply use a property tax calculator to quickly create an estimate of your pending tax bill, fully understanding how this sum is derived may help you better plan your home improvements and property purchases over the short and long term.

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Effectively calculating your California property taxes will involve a series of steps. Not only must your statewide taxes be evaluated, but you must also factor in your county-level personal property taxes, as well as any special taxes. If your home has undergone improvements or renovations during the year, this will also influence your property tax bill.

Real Estate Taxes in California

As a fundamental rule, property taxes in California are obtained by taking the property's current tax-assessed value and multiplying it by the state's property tax rate. Following the successful passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, property tax rates on the state level are fixed at 1 percent. With that in mind, understanding this particular element of statewide property taxes is easily achieved.

In addition to this base level taxation, individuals may also be required to pay additional property county-level taxes. These tax rates may vary considerably based upon an individual's specific place of residence. According to recent calculations, county tax rates across the state of California are, on average, only slightly less than 1.25 percent. These county-level taxes encompass a variety of personal property as well as items used for business purposes. Examples of personal luxury items subjected to this tax are boats, private jets and other related items. On a business level, the county property tax encompasses any computers, furniture or other items that facilitate professional operation.

As a general rule, county property tax rates will typically increase in the denser, urban areas of the state. Essentially, these property taxes are designed to supplement the fixed state rates and ensure that the necessary funding for public services is obtained.

Exploring California's Special Taxes

Although statewide property tax and personal property taxes assessed on the county level can be expected on an annual basis, certain special taxes may be introduced to offset the costs of various public projects. An example of a special tax is the Mello-Roos tax. A Mello-Roos tax is used by municipalities within California to acquire funding needed for local projects, such as improving pre-existing infrastructure or investing in schools. A Mello-Roos tax may prove to be useful in situations where state funding cannot adequately cover a local public project that has been deemed by residents and administrators to be beneficial to the common good.

In order for a Mello-Roos tax to be implemented, it must first be approved by at least two-thirds of eligible district voters. Failure to acquire this level of consent will prohibit the implementation of the taxes. As a general rule, individuals cannot deduct Mello-Roos on their personal tax return (although specific exceptions to this rule may apply at certain times).

When Mello-Roos taxes are confirmed through a vote, the funding manifests itself as a 20- to 40-year bond, which taxpayers will be required to collectively pay off. When an individual buys a home in a Mello-Roos district, they will be given the option to completely pay their share of the Mello-Roos tax in one lump sum if they so choose.

Evaluating Proposition 13 In-Depth

As mentioned previously, Proposition 13 effectively placed a hard limit on property tax in California, fixing statewide rates at 1 percent. This is not the only legislation incorporated into Proposition 13, however. In addition to imposing a hard limit on property tax rates, Proposition 13 also ruled that a property's tax assessed value cannot legally be increased more than 2 percent on an annual basis.

At the beginning of the new year, the county board of assessors for each county in California completes a reassessment for all local properties. At the culmination of this process, it is not uncommon for the vast majority of properties to increase in tax assessed value by the maximum allowed amount of 2 percent. When this process is completed, individuals are then taxed at the standard 1 percent allowable statewide rate.

Multiple Property Assessments and Taxes

Of particular interest, however, is the fact that any construction and improvements undertaken on a property throughout the year may lead to multiple taxable assessments and, consequently, multiple tax payments. For example, if you completed a significant renovation of your property in October, you may be required to pay a 1 percent tax of the home's original value for nine months and 1 percent on the renovated home's value (typically an increase) for the remaining three months. All information relating to property improvements will be collected by the assessor and factored into your property tax obligations for the year.

In a situation where an individual, for whatever reason, does not pay their property taxes, significant penalties await them. When an individual chooses not to pay their county-level personal property taxes, it is within the legal right of county officials to either impose financial penalties on the individual in question or place a lien on the property.

Moving Forward With Property Taxes

Now that you better understand how your taxes are being assessed, you can use a property tax calculator to rapidly create a close estimate of your annual tax burden. Keep in mind that these figures may be adjusted due to changes in property tax rates or the implementation of a special tax at some point throughout the year. Also, if you are planning on moving at any point, it may be worth your time to explore what particular special taxes are currently being subsidized by taxpayers in your destination of choice. All of this information will influence the amount of tax you will be responsible for paying at the end of the year.

As a general rule, consult with a tax professional if you have any questions about your property tax obligations. Given the harsh penalties that can result from missed payments or filing inaccuracies, it is in your best interest to ensure that you have all of the fine details correct regarding your property taxes before you file. Taking the time to resolve any filing issues you have now may help you streamline this process and save you time and money in the future. Your county tax assessor may also be able to help you better understand how your property's value influences your tax obligations at year's end.

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About the Author

Ryan Cockerham is a nationally recognized author specializing in all things business and finance. His work has served the business, nonprofit and political community. Ryan's work has been featured on PocketSense, Zacks Investment Research, SFGate Home Guides, Bloomberg, HuffPost and more.

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