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City, town and county governments assess property taxes to fund public goods, such as schools, road repairs, and police and fire departments. In some areas, homeowners pay taxes to the city or county, as well as separate bills for schools, water and sewer services. If you’re looking for a new house, be sure to take property taxes into consideration so you don’t go over budget. If you failed to pay your property taxes, the local government could take possession of your home to cover the debt.

How Are Property Taxes Calculated?
Property taxes are determined by multiplying a property’s assessed value by the local tax rate. The assessed value is generally less than the purchase price or appraised value. Local tax rates vary depending on several factors.

Your real estate agent may be able to provide you with a tax estimate based on the current owner’s property taxes, but you might end up having to pay a different amount. In some communities, properties are automatically reassessed after sale. Reassessments can also occur at regular intervals or after home improvements are made. In addition, local tax rates can be adjusted periodically if the community’s needs change or if the government needs to raise money to make up for budget shortfalls.

How Are Taxes Collected?
In many cases, a lender rolls estimated property taxes into monthly mortgage payments. That allows homeowners to make one payment that includes the mortgage, homeowners insurance, private mortgage insurance (if the owner put down less than 20 percent), and taxes. The lender puts the money for property taxes in an escrow account and pays the local government when taxes are due.

Combining everything makes budgeting easier for homeowners and helps them avoid the shock of getting a property tax bill they can’t afford to pay. This also helps local governments know that they’ll receive tax payments on time and not have to send repeated letters or take legal action to collect taxes.

When a lender collects tax payments along with mortgage payments, the amount collected is based on an estimate. The actual amount of taxes owed may be higher or lower, so you could wind up getting a bill or a refund.

Look at the Big Picture
Many homebuyers focus only on the price of a house instead of the total cost of ownership. Property taxes could break your budget. Before you decide to buy a house, be sure that you understand which entities would charge you taxes, how they’d be calculated, what the current assessed value of the house is, and how the assessed value and your tax bills might change in the future.

Consider the principal and interest for a mortgage, plus insurance and property taxes. If the sum of all those numbers is more than your budget can handle, you should probably look for another house.

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