Audit: hundreds in Travis County getting property tax break they shouldn’t

Investigations

TRAVIS COUNTY (KXAN) — The house across the street from Josh Rivera looks vacant.

He hasn’t seen anyone living there in at least six months.

“You really don’t see much activity at the home,” he said.

For five years, the owner of that Deloney Street property was granted a tax break that they shouldn’t have gotten, totaling more than $8,000.

This homeowner was one of 353 to have an improper homestead exemption removed by the Travis Central Appraisal District after an audit.

In order to qualify for a homestead exemption on a home, you must own it and live there.

Those who are 65 and older have a disability can qualify for an additional exemption.

But in some cases, Chief Appraiser Marya Crigler says homeowners have homestead exemptions on different homes or aren’t living in the home they’re getting a tax break on.

That’s illegal, yet none of the 353 names were referred to law enforcement.

“When we find people who we know committed fraud, we would refer them over to the County Attorney’s Office,” said Crigler.

But Crigler tells KXAN that hasn’t happened for a couple of years.

She says for one, homestead fraud is hard to prove.

Crigler says homeowners often move, pass away, or get divorced.

Households change, and exemptions aren’t updated.

“A lot of it is just a misunderstanding of what is allowed or permissible by law,” she said.

Chris Beer of Green City Realty says homeowners don’t often know they’re even entitled to a homestead exemption, much less what’s legal.

“With first-time homebuyers, they’re not even aware what the homestead exemption is,” said Beer.

Some homeowners received tax breaks close to $20,000 from improper homesteads exemptions.

TCAD says the County Tax Collector’s office has been working to recover the taxes that should have been levied.

KXAN reached out to the local homeowners who received the biggest tax breaks, going to those homes in some cases.

We learned some of them, in fact, were no longer living there. Others who could be reached by phone declined to speak with us at all.

Because of the audit, over $65 million in property value was re-added to the county tax rolls.

But Crigler says catching improper exemptions when homeowners apply for them is a continuous challenge for TCAD.

“There is no statewide database that would allow us to do that in an easy manner,” she said. “We would have to go to 254 appraisal districts and research their websites in order to determine whether someone is claiming an exemption somewhere else.”

KXAN’s Anthony Cave contributed to this story.

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