Rates relief options available

There are options if you’re struggling to pay your rates.

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Council rates rose 3.6 percent in the year to June, well ahead of the 0.3 percent rise in general inflation. Auckland households are faced with a 4.2 percent increase over the next 12 months.

There are a couple of options you can explore if you’re feeling the financial pinch, but you need to fulfil certain criteria to be eligible.

The Rates Rebate Scheme helps low-income homeowners by providing a subsidy to help cover the cost of rates. The maximum subsidy is currently $610 and the income threshold is $24,440.

Even if a ratepayer’s income exceeds the threshold, they could still qualify depending on the rates amount and the number of dependents they have. There’s an additional income allowance of $500 per dependent.

The Department of Internal Affairs’ website has information on the scheme and a rebate calculator. Homeowners can apply for the 2015/2016 rating rebate up until 30 June 2016.

Unfortunately, if you’re in a retirement village unit with a “licence to occupy” you’re not eligible for the Rates Rebate Scheme. The village owner is regarded as the ratepayer. However, Auckland Council has an arrangement with some villages so occupants can claim back nearly $500 if eligible. Thames-Coromandel, New Plymouth, and Kapiti district councils offer similar schemes.

The other option is rates postponement, which lets a ratepayer stop paying rates. The council gets the accrued amount owed from the ratepayer’s estate or, if they move or sell, when they leave their home.

There are two types of rates postponement.

Financial hardship postponement requires an applicant to show the council they’d have insufficient funds, after the payment of rates, for normal health care, day-to-day living expenses and home maintenance. There may be a requirement to pay some of the rates for that year and set up a system of regular payments of future rates.

“Optional” postponement is the other type, usually available to those 65 or over. Evidence of hardship isn’t required but some councils require applicants to meet with an independent adviser to discuss their options. There’s flexibility to postpone all or just a portion of the rates, and for a fixed or indefinite period. Repayments can be made at any time without penalty.

While a holiday from paying rates might sound appealing, interest is charged on the outstanding amount, and annual fees and levies may also be added to the debt. But you won’t end up owing more than the property is worth as the total charges can’t go over a set percentage of the value of or the equity in the property. If property prices drop and there’s a shortfall for the council when the property is sold, this is covered by a reserve fund levy that’s charged annually and added to the amount owed.

The property must be insured and the ratepayer may have to provide evidence of this each year. If there’s still a mortgage on the property the mortgage provider has to be advised and agree to a notification on the property title. There may also be a requirement to have owned the property for a minimum number of years or have a certain level of equity.

Not all councils offer rates postponement and those that do may not offer both types. Auckland is the largest to do so and its optional scheme is also open to those aged under 65, as is Christchurch’s scheme. Currently there are 105 residential properties in Auckland with their rates postponed. Hamilton, Tauranga, Wellington and Dunedin don’t have optional rates postponement but do have financial hardship postponement. Check with your council to see what it offers.

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