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Accountants Count Down Till Tax Day
By Stephanie Rapp
Trying to interview accountants in the weeks leading up to April 15 is like trying to get the President to take your phone calls. At least three people couldn't even return my calls. Of the five who did, two had no time for a brief phone interview.
In a way, that's what I expected. I know my own anxiety as tax day approaches. There I am pawing through my shoe box full of receipts, desperately trying to remember what I'd spent $11.22 for last May.
But what about those poor brave souls to whom we turn, receipts in hand? It's bad enough preparing your own return. The three tax preparers with whom I spoke all handle hundreds of returns a year.
Carol Robinson, who owns a business called The Tax Managers, prepares a whopping 400 tax returns. And she does 85 percent of them between February and April. During those three months, Robinson never makes it out of Noe Valley. "If it's not in Noe Valley, I don't get it," she laughs.
A neighborhood resident for 25 years, Robinson finds she can locate just about anything she needs, including the healing hands of a chiropractor, within walking distance. From her office on 24th near Vicksburg, across from Phoenix Books, she has a great view of the neighborhood. "I love my window," she says. "I look down on 24th Street."
She's in front of that window all day long, working from 10 a.m. until midnight. "Evening hours are essential for my working clients."
Though her clients come from all over the city, a significant number are from Noe Valley. And they naturally reflect the changing demographics of the neighborhood. The dot-com'ers are streaming in with $400,000 salaries plus stock options to itemize. Robinson also has a lot of same-sex couples, whose joint holdings and separate tax returns present quite a challenge.
Many clients are fresh from the Noe Valley housing wars. "These days," Robinson notes, "it's not unusual to see returns of well over $100,000, yet these same people still can't buy homes in the neighborhood."
To cope with her own stress, Robinson tries to make it to the gym twice a week. So far this tax season, though, she's fallen short of her goal.
One reason she's swamped is that her 24th Street location brings in plenty of walk-in business. But those of you late filers who are still sifting through receipts, don't get your hopes up about squeezing through her door. "If you walk in in April, I'll be filing an extension for you," says Robinson, adding, "An extension is perfect-
=0Dly fine as long as you pay what you owe."
Still, Robinson encourages foot traffic. It lets neighbors and clients see the office and meet her and the two other "enrolled agents" who work in her shop.
An enrolled agent, or EA, is someone who is certified to practice before the Internal Revenue Service. The federal credential, bestowed after a two-day exam, enables the tax preparer to work in any state and represent clients in audits.
Robinson says all her clients, old and new, share a fear of being audited by the IRS. But she assures them that the risk is small. The IRS is not auditing as much as in the past, she points out. She herself has only had six client audits in the past three years. "If you keep receipts and take reasonable deductions, then I'll fight for you."
An Explosion of Dot-Com Clients
Like Robinson, Faith Darling doesn't get out much this time of year. Her accounting business, Faith Darling Tax and Financial Services, has been a thriving neighborhood practice since 1987.
Although she now lives in Oakland, Darling selected her Noe Valley site by asking herself where she wanted to spend her long days. The answer was easy. Her office is located above Rory's Ice Cream, at the corner of 24th and Castro.
Darling prepares about 300 returns per year, the majority by April 15. She gets the others started by the 15th, interviewing clients and filing extensions. "Interviews are a very important part of my work," she says.
Though her schedule is grueling, Darling makes an effort to limit her tax work to six days a week. She relaxes by taking walks on 24th Street or sitting by her office window sipping a latte from Tully's.
Darling chose tax preparation as a career because she was interested in knowing how people make, spend, and think about their money. Now she has branched out to include investment counseling and mutual fund investing.
Many of her clients are self-employed. "I have a lot of people who don't want to work in the Financial District."
While she has had the proverbial shoe box thrust at her, Darling says the oddest case she ever handled was for a woman with several Swiss bank accounts. "There were a lot of reporting complications in that one," she remarks.
But this may be a banner year. "I've read about the Internet explosion, but now I'm seeing it," says Darling. A lot of clients are making stock trades online, or cashing in stock options from startups that went public. "It's not just programmers who are making money. It's secretaries, lots of people."
You can well imagine these clients' audit fears. But Darling tells them not to worry. She agrees with Robinson that the IRS is doing fewer audits these days.
Also, Darling actually enjoys the auditing process. "It's a chance to go head-to-head with someone, using your wits. You point out the strengths in your return and deflect the weaknesses." She doesn't recommend that clients go with her to the audit, however. "If I go alone and a question comes up, I can say that I need to confer with my client. If we are both there, I can't say that. It buys you some time."
So what do you do if you haven't even started compiling your receipts? Darling's advice is to first take a deep breath. "Then pull your information together and go to someone recommended by a friend and ask them to file an extension. Your preparer will be a lot friendlier after the 15th." (Note that this year, tax returns or extensions are not due until Monday, April 17.)
And as far as her own return? "If I don't get to it in January, it languishes. I'm on extension again," she says with a grin.
Worst Mistake Is to Not File
The last preparer with whom I spoke had to be coerced. I had a bit of clout, though. He's been preparing my own tax returns for five years. He preferred a cloak of anonymity, however. ("I have more clients than I want right now.") So I agreed to call him John Dough.
John Dough has been doing taxes for over 20 years. He started out at H&R Block, where they make you do the return while the client sits and watches. These days, Dough prefers to chitchat with clients in his office near Douglass Playground.
His experience has taught him that people are reluctant to see their taxes as a regular part of their budget. "Look," he says, "they go to Europe, eat out at nice restaurants, buy expensive cars, but if they have to pay an extra $5,000 in taxes, they freak out."
Dough processes about 300 returns a year, mostly from tradespeople and artists. "A good client is organized, shows up for their appointment, and pays me on time." He doesn't like therapists as clients. "The messages they leave are too long, and they are overly concerned about everything." Lawyers are easier because "they have no respect for authority. They understand bureaucracies."
Dough's most challenging case involved two lesbians who wanted to know if they could write off their sperm purchase used for insemination. "I had to look that one up," he says, smiling.
From February through April 15, Dough's typical day begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 3 a.m. But the rest of the year, he enjoys a more relaxed existence. "I play racquetball and write fiction. It's a year-round job, but in the off season I work about 20 hours per week."
As he sits behind his tidy desk, Dough has the tools of the trade at hand. He keeps a calculator within reach and a supply of lead pencils (#2B lead is the best). There is no computer on his desk. He prefers to concentrate on his clients, taking down information by hand. "I don't want to focus on software. I use a computer service to print out the returns."
Dough agrees with Darling that there's been a sharp rise in e-traders who may not have done their homework before entering the stock market. "I have people coming in with 50 or 60 trades. They need to have the cost basis, date of sale, and date of purchase, and most brokerages don't provide that information."
Still, he encourages his clients to call him throughout the year with questions about retirement plans and investments, anything that might affect their tax status.
In his view, the worst thing a taxpayer can do is not file a return or be non-responsive to letters from the IRS. Dough advises his clients to borrow from a credit card if they have to to pay off the IRS; it's cheaper and less hassle.
But like the other EAs, Dough tells his clients not to be afraid of an audit. "It's like being called into the guidance counselor in high school." The audit rate is about 3 percent, he says, meaning 97 out of 100 returns won't raise a red flag.
Dough, who has never had a serious audit, says he used to carry a tie in his pocket for those face-to-face encounters. "Now I don't wear one. It's a sure sign of lying."
To relax during tax season, Dough visits with his friends and fellow tax preparers."We like to help each other out. Doing people's taxes is a strange and private world. Not many people understand it."
With the help of her preparer, Stephanie Rapp filed her tax return early this year.