It was 2009, as the wheels were flying off the housing industry, that Chris Cha Granville knew that decision time had come.
The then-mortgage broker, who also had dabbled with income-tax preparation and credit-score repair for individuals, felt she needed to make a transition to another career.
Not wanting to throw away the financial skills she had honed for roughly a decade, the Columbus native launched a tax-preparation company with her siblings, Willie Granville and Miszi Granville.
That business has now grown to seven managers and 35 income tax return preparers, with the company recently relocating from smaller office space on University Avenue to a former Wells Fargo bank building at 2450 Wynnton Road.
The 4,000-square-foot office includes a training room, with Granville teaching continuing education classes for tax preparers. She is an authorized instructor for the Internal Revenue Service.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there are nearly 60,000 tax preparers nationwide. Their salaries range from $18,540 per year to $71,450 annually, with a median yearly wage of $32,320.
Granville, 38, talked with the Ledger-Enquirer recently about her job, its challenges and new requirements facing tax preparation professionals everywhere. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So you advised people on their credit reports back in your mortgage days?
I did credit restoration back then. A lot of people who I helped purchase a home, I also helped them with financial planning on how they could raise their credit scores. If there was any outdated information on their credit reports, I helped them put in the actual disputes. I was working with them and advising them of what the lenders were looking for in order for them to qualify for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or FHA loans.
How did the mortgage experience help you with tax-return preparation?
A good example: When people are trying to purchase or refinance their homes -- with whatever bank you decide to go through as far as getting qualified -- the underwriters take a look at your tax return. If you're writing off excessive unreimbursed business expenses or you have a business on the side, they look at your losses. If you wrote off too much, they basically lower your debt-to-income ratio to see how much you qualify for. So if you're making $50,000 a year, but you did $5,000 in unreimbursed business expenses -- such as uniforms, mileage, cell phone bills, etc. -- then they'll deduct that from your AGI (adjusted gross income). So you don't qualify for that entire $50,000 worth of income. You're lowered to $45,000.
What's a typical day like for you?
It's more to it than a lot of people realize. It can get stressful because a lot of times you have people who do not understand what they qualify for, what their deductions are. It's the tax preparer's job to actually explain to them and ask them things like, "Did you have any medical or dental expenses?" There's a lot of expenses that people aren't aware of that qualify for tax deductions.
You have to be inquisitive with folks?
Exactly. For example, a lot of females don't know that birth-control pills are basically a tax deduction. If you had any type of prescriptions, dental expenses, braces, all of that is considered to be tax deductible. Contact lens solution is tax deductible. You have to reach 7.5 percent of the AGI. But a lot of times people don't realize that when you start adding everything up, most of the time it's going to exceed the 7.5 percent limit that you have to have.
Are you at your desk a lot?
I'm pretty much bound to my desk. I do have a branch manager who works for me because I have a client base myself during tax season, so I really don't have as much time to manage my office as I would like to. Last year I did over 450 tax returns myself.
When is crunch time?
I would say 80 percent of that 450 happens between January and April, and then the remaining through October. If you file an extension, you have until Oct. 15 to file a return. About 95 percent are individual tax returns versus business. A lot of tax offices are in the process now of getting ready for the upcoming tax season. There's a lot of preparation that tax preparers have to go through in order to be able to do taxes in the upcoming year. And legislation basically made a lot of changes for us to make sure that tax preparers are competent enough in order to continue to do taxes.
What's the key thing lawmakers have changed?
They are making each tax preparer do 15 hours of continuing education every year. You also have to submit background checks and a fingerprint card. We have to go to our local sheriff's department; here in Columbus we just go over to the Government Center to get that taken care of. And all of that's because there's so much tax fraud out there with tax preparers. They are making each tax preparer accountable for what they're submitting to the IRS.
What has been the response in the industry?
The only people really complaining are the ones trying to rip people off. I'm very happy with the changes because now it's going to make tax preparation more of a professional business versus anybody being able to do it. So it's putting us on a different level and making us more liable and responsible for what we're doing versus someone just sitting in an office and putting information into a computer system.
So people should ask the tax business they're using if they are in compliance?
Yes. They need to ask them if they're considered to be what's called a registered tax preparer. Also, the IRS is giving every single tax preparer until Dec. 31, 2013, to pass a national exam. It's 150 questions and they have 2½ hours to take the exam and they have to pass with at least 70 percent correct. I took mine this last summer and passed it the first time. All 50 states are required to do this.
What's the toughest part of your job?
Dealing with someone who's been burned by another tax office in the past and trying to explain how to go about fixing what was messed up, or explaining why there's such a huge decrease in their refunds. I have people that went somewhere and then say to me, 'So and so got me back $8,000 last year.' But I can only get them back $4,000. They're not understanding what is on the tax return that the other preparer put on it the prior year. I have to explain to them and ask if they have documentation to provide the IRS if they were to audit you. It makes my job twice as hard.
Is the tax preparation business competitive in the Columbus-Phenix City market?
There are so many. I really don't consider them competition because you have a lot of fly-by-night tax offices that are there for just a season and then they're gone. Once those taxpayers are trying to get copies of the tax returns for school purposes or to purchase a home, they can't find them. Look for a company that's available year-round, an office that is staffed all the time.
What's the most rewarding aspect of your job?
I love meeting new people and talking to them, and giving them an explanation of how different things affect the final outcome of their financial situation. I really enjoy my job because of the fact that it gives me a sense that I've done something good, that I've made a difference in someone's life.