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Sales tax exemptions confusing

Posted by Mitch Lipka  July 30, 2012 04:45 PM

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Q:I was recently charged 6.25 percent sales tax on a bag of lawn fertilizer at my local Home Depot. I knew this to be erroneous, and I brought the nearly $1 sales tax charge to the attention of the cashier. Since the cash register/computer had made the error (and not the sales clerk), I was directed to the customer service desk for resolution. Being pressed for time, I decided to deal with the incorrect charge during my next visit to the store. Once home, and upon visiting the Massachusetts Department of Revenue’s Web site, I reassured myself that Home Depot had collected sales tax in error. Are all Home Depots in Massachusetts erroneously charging sales tax on these items, as well?

Eric Wells, Worcester

A: At first glance, it did appear that Home Depot was making a big mistake and, indeed, could have been overcharging its Massachusetts customers.

But in Massachusetts, where the sales tax and its exemptions are dizzying, it often is futile to make assumptions – or even rely on cursory research to determine definitively what it is really the case.

Consider that under sales tax rules for bakeries, muffins are taxable when you buy fewer than six, but not when you buy six or more. A similar, if even more confusing, principle applies here.

“Weed and feed products are taxable because they contain more than just fertilizer,” said Stephen Holmes, a spokesman for Home Depot, after checking with company experts.

Got that? He speaks the truth. If the fertilizer bag has more than just fertilizer -- pesticides for example -- then it’s subject to sales tax, said Daniel Bertrand, a spokesman for the state Department of Revenue. If it only contains fertilizer, it’s exempt

If you think you’ve been incorrectly charged sales tax, it’s worth checking into. If you’re pretty sure you were wrongly charged sales tax, you can complain to the Department of Revenue.

“If we receive a complaint, we look into it,” Bertrand said. “There can be confusion on both ends whether it’s the retailer or the consumer. Sometimes it can be pretty complex.”

If you turn out to be right, you could be helping fellow Massachusetts consumers avoid being overcharged.

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About the author

Mitch Lipka is one of America's leading consumer journalists and advocates. He is an expert in product safety, recalls, scams, and helping consumers get out of jams. He is a nationally known consumer columnist and runs He lives in Worcester. You can find him on Facebook or reach him at


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