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Jan
16

Don't Just Accept Your Tax Assessment

Ensure tax bills reflect continuing value reductions for office assets caused by COVID's long-term effects.

Since early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended lives and disrupted the normal course of businesses, including those in the commercial real estate market. As in many other sectors, however, this public health crisis has not affected all commercial properties equally.

Real estate occupied by essential businesses such as grocery stores, sellers of household goods, and warehouse clubs, for example, have weathered the pandemic well. A few have even increased their market share. By contrast, many office buildings, hospitality and non-essential retail properties have suffered severely.

Taxing jurisdictions and assessors have responded to the crisis with varying degrees of success. The Ohio Legislature passed special legislation (spearheaded by Siegel Jennings Managing Partner Kieran Jennings) to allow a onetime, 2020 tax year valuation complaint for a valuation date of Oct. 1, 2020, since the usual tax lien date of Jan. 1 would not have shown the effects of COVID. Other assessors applied limited reduction factors to account for the sudden pandemic-induced decrease in property values.

As values recover, it is important for taxpayers to monitor still-unfolding consequences as they review their property tax assessments.

Initially, hotels and experiential property uses suffered the steepest losses as travel declined or completely halted. While the long-term effects of COVID-19 are still emerging as the pandemic progresses, office properties may be the real estate type changed the most, and perhaps permanently so. Central business districts and suburban campuses or headquarters have been particularly hard hit.

In the last six to 12 months, many people have returned to working in an office at least part of the time, especially since vaccinations have become widely available. However, the emergence of virus variants has stalled the full return to the office that looked imminent earlier this year.

Some firms including Twitter, Zillow, Spotify, and Dropbox decided that they will not require workers to return to the office at all, making remote working a permanent option. Other companies including Google, Nationwide, Microsoft, and Intuit will continue with a hybrid model that requires workers to be in office some of the time.

Many of those employers are using an office hoteling model. Hybrid arrangements require less physical office space per employee, although employers will need to balance having fewer employees onsite against the desire for low-density occupancy.

With more employees working remotely, many office tenants have subleased space they no longer need, adding to available office supply. For example, toward the end of 2020, the Chicago metro region's office market reached a record high in available sublease space, with two-thirds of it in the central business district. For employees who work in CBDs, there is an added concern of commuting via public transit.

In the initial stages of non-essential business closures and governmental stay-at-home orders across the country, many tenants sought rent abatements and concessions. Tenant defaults and increased unemployment exacerbated office vacancy levels.

Some of the workforce in more densely populated markets may have relocated away from central business districts, at least at the beginning of the pandemic, also influencing office space demand. As acceptance of remote work increased, both employers and workers not tied to a physical office location gained employment and talent-search opportunities beyond their local markets. This, too, has influenced the demand for office space.

The Columbus area's overall office vacancy rate was more than 23 percent in the third quarter of 2021, according to Cushman & Wakefield. That vacancy figure includes more than 1 million square feet of sublease space but does not include offices leased but underutilized – or not used at all – because of employees working from home.

As these vacancy rates and over-abundant sublease inventory demonstrate, there is a disconnect between the space that office tenants are currently leasing and their actual real estate needs. As leases expire, it will not be surprising to see tenants renegotiate for smaller footprints and shorter durations as they adjust to their changing requirements.

The shrinking need for office space is not limited to markets with dense populations and public transit commuters. In fact, these trends reverberate in suburban markets. Multiple large suburban office buildings in the Cleveland area, together totaling almost two million square feet, were 75 percent empty in the fall of 2021 because of employees working remotely.

This suggests that property tax assessments may be based on outdated lease information. Accurate valuation of office properties for taxation will require proper consideration of lease renewals and related activity. In reviewing assessments, it will be critical to scrutinize any older sale transactions assessors used for comparison that were based on pre-pandemic leases.

Positive signs are emerging for the commercial real estate market overall. Bloomberg recently reported that domestic U.S. travel for the year-end holidays is expected to be near pre-pandemic levels. Downtown foot traffic, hotel stays, and visitor counts have been climbing back from the lows seen early in the pandemic.

Despite this good news, office properties face persistent challenges. Recently, Marcus & Millichap reported that the office sector was one of the only property types lagging in 2021 commercial real estate transaction volume compared to the same time in 2019. (The other was medical office.) Flexibility on the part of both tenants and owners will be key in riding out the continuing waves of lease maturities and renewals in this changing market.

Since assessors are often using lagging data in their assessments, attention to the continued effects of COVID on office properties will be vital to ensuring that property tax valuations reflect a property's fair market value. Remember, too, that various assessors are treating COVID effects differently, so as always, it is wise for property owners to consult with experts familiar with assessment law and appraisal practice in their local jurisdictions. With careful observation of market changes, strategic planning and review with trusted tax experts, taxpayers can help ensure that their real estate tax burden is fair.

Cecilia J. Hyun (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) is a partner with Siegel Jennings Co., L.P.A. The firm is the Ohio, Illinois and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Cecilia is also a member of CREW Network.
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  • Ensure tax bills reflect continuing value reductions for office assets caused by COVID’s long-term effects.
Dec
30

How to Lower Excessive Property Tax Assessments in a COVID-19 World

The right to appeal property tax assessments may be more important than ever in the wake of COVID- 19. Despite the pandemic's disastrous and continuing effects on the value of many classes of real estate, some property owners saw tax assessments increase dramatically in 2021 and fear 2022 will bring additional increases.

What is the Value, Anyway?

When property owners receive their 2022 assessments, their first step should be to determine whether the valuation is, indeed, excessive. The right to appeal an assessment does not mean that an appeal is always prudent, so carefully analyze your property's performance in the context of the current valuation.

For example, suppose you own a mid-size, multitenant office property outside of Austin, Texas. Market vacancy rates increased to 20% in the fourth quarter of 2021 from 12% at year-end 2020, but asking market rents increased 10% in that time. Your office property fared better than the general market and only increased its vacancy to 5% when one small tenant did not renew its short-term lease.

The property's in-place rental rates were unaffected and unpaid rent from tenants at year-end 2021 was minimal. The property's assessment for 2022 indicates a 20% decrease from the previous assessment.

Although there are many additional circumstances to consider, in this scenario, it may be best to forego an appeal.

In many cases, however, property owners may see dramatic jumps in assessments for 2022 that do not reflect actual property performance and market fundamentals. Taxpayers and assessors alike are seeking how best to analyze the value implications of the past 18 months on different property types going forward.

Vacancy levels have affected individual office properties quite distinctly, and pandemic performance seems to be largely influenced by market location, tenant mix, and landlords' flexibility in negotiating lease terms moving forward.

An Uncertain Future for Office

The office market has suffered from continuing uncertainty despite a recovery in jobs. According to Cushman & Wakefield's Q2 Office Market Beat report, "even as occupiers increasingly clarify post- pandemic future workforce policies and set targets for employees to return the office, leasing activity has remained below pre-pandemic levels."

Moving into the fourth quarter of 2021, there is uncertainty among employers as to what return-to- office policies will even look like. Resurgence of COVID-19 cases in many markets, as well as dramatic shifts in labor preferences during historically high rates of workforce migration, have forced many employers to reconsider or delay their initial return-to-office policies.

Delivery of office product that began construction before the pandemic exacerbates vacancy woes. Cushman & Wakefield reported that, as of the second quarter of 2021, "more office space was delivered in each of the past three quarters than any other quarter in the past three years except Q4 2019."

However, vacancy levels have affected individual office properties quite distinctly, and pandemic performance seems to be largely influenced by market location, tenant mix, and landlords' flexibility in negotiating lease terms moving forward.

An Insider's Perspective on Value

Hartman Income REIT owns and manages office, retail, industrial, and flex properties across Texas. David Wheeler is Hartman's chief investment officer and executive vice president and has been with the firm since 2003. He shared some insight into what he has seen across the market during the past 18months and his expectations for the future.

How was your occupancy affected during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Wheeler: "The pandemic has both positively and negatively affected our occupancy rates here at Hartman. At the end of 2020, we closed about 3% lower in occupancy, but as we moved into 2021, maintaining our focus on the small tenants and flexible lease terms, we captured 130,000 square feet of net absorption in the first quarter. Today, we are on track to reach 1,000,000 square feet in new, signed leases this year, a record breaking number for the firm."

How is your leasing activity currently?

Wheeler: "Our leasing activity is currently standing on a very solid foundation; we intend to end the year with this 1,000,000 square feet of newly signed leases. We also recently launched BIZSUITES, a new business entity aimed to address the post-pandemic workplace needs of small businesses and start-ups, which has drawn significant attention to our suburban office buildings."

Have you seen certain classes of properties struggle more than others?

Wheeler: "Retail and office property classes struggled more than industrial and flex. Industrial space continued to rise in popularity during the pandemic as many people moved a significant portion of their spending online to e-commerce. However, certain types of retail and office benefitted during the pandemic. For example, grocers and home-improvement retailers benefitted tremendously. For office, the suburban buildings like Hartman gained significant occupancy as businesses and individuals emptied from high-density central business districts."

What do you see as any shifts in space utilization that may be necessary to maintain successful levels of occupancy moving forward?

Wheeler: "Dedensification is an important shift in space utilization that is already taking place. I see it upholding occupancy numbers at least through the uncertain times of the pandemic. For

the past decade, office space per employee steadily shrank from 250 square feet to less than 100 square feet. Now, with health concerns, space trends are erring on the side of more space per person, with some businesses even moving back to the individual office model. At Hartman, we've had several tenants expand their space to allow more breathing room in their offices."

What is a property owner to do?

The best evidence for a value correction is the property's actual performance. Communicate clearly and early with your assessor and provide all relevant documentation.

Office property owners should describe concessions and flexible lease terms that may affect valuation. Occupancy and rental rates alone may paint an inaccurate picture of the property's performance. Did tenants receive any free rent? Did new tenants sign short-term leases, resulting in higher long-term vacancy risk? Did you provide significantly higher tenant improvement allowances to incentivize tenants?

As Mr. Wheeler indicated, Hartman maintained occupancy rates in its office and retail centers by focusing on flexible lease terms. Such terms may affect valuation differently than traditional, longer- term leases but changes such as these may prove essential to correct valuation.

Remember, everyone is working toward a goal of accurate valuation under challenging and unpredictable market conditions. Whether communicating directly to the assessor or during the appeal process, conveying specific factors that have affected your property's value is the best approach to achieve a fair assessment in 2022 and beyond.

Rachel Duck, Esq.
Rachel Duck, CMI, is a Director and Senior Property Tax Consultant at Austin, Texas, law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC. Popp Hutcheson is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Nov
29

Pandemic Hits Movie Theater Property Values

But taxpayers can take certain measures to get a fair shake on their tax assessments.

Diminishing tax liability may offer a silver lining amid a horror show of declining property values playing out for owners of silver screen properties across the nation. Many theater owners will pay more than their fair share in property taxes, however, unless and until they educate local tax assessors of the sinister influences that oppress their businesses.

Movie theaters have been one of the hardest-hit industries during the COVID-19 pandemic. Spaces where the big screen once lit the faces of attentive viewers fell dark and silent, to sit lifeless for months. Studios released only 23 films in 2020, the fewest since 2003, and box offices sold less than 225 million tickets (see chart, Annual Ticket Sales Plummet).

As regulations eased, cinemas emerged far behind the pack of other businesses in a race to resume normal operations. Now, most states are allowing 100% occupancy in movie theaters; however, this does not mean movie-goers are rushing back to theaters. What is there to attract them? Some of the most anticipated new movies had their 2020 premiere dates pushed to middle or late 2021, with some even transitioning directly to streaming platforms like HBO.

On top of the lack of content, theaters are wrestling with new consumer preferences developed during quarantine. Streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu posed a threat to in-person cinemas long before COVID-19 ever indirectly accelerated the preference for home movie viewing. On the flipside, drive-in theaters saw an uptick in attendance during the pandemic, showing that consumers still enjoy watching a movie in an atmosphere specifically tailored for films.

While most industries are asking "Where do we go from here?" the big question for real estate professionals is "How does this shift in the economy affect property value?" As for movie theaters, there seems to be an opinion divide between optimistic hope for a rebound and a pessimistic expectation for further decline.

Cinemas were already difficult to value because of their unique usage and a lack of comparable transaction data across the country; now, weak ticket sales give appraisers and tax assessors a bigger hurdle in valuing movie theaters. Theater amenities are evolving to match consumer demand with reclinable chairs, full dining and drinking experiences, and higher-quality digital screening. Older theaters face design issues that deter conversion to modern cinemas. As a result, the total number of theaters in the United States has decreased by over 25% since the late 1990s (see chart, A Quarter-Century Contraction).

Theaters also present red flags to investors seeking properties for conversion to other commercial uses. Most theaters are constructed with sloped floors and high ceilings, for example. While those conditions are ideal for audiences to enjoy a film, few businesses would find those characteristics appealing for their own use. Most organizations would consider those building features detrimental and deduct the cost to remove them from the purchase price.

This illustrates a re-use utility issue with movie theaters – not many enterprises can utilize the real estate efficiently as is. To an investor in any industry outside of cinema or live entertainment, modifications to the theater would be required to make the space usable, decreasing the price that they would pay to purchase the building. The appraisal industry describes this as a Highest and Best Use issue, because a movie theater is arguably not the most efficient or profitable use of the space.

An investor would expect the property to require a large and costly conversion to make the space suitable for its most efficient and profitable use. These renovations would entail many risks. Movie theaters tend to be a riskier investment in general due to the specialization of the industry, but adding on the unknowns of transitioning the building to a more efficient use increases the risk to an investor.

Give Assessors the Facts

A theater owner should be aware of these issues when reviewing their property tax assessments. As county assessors value buildings using mass appraisal methods or software, they are unlikely to consider all the pressing issues that cinema owners face.

While a shift in the current market is inevitable, not all hope is lost in the movie theater industry. In an article by Bloomberg CityLab, K.C. Conway, chief economist of the CCIM Institute, shared some promising opportunities for the reuse of outdated theaters. As Conway observes, adaptive reuse can create affordable housing, reduce blight, and put old retail stores back on the property tax rolls. Some of the adaptive reuse opportunities already put into action include turning former cinemas into offices, e-commerce warehouses, and fulfillment centers. In Goodyear, Arizona, a nine-screen theater was repurposed to serve as the Arizona Department of Transportation's headquarters and Motor Vehicles Division office.

Although adaptive reuse offers some opportunities to reduce the number of vacant, outdated movie theaters in the market, the industry will still have a fundamental supply and demand problem – the supply of movie theaters surpasses the demand from moviegoers, operators, and investors. Changes in movie viewing preferences were already in motion when COVID-19 accelerated those trends.

As many outmoded movie theaters currently sit, physical obsolescence inhibits their transitioning either to a modern cinema or to a new use. The theater industry will continue to face obstacles, including finding investors to take on the risk of purchasing vacant theaters. And owners must educate tax assessors using factual information to demonstrate the profound decline in market value that some movie theaters have sustained.

 Molly Luhrs is an intern with Popp Hutcheson PLLC and a graduate student at Texas A&M University's Master of Real Estate program. Popp Hutcheson PLLC focuses its practice on property tax disputes and is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. 

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Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • But taxpayers can take certain measures to get a fair shake on their tax assessments.
Nov
17

Does Your Property Tax Assessment Reflect COVID-19's Long-Term Challenges?

Here are a number of approaches to defending against excessive tax assessments.

Countless companies have seen their top and bottom lines decimated by COVID-related shutdowns, travel restrictions and changing consumer preferences since the start of the pandemic. Yet for many taxpayers, property tax values have changed little or even increased.

Many of these taxpayers have been surprised to receive property tax bills that do not reflect the real and lingering economic challenges that the retail, hospitality, office and other industries have, are, and will continue to face. These taxpayers – and even those in industries better suited to weather the storm – should give special attention to ensuring they receive fair and reasonable assessments.

Observe Valuation Dates, Notices and Appeal Deadlines

With a large percentage of employees working remotely, together with an inconsistent postal service, it is more important than ever to have dedicated employees and knowledgeable property tax professionals reviewing property value assessments annually and filing timely protests when warranted. Failure to receive a tax valuation notice rarely excuses a missed protest deadline, so it is vital to know and comply with applicable deadlines.

Many property tax bills issued in 2020 were based on statutory valuation dates that preceded the emergence of COVID-19. For instance, assessors working under a valuation date of Oct. 1, 2019, or January 1, 2020, were quick to tell taxpayers to "wait until next year" before assessments could reflect any impact from COVID-19.

Not surprisingly, some assessors are now arguing that the pandemic was temporary and that its worst effects have passed. In some jurisdictions, assessors simply carried forward the prior year's cost-based value with no adjustments to account for additional depreciation or functional and economic obsolescence. In other cases, assessors have relied on pre-pandemic sales during the relevant tax cycle to justify increases over the preceding tax year.

Many locales had few sales in the early stages of the pandemic, and in these cases, the assessor may downplay or entirely ignore the actual impact of COVID-19 on market values. In contesting assessments in each of these cases, it is helpful to not only demonstrate the immediate difficulties that began in March 2020, but also the pandemic's lingering effects on the taxpayer's current and future operations.

Although the pandemic has affected all industries, certain sectors face unique challenges that will persist well beyond the initial virus surges and vaccine rollouts. These include, but are not limited to, brick and mortar retailers competing with ever-expanding e-commerce, office buildings competing with flexible work options including remote work, and hotels competing for elusive business travel in a cost-cutting environment. Some of these challenges are trends that began long before the pandemic, such as the slow death of enclosed malls as consumers increasingly favor lifestyle centers and online shopping.

COVID-19 Influences by Property Sector

Retail. Since the early 2000's, e-commerce's share of total retail sales has increased each year. The pandemic accelerated that trend, arguably by years, when people who had long resisted shopping online no longer had the same in-store options, and experienced online shoppers became more comfortable buying things like groceries and large-ticket items online.

These evolving shopping habits certainly affect the desirability and value of retail real estate, especially of those buildings constructed before the scope of today's e-commerce world could be contemplated. Landlords must now think outside the box when re-tenanting shopping centers, often filling vacancies with restaurants, service and entertainment concepts. These uses can create parking, zoning and other challenges for centers built for traditional retail.

In the case of big box stores, companies such as Walmart are looking at converting portions of existing stores to warehouse or fulfillment space for e-commerce. All these changes to keep up with the rapidly evolving marketplace shine a light on the functional and economic obsolescence present in many retail properties.

Office. Office landlords are also facing rapid market evolution, including an accelerating trend toward more remote and flexible work options. The pandemic made Zoom meetings ubiquitous and gave employees a taste, and perhaps a future expectation, of more work-from-home opportunities.

In light of the Delta variant's spread, many large companies have delayed their anticipated returns to the office, with Google now postponing its return until at least January 2022. Although some of the pandemic's effects on office occupancy have already occurred, the full impact will continue to play out as leases expire and companies reevaluate the volume and design of office space they require.

Hospitality. The hotel and travel industry suffered some of COVID-19's most immediate and devastating financial casualties. Leisure and business travel ground to a near halt, with hotel stays and flight counts falling to once-unimaginable lows. Corporate travel has yet to make a meaningful recovery and remains at a fraction of pre-pandemic levels. Throughout the country, corporations are cutting back on travel budgets as they weigh its costs and health risks against alternatives such as video conferencing.

Business travel and events are unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024, according to a recent American Hotel & Lodging Association survey. Although the leisure travel industry benefitted from pent-up demand during the summer of 2021, the Delta variant has undermined that temporary resurgence. And even with the recent increase in leisure travel, airplane traffic is still well below 2019 levels.

These are just a few of the industries that will continue to see COVID-19 weigh down their businesses and property values. Property and business owners should closely review their property tax values to make sure assessments adequately reflect the specific challenges affecting their properties, to include the pandemic's immediate, ongoing and future financial impact.

Aaron D. Vansant is a partner in the law firmDonovanFingar LLC, the Alabama member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Here are a number of approaches to defending against excessive tax assessments.
Oct
19

Property Tax Relief for the COVID Years

Strategies for getting value adjustments on assets impacted by the pandemic, from attorney Cynthia Fraser.

Last January I penned an article for this publication titled: "Will 2021 Bring Property-Tax Relief?" I never imagined we would enter a second phase of outbreaks and continued economic fallout related to COVID-19.

Because most states assess property for taxes as of Jan. 1 each year, last year's assessments did not reflect the pandemic's catastrophic impact on real estate in 2020. This year, as jurisdictions certify tax rolls to reflect real market values as of Jan. 1, 2021, property tax relief may depend on the taxing jurisdiction's recognition of external obsolescence due to COVID-19.

Businesses and commercial properties in my hometown of Portland, Ore., are still suffering from not only work-from-home policies and social distancing mandates related to COVID-19, but also the long-term effects of civil unrest downtown following the death of George Floyd. While downtown experienced a glimmer of revival this summer, many once-vibrant small businesses and restaurants remain boarded up or vacant. Whether from COVID-19 or riots, these external influences affected property market value during 2020.

Across the nation, many companies have extended remote-work policies through the end of the year, leaving office buildings a ghostly reflection of their bustling heydays and slowing recovery of commerce dependent on office worker customers.

A visible occupancy decline for commercial real estate that housed offices, restaurants, small retail stores and hotels should be hard to ignore. Unfortunately, tax assessors have been reluctant to recognize these realities when assessing taxable property value, even when the marketplace reflects downward trends.

Obtaining relief will require the taxpayer to effectively document the market impact of COVID-19 during 2020 and into 2021. Their focus should be on the market, property class, rents, vacancies and property sales, as well as the property characteristics that tenants and investors were seeking on the date of value, Jan. 1, 2021. The following paragraphs cover key points to consider.

Will Workers Return to the Office Full Time?

The office market may undergo the most significant long-term adjustments to the pandemic. In fact, office changes that started in 2020 will continue into this next tax year. The shrinking of office footprints appears to be lasting as remote work becomes acceptable and, in fact, necessary to attract and keep talent.

Younger office workers in particular are voicing a strong desire to work from home permanently or part-time. The reality is that most office workers have gotten off the merry-go-round of spending 12 hours of each day commuting and working. Walking to the kitchen table or a bedroom office with coffee in hand has its appeal to many.

Work from home may be a necessity for many with younger children at home. During 2020, most schools and daycare facilities closed completely, leaving parents no choice but to pivot to full-time daycare on top of work.

Likewise, in 2020 businesses began projecting space needs going into 2021. In Portland, mass transit operator TriMet polled its workers and found an overwhelming aversion to a return to the office. Accordingly, the public agency reduced its office footprint, redesigned workspaces to accommodate "hoteling" or shared workstations, and allowed many employees to permanently work from home. The private industry is quietly following suit, as 2021 shows no real slowdown in COVID-19.

The Hotel Industry Languishes

Perhaps no other industry has been harder hit than the hotels and conventions industry that collapsed in 2020. Not only did pleasure travel come to a standstill, but Zoom meetings and virtual conventions replaced business travel to become the new normal in 2021. The result was high vacancy in 2020 and lingering uncertainty over how long these properties will continue to be underutilized, sending a ripple effect through other commercial spaces.

The Market Wild Card: Housing

The wild card for 2020 was housing. Single-family homes across the nation saw exponentially rising prices that should make a tax assessor's heart soar. However, rent moratoriums for most of 2020 devastated some landlords. Documenting the costs associated with nonpaying renters, including higher management fees for evictions, may be used for challenging this past year's taxes. Rent moratoriums are an external market force outside a landlord's control, making them an incurable, negative external factor.

Demonstrating External Obsolescence

When requesting a lower assessed value for 2020, taxpayers should be ready to show how pandemic effects contributed to external obsolescence for their properties, requiring a depreciation adjustment to real market value. It will be important to address not only how changing occupier demand is affecting values in that property type but also the real estate's location and the degree to which its value depends on the surrounding submarket.

Identify all external factors, including those addressed in this article that impacted the property in 2020. These are economic influences outside the taxpayer's control and create an external obsolescence to the property that is incurable.

Appraisers recognize external obsolescence as an acceptable valuation adjustment to a property's market value. The Appraisal of Real Estate, published by the Appraisal Institute, recognizes the term and its application as a form of depreciation.

External obsolescence can be temporary or permanent and has a marketwide effect that typically influences an entire class of properties. This depreciation or obsolescence adjustment can be applied on a year-by-year basis to reflect the impacts of COVID-19 on the real estate for 2020.

Any assessor's argument that there may not be long-term impacts on the real estate is irrelevant to the 2020 assessment year when using an external obsolescence adjustment. For tax year 2020, at least, there can be no doubt that the majority of commercial real estate was hit hard by the pandemic and merits an external or economic adjustment. When approaching the assessor to request a value reduction for 2020, come prepared with economic market data to support an external obsolescence adjustment.

Cynthia M. Fraser is a shareholder at Foster Garvey, PC, in the firm's Portland, Oregon, office, and is the Oregon Representative of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Strategies for getting value adjustments on assets impacted by the pandemic, from attorney Cynthia Fraser.
Sep
30

Understand the Impact of Intangibles

How to use these factors to reduce a senior living property's tax assessment.

The longstanding debate over intangible value in commercial real estate taxation rages unabated, and nowhere is the squabbling fiercer than in valuing seniors living facilities. Because these properties generally transact based on income from a going concern rather than from real estate, taxpayers planning to acquire a seniors facility should consider how to separate intangible value prior to acquisition. Simply waiting for the annual tax bill is a recipe for incurring inflated cost and an inferior investment return.

Skilled nursing facilities, assisted living and other seniors housing subtypes often require state-issued licenses personal to the operator. Critically, seniors housing sales typically involve the transfer of a going concern including a valid operating license, assembled workforce and other business assets required for the operation. In other words, sales involve more than just the real estate, and the intangible personal property component involves more than just goodwill.

Acquisition pitfalls

A seniors housing owner's overall return may hinge on tax consequences. Common considerations include real estate transfer taxes, allocation of basis for income tax purposes, real and personal property tax assessments, and segregation of readily depreciable or amortizable assets from non-depreciable or non-amortizable assets.

A common mistake is to use the transaction price as the consideration in the deed. That consideration is the basis for transfer taxes and should exclude tangible and intangible personal property value. Many assessors will revalue the property based on deed consideration, which is easily identifiable and theoretically reflects both parties' valuation of the land and improvements. Thus, citing overall transaction value on the deed can lead to inappropriate excessive taxation.

Instead, define consideration in an allocation agreement at or before closing, which is when the property's federal income tax basis is determined. This generally identifies four components: land (non-depreciable); buildings or improvements (generally depreciable); tangible personal property (generally depreciable); and goodwill or ongoing business value, represented by intangible personal property or business enterprise value. A cost segregation study is helpful but not required.

Loans secured by senior living facilities often pose valuation challenges. Lenders underwriting on a going concern basis need to address whether the state-issued licenses can be secured. The Small Business Administration requires SBA lenders to obtain a going-concern appraisal for real estate involving an ongoing business. Those appraisals must value the separate components and be completed by an appraiser trained in valuing going concerns.

The federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which regulates commercial banks, requires lenders to use a competent appraiser but does not specify appraiser course requirements.

Property tax issues

State law generally requires tax assessors to value only real estate, based on a hypothetical transaction involving the real estate only. Therein lies the rub, because the property's income reflects a combination of real property and tangible and intangible personal property. There is now general agreement that hotels and most seniors living facilities involve intangible value.

The problem is isolating the intangible value. For example, in a 2020 decision involving Disney's Yacht & Beach Club Resort, the Florida Court of Appeals noted that though the nearly 1,200-room hotel's business and real estate values are linked, the assessor is required to value only the real estate, not the going concern.

Some older literature suggests that real estate value contributes only 73 percent to the value of independent living properties, 53 percent to assisted living values, and only 36 percent to the value of a skilled nursing facility. The remaining, non-taxable value, is from the going concern.

The Appraisal of Real Estate provides that going-concern value "includes the incremental value associated with the business concern, which is distinct from the value of the tangible real property and personal property." The Dictionary of Real Estate Appraisal, 6th Edition, defines intangible property as "nonphysical assets, including but not limited to franchises, trademarks, patents, copyrights, goodwill, equities, securities, and contracts as distinguished from physical assets such as facilities and equipment."

State-issued seniors housing licenses fall squarely in the definition of intangible personal property but can be difficult to value, demanding business valuation skills in addition to real estate appraisal skills.

Appropriate approaches

Appraisers typically try to value real estate using the cost, sales comparison, and income approaches, none of which fit seniors housing well. Moreover, charged with valuing many properties, assessors often employ mass appraisal techniques ill-suited for valuing complex going concerns.

Sales comparison drawbacks include the skewing effects of portfolio sales. Common in seniors housing, portfolio prices can obscure the consideration for individual properties or may include significant price premiums over individual sale prices, for reasons completely separate from real estate value.

Some appraisers will use the nearest multifamily sale as a comparable transaction. Yet most types of seniors housing offer abbreviated individual kitchens, if any, and smaller individual living spaces designed to encourage seniors to use the common facilities. If an appraiser is going to use a traditional multifamily property as a comparable, it must be adjusted to retrofit the property as conventional apartments.

To use an income approach, the appraiser must recognize that a huge portion of the seniors housing rent is not attributable to shelter but to services. As noted, seniors apartments are typically designed to get people out of individual units and into common areas. Common spaces usually generate higher expenses and are built to encourage the use of services such as shared dining rooms.

Similarly, compared with standard apartments, expenses for seniors living facilities involve higher maintenance, utility, management and administrative fees generally associated with the property's intangible value. Further, continuing care retirement communities exercise significant synergies between service levels as residents age. Proper analysis of these income and expense figures requires expertise generally removed from an assessor relying on mass appraisals.

Recognizing that many seniors living facilities include substantial intangible value, a 2017 white paper by the International Association of Assessing Officers (IAAO) suggests the cost approach is the proper method for extracting intangible value. Replacement cost certainly offers an easily understandable way for extracting that value.

While correct in valuing new construction, however, the cost approach has questionable utility for older facilities. Replacement cost will often not reflect value, since one can question whether a seniors facility would be rebuilt in the absence of a license. That raises a problem best analyzed as whether the facility represents the property's highest and best use.

The real valuation answer is anything but simple.

At its heart, the debate over how to value seniors care facilities rests on assessors engaged in a hypothetical exercise which is not reflective of the market. Without agreement on how to value the real property when a transaction involves a going concern, the debate will continue.

Morris Ellison is a partner in the Charleston, South Carolina, office of law firm Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP. The firm is the South Carolina member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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  • How to use these factors to reduce a senior living property’s tax assessment.
Sep
21

Self-Storage Property Taxes: How Assessments are Made and Ways to Potentially Lower Your Bill

Self-storage has become a hot investment and values are up, but many owners find themselves with excessive property-tax bills that eat into their cash flow. Here's an overview of how tax assessments are made and some ways to potentially lower your bill.

Self-storage facilities continue to command great cash flow, but many owners find themselves funneling more of their income toward exorbitant property-tax bills. Those who take the time to review their assessments and liabilities with a local expert often discover they're being taxed unfairly. This is why you should identify and question your assessor's methods, assumptions, data and calculations. By exercising your right to contest your assessment and presenting a convincing argument, you might be rewarded with a lower tax bill.

Self-storage is especially vulnerable to errant valuations by assessors who fail to differentiate taxable from non-taxable value. Key questions include whether the sale of a self-storage facility is completely subject to transfer tax and if the price directly equates to taxable value for real property tax. It can be argued that much of the value associated with self-storage is business value and personal property, which is typically exempt from transfer or property taxes.

Let's examine how self-storage tax assessments are made and arguments you can use to contest one assigned to your own property. A successful appeal can save significant money, so it's worth pursuing.

The Trouble With Assessment

Arguing that the value of your self-storage facility is largely derived from non-real-estate sources can be problematic. Much of the difficulty comes into play when the assessor obtains a copy of the finance appraisal, or when a purchase and sale agreement includes an allocation separating the real estate from non-realty items.

Assessors want to believe that all the value in a sale or from financing is derived from real estate. In the Ohio case St. Bernard Self-Storage LLC vs. Hamilton County Board of Revision, the state supreme court stated that although the purchase and sales agreement carved out goodwill in the acquisition price, it was unconvinced that the sale of a self-storage facility had any goodwill. Conversely, lenders are often unable to lend on value that isn't attributable to real estate.

For property owners, the first step toward minimizing taxes and maximizing their financing is watching definitions; the definition of the interest being appraised is paramount. Appraisers can properly find for two different values on the same property, depending on whether they're valuing for the purpose of financing or tax assessment, so it's important to establish the interest being appraised.

When it comes to financing, lenders can and do lend on the stabilized value of a property performing as a going concern. In other words, they're appraising the property's leased fee value. So, for financing, appraisers can rightfully take into consideration the income from the operation at stabilization, but that isn't necessarily true for tax assessors.

Many states require assessors to value the fee simple interest in the real property only. The fee-simple appraisal is based on the real estate value alone and excludes value from the return of and on personal property. When it comes to self-storage, the assessor's calculation of taxable value must ignore value associated with units, computer systems, national marketing and so on, based on circumstances. Individual units are capable of being assembled and disassembled, which means they are at best a business fixture and not real estate.

Many assessors and appraisers recognize the removal of the depreciated value of personal property, which means they must also remove the personal property—and any income attributable to it—from the going-concern value. The comingling of values from multiple sources is especially evident when there's a sale.

Arguments in Your Favor

When the assessor cites a tax assessment based on the sale of your self-storage property, you can make several arguments. First, look at the building's construction and acquisition costs without factoring in things like security, computer systems, marketing and individual units.

If your facility was recently converted from a different type of building, that too can give you an advantage. Properties like those transformed from big-box retail space often trade at much lower price before lease-up and stabilization, and the conversion costs are typically associated with the personal property and eventual occupancy. So, as the owner, you can present sales of comparable pre-conversion properties to support an argument for a reduced assessment. It's better than using the sales of operating self-storage facilities as comps because there's no need to remove the personal property from the equation.

In cases when there are few comparable sales of big-box properties to reference or your self-storage facility truly isn't comparable to others that have been sold, it's appropriate to assess the property based on the replacement costs associated with building new. However, the appraiser should stop short of including costs specific to individual units, otherwise they'd need to apply depreciation from all sources, including age and any economic or functional depreciation.

The last line of counterargument is based on the income approach to valuation. Income-based assessment is the most complex when it comes to removing non-realty income. The easiest and cleanest way to respond is to look at examples of same-generation retail or light-industrial rents.

That said, when trying to defeat a sales price, it may be necessary to look at the actual income and then determine the appropriate amount for the non-realty value. Appropriate income will be based on the initial investment to install personal property as well as the return from that personal property. The income derived from that non-realty component is then removed from the actual net income. This is an activity easier said than done, but appraisers can establish the return. After removing the non-realty income, they should apply an appropriate capitalization (cap) rate to arrive at the property value.

Preferably, the cap rate used by the appraiser or assessor should be created from a mortgage constant and equity returns rather than from sales of comparable self-storage facilities because cap rates from this industry have comingled interests.

As you can see, it's appropriate for self-storage owners to use different values for their property, including one for financing and another for taxable or assessed value. These will differ because the appraisals that produce them are truly measuring different property interests.

J. Kieran Jennings is a partner in the law firm of Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, the Ohio, Western Pennsylvania and Illinois member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Self-storage has become a hot investment and values are up, but many owners find themselves with excessive property-tax bills that eat into their cash flow. Here’s an overview of how tax assessments are made and some ways to potentially lower your bill.
Sep
15

Tricky Issues Impact Shopping Center Property Taxes

It's critical for landlords to understand how variations in performance affect property tax liabilities.

Property tax assessments of shopping centers and other retail real estate may not capture the full extent of value losses those properties sustained in 2020. To avoid paying more than their fair share of taxes, it is important for retail owners to examine how market conditions affect each aspect of the tax assessor's approach to valuing their real estate.

In most jurisdictions, assessors value real estate for property taxes as of Jan. 1 of each calendar year. Most appraisal districts assess retail properties at market value derived from the income approach, as would an investor looking to acquire one of these properties. Market value in this case is the probable price at which a property would sell in a competitive and open market, where the buyer and seller are motivated, well informed and acting in their own best interest, and with reasonable exposure time and typical financing.

In a stable environment, most appraisal districts' assessors capitalize the prior year's net operating income to reach a market value. Since the 2020 retail property market was less than stable, a modified approach could be to start with a stabilized value, then calculate the rent loss and leasing costs required to stabilize the asset.

The pandemic and stay-at-home orders affected retail property subtypes in varying ways, and performance often varied from property to property within a subtype through most of 2020 and into 2021. Multitenant strip centers saw large occupancy declines as a 20% drop in customer traffic nationwide left many tenants unable to pay rent.

Mall Mayhem

Malls were among the hardest hit properties. Foot traffic in some malls dropped nearly to zero and mall anchors including JC Penney, Macy's, and Dillard's began liquidating many locations. Prior to the pandemic, enclosed shopping malls and brick-and-mortar stores were already struggling to maintain customer traffic related to massive increases in ecommerce. The effects of changing consumer behavior, in addition to mandated stay-at-home orders, accelerated this shift to ecommerce, and many mall-based tenants closed their doors completely.

Big box retailers arguably fared better than other store categories, as those designated as essential businesses remained open throughout 2020. Because of this, in many cases sales volume at big box retailers (especially those with grocery components) outpaced sales at other retail property types. Store sales do not equal market value for the purposes of property tax assessments, which underscores the need in 2021 for property owners to be more aware than ever of tax assessors' valuation standards.

While appraisal districts may emphasize increased sales volume in big box retail, property owners need to remember that business performance does not equal real estate value. Store sales may be up, but an increasing percentage of these sales come from online orders. Property owners must prove that, despite increased sales volume overall, big box property values are generally flat or decreasing. Ecommerce has weighed on real estate values for the past few years and has forced big box retailers to re-evaluate their approach to storefronts.

Rent Adjustments

The pandemic forced property owners to make significant rent concessions to keep tenants in place throughout 2020, when those occupiers were able to do so. These rent concessions should reduce effective rents in the retail market, with variation by location and submarket. Additionally, with a large portion of tenants unable to pay rent, the retail market saw massive collection losses and climbing vacancy rates.

If a property is operating below average market occupancy, the assessor or appraiser must include a discount for lost rent or an adjustment for the cost of lease-up. Together with rent concessions, increased vacancies reduce the effective gross income these properties can produce.

Since most multitenant retail leases are structured on a triple net basis that requires tenants to pay for taxes, utilities, common area maintenance, administrative expenses and insurance, property owners are on the hook for 2020 expenses that they would normally pass through to tenants who are no longer in place. This could expose property owners to increased levels of risk.

The pandemic also compelled property owners to reallocate capital expenditures to make buildings more resilient to virus transmission risks. As a result, other necessary capital expenditures may have been deferred, which could impact the bottom line and increase the difficulty of finding potential buyers for these properties.

Questionable Cap Rates

After calculating net operating income, appraisal districts will then capitalize that income with a chosen capitalization rate to determine market value. The pandemic's effect on cap rates is difficult to ascertain, however, and lenders have grown more cautious. The increased risk associated with retail properties today requires an upward adjustment in cap rates, with a correlating decrease in property market values.

Property tax is a significant expense to the property owner, with numerous issues and nuances to consider. Managing this cost may appear daunting but can be accomplished effectively with the correct understanding of the market conditions affecting the property. It is important to understand the subtleties of how assessors value the property, or to partner with an experienced advisor with that knowledge. SCB

Nick Machan is a tax consultant at Austin, Texas, law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC, which focuses its practice on property tax disputes and is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • It’s critical for landlords to understand how variations in performance affect property tax liabilities.
Sep
07

3 Ways COVID Changed Property Taxes

Cris K. O'Neall of Greenberg Traurig on new avenues for challenging property tax assessments.

Changes brought by the recent pandemic continue to impact the property tax regimes of many states. Clearly, COVID-19 greatly reduced property values and property tax revenues, particularly where real estate markets determine the fair market value used in setting assessments.

But the pandemic has had other far-reaching effects, some of which may continue for years to come. Here are three trends reshaping property tax dynamics, and ways taxpayers can use those factors to reduce their tax liability.

1. Downturn Horizons Extend (Will Things Ever Return to Normal?)

Many property types have experienced value declines over the past 18 months. The question is how much longer the declines will continue. For example, will hospitality property revenues and values rebound in 2023? Or 2024? Will consumers continue to make online purchases, as they were forced to do during the pandemic, forever abandoning the traditional brick-and-mortar retailing outlets usually found in power centers and shopping centers?

The difficulties in estimating time horizons for the recovery of real estate markets creates uncertainty. At the same time, it presents opportunities for short-term and longer-term property tax relief for many property owners and managers. This is particularly the case where pandemic-driven change has permanently changed markets and created "new normals" for some real estate subsectors.

2. Local Tax Authorities Offer More Leniency

When the pandemic commenced in spring 2020, property owners sought to extend the time within which property taxes had to be paid. Rather than penalize property owners for not paying by deeming them in default, many jurisdictions allowed property owners more time to pay, extending deadlines that were once thought unchangeable. Some jurisdictions extended deadlines for more than just payment: They gave taxpayers additional time to file property renditions, property tax appeals and exemption requests.

While many tax advisors expected this leniency to cease following the worst of the pandemic, the opposite has happened. Some property tax jurisdictions continue to give taxpayers more time to pay and have extended deadlines to comply with filing requirements. An example of this is seen in the California State Board of Equalization's July announcement that it plans to author legislation giving the tax agency more power to extend deadlines under certain circumstances.

3. Restricted Access Drives Property Value Declines

COVID-19 has tested and perhaps expanded the valid reasons taxpayers can cite to prove property value declines and seek property tax reductions in many states. Prior to the pandemic, taxing jurisdictions were quite willing to grant property owners value reductions and property tax refunds for properties damaged by fire, earthquake, flood or other calamities. But such value reductions were always based on the physical condition of the property: If the calamity caused physical damage to the property, making it less useable, then a value reduction and tax refund would be granted.

The pandemic changed this. COVID-19 had the unique effect of making properties unusable and, therefore, less valuable solely due to restricted access. Public health concerns in general and government orders prohibiting citizens from frequenting public places depressed property values without inflicting any physical damage at all. Thus, government stay-at-home orders and public health fears made ghost towns of shopping centers, hotels and resorts, entertainment venues and other places where large crowds previously congregated. Almost overnight, the values of those properties greatly declined, sometimes to a fraction of pre-pandemic values.

Existing laws relating to property tax relief were not written to address restricted-access value declines. Nevertheless, many local assessors recognized the effect of pandemic-driven property value declines, including those caused by restricted access. Some taxing jurisdictions have even been proactive in reducing assessments due to downturns caused by COVID-19 in selected real estate markets, not waiting for taxpayers to file administrative appeals or lawsuits challenging property tax assessments. For example, California county assessors have asked commercial property owners to voluntarily submit valuation data early in the assessment cycle in order to reduce assessed values before the deadline for filing property tax appeals.

Despite recent real estate market value declines and efforts by local assessors to recognize such losses, the values of property tax rolls have continued to grow. In Los Angeles, the largest property tax jurisdiction in the U.S., the assessment roll increased by 6 percent during 2020, which was consistent with the preceding three years. Tax assessment rolls in San Francisco and San Diego hit record highs during 2020. Miami, Seattle and even Oklahoma City experienced similar increases. This stable growth of property tax rolls during the pandemic has allowed assessors to grant assessment relief to properties most affected by restricted access.

So the question arises, how long will local assessors continue to give COVID-19 property tax relief? Further, have the pandemic's restricted-access property value declines created new opportunities for future property tax value reductions? Time will tell.

Property Tax Reduction Opportunities Abound

The pandemic has created many opportunities to reduce property taxes, particularly in states where assessments reflect fair market values, and especially in sectors hard hit by restricted access issues. Uncertainty as to when market values will rebound, if ever, means property value reductions may remain in effect for more than a few years or assessment cycles.

Furthering this opportunity is the willingness of local taxing jurisdictions to extend deadlines and consider pandemic-induced property devaluations, including those caused by restricted access. This year and next, and perhaps beyond that, property owners and managers would do well to work with local taxing authorities to reduce their property tax assessments and, if need be, file property tax appeals.

Cris K. O'Neall is a shareholder in the law firm Greenberg Traurig, LLP, the California member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Cris K. O'Neall of Greenberg Traurig on new avenues for challenging property tax assessments.
Aug
12

When Property Tax Valuation Worlds Collide

Simultaneously protesting an assessment and a government taking can put taxpayers in a quandary.

There are multitudes of ways for property owners to reduce their tax burdens, as well as missteps that can derail a tax strategy. With that in mind, taxpayers should beware of trying to prove a low value for a tax appeal while simultaneously claiming a higher value in another proceeding. And here is how it can happen.

Protesting a high assessment

Most real estate taxes in the Northeast -- including those in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts -- have an "ad valorem" or "value-based" assessment method. Thus, the greater a property is worth, the higher its real estate tax burden. A property tax bill is calculated by multiplying the property assessment by the tax rate. The assessment or taxable value is determined by the local assessor or board of assessors and is typically a percentage of market value.

This percentage varies among states and even municipalities. In New York, it is based on a comprehensive analysis of sales. The percentage is released annually by the state's Office of Real Property Tax Services and is different for each municipality. Connecticut sets its percentage by statute. In Pennsylvania, it is set by the state's Tax Equalization Board. But regardless of the state or method, local statutes fortunately allow property owners to reduce their real property tax burden by protesting the assessment they receive.

To successfully appeal a tax assessment, property owners must file a tax appeal and conclusively prove a lower market value. There are a few accepted ways to do this, namely the sales comparison, income capitalization, and cost approaches to determining value. No matter which method is used, the calculation must value the property according to its actual use and condition as it existed on a specific date in the past. New York designates this as a taxable status date and most states use the same or a similar term.

Asserting a higher value

The "actual use and condition" guideline in setting taxable value stands in stark contrast with condemnation and eminent domain guidelines, which value property when it is taken for a public purpose. In that scenario, the property must be valued according to its highest and best use, regardless of how the property is actually being used.

When the government takes private property for a public purpose, it must compensate the owner for the damages to the property's most valuable use. This valuation standard is known as "highest and best use," and has a specific meaning in the appraisal and eminent domain world.

According to the Appraisal Institute's reference text, "The Appraisal of Real Estate," and a multitude of state and federal court cases, the highest and best use of a property must be (1) physically possible, (2) legally permissible, (3) financially feasible, and (4) maximally productive. A taxpayer building a case for maximum value will typically need a lawyer, along with an appraiser and/or engineer, to evaluate these four categories for the specific property, look at the range of uses that qualify under each of those categories, and then conclude which use will result in the highest market value.

For example, a vacant, five-acre, commercial-zoned parcel of land on Madison Avenue in New York City would not be valued as vacant land, but as whatever its maximum use could have been, such as an office building.

At crossed purposes

There can be a serious conflict between the two guidelines when there is a partial taking, such as when a government takes a strip of a larger tract for a road widening, during the pendency of a tax assessment appeal on the larger property. The conflict can arise when the property's highest and best use happens to be its present use and condition.

In that scenario, a property owner is in the difficult position of claiming a low market value for the tax assessment proceedings and claiming a higher market value during the condemnation proceeding. When that happens, the taxpayer's team must perform an analysis to determine which proceeding will potentially result in the greatest benefit to the owner.

A good rule of thumb would be to withdraw the tax appeal and concentrate on the eminent domain claim. This is because for condemnation, the damage has occurred on a single date (the date of the taking). Tax appeals, on the other hand, are filed annually, and market values can change from year to year. A wise petitioner would proceed with a tax appeal only after the eminent domain claim is concluded.

Jason M. Penighetti is an attorney at the Mineola, N.Y., law firm of Koeppel Martone & Leistman LLP, the New York State member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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  • Simultaneously protesting an assessment and a government taking can put taxpayers in a quandary.

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