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Property Tax Resources

Apr
15

NYC's Post-Pandemic Real Estate Decline

Market deterioration and municipal ineptitude are driving taxpayers to the courts for relief.

The New York City real estate market, once the pinnacle of economic health, has undoubtedly declined in recent years. Exploring the factors that brought the market to this point paints a clearer picture of what current conditions mean for property taxpayers and suggests strategies that may offer relief.

Five Causes of Decline 

The COVID-19 pandemic left an indelible mark. The coronavirus took a significant toll on New York City, which became an epicenter of U.S. infections. Many residents fled to suburban areas for more space and less harsh mandates from local authorities. According to a Cornell analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, "New York City's population plunged by nearly 4 percent – more than 336,000 people – during the pandemic's first year as residents migrated to less dense areas in nearby counties and neighboring states."

The New York City Comptroller's Office estimated that the City lost an additional 130,837 residents from March 2020 through June 2021. This caused unprecedented vacancies in residential and commercial properties, and approximately 100 hotels in the City closed. Those that survived endured high vacancy rates and struggled to pay property taxes.

Economic uncertainty plagues the real estate market. The economic fallout of elevated vacancies and decreasing income has rendered investors and developers hesitant to invest in New York City real estate.

Remote and hybrid work slashed office demand. The decline in office usage that accelerated during the pandemic is ongoing and appears permanent. Most workplaces have loosened to a hybrid work environment, and many employers allow a full-time work-from-home option as well.

This means office buildings that once bustled with employees are now vacant or significantly emptier than they were in 2019. Midtown Manhattan lunch spots and after-work happy hour sbars and restaurants have also taken a hit. The National Bureau of Economic Research estimated in 2022 that New York office buildings had lost as much as $50 billion of value in the wake of reduced demand.

Crime is soaring. New York City police reported making 4,589 arrests for major crimes in June, a 9.3 percent increase from the same period a year earlier. In the first six months of 2023, officers made 25,995 such arrests – the most for any half-year period since 2000.

Property tax revenues are under threat. The previous trends have been slow to erode the municipal view of the tax base. The City's Department of Finance reported a tentative assessment roll of $1.479 trillion for fiscal 2024, a 6.1 percent increase from the previous tax year. For the same period, the department reported a 4.4 percent increase in citywide, taxable, billable assessed value, the portion of market value to which tax rates are applied, to $286.8 billion.

"New York City continues to show mixed signs of growth and economic recovery, with the FY 24 tentative property assessment roll reflecting improvements in subsectors of the residential market while key commercial sectors still lag behind pre-pandemic levels despite modest growth over the past year," Department of Finance Commissioner Preston Niblack said in a press release announcing the tentative tax roll.The decline in office occupancy continues to impact retail stores and hotels in the City contributing to the sector's slow recovery. At the same time, single family homes, which constitute a majority of residential properties, have exhibited a robust recovery and continued growth."

A study by NYU's Stern School of Business and Columbia University's Graduate School of Business calculated that a decrease in lease revenue, renewals and occupancy would cut the value of office buildings in the City by 44 percent over the next six years. Based on those findings, a worst-case analysis by New York City Comptroller Brad Lander found that a 40 percent decline in office property market values over the same six years would result in $1.1 billion less tax revenue for fiscal 2027, the last year of the City's current financial plan. Real estate taxes on office properties currently generate 10 percent of overall City revenue. The City expects office vacancies to peak at a record 22.7 percent this year, posing a potential threat to tax collections.

The result of the forgoing changes is that income is down, expenses are up, demand is evaporating, and market values have plunged by more than 50 percent for most commercial properties except perhaps multifamily (although sales of condominiums have stalled due to high mortgage costs).

How To Get Relief

The hotel industry anticipates a four-year recovery period. Hotel owners preparing arguments for reduced assessments should collect information for their team documenting closure dates, occupancy rates, and any specific pandemic-related expenses incurred during the reopening process.

It is inappropriate for assessors to evaluate hotels for property tax purposes solely based on non-real-estate income. A recent court ruling has affirmed the illegality of utilizing non-real-estate income generated by hotel businesses, leading to an overassessment of real estate taxes that must be refunded to owners. Business-related income, such as that from movie rentals, should not be considered in property tax assessments.

In addition, it is essential to identify and exclude income from personal property, furnishings, and the value of intangibles, franchises, trained workforce, and going concerns when determining real estate income.

The prevalence of empty stores and closures of local standby establishments in every corner of New York City underscores the severe economic impact on retail properties. Retail and office owners should be prepared to demonstrate declines in gross income and rents reported in their financial filings with the City. They are also required to provide a list of tenants who have vacated or are not paying rent. The Tax Commission now mandates an explanation for declines in rents exceeding 10 percent.

There is considerable potential for assessment reductions, but it is crucial for taxpayers to compile evidence of market value declines, and to collaborate with experienced advisors to secure warranted tax reductions.

There is no longer any absorption of vacant office space since demand is declining. That means that 80 percent occupancy or lower is the norm. Only an adjustment in property taxes to the actual earnings of the property will save the real estate, and over-leveraged properties may be lost.

Tax Process in a Tailspin

Extensive personnel turnover has hampered the review process that relies on action by City agencies, with inexperienced staff and numerous unfilled positions at both the Department of Finance (assessors) and the Tax Commission. Thus, expected remediation of excessive assessments often go unresolved. This leaves no alternative but to go to court.

Resorting to the courts is also difficult because in-person appearances are still relegated to video conferences, with few trials taking place.

The taxpayer's best approach is to push forward with all speed to demand a trial.  Only pressure to demand speedy trials will provide the needed result.


Joel Marcus is a partner in the New York City law firm Marcus & Pollack LLP, the New York City member of the American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Odelia Nikfar is an associate at the firm.
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Apr
02

Seize Opportunities to Appeal Property Tax Bills

Office property owners should contest excessive assessments now, before a potential crisis drives up taxes.

The Great Recession, from December 2007 to June 2009, was the longest recession since World War II. It was also the deepest, with real gross domestic product (GDP) plummeting 4.3 percent from a peak in 2007 to its trough in 2009.

Entering that recession, unemployment was at an unalarming 5.0 percent, which is on par with historical averages, and interest rates hovered around 6 percent. The roots of the recession lurked at the intersection of risky subprime mortgages and the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which allowed for the mega-mergers of banks and brokerages to escalate.

And here we are in January 2024, looking down a steep market slope. On the bright side, we are in a more advantageous position than at the beginning of the Great Recession. GDP was a respectable $25.46 trillion in 2022, up 19 percent from $21.38 trillion in 2019. Unemployment is at 3.7 percent, and values in the single-family housing market are increasing again, in part due to a lack of supply.

The investors standing on unstable ground this time around are those heavily leveraged in major metropolitan markets, such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, or other municipalities that rely on office values. (Think suburban office markets.) The sharp increase in interest rates under the Federal Reserve's tightening monetary policy, and the extreme drop in demand for commercial office space that accelerated during the pandemic, will have significant ramifications on all property types.

Dire developments

What ramifications? Assume a hypothetical "Metro City" that, like most major markets, has a tax base with 75 percent of its independent parcels classified as residential, and 25 percent as commercial real estate. However, the assessment values are strongly weighted on the commercial properties, with 30 percent of the entire assessment value born by office properties.

The municipality has a total tax levy of $16.7 billion and overall assessed property value of $83.1 billion. The office portion of the property makeup is 30 percent, or $24.9 billion in assessed value. The office share of the total tax levy is $5.0 billion.

Now assume that the city's overall office market value collapses by 50 percent. This leaves Metro City with a $2.5 billion deficit – not a small number. To recapture that $2.5 billion, the city must increase its tax rate by 15 percent. That means tax liability increases by 15 percent for every taxpayer, even if their property's assessed value is unchanged.

So, how can developers and owners protect themselves from excessive tax liability, given the current market conditions? One solution is to appeal property tax assessments aggressively. Regardless of the jurisdiction, regardless of property type, property owners must evaluate their opportunity for an assessment appeal.

Office-specific issues

Market transactions show vast valuation differences between Class A office properties, which are typically newer buildings with great amenities, versus "the others," or those office properties 10 or more years old and offering fewer amenities. Properties that fall in the latter category have many opportunities for assessment reductions. Here are key points to consider.

Ensure the appraiser or assessor is using the property's current, effective rental rates. In many instances, an owner will show a tenant's gross rent on the rent roll without disclosing specific lease terms contributing to effective rent. For example, the lease may have been negotiated at $27 per square foot, but the rent roll does not account for free rent, amortization, free parking or other amenities the tenant receives.

Additionally, although office leases historically pass through taxes and other costs to tenants, many negotiated leases now cap expenses for the tenant, potentially shifting a portion of expenses to the landlord. That is a key issue the taxpayer should address in the income analysis of an appeal, because it provides evidence for a reduction in effective rental rates, as well as an imputed increase a buyer would demand in the capitalization rate to reflect the additional risk.

Appraisers need to understand this issue for rental comparables as well as for the subject property. Typically, they will confirm public information posted by various data services, but if they lack the finer details of a transaction, the rates they derive could exceed the true market.

Address vacancy and shadow vacancy. Prior to the pandemic, office vacancy in most markets hovered between 5 percent and 14 percent, depending on the location and building class. As of the third quarter of 2023, vacancy is over 18 percent, according to CBRE.

In October 2023, CBRE reported that suburban Chicago's office vacancy rose 50 basis points to 25.9 percent in the third quarter. Manhattan's overall office vacancy rate including sublease offerings is 22.1 percent, according to Cushman & Wakefield.

Shadow vacancy, or space where the tenant is still paying rent but no one physically occupies the space, is the canary in the coalmine for an office building's future. If a building is 12 percent vacant, the assessor probably won't be sympathetic. But if the owner highlights that leases in the space expire in the next year or two, and/or they are large blocks of space, the assessor (or at least the owner's appraiser) should acknowledge that risk and apply a higher cap rate for the subject property.

Adjust for interest rates. Any investment-grade property is now worth less than it was two years ago, simply because of the rise in interest rates.

Because interest rates have increased significantly, the property owner can argue that the assessor should use the "band of investment" method, which calculates capitalization rates for the components of an investment to produce an overall cap rate by weighted average. This methodology takes into account not only the increase in market interest rates, but also equity demands of lenders. Interest rates have increased over 3 percentage points across the last 2 years, which in many cases equates to a 100 percent increase in interest rates.

Additionally, the equity requirements on commercial mortgages have increased from 30 percent to 50 percent. Increasing the base capitalization rate to reflect these changes in an income analysis will offer significant relief in the assessment.

Jurisdictions that rely heavily on office values to support overall assessment value in the tax base will be experiencing increasing tax rates. This increase in rate is factored into the loaded capitalization rate, which obviously means a lower market value for assessment purposes. Analysts and appraisers should review the increased rates annually.

The near term will be challenging for entities that invested in office properties prior to 2023, but the strategies outlined above can offer some protection in this stormy market.

Molly Phelan is a partner in the Chicago office of the law firm Siegel Jennings Co., L.P.A., the Ohio, Illinois and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Feb
26

How Poor Performance Can Aid Property Tax Appeals

Accounting for weak operations can buoy arguments to reduce taxable value, writes Baker Jarrell of Popp Hutcheson PLLC.

Property taxes are an ongoing headache for many commercial real estate owners, especially when their properties generate inadequate income. Assessors compound these frustrations when they value underperforming real estate as if it were operating on par with the market. By understanding the source of the poor performance, however, owners can build a compelling appeal to reduce their property's taxable value.

One of the main reasons taxing entities overvalue underperforming properties is their use of mass appraisal. The appraisal districts that value real estate for taxation typically deal with thousands of parcels contributing to hundreds of billions of dollars in market value. Mass appraisal allows these districts to systematically value large numbers of properties where performing individual appraisals would be unfeasible.

Understandably, this methodology can create confusion and frustration among property owners, who often feel their assessment does not accurately represent the specific real estate. Mass appraisal is a useful method but lacks the nuance necessary to determine the actual value of real estate and, thus, the appropriate tax levy.

Adjust to occupancy

With a standard property that operates at market-level occupancy, income and expenses create market value based on an expected rate of return. Assessors and appraisers know this as the income approach to valuation.

Additional losses should be factored into the value when the property performs below standard occupancy, however. This means that, when a property has vacancy well above the market rate, the final value must account for this gap.

The first remedy for excessive taxation on a poorly performing property is to adjust for rent loss in the income approach. For instance, if there are two otherwise comparable buildings but one maintains the market occupancy of 85 percent and the other is only at 50 percent occupancy, it does not make sense to appraise and value them equally.

Any buyer of a poorly performing property will incur significant costs to lease up the building to the market level. The costs typically include rent loss, tenant improvements and leasing commissions. In valuation, an appraiser would total the present value of these costs over the absorption period to arrive at the total discount for rent loss. The appraiser can then deduct the discount from the previously calculated value via the income approach to represent what a buyer would pay in an arm's length transaction.

Other factors

If the property's poor performance is attributable to factors other than vacancy, there are still options available in an appeal. Often, trends outside the property owner's control limit the income a particular property can generate and, consequently, the overall value. Shifts in legislation, supply and demand, or any industry-specific economics are all possible factors contributing to a reduction in earning potential. Incorporating economic obsolescence in the cost approach quantifies poor performance from these external factors.

For example, if a property has a depreciated improvement plus land value of $10 million and a market rate of return of 9 percent, it would be expected to generate $900,000 annually. If the stabilized net income before taxes is only $650,000, however, there is a deficit of $250,000. Dividing the difference by the rate of return (9 percent) determines the economic obsolescence adjustment of $2.8 million. In this scenario, the property taxes would be initially assessed at $10 million, but $7.2 million is the more accurate figure.

Lastly, what can owners do when the property is generating sufficient income today, but potential struggles loom on the horizon? The typical signal for approaching difficulty comes from a rent roll analysis, which will identify leases set to expire in the next few years. Without guaranteed rent for an extended period, property income can become volatile in tandem with economic conditions.

Potential volatility indicates an elevated risk, for which any buyer would demand an increased rate of return. As a result, the capitalization rate needs to be adjusted upward to account for the higher risk when compared to a similar property with greater cash-flow certainty. Because of their inverse relationship, a higher cap rate will result in a lower property value. Initially, the appraisal district will be unaware of the income volatility and will assess taxes at the incorrect value.

To illustrate, if a property in a specific market typically requires an 8 percent capitalization but is found to carry excess risk, the cap rate may need to be 9 percent or higher for that property. If the hypothetical building generates $600,000 in net operating income, the cap rate adjustment decreases taxable value by 11 percent. This shows how understanding the property's expected future performance helps estimate at a more accurate market value.

When it comes to determining the taxable value of real property, the owner is always going to have access to the most helpful information for showing how the property performs. It is unrealistic to assume an appraisal district can reach the same conclusion of value while using less specific information. As such, it is the responsibility of the owner's tax team to use this information in establishing a more accurate and fair opinion of value.

Baker Jarrell is a property tax consultant at the law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC, the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. The firm focuses its practice on defending owners in property tax disputes.
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Feb
23

John Stark and Kirk Garza: Assessors Often Overvalue Student Housing

With competition from a growing supply of purpose-built student housing (PBSH) and student renters' ever-evolving preferences driving costs, property owners in the sector must guard against excessive tax assessments.

Assessors often treat this special asset class as a traditional multifamily development, while PBSH is designed specifically for university students. As such, the properties have distinct lease structures, design layouts, amenities, and services that differ from traditional multifamily properties and on-campus dormitories. This misclassification often leads assessors to select valuation metrics through mass appraisal that ignore the unique characteristics of this class of real property, resulting in inflated assessments.

Taxpayer teaching guide

Student housing owners should promptly review notices of taxable property value for fairness and decide whether to contest their assessment. If they choose to file a protest, the taxpayer must file their request by the deadline in their jurisdiction.

Whether a property owner is simply reviewing their tax assessment or preparing arguments to have an assessment lowered, it will ease the taxpayer's task to know the most common mistakes assessors make in valuing PBSH properties. Many of these problem areas relate to assessor assumptions based on market-rate multifamily properties, and how those properties, features and revenue models differ from dedicated student housing.

What follows are essential factors involved in calculating taxable value for a student housing project. The property owner should understand these points and be prepared to educate their assessor about how each affects market value.

Rent and revenue

PBSH rental-rate drivers that an assessor often overlooks include lease terms, unfurnished vs. furnished units, and amenity packages. The most notable difference from traditional multifamily apartments is that PBSH properties lease by the bed. Separate leases and deposits for each resident provide students and their parents with financial security in the event that a roommate transfers colleges, unenrolls, moves away, or does not pay their rent on time.

Leases also run parallel to the academic calendar. This makes cash flow seasonal and creates an expensive make-ready period right before the fall term, when all leases expire or start concurrently. Lease terms tied to semesters or school years rather than 12-month calendar years are among the main characteristics that make student housing rental rates and revenue streams incompatible with market-rate apartment properties.

Counting costs

On the expense side, student housing units and bedrooms may be unfurnished or fully furnished, with the latter often including a wide variety of smart appliances and furniture packages catering to the latest student preferences. The property owner should ensure certain furnishings are not doubly taxed by inclusion in both the overall property assessment and a separate business personal property account.

In addition to charging higher rent for fully furnished options to offset their higher cost, student housing landlords may include charges for certain amenities in the stated rental amount. Examples of these rent inclusions range from high-speed Wi-Fi throughout the building to cable TV, trash valet services, transportation, and utilities. Understanding these differences when analyzing the subject property and comparables is critical to arrive at an appropriate market rental rate and expense structure for an income-based valuation.

Like on-campus dormitory managers, PBSH property teams strive to promote socialization and a sense of community through the built unit mix, common area amenities and budgeting for social and academic events. While traditional apartments are typically comprised of mostly one-bedroom and studio units, developers build student housing primarily as multibedroom units.

This design difference, along with student expectations for 1:1 bedroom/bathroom parity, often make multifamily-to-PBSH conversions unfeasible. The inability to pursue conventional, market-rate multifamily renters represents additional risk for student housing owners in the event that occupancy decreases. Moreover, because one-bedrooms typically garner higher rents per square foot and achieve higher occupancies than three- and four-bedroom units, comparisons of PBSH rents to traditional multifamily rental rates are often inappropriate.

PBSH intangibles

The PBSH market is experiencing numerous emerging trends that impact an asset's overall value. While some of these considerations tie directly to the tangible real estate, other aspects are intangible – meaning they cannot be held – and are typically untaxable.

Intangible assets in student housing can relate to an associated school campus and can be more or less valuable depending on the institution. In addition, properties adjacent to a college campus typically command higher rents and property values than those where residents might require transportation to reach campus. Access to neighborhood amenities, property services, attractions, and public transit can also boost a property's rental demand.

Additionally, PBSH properties historically trade at capitalization rates approximately 50 basis points higher than traditional apartment complexes due to various risks not seen in traditional multifamily assets. Property values drop as cap rates increase.

Similarly, U.S. student housing properties at Power 5 schools can achieve significantly higher rents and sales than properties near non-Power 5 schools. (Power 5 refers to the major football conferences: Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific 12 and Southeastern.)

Because traditional apartment valuations rarely need or include business value adjustments, assessors seldom adjust for the business value of intangibles not directly tied to the real estate during the initial assessment of a purpose-built student housing property. Yet, as we have presented, intangible benefits can be a factor in PBSH business models and may influence market valuations in the sector.

Finally, it is important to realize that various jurisdictions may have nuanced definitions of taxable value, tangible real estate, business personal property, and intangible business value. A local expert can provide valuable insight in forming and presenting arguments for an assessment reduction, and help to mitigate intangible business value in PBSH real estate assessments. 

Kirk Garza
John Stark
John Stark is a manager and Kirk Garza is a director at the Texas law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC, which focuses its practice on property tax disputes. The firm is the Texas member of the American Property Tax Counsel, a national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Both John and Kirk are licensed property tax consultants in Texas.
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Feb
13

Obsolescent Real Estate Presents Complications for Property Taxes

Incurable obsolescence — the stealth killer of commercial real estate value — is all too often overlooked in property tax appeals.

Any obsolescence can affect a property's value. Normal obsolescence involves curable problems, such as outdated fixtures and finishes that reduce a building's desirability. In valuation, the anticipated cost to cure the obsolescence (in this case, with a refreshed interior) is deducted from the property's taxable value.

As the name suggests, incurable obsolescence cannot be cured within the boundaries of the property. The obsolescence stems from outside circumstances, whether next door or in the larger markets, and no change to the property itself can overcome the deficiency.

Perhaps the government is going to change the traffic pattern, or a hog farm is going in next door. The market value may rise if a good thing is coming to the area. It will surely decline if a bad thing is coming, and the market value declines in relation to the predictability of such an event.

Property owners who learn the common forms and causes of incurable obsolescence will be better equipped to recognize its symptoms in their own real estate. In arguing for a reduced tax assessment value, evidence of obsolescence weighing on a property's operations will often tip the scales in convincing an assessor, review board or court to grant a reduction.

Passing or permanent?

Owners should be aware of functional obsolescence and be prepared to discuss it when appealing assessments. If it is a problem that can't be cured within the boundaries of the property, it is incurable obsolescence and reduces the property's market value.

The condition may have existed from the inception of the property's development and use, but more typically it results over time from factors relating to design, usability, markets, traffic patterns, government takings or regulation. For example, economic need or a government requirement may leave a property without adequate parking to support commercial buildings on the site, rendering those structures incurably obsolete.

Incurable obsolescence can be partial and a handicap to the property's viability without entirely preventing its continued use. For example, an office building designed for single-tenant use will not accommodate multiple users. There is a very limited market for single-tenant, high-rise buildings. The cost of retrofitting such a building into separate leasable offices is infeasible.

The loss in value due to incurable obsolescence may be anticipatory. If the market's users and investors see imminent incurable obsolescence, it may already affect market value. The negative impact of incurable obsolescence occurs when the problem cannot be cured on site at any cost.

In evaluating a property for instances of incurable obsolescence, however, it is important to remember that the source of obsolescence may be offsite.

Owners concerned with the production and marketing of a product or service from their property may not be aware of external elements of incurable obsolescence affecting their property's value. Or they may simply regard the circumstance as a non-priority item — at least until they get their property tax bill.

Instances of the incurable

Incurable obsolescence takes many forms, but taxpayers are most likely to encounter it in one of a few common scenarios. Those include:

Property access changes. Typically imposed by a highway or street authority, moving or removing access points can reduce a commercial property's appeal to users and lower its market value.

Altered traffic patterns. Changes to surrounding roads or highways can reduce commercial value. Limiting the property's visibility and accessibility, for example, may reduce customer traffic and brand exposure for operators on the property.

Size modifications. The property may fail to meet the required property size in relation to improvements. Possible causes include changed government requirements or the physical loss of a portion of the property due to government taking. A simple change in setback lines may have a dramatic negative impact on a property's value.

Takings. Use of eminent domain may reduce the remainder of the property to a legal non-conforming use which may not be altered to accommodate a commercially viable use. Alternatively, commercial uses on a state highway may be untouched by highway takings, but diverting traffic to a new highway kills viable commercial use of properties on the abandoned roadway.

More examples

Other sources of incurable obsolescence span a wide range, from changing industry practices and preferences to evolving government regulations, markets and natural phenomena. Zoning or regulatory changes may restrict usage, for example. The property may no longer meet current tenant needs regarding loading dock height, or access by delivery and customer vehicles. Nearby development or street construction may inundate the property with surface water. Properties have incurred incurable obsolescence for their intended uses from light pollution, and from disruptive air traffic following a change in flight patterns.

Property owners discussing excessive taxable valuation with the assessor should recognize that the assessor has employed the cost approach to value. While cost may be a value indicator, it lacks relevance in situations involving incurable obsolescence. Help the assessor to look beyond cost by showing how obsolescence reduces the property's value in the marketplace.

In preparation for meeting with the assessor, an owner seeking a reduced assessment should look for negative conditions beyond the control or ability of the owner to correct within the boundary of the property. Be prepared to discuss with the assessor how the conditions affect the property value. Bring plat maps, photos, restrictive regulations and ordinances, and any documents that entail restrictions on the use of the property — legal, physical or otherwise — and an explanation of how these matters negatively affect the property's value.

While there is no cure for incurable obsolescence, there are treatments for unfair tax assessments. When incurable obsolescence results in lost improvement value, the owner is entitled to an appropriate downward adjustment of the assessed value. 

Jerome Wallach is a partner at The Wallach Law Firm in St. Louis, the Missouri member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Jan
01

2024 Annual APTC Tax Seminar

The American Property Tax Counsel is proud to announce that Chicago, Illinois will be the site of an in-person meeting for the 2024 Annual APTC Client Seminar.

Save the Dates! October 23-25, 2024 - Fairmont Chicago, Millennium Park - Chicago, Illinois

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Dec
21

Consider Constitutionality in Property Taxation

Taxpayers should look beyond fair market value in deciding whether — and how — to protest assessments.

Taxpayers usually appeal property tax assessments by proving a market value different from the assessor's finding, but they should not overlook constitutional guarantees of uniform and equal taxation.

As an ad valorem tax, real property taxes are charged on the value of the underlying real estate, usually measured as fair market value. In many states, taxpayers can demonstrate their property's market value with a recent, arm's-length sale price or by independent appraisal evidence.

Two potential concerns emerge for taxpayers in an assessment appeal centered on market value: the declining reliability of data in volatile and rapidly changing markets, and the trailing nature of market data used by assessors. Those data issues can skew the mass appraisal techniques tax assessors often use, including comparisons to sales of similar properties, when assessing real property.

Volatility and rapid change

Commercial property data can lose relevancy with surprising speed in a volatile market. For example, office properties continue to bear the consequences of increased remote work and occupants' shrinking footprints since the pandemic. Many office properties with mortgages maturing in 2023 have lost half or more of their previously underwritten asset values. Badge swipes tracked by Kastle Systems show an average office attendance of about 50 percent throughout 2023.

In early 2023, Cushman & Wakefield attributed slowing construction to uncertainty in the office market along with challenges related to higher interest rates, supply chain issues, and labor shortages. Office properties may be in danger of becoming "zombie" buildings with utilization of 50 percent or less, while market watchers warn of doom loops or a domino effect of property failures, especially in dense central business districts. Most market participants are waiting for the other shoe to drop and for the market to reveal its bottom.

Assessors are not immune to the valuation problems this market uncertainty creates. Assessors currently valuing properties are likely considering comparable sales that occurred as far back as 2019 or early 2020. Even more recent sales are likely to be based on leases executed years earlier, or on financing obtained prior to the pandemic.

Further undermining data reliability is the decline in sales activity after March 2020, when pandemic-related uncertainty and economic pressures like rising interest rates began to discourage participants from unnecessary transactions. As pre-pandemic leases expire and loans underwritten on those leases mature, transactional data will likely show drastic valuation declines within a short amount of time. The lag in sales data as these properties are brought to market will affect the accuracy of property tax assessments.

What can a taxpayer do when market activity is too chaotic and volatile to accurately price value? Taxpayers should not forget constitutional safeguards of equal protection and uniform taxation.

The U.S. and most state constitutions protect taxpayers against non-uniform and discriminatory tax policies. For example, the Ohio Constitution requires that "land and improvements thereon" are "taxed by uniform rule according to value." Ohio statutes also require that assessors appraise property according to "uniform rule" in both the "mode of assessment" and as a "percentage of value." The constitutions of Pennsylvania and Texas also contain uniformity clauses. The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from depriving any person of their property without due process or denying any person equal protection of the law.

These constitutional protections are important enough that federal and state courts have held that when the goals of uniform taxation and correctly assessing market value cannot both be met, the constitutional priorities of equity and uniformity prevail.

Uniform, equal taxation

There are a few ways to help ensure consistent and equitable property taxation, starting with regular reassessment cycles. Some Pennsylvania counties have not reassessed countywide since the 1960s. The lack of regular appraisals to determine market value results in fewer properties being taxed on their true market value, especially if recently sold properties are assessed at their sale price while others have not been reappraised in decades.

A related problem is variation in the taxed percentage of market value between similar properties, which leads to non-uniform assessment ratios. There have been a series of successful contests recently in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, by taxpayers demonstrating that other property owners with similar properties were not paying taxes based on similar market values. Therefore, properties with the same market values were not being assessed at the same ratio, leading to non-uniform assessments. "The problem in Lackawanna County was not caused by this assessor's office, but gets perpetuated when new construction is placed on the assessment rolls at 100% of construction costs based solely on permit information, while similar properties have not been property reassessed since the base year of 1967," explains James Tressler of Tressler Law LLC, the attorney who brought a number of these successful challenges.

Another way to ensure assessment uniformity is by valuing the unencumbered, fee-simple interest in the real property, regardless of whether a particular property is leased, owner-occupied, or vacant. Ohio amended its controlling legislation to clarify that assessors must value the market value of the fee simple interest for all properties. Valuing the same market-based fee simple interest for all properties safeguards real estate tax assessments from being influenced by the business value of a successful (or unsuccessful) enterprise conducted on the property.

Governments can check discriminatory treatment by allowing taxpayers to contest the unequal ratios of market value across similar properties, or by allowing taxpayers to challenge assessments based on the median assessments of a reasonable number of comparable properties. Texas law contains this type of protection for taxpayers, and similar legislative remedies are being discussed in Ohio.

These additional checks and balances to secure equal and uniform property tax systems assure taxes are not borne discriminatorily by a few. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court wisely reminds us of these protections in a 2017 decision involving Valley Forge Towers Apartments, stating: "As every tax is a burden, it is important that the public has confidence that property taxes are administered in a just and impartial manner, with each taxpayer contributing his or her fair share of the cost of government."

Cecilia J. Hyun is a partner with Siegel Jennings Co., L.P.A. the Ohio, Illinois, and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Cecilia is also a member of CREW Network.
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Nov
22

Industrial Property Tax Gets Personal

Differentiate personal property from real estate values for fair tax treatment.

North Carolina taxes both real estate and personal property, but differing valuation schedules and processes for the two types can lead to confusion and inflated tax bills for industrial property owners. Understanding how assessors value industrial properties can help those taxpayers detect issues and contest unfair assessments.

Dual processes

North Carolina requires assessors to revalue real property at least every eight years. The value as of Jan. 1 of the valuation year then remains constant until the next valuation, unless specified changes in the property occur to trigger a change in the assessment. Many counties revalue every four years, and a few, even more frequently.

Assessors use a market analysis to determine real property's taxable or fair market value. This involves applying one or more of the three valuation approaches: cost, comparable sales, or income.

The state requires annual valuation of personal property based on installed cost, which is subject to the applicable trending and depreciation schedules. For the most part, taxing authorities rely on the taxpayer's annual business personal property listing to determine what items of personal property are present, the installed cost, and the trending and depreciation schedule applied. The counties follow schedules for auditing the property tax listings, and most disputes that arise stem from these audits.

With industrial real estate, the two tax schemes can create conflicts based on property components that could be considered either real estate or personal property, depending on circumstances. For example, reinforced foundations or specialized wiring for unique machinery could be considered a real estate improvement, thereby adding value to the real estate, or they could be considered personal property subject to depreciation and trending.

Although the tax rate applied is the same for both real estate and personal property, categorization can significantly affect taxable value. Real property improvements enhance market value on a more permanent basis, while personal property value is generally presumed to decline because of annual trending and depreciation.

And of course, no one wants to be taxed twice on the same property: once by having a component or improvement included in the real estate value, and again by having it taxed as personal property.

Defining characteristics

How can a taxpayer determine what is real and what is personal in their industrial property? Generally, personal property items are movable and not permanently affixed to real estate. An issue of intent arises, however, if the item can be removed but not without causing serious damage to the real estate.

A rule of thumb in the North Carolina Department of Revenue's Personal Property Appraisal and Assessment Manual instructs assessors to classify all property and investment necessary for the operation of machinery and equipment as personal. Examples are wiring, venting, flooring, special climate control, conveyors, boilers and furnaces, dock levelers, and equipment foundations. Stated another way, property used as part of a process, or that is in place to support equipment, is generally personal property.

On the other hand, Department of Revenue staff regard items in the plant for lighting, air handling and plumbing for human comfort to be part of the real estate. The department's appraisal and assessment manual includes an extensive chart, and each county's published schedule of values may also provide a helpful listing.

It is often difficult to know whether the county has included what could be classified as personal property in its calculation of real property value. Regardless, if the taxpayer has not listed such items on the annual personal property submissions, it will be difficult to argue after the fact that they should have been excluded from the real estate value.

Taxpayer strategies

Taxpayers can argue for a reduced assessment by identifying personal property items improperly classified as real property in the assessor's calculations and seeking to have them treated as personal property subject to trending and depreciation. Knowing where to look for personal items will help the property owner in this task.

A critical item to be generally classified as personal property is any leasehold improvement. Leasehold improvements often look like real estate but are owned and controlled by the tenant for the lease term. These are items the tenant paid for and received under terms of the lease or other contract, and were installed for the tenant's use. Leasehold items almost always facilitate the tenant's business.

In deciding whether these items are real or personal property, the taxing authority will apply a test akin to a traditional fixture analysis, determining the manner of affixation, whether the item can be removed without serious damage, and whether it is intended to remain permanent. In the end, the assessor will apply a "totality of the circumstances" test, including the lease terms.

The tenant - as the owner of the leasehold improvements - is required to list those items as personal property. The landlord should monitor the tenant's personal property submissions to ensure that all tenant improvements are being listed. This will help to avoid leasehold items being considered as part of the current real estate valuation.

Unlike a traditional fixture analysis, and dependent on the lease terms, the improvements may be taxed to the tenant during the term of the lease. When the improvements are left to the landlord at the end of the lease term, the taxing authority will need to consider assigning any remaining value to the real estate.

The owner of an industrial property needs to be cognizant of how the assessor is valuing both the real estate and personal property, and how those components are taxed. This requires knowing what improvements are included in the valuation of the real property as of the valuation date, and tracking the annual personal property tax listings, especially those submitted by a tenant. Finally, taxpayers must be timely in correcting any erroneous assumptions or listings.

Gib Laite is a partner in the law firm Williams Mullen, the North Carolina member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Nov
17

How Cap Rate Analysis Can Bolster Property Tax Appeals

The often-overlooked band-of-investment argument helps taxpayers demand maximum capitalization rates to combat inflated property tax assessments.

When commercial property owners review assessments of their properties' taxable value for fairness, they typically look to the markets for context. This year, however, superficial market observations do little to clarify questions about property valuation. At the risk of understating the obvious, 2023 has been a confusing time in commercial real estate.

Most investors, brokers, appraisers, and even tax courts seem to agree that the office sector is under severe strain and unlikely to recover soon, even if they debate the extent or duration of damage to the property type. With other sectors, however, the wide range of perspectives today can be confusing and even contradictory.

Mainstream news reports of strong occupancy and tenant demand for retail space only tell part of the story. Many retail property owners continue to struggle with historically high tenant improvement costs and contend with tenants seeking concessions far more frequently than they did before the pandemic.

The multifamily and industrial sectors have remained robust relative to other property types, but inflationary construction costs and borrowing costs driven up by interest rate hikes have thinned margins and clouded projections in many deals.

Against that backdrop, economic forecasts garner a mixed reception. Predictions of an impending recession have felt like sage prophecy, foolish overreaction, or an echo chamber of crying wolf, depending on one's perspective or position in the markets.

Ideal time to review assessments

Clearly, the economics of operating investment properties are far less predictable than they were five years ago. Even within stronger property types, performance and pricing have become more volatile.

That kind of uncertainty means increased risk, which any appraiser will tell you should indicate elevated capitalization rates. Combine that risk with climbing interest rates, and the negative impact on overall commercial property value is undeniable. That makes this an ideal time to review property tax exposure and to contest assessors' overstated valuations.

Data trackers and analysts estimate that value losses among commercial property types range from 30 percent to more than 50 percent. Retail and office properties have suffered the greatest declines from their original appraised values, at 57 percent and 48.7 percent, respectively, according to CRED iQa commercial real estate analytics and valuation platform. In a study of $10 billion in assets across property types, CRED iQ noted an average 41.2 percent valuation decline from original appraised values.

And what's more, KC Conway, the principal of The Original Red Shoe Economist and 2018-2023 chief economist for the CCIM Institute, predicts "lots more (commercial real estate) value loss and bank failures to come."

A residential example helps to put these losses into context. The average 30-year fixed residential mortgage interest rate for the week ending Dec. 30, 2021, was 3.11 percent, compared to 6.42 percent for the week ending Dec. 29, 2022, according to Freddie Mac's Primary Mortgage Market Survey. At 3.11 percent, a homebuyer purchasing a $200,000 house with 20 percent down would have had a monthly mortgage payment of $684.

One year later, a homebuyer putting 20 percent down and using a mortgage with 6.42 percent interest would have to purchase a home for $109,138 to achieve the same monthly payment of $684. This is a roughly 45 percent decrease in purchasing power over the span of one year.

The same principle applies to commercial real estate, where climbing interest rates and a related spike in capitalization rates have rapidly hammered down property values.

Cap rate consequences

It is important for taxpayers to understand that assessors often draw the capitalization rates used in property valuation from cap rate surveys, which may not indicate true cap rates because surveys are backward-looking. And cap rates have risen quickly along with buyers targeted internal rate of return (IRR).

With an increase in interest rates, a potential deal that may have met a target IRR in early 2022 would no longer meet that same threshold at the end of 2022. Correspondingly, the buyer looking at a deal in early 2022 vs. the end of 2022 would likely have to lower their purchase price to meet their target IRR. Assuming net operating income remains constant, the cap rate for the deal in late 2022 would be higher than the cap rate reported for the early 2022 deal. This is a chief reason why cap rates tend to follow interest rates.

Taxpayers may be able to achieve a reduced assessment by arguing for a higher capitalization rate that more accurately reflects a buyer's expected rate of return. To support the highest possible cap rate, taxpayers should take a hard look at the mortgage-equity method, often called the "band-of-investment" technique.

Based on the premise that most real estate buyers use a combination of debt and equity, the mortgage-equity method calculates the weighted average of the borrower's cap rate and the lender's cap rate. Equity cap rates tend to be higher than those on debt, and with lenders offering lower loan-to-value mortgages, equity caps play a greater proportional role in today's acquisition pricing.

Until recently, the method had become disfavored by some tax courts and county boards of equalization. Common criticisms are that the methodology is too susceptible to manipulation, or that the equity component is too subjective and/or too difficult to support. Arguably, many critics just don't understand it. But in the current climate, the band-of-investment is increasingly accepted and perhaps more relevant than ever.

Band-of-investment strategies

Taxpayers can use the methodology in a few ways. For properties purchased or refinanced recently but before the Fed's interest rate hikes really accelerated, taxpayers may argue for straightforward adjustments to recent appraisals to reflect market changes. More complex situations may require a specialist's appraisal to support the value change.

Importantly, even properties which have maintained strong performance are subject to value loss from market changes, which may justify making the additional effort to prepare a mortgage-equity argument.

Before attempting such strategies, taxpayers should evaluate the jurisdictional laws and definitions that control property taxes, including the effective date of the challenged assessment. With 2024 looming and bringing with it a new lien date for measuring assessments in many jurisdictions, now is an ideal time to review portfolios for excessive property tax assessments.

Phil Brusk
Brendan Kelly
Brendan Kelly is the manager of the national portfolio practice group of law firm Siegel Jennings Co. L.P.A, the Ohio, Illinois and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Phil Brusk is a senior tax analyst in the firm's national practice.
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Nov
15

Connecticut Real Estate Tax Update: 2023 Municipal Revaluations and the Newly Enacted Tax-Payer Appraisal Deadline

2023 Municipal Revaluations

It is always important to carefully review your tax bill and/or notices of assessments, but even more so in the year in which your city or town conducts a revaluation.

Each assessment should be carefully reviewed, even if your assessment has not increased substantially, as an appeal immediately after a revaluation maximizes a property owner's potential tax savings.

Connecticut law requires that each municipality conduct a general revaluation of the real estate within its borders at least once every five years.The purpose of a revaluation is for a municipality to determine the market value of real estate to be used to calculate property taxes.

Once a property's value is set in a general revaluation, it remains constant over the entire five-year cycle, absent appeal, demolition, improvements or expansion. Of course, the annual taxes usually increase, as a municipality's mill rate increases incrementally from year to year. Municipalities across the state are on differing revaluation cycles. The following is a list of Connecticut municipalities conducting revaluations this year:

       
Avon                                                   New Canaan
BethanyNew Hartford
BethlehemNew London
BoltonNorfolk
BurlingtonNorwalk
CantonNorwich
ChaplinOld Saybrook
CheshireRocky Hill
ChesterScotland
DarienSharon
East GranbySherman
EastfordSuffield
EssexUnion
FranklinWashington
HamptonWatertown
HarwintonWeston
KentWethersfield
KillinglyWillington
LebanonWindham
LitchfieldWindsor
LymeWoodbury
Madison


If your municipality is conducting a general revaluation for the October 1, 2023 Grand List you will receive a notice of tax assessment change soon, if you have not already.

Once the notices are issued there may be a chance to meet informally with the assessor to discuss the new assessment, which should represent 70 percent of the fair market value of your real estate. However, if a property owner wishes to challenge the assessment formally, a written appeal must be filed with the local Board of Assessment Appeals by the February 20, 2024 statutory deadline.

It is in your best interest to be proactive in monitoring the revaluation process and your new assessment so that you can take all necessary steps to ensure that the assessment is equitable.

News on the Newly Enacted Tax-Payer Appraisal Deadline

While we have deadlines and key dates fresh on the mind, 2023 was the inaugural year for a new deadline that was implemented into Connecticut's overvaluation statute, C.G.S. 12-117a, by the Connecticut General Assembly. Per the newly amended statute, if a taxpayer brings an overvaluation appeal on real property that has an assessed value over $1 million, the taxpayer is now required to file an appraisal of the property with the superior court by no later than 120 days after commencing the appeal.

It remains to be seen what relief, if any, a taxing authority may seek from the court if a taxpayer fails to meet this deadline, but expect some case law to develop on this subject if the statute is not amended in future legislative sessions. One recent superior court decision involving a tax appeal captioned as Shortline Properties, Inc. v. City of Stamford, FST-CV23-6060950-S discussed the implications of this deadline to a certain extent, but it did not squarely address the question of what judicial relief is available to municipal defendants.

The court did make clear, however, that appraisals filed for purposes of this statutory requirement must be from the grand list date from which the taxpayer commenced the appeal. In this case, the taxpayer's appraisal appeared to be from two years prior to the grand list date in question, and the court concluded that this did not meet the appraisal requirement. That said, the case remains pending and although the court rejected the appraisal, it allowed the plaintiff to proceed with prosecuting the appeal.

Nicholas W. Vitti Jr. is the the Real Estate practice chair at  Murtha Cullina, the Connecticut member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Joseph D. Szerejko, a litigation associate at Murtha Cullina, co-authored this article and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
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