Property Tax Resources

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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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