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Beware of Double Taxation on Personal Property

While Texas solved the problem, your state may not have addressed the issue.

Many states tax business personal property, a classification that includes furniture, fixtures, equipment, machinery and, in some states, inventory. Whatever the jurisdiction, the values of business personal property and real estate can easily be conflated in ad valorem taxation, unfairly burdening the taxpayer with an additional appraisal and/or taxation.

If you live and work in a state that doesn't tax business personal property, it may be included with the taxes on your real estate anyway. If you are in a state that taxes personal property, you might be taxed for it twice. While it seems contrary to acceptable appraisal practice to include personal property in the real estate value and then to additionally appraise and/or tax the same items, it does happen.

The Texas Legislature wrestled with this problem of additional valuation and taxation for more than a decade. That process and the resulting tax law offer important lessons that may help taxpayers and lawmakers in other states.

Texas gets personal

In 1999, the Texas Legislature enacted Section 23.24, titled "Furniture, Fixtures and Equipment," as a new statute in the State Tax Code. Prior to its enactment, furniture, fixtures and equipment were often included in the appraised value of income-producing real estate for ad valorem taxation. They were also subject to a separate business personal property tax. Section 23.24 eliminates this double taxation as long as the method used to value the real estate takes the business personal property into account.

There are many different kinds of property but only a few approaches to valuation. When the values of real property and personal property are mixed, it is usually because they are being assessed as components of an operating business using the income approach. Hotels and motels, nursing homes, restaurants and convenience stores are among the property types at greatest risk of having real estate and personal property values combined.

An assessor valuing the real estate component of an operating business will likely use the income approach. This method bases value on the income stream a business can generate using the real estate and personal property as components of a business enterprise.

A hotel doesn't have a business without beds, and a restaurant doesn't have a business without tables and chairs. As such, a value determined using the income approach is going to include the value of the real estate and the personal property, as both contribute value to the enterprise's income stream. It's clear to see how using the income approach can conflate real and personal property value into one.

The cost approach keeps those values separate. Using this method, an assessor or appraiser looks only at the value of the land as if it were vacant, then adds the value of improvements based on the cost to construct those improvements minus any depreciation. There is no accounting for, nor any risk of conflating, the business personal property within the real estate while using this approach.

In many instances, however, appraisal districts that were not using the cost approach – or had switched from the cost approach to the income approach from one year to the next – were still additionally appraising and even maintaining a separate account for the business personal property. This would seemingly violate Section 23.24.

Many appraisal districts disagreed, claiming that a separate account for business personal property enabled them to deduct that amount from the real estate. In doing so, they believed that there would be no additional burden on the owner, who would only be paying taxes once on the personal property.

While the tax liability may not be increased, an appraisal district with a separate account for personal property still creates burdens for the owner. The taxpayer is required to file a rendition on the personal property stating either "the property owner's good faith estimate of market value of the property or, at the option of the property owner, the historical cost when new and the year of the acquisition of the property."

If owners fail to file this rendition on personal property already being accounted for in the value of the real estate, they are subject to a penalty that increases their tax liability by 10 percent. It hardly seemed fair that the taxpayer should have these obligations and liabilities regarding property that was already intertwined with the value and tax for the real estate. Two consecutive legislatures agreed.

In 2009, lawmakers created a subsection to Section 23.24. This statute intended to exorcise the appraisal districts' method of having a second account for the personal property and/or attempting to separate or subtract the value of the personal from the real when both values had already been combined in the real estate. Some appraisal districts were still requiring renditions (and seeking penalties for failure to do so) on property value already captured with the real estate.

In 2011, the next legislature removed the additional and needless burden to render business personal property that is not to be appraised separately from real property in the first place. The law now says that if business personal property is being appraised under Section 23.24, then the owner is not required to render anything.

Implications for other states

Check your state's laws regarding the taxation of personal property and make sure you're not already paying those taxes on the real estate.

Texas and Oklahoma tax inventory as well as business personal property, and not only is the tax present, it's prevalent. In 2016, personal property tax made up 12 percent of the property tax base in Texas and nearly 23 percent of Oklahoma's property tax base.

Whether personal property tax is present and/or prevalent in your state, make sure you are not paying personal property taxes where it isn't taxable, or paying it twice in jurisdictions where it is taxable.

Greg Hart is an attorney in the Austin law firm of 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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