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."