UPDATED September 2017
Delaware Court Unlocks Opportunities to Reduce Property Tax Burden
Managing expenses is one of the best ways to ensure the long-term profitability of investment properties. Owners of real property know that achieving reductions in property tax assessments can be challenging under the best of circumstances, and distinctions between state tax systems can make minimizing the real estate tax burden across a commercial or industrial portfolio a daunting task. But a recent decision by the Delaware Supreme Court provides taxpayers with a new, yet surprisingly familiar, opportunity to reduce the burden of property taxes on their properties in The First State.
Delaware’s tax assessment system shows its age
Under Delaware Law, property must be valued at its “true value in money,” a term interpreted to mean the property’s “present actual market value.” However, in order to implement the Delaware Constitution’s mandate of tax uniformity, Delaware applies a base year method of assessing property, meaning that all property in a jurisdiction is assessed in terms of its value as of a certain date, then that value remains on the property indefinitely until the jurisdiction performs a general reassessment. For Delaware’s northernmost county, New Castle County, the last reassessment occurred in 1983, so all property in the County is valued as of July 1, 1983.
A major challenge to contesting property tax assessments in Delaware is that a taxpayer must determine the property’s market value in 1983. Determining what a property is worth today is not always easy, but proving a property’s value three decades ago has proven increasingly difficult. Furthermore, because the County makes no regular adjustments to a property’s assessed value, the County asserts that a property should be valued as it existed in 1983 or, if it was built after 1983, as if it is new and undepreciated.
Delaware’s courts have explained that taxpayers have two options in assessment appeals: they can use data from the base year (by, for example, finding sales of comparable properties in or around 1983, or using prevailing market rents and capitalization rates from 1983) or they can calculate the current market value of the property and “trend back” that amount to 1983. The County Board of Assessment Review has expressed a near-absolute preference for 1983 data, and rarely finds a taxpayer’s trending formula acceptable.
The inequities of this system are blatant. Under the county’s interpretation of the base year system, a 34-year-old building located next door to a similar new building should be assessed and taxed at the same level, despite that buyers, sellers, and tenants might value the buildings quite differently. If the owner of the 30-year old building wanted to contest its assessment, the owner would have to identify data for new buildings in 1983. Of course, as time marches on and years turn to decades, relevant data from the base year becomes increasingly difficult to find.
Taxpayers highlight the system’s obsolescence
Taxpayers have raised many challenges to Delaware’s assessment system, but most successful challenges are fact-specific, and no recent court has gone so far as to order Delaware’s counties to complete a reassessment. But after several attempts, the taxpayers in Commerce Associates LP v. New Castle County Office of Assessment underscored the largest flaw in the system.
One Commerce Center is an office condominium building in Wilmington, Delaware. Each office condominium was originally assessed by the County upon construction in 1983. After keeping the same tax assessment for decades, the owners of several of the condominiums challenged their assessments in 2015.
Before the County Board of Assessment Review, the owners presented five different analyses: two relied on comparable sales transactions (one using 1983 sales of buildings that were about 32 years old, and one using modern asking prices trended back to 1983 using the Consumer Price Index); two relied on income (one using 1983 data, and one using 2015 data trended back to 1983 using CPI); and a cost approach using the original construction costs and reflecting depreciation. These approaches showed that the properties were overassessed by more than 40%.
The County presented evidence of the condominiums’ sale prices in 1985, when each unit was relatively new. The County also presented an income approach using 1983 data and a cost approach reflecting no depreciation. The County’s approaches all supported the original assessed values, and the Board ultimately denied the taxpayers’ appeals.
Delaware’s Court approves a decrease in value
After having their appeals denied by the Superior Court, the taxpayers brought their challenge to the Delaware Supreme Court. In a tersely-worded decision, the Supreme Court reiterated that all relevant factors bearing on the value of a property in its current condition must be considered. While the County argued that no depreciation was needed because the properties were brand new in 1983, the Court noted that the properties were, in reality, more than 34 years old. Failing to account for their age and the resulting depreciation (or appreciation) resulted in a flawed value.
Although the Court’s decision has yet to be implemented by the County, its effects will likely be widely felt. Most properties in New Castle County built after 1983 are assessed without any depreciation. Because each tax year brings with it a new opportunity to challenge an assessment, property owners can bring a new appeal to the Board every year reflecting the property’s current depreciation. Ultimately, this could result in the downfall of the decades-old base year assessment, as the County finds it necessary to update assessments for a larger number of properties.
A number of questions remain unanswered by the Court’s ruling. How should properties be valued in areas that were rural in 1983 but are now highly developed? How can appreciation and depreciation be quantified and reconciled? Future cases will need to resolve these questions, but for now, owners of Delaware property should evaluate their portfolios and determine whether opportunities exist to improve profitability by reducing property taxes.
Benjamin A. Blair
Faegre Baker Daniels LLP
American Property Tax Counsel (APTC)