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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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