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Achieving Fair Taxation Of Big Box Retrofits

Issues to address to ensure a big box retrofit doesn't sustain an excessive tax assessment.

As more and more large retail spaces return to the market for sale or lease, creative investors are looking for ways to breathe new life into the big box. These retrofits saddle local tax appraisal districts with the difficult task of valuing a big box in a new incarnation.

When the appeal season approaches, it is important to look for key changes to the appraisal district's valuation model for the existing structure to ensure that the property is being assessed fairly after the retrofit. Whether the jurisdiction employs the income or cost approach to value commercial property, having the correct classification, effective age, effective rent and correct net rentable area are among the most important factors for an accurate assessment. In addition, the assessor will need to account for functional obsolescence and the possible existence of surplus land.

Valuation models previously used by taxing authorities likely factored in a single-tenant building. If the new use converts the building to a multitenant structure, the assessor should factor in the conversion. Perhaps the appraisal district previously classified the use as Freestanding Retail or Big Box Retail, and now it is a Call Center, Church, or Gym. Ensuring that the classification of the property is correct is the first step in getting a more accurate assessed value for property tax purposes.

Next, it will be important to note the effective age the appraisal district is using to value the newly retrofitted box. Appraisal districts often use the effective age of a building, based on its utility and physical wear and tear, rather than the actual number of years since the construction date. Was there a significant adjustment made to the effective age based on a remodel or tenant improvements? Has the retrofit enhanced the utility of the structure?

There is no doubt that transforming vacant big boxes requires great expense. Big boxes are generally considered to be mediocre-quality buildings. Many times, big boxes are cookie-cutter structures and not necessarily constructed to last more than 30 years without a major overhaul. Typical big boxes have a linear alignment of lighting and structural bays, and if the box is subdivided for multitenant use, there is a good chance that additional electrical work, plumbing and HVAC may be required.

Converting a box from single to multitenant use may also require additional exterior entryways. If the property is being valued using the income approach, keeping track of the expense required to convert the box into another use will be important so that an effective rental rate can be later calculated. On an income approach, if an appraisal district appraiser does not account for the cost of the retrofit in some way, the assessed value may be overstated.

Another challenge with big box retrofits is the depth of bays. Oftentimes, even after what can be considered a successful adaptive reuse, portions of the building may never be used again by the new user. The appraisal district should factor decommissioned square footage into the valuation model and make a distinction between gross building area and net rentable area. If there is square footage that is unusable or used for storage or warehouse purposes, it may warrant a different rental rate than the main portion of the converted space.

The fact that big boxes are generally build-to-suit properties should also be considered. Though costly, it may be easy to remove the previous user's brand from the interior of the building, but what about the exterior? Big box retailers purposefully built their boxes in a manner that would allow passersby to identify them instantly. The new owner is then left with the difficult task of getting rid of the very recognizable trade dress that the original owner required. Regardless of the new use, there is likely functional obsolescence created by the original user's specific branding and needs. Functional obsolescence can be due to size, ceiling height, ornamental fronts or various other factors.

An additional factor that may be relevant to the valuation of the retrofit for property tax purposes is the land. Big boxes typically require large parking lots and infrastructure that other users may not need. Analysis can determine whether the new user is left with surplus land. If the extra land cannot be sold separately and lacks a separate highest-and-best use, the appraisal district may be able to adjust the land value.

Ensuring that a big box is accurately valued for property tax purposes in the first year after a retrofit will have a long-term impact on the asset's tax liability. It is, therefore, worthwhile to invest the time it takes to review the assessment and the methodology used to arrive at the assessed value. 

Darlene Sullivan is a partner in Austin, Texas, law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC, which represents taxpayers in property tax matters and is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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