Property Tax Resources

Our members actively educate themselves and others in the areas of property taxation and valuation. Many of APTC attorneys get published in the most prestigious publications nationwide, get interviewed as matter experts and participate in panel discussions with other real estate experts. The Article section is a compilation of all their work.


How Poor Performance Can Aid Property Tax Appeals

Accounting for weak operations can buoy arguments to reduce taxable value, writes Baker Jarrell of Popp Hutcheson PLLC.

Property taxes are an ongoing headache for many commercial real estate owners, especially when their properties generate inadequate income. Assessors compound these frustrations when they value underperforming real estate as if it were operating on par with the market. By understanding the source of the poor performance, however, owners can build a compelling appeal to reduce their property's taxable value.

One of the main reasons taxing entities overvalue underperforming properties is their use of mass appraisal. The appraisal districts that value real estate for taxation typically deal with thousands of parcels contributing to hundreds of billions of dollars in market value. Mass appraisal allows these districts to systematically value large numbers of properties where performing individual appraisals would be unfeasible.

Understandably, this methodology can create confusion and frustration among property owners, who often feel their assessment does not accurately represent the specific real estate. Mass appraisal is a useful method but lacks the nuance necessary to determine the actual value of real estate and, thus, the appropriate tax levy.

Adjust to occupancy

With a standard property that operates at market-level occupancy, income and expenses create market value based on an expected rate of return. Assessors and appraisers know this as the income approach to valuation.

Additional losses should be factored into the value when the property performs below standard occupancy, however. This means that, when a property has vacancy well above the market rate, the final value must account for this gap.

The first remedy for excessive taxation on a poorly performing property is to adjust for rent loss in the income approach. For instance, if there are two otherwise comparable buildings but one maintains the market occupancy of 85 percent and the other is only at 50 percent occupancy, it does not make sense to appraise and value them equally.

Any buyer of a poorly performing property will incur significant costs to lease up the building to the market level. The costs typically include rent loss, tenant improvements and leasing commissions. In valuation, an appraiser would total the present value of these costs over the absorption period to arrive at the total discount for rent loss. The appraiser can then deduct the discount from the previously calculated value via the income approach to represent what a buyer would pay in an arm's length transaction.

Other factors

If the property's poor performance is attributable to factors other than vacancy, there are still options available in an appeal. Often, trends outside the property owner's control limit the income a particular property can generate and, consequently, the overall value. Shifts in legislation, supply and demand, or any industry-specific economics are all possible factors contributing to a reduction in earning potential. Incorporating economic obsolescence in the cost approach quantifies poor performance from these external factors.

For example, if a property has a depreciated improvement plus land value of $10 million and a market rate of return of 9 percent, it would be expected to generate $900,000 annually. If the stabilized net income before taxes is only $650,000, however, there is a deficit of $250,000. Dividing the difference by the rate of return (9 percent) determines the economic obsolescence adjustment of $2.8 million. In this scenario, the property taxes would be initially assessed at $10 million, but $7.2 million is the more accurate figure.

Lastly, what can owners do when the property is generating sufficient income today, but potential struggles loom on the horizon? The typical signal for approaching difficulty comes from a rent roll analysis, which will identify leases set to expire in the next few years. Without guaranteed rent for an extended period, property income can become volatile in tandem with economic conditions.

Potential volatility indicates an elevated risk, for which any buyer would demand an increased rate of return. As a result, the capitalization rate needs to be adjusted upward to account for the higher risk when compared to a similar property with greater cash-flow certainty. Because of their inverse relationship, a higher cap rate will result in a lower property value. Initially, the appraisal district will be unaware of the income volatility and will assess taxes at the incorrect value.

To illustrate, if a property in a specific market typically requires an 8 percent capitalization but is found to carry excess risk, the cap rate may need to be 9 percent or higher for that property. If the hypothetical building generates $600,000 in net operating income, the cap rate adjustment decreases taxable value by 11 percent. This shows how understanding the property's expected future performance helps estimate at a more accurate market value.

When it comes to determining the taxable value of real property, the owner is always going to have access to the most helpful information for showing how the property performs. It is unrealistic to assume an appraisal district can reach the same conclusion of value while using less specific information. As such, it is the responsibility of the owner's tax team to use this information in establishing a more accurate and fair opinion of value.

Baker Jarrell is a property tax consultant at the law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC, the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. The firm focuses its practice on defending owners in property tax disputes.

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  • Accounting for weak operations can buoy arguments to reduce taxable value, writes Baker Jarrell of Popp Hutcheson PLLC.

John Stark and Kirk Garza: Assessors Often Overvalue Student Housing

With competition from a growing supply of purpose-built student housing (PBSH) and student renters' ever-evolving preferences driving costs, property owners in the sector must guard against excessive tax assessments.

Assessors often treat this special asset class as a traditional multifamily development, while PBSH is designed specifically for university students. As such, the properties have distinct lease structures, design layouts, amenities, and services that differ from traditional multifamily properties and on-campus dormitories. This misclassification often leads assessors to select valuation metrics through mass appraisal that ignore the unique characteristics of this class of real property, resulting in inflated assessments.

Taxpayer teaching guide

Student housing owners should promptly review notices of taxable property value for fairness and decide whether to contest their assessment. If they choose to file a protest, the taxpayer must file their request by the deadline in their jurisdiction.

Whether a property owner is simply reviewing their tax assessment or preparing arguments to have an assessment lowered, it will ease the taxpayer's task to know the most common mistakes assessors make in valuing PBSH properties. Many of these problem areas relate to assessor assumptions based on market-rate multifamily properties, and how those properties, features and revenue models differ from dedicated student housing.

What follows are essential factors involved in calculating taxable value for a student housing project. The property owner should understand these points and be prepared to educate their assessor about how each affects market value.

Rent and revenue

PBSH rental-rate drivers that an assessor often overlooks include lease terms, unfurnished vs. furnished units, and amenity packages. The most notable difference from traditional multifamily apartments is that PBSH properties lease by the bed. Separate leases and deposits for each resident provide students and their parents with financial security in the event that a roommate transfers colleges, unenrolls, moves away, or does not pay their rent on time.

Leases also run parallel to the academic calendar. This makes cash flow seasonal and creates an expensive make-ready period right before the fall term, when all leases expire or start concurrently. Lease terms tied to semesters or school years rather than 12-month calendar years are among the main characteristics that make student housing rental rates and revenue streams incompatible with market-rate apartment properties.

Counting costs

On the expense side, student housing units and bedrooms may be unfurnished or fully furnished, with the latter often including a wide variety of smart appliances and furniture packages catering to the latest student preferences. The property owner should ensure certain furnishings are not doubly taxed by inclusion in both the overall property assessment and a separate business personal property account.

In addition to charging higher rent for fully furnished options to offset their higher cost, student housing landlords may include charges for certain amenities in the stated rental amount. Examples of these rent inclusions range from high-speed Wi-Fi throughout the building to cable TV, trash valet services, transportation, and utilities. Understanding these differences when analyzing the subject property and comparables is critical to arrive at an appropriate market rental rate and expense structure for an income-based valuation.

Like on-campus dormitory managers, PBSH property teams strive to promote socialization and a sense of community through the built unit mix, common area amenities and budgeting for social and academic events. While traditional apartments are typically comprised of mostly one-bedroom and studio units, developers build student housing primarily as multibedroom units.

This design difference, along with student expectations for 1:1 bedroom/bathroom parity, often make multifamily-to-PBSH conversions unfeasible. The inability to pursue conventional, market-rate multifamily renters represents additional risk for student housing owners in the event that occupancy decreases. Moreover, because one-bedrooms typically garner higher rents per square foot and achieve higher occupancies than three- and four-bedroom units, comparisons of PBSH rents to traditional multifamily rental rates are often inappropriate.

PBSH intangibles

The PBSH market is experiencing numerous emerging trends that impact an asset's overall value. While some of these considerations tie directly to the tangible real estate, other aspects are intangible – meaning they cannot be held – and are typically untaxable.

Intangible assets in student housing can relate to an associated school campus and can be more or less valuable depending on the institution. In addition, properties adjacent to a college campus typically command higher rents and property values than those where residents might require transportation to reach campus. Access to neighborhood amenities, property services, attractions, and public transit can also boost a property's rental demand.

Additionally, PBSH properties historically trade at capitalization rates approximately 50 basis points higher than traditional apartment complexes due to various risks not seen in traditional multifamily assets. Property values drop as cap rates increase.

Similarly, U.S. student housing properties at Power 5 schools can achieve significantly higher rents and sales than properties near non-Power 5 schools. (Power 5 refers to the major football conferences: Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific 12 and Southeastern.)

Because traditional apartment valuations rarely need or include business value adjustments, assessors seldom adjust for the business value of intangibles not directly tied to the real estate during the initial assessment of a purpose-built student housing property. Yet, as we have presented, intangible benefits can be a factor in PBSH business models and may influence market valuations in the sector.

Finally, it is important to realize that various jurisdictions may have nuanced definitions of taxable value, tangible real estate, business personal property, and intangible business value. A local expert can provide valuable insight in forming and presenting arguments for an assessment reduction, and help to mitigate intangible business value in PBSH real estate assessments. 

Kirk Garza
John Stark
John Stark is a manager and Kirk Garza is a director at the Texas law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC, which focuses its practice on property tax disputes. The firm is the Texas member of the American Property Tax Counsel, a national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Both John and Kirk are licensed property tax consultants in Texas.

Obsolescent Real Estate Presents Complications for Property Taxes

Incurable obsolescence — the stealth killer of commercial real estate value — is all too often overlooked in property tax appeals.

Any obsolescence can affect a property's value. Normal obsolescence involves curable problems, such as outdated fixtures and finishes that reduce a building's desirability. In valuation, the anticipated cost to cure the obsolescence (in this case, with a refreshed interior) is deducted from the property's taxable value.

As the name suggests, incurable obsolescence cannot be cured within the boundaries of the property. The obsolescence stems from outside circumstances, whether next door or in the larger markets, and no change to the property itself can overcome the deficiency.

Perhaps the government is going to change the traffic pattern, or a hog farm is going in next door. The market value may rise if a good thing is coming to the area. It will surely decline if a bad thing is coming, and the market value declines in relation to the predictability of such an event.

Property owners who learn the common forms and causes of incurable obsolescence will be better equipped to recognize its symptoms in their own real estate. In arguing for a reduced tax assessment value, evidence of obsolescence weighing on a property's operations will often tip the scales in convincing an assessor, review board or court to grant a reduction.

Passing or permanent?

Owners should be aware of functional obsolescence and be prepared to discuss it when appealing assessments. If it is a problem that can't be cured within the boundaries of the property, it is incurable obsolescence and reduces the property's market value.

The condition may have existed from the inception of the property's development and use, but more typically it results over time from factors relating to design, usability, markets, traffic patterns, government takings or regulation. For example, economic need or a government requirement may leave a property without adequate parking to support commercial buildings on the site, rendering those structures incurably obsolete.

Incurable obsolescence can be partial and a handicap to the property's viability without entirely preventing its continued use. For example, an office building designed for single-tenant use will not accommodate multiple users. There is a very limited market for single-tenant, high-rise buildings. The cost of retrofitting such a building into separate leasable offices is infeasible.

The loss in value due to incurable obsolescence may be anticipatory. If the market's users and investors see imminent incurable obsolescence, it may already affect market value. The negative impact of incurable obsolescence occurs when the problem cannot be cured on site at any cost.

In evaluating a property for instances of incurable obsolescence, however, it is important to remember that the source of obsolescence may be offsite.

Owners concerned with the production and marketing of a product or service from their property may not be aware of external elements of incurable obsolescence affecting their property's value. Or they may simply regard the circumstance as a non-priority item — at least until they get their property tax bill.

Instances of the incurable

Incurable obsolescence takes many forms, but taxpayers are most likely to encounter it in one of a few common scenarios. Those include:

Property access changes. Typically imposed by a highway or street authority, moving or removing access points can reduce a commercial property's appeal to users and lower its market value.

Altered traffic patterns. Changes to surrounding roads or highways can reduce commercial value. Limiting the property's visibility and accessibility, for example, may reduce customer traffic and brand exposure for operators on the property.

Size modifications. The property may fail to meet the required property size in relation to improvements. Possible causes include changed government requirements or the physical loss of a portion of the property due to government taking. A simple change in setback lines may have a dramatic negative impact on a property's value.

Takings. Use of eminent domain may reduce the remainder of the property to a legal non-conforming use which may not be altered to accommodate a commercially viable use. Alternatively, commercial uses on a state highway may be untouched by highway takings, but diverting traffic to a new highway kills viable commercial use of properties on the abandoned roadway.

More examples

Other sources of incurable obsolescence span a wide range, from changing industry practices and preferences to evolving government regulations, markets and natural phenomena. Zoning or regulatory changes may restrict usage, for example. The property may no longer meet current tenant needs regarding loading dock height, or access by delivery and customer vehicles. Nearby development or street construction may inundate the property with surface water. Properties have incurred incurable obsolescence for their intended uses from light pollution, and from disruptive air traffic following a change in flight patterns.

Property owners discussing excessive taxable valuation with the assessor should recognize that the assessor has employed the cost approach to value. While cost may be a value indicator, it lacks relevance in situations involving incurable obsolescence. Help the assessor to look beyond cost by showing how obsolescence reduces the property's value in the marketplace.

In preparation for meeting with the assessor, an owner seeking a reduced assessment should look for negative conditions beyond the control or ability of the owner to correct within the boundary of the property. Be prepared to discuss with the assessor how the conditions affect the property value. Bring plat maps, photos, restrictive regulations and ordinances, and any documents that entail restrictions on the use of the property — legal, physical or otherwise — and an explanation of how these matters negatively affect the property's value.

While there is no cure for incurable obsolescence, there are treatments for unfair tax assessments. When incurable obsolescence results in lost improvement value, the owner is entitled to an appropriate downward adjustment of the assessed value. 

Jerome Wallach is a partner at The Wallach Law Firm in St. Louis, the Missouri member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Consider Constitutionality in Property Taxation

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."

Cecilia J. Hyun is a partner with 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. Cecilia is also a member of CREW Network.

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  • Taxpayers should look beyond fair market value in deciding whether — and how — to protest assessments.

Industrial Property Tax Gets Personal

Differentiate personal property from real estate values for fair tax treatment.

North Carolina taxes both real estate and personal property, but differing valuation schedules and processes for the two types can lead to confusion and inflated tax bills for industrial property owners. Understanding how assessors value industrial properties can help those taxpayers detect issues and contest unfair assessments.

Dual processes

North Carolina requires assessors to revalue real property at least every eight years. The value as of Jan. 1 of the valuation year then remains constant until the next valuation, unless specified changes in the property occur to trigger a change in the assessment. Many counties revalue every four years, and a few, even more frequently.

Assessors use a market analysis to determine real property's taxable or fair market value. This involves applying one or more of the three valuation approaches: cost, comparable sales, or income.

The state requires annual valuation of personal property based on installed cost, which is subject to the applicable trending and depreciation schedules. For the most part, taxing authorities rely on the taxpayer's annual business personal property listing to determine what items of personal property are present, the installed cost, and the trending and depreciation schedule applied. The counties follow schedules for auditing the property tax listings, and most disputes that arise stem from these audits.

With industrial real estate, the two tax schemes can create conflicts based on property components that could be considered either real estate or personal property, depending on circumstances. For example, reinforced foundations or specialized wiring for unique machinery could be considered a real estate improvement, thereby adding value to the real estate, or they could be considered personal property subject to depreciation and trending.

Although the tax rate applied is the same for both real estate and personal property, categorization can significantly affect taxable value. Real property improvements enhance market value on a more permanent basis, while personal property value is generally presumed to decline because of annual trending and depreciation.

And of course, no one wants to be taxed twice on the same property: once by having a component or improvement included in the real estate value, and again by having it taxed as personal property.

Defining characteristics

How can a taxpayer determine what is real and what is personal in their industrial property? Generally, personal property items are movable and not permanently affixed to real estate. An issue of intent arises, however, if the item can be removed but not without causing serious damage to the real estate.

A rule of thumb in the North Carolina Department of Revenue's Personal Property Appraisal and Assessment Manual instructs assessors to classify all property and investment necessary for the operation of machinery and equipment as personal. Examples are wiring, venting, flooring, special climate control, conveyors, boilers and furnaces, dock levelers, and equipment foundations. Stated another way, property used as part of a process, or that is in place to support equipment, is generally personal property.

On the other hand, Department of Revenue staff regard items in the plant for lighting, air handling and plumbing for human comfort to be part of the real estate. The department's appraisal and assessment manual includes an extensive chart, and each county's published schedule of values may also provide a helpful listing.

It is often difficult to know whether the county has included what could be classified as personal property in its calculation of real property value. Regardless, if the taxpayer has not listed such items on the annual personal property submissions, it will be difficult to argue after the fact that they should have been excluded from the real estate value.

Taxpayer strategies

Taxpayers can argue for a reduced assessment by identifying personal property items improperly classified as real property in the assessor's calculations and seeking to have them treated as personal property subject to trending and depreciation. Knowing where to look for personal items will help the property owner in this task.

A critical item to be generally classified as personal property is any leasehold improvement. Leasehold improvements often look like real estate but are owned and controlled by the tenant for the lease term. These are items the tenant paid for and received under terms of the lease or other contract, and were installed for the tenant's use. Leasehold items almost always facilitate the tenant's business.

In deciding whether these items are real or personal property, the taxing authority will apply a test akin to a traditional fixture analysis, determining the manner of affixation, whether the item can be removed without serious damage, and whether it is intended to remain permanent. In the end, the assessor will apply a "totality of the circumstances" test, including the lease terms.

The tenant - as the owner of the leasehold improvements - is required to list those items as personal property. The landlord should monitor the tenant's personal property submissions to ensure that all tenant improvements are being listed. This will help to avoid leasehold items being considered as part of the current real estate valuation.

Unlike a traditional fixture analysis, and dependent on the lease terms, the improvements may be taxed to the tenant during the term of the lease. When the improvements are left to the landlord at the end of the lease term, the taxing authority will need to consider assigning any remaining value to the real estate.

The owner of an industrial property needs to be cognizant of how the assessor is valuing both the real estate and personal property, and how those components are taxed. This requires knowing what improvements are included in the valuation of the real property as of the valuation date, and tracking the annual personal property tax listings, especially those submitted by a tenant. Finally, taxpayers must be timely in correcting any erroneous assumptions or listings.

Gib Laite is a partner in the law firm Williams Mullen, the North Carolina member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

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  • Differentiate personal property from real estate values for fair tax treatment.

How Cap Rate Analysis Can Bolster Property Tax Appeals

The often-overlooked band-of-investment argument helps taxpayers demand maximum capitalization rates to combat inflated property tax assessments.

When commercial property owners review assessments of their properties' taxable value for fairness, they typically look to the markets for context. This year, however, superficial market observations do little to clarify questions about property valuation. At the risk of understating the obvious, 2023 has been a confusing time in commercial real estate.

Most investors, brokers, appraisers, and even tax courts seem to agree that the office sector is under severe strain and unlikely to recover soon, even if they debate the extent or duration of damage to the property type. With other sectors, however, the wide range of perspectives today can be confusing and even contradictory.

Mainstream news reports of strong occupancy and tenant demand for retail space only tell part of the story. Many retail property owners continue to struggle with historically high tenant improvement costs and contend with tenants seeking concessions far more frequently than they did before the pandemic.

The multifamily and industrial sectors have remained robust relative to other property types, but inflationary construction costs and borrowing costs driven up by interest rate hikes have thinned margins and clouded projections in many deals.

Against that backdrop, economic forecasts garner a mixed reception. Predictions of an impending recession have felt like sage prophecy, foolish overreaction, or an echo chamber of crying wolf, depending on one's perspective or position in the markets.

Ideal time to review assessments

Clearly, the economics of operating investment properties are far less predictable than they were five years ago. Even within stronger property types, performance and pricing have become more volatile.

That kind of uncertainty means increased risk, which any appraiser will tell you should indicate elevated capitalization rates. Combine that risk with climbing interest rates, and the negative impact on overall commercial property value is undeniable. That makes this an ideal time to review property tax exposure and to contest assessors' overstated valuations.

Data trackers and analysts estimate that value losses among commercial property types range from 30 percent to more than 50 percent. Retail and office properties have suffered the greatest declines from their original appraised values, at 57 percent and 48.7 percent, respectively, according to CRED iQa commercial real estate analytics and valuation platform. In a study of $10 billion in assets across property types, CRED iQ noted an average 41.2 percent valuation decline from original appraised values.

And what's more, KC Conway, the principal of The Original Red Shoe Economist and 2018-2023 chief economist for the CCIM Institute, predicts "lots more (commercial real estate) value loss and bank failures to come."

A residential example helps to put these losses into context. The average 30-year fixed residential mortgage interest rate for the week ending Dec. 30, 2021, was 3.11 percent, compared to 6.42 percent for the week ending Dec. 29, 2022, according to Freddie Mac's Primary Mortgage Market Survey. At 3.11 percent, a homebuyer purchasing a $200,000 house with 20 percent down would have had a monthly mortgage payment of $684.

One year later, a homebuyer putting 20 percent down and using a mortgage with 6.42 percent interest would have to purchase a home for $109,138 to achieve the same monthly payment of $684. This is a roughly 45 percent decrease in purchasing power over the span of one year.

The same principle applies to commercial real estate, where climbing interest rates and a related spike in capitalization rates have rapidly hammered down property values.

Cap rate consequences

It is important for taxpayers to understand that assessors often draw the capitalization rates used in property valuation from cap rate surveys, which may not indicate true cap rates because surveys are backward-looking. And cap rates have risen quickly along with buyers targeted internal rate of return (IRR).

With an increase in interest rates, a potential deal that may have met a target IRR in early 2022 would no longer meet that same threshold at the end of 2022. Correspondingly, the buyer looking at a deal in early 2022 vs. the end of 2022 would likely have to lower their purchase price to meet their target IRR. Assuming net operating income remains constant, the cap rate for the deal in late 2022 would be higher than the cap rate reported for the early 2022 deal. This is a chief reason why cap rates tend to follow interest rates.

Taxpayers may be able to achieve a reduced assessment by arguing for a higher capitalization rate that more accurately reflects a buyer's expected rate of return. To support the highest possible cap rate, taxpayers should take a hard look at the mortgage-equity method, often called the "band-of-investment" technique.

Based on the premise that most real estate buyers use a combination of debt and equity, the mortgage-equity method calculates the weighted average of the borrower's cap rate and the lender's cap rate. Equity cap rates tend to be higher than those on debt, and with lenders offering lower loan-to-value mortgages, equity caps play a greater proportional role in today's acquisition pricing.

Until recently, the method had become disfavored by some tax courts and county boards of equalization. Common criticisms are that the methodology is too susceptible to manipulation, or that the equity component is too subjective and/or too difficult to support. Arguably, many critics just don't understand it. But in the current climate, the band-of-investment is increasingly accepted and perhaps more relevant than ever.

Band-of-investment strategies

Taxpayers can use the methodology in a few ways. For properties purchased or refinanced recently but before the Fed's interest rate hikes really accelerated, taxpayers may argue for straightforward adjustments to recent appraisals to reflect market changes. More complex situations may require a specialist's appraisal to support the value change.

Importantly, even properties which have maintained strong performance are subject to value loss from market changes, which may justify making the additional effort to prepare a mortgage-equity argument.

Before attempting such strategies, taxpayers should evaluate the jurisdictional laws and definitions that control property taxes, including the effective date of the challenged assessment. With 2024 looming and bringing with it a new lien date for measuring assessments in many jurisdictions, now is an ideal time to review portfolios for excessive property tax assessments.

Phil Brusk
Brendan Kelly
Brendan Kelly is the manager of the national portfolio practice group of 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. Phil Brusk is a senior tax analyst in the firm's national practice.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • The often-overlooked band-of-investment argument helps taxpayers demand maximum capitalization rates to combat inflated property tax assessments.

Connecticut Real Estate Tax Update: 2023 Municipal Revaluations and the Newly Enacted Tax-Payer Appraisal Deadline

2023 Municipal Revaluations

It is always important to carefully review your tax bill and/or notices of assessments, but even more so in the year in which your city or town conducts a revaluation.

Each assessment should be carefully reviewed, even if your assessment has not increased substantially, as an appeal immediately after a revaluation maximizes a property owner's potential tax savings.

Connecticut law requires that each municipality conduct a general revaluation of the real estate within its borders at least once every five years.The purpose of a revaluation is for a municipality to determine the market value of real estate to be used to calculate property taxes.

Once a property's value is set in a general revaluation, it remains constant over the entire five-year cycle, absent appeal, demolition, improvements or expansion. Of course, the annual taxes usually increase, as a municipality's mill rate increases incrementally from year to year. Municipalities across the state are on differing revaluation cycles. The following is a list of Connecticut municipalities conducting revaluations this year:

Avon                                                   New Canaan
BethanyNew Hartford
BethlehemNew London
ChaplinOld Saybrook
CheshireRocky Hill
East GranbySherman

If your municipality is conducting a general revaluation for the October 1, 2023 Grand List you will receive a notice of tax assessment change soon, if you have not already.

Once the notices are issued there may be a chance to meet informally with the assessor to discuss the new assessment, which should represent 70 percent of the fair market value of your real estate. However, if a property owner wishes to challenge the assessment formally, a written appeal must be filed with the local Board of Assessment Appeals by the February 20, 2024 statutory deadline.

It is in your best interest to be proactive in monitoring the revaluation process and your new assessment so that you can take all necessary steps to ensure that the assessment is equitable.

News on the Newly Enacted Tax-Payer Appraisal Deadline

While we have deadlines and key dates fresh on the mind, 2023 was the inaugural year for a new deadline that was implemented into Connecticut's overvaluation statute, C.G.S. 12-117a, by the Connecticut General Assembly. Per the newly amended statute, if a taxpayer brings an overvaluation appeal on real property that has an assessed value over $1 million, the taxpayer is now required to file an appraisal of the property with the superior court by no later than 120 days after commencing the appeal.

It remains to be seen what relief, if any, a taxing authority may seek from the court if a taxpayer fails to meet this deadline, but expect some case law to develop on this subject if the statute is not amended in future legislative sessions. One recent superior court decision involving a tax appeal captioned as Shortline Properties, Inc. v. City of Stamford, FST-CV23-6060950-S discussed the implications of this deadline to a certain extent, but it did not squarely address the question of what judicial relief is available to municipal defendants.

The court did make clear, however, that appraisals filed for purposes of this statutory requirement must be from the grand list date from which the taxpayer commenced the appeal. In this case, the taxpayer's appraisal appeared to be from two years prior to the grand list date in question, and the court concluded that this did not meet the appraisal requirement. That said, the case remains pending and although the court rejected the appraisal, it allowed the plaintiff to proceed with prosecuting the appeal.

Nicholas W. Vitti Jr. is the the Real Estate practice chair at  Murtha Cullina, the Connecticut member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Joseph D. Szerejko, a litigation associate at Murtha Cullina, co-authored this article and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

3 Reasons Why Increased Revenue Doesn’t Mean Higher Property Tax Values

Hotel revenues are entering a post-pandemic rebound, but what about taxable property values? Although revenues are bouncing back, it does not mean hotel values for property tax assessments have reached pre-pandemic levels.

Recovering revenue is only part of the valuation story. To protect themselves from unfair tax bills, hotel owners may need to clarify to assessors how the pandemic's aftermath is affecting their properties. These taxpayers should point out factors that drag down their hotel's bottom line and provide grounds for reduced assessments.

Here are three factors that can offset increased revenue and lower market value. Hotel owners should consider each in preparing arguments for an assessment reduction.

1. Soaring Stabilized Expenses

Property tax assessments must reflect costs, and hotel expenses have increased across the board. Naturally, expenses are a primary consideration when valuing hotels. The higher the expenses, the lower the net operating income and the lower a hotel's market value. The complicated step in addressing these costs is determining the property's stabilized expenses.

A stabilized expense estimate calculates the ongoing operational costs of the property under typical, sustainable conditions. Obviously, expenses have been anything but typical, due to labor shortages, inflation and supply chain issues.

Operating expenses went through the roof during the pandemic and stayed there. Payrolls increased dramatically, for example, in large part due to the "Great Resignation" that sparked a labor shortage and higher wage demands from current and prospective employees. Historic inflation increased hotel costs for supplies, food and beverages, service delivery and amenity offerings. Utilities and maintenance expenses shot up as well. Taxpayers should show assessors how these swelling costs have lowered margins.

Some short-term pandemic-related measures require special attention. To bolster margins, many hoteliers reduced staff counts, services, and room turnover. It is unclear whether these changes are sustainable in the long term, as consumers demand lost services and amenities. It may be inappropriate to factor short-term cost-cutting methods into a value analysis because they do not reflect stabilized expenses and could distort the hotel property's true market value. In those situations, it may be necessary to use market expenses instead of actual expenses from the profit-and-loss statement.

2. Deferred Capex and Reserves for Replacements

As a corollary to expenses, consider a hotel's reserves for replacements as the industry emerges from the pandemic. A reserve for replacements is money hotels set aside to cover major capital expenditures beyond normal operating expenses. Recognizing that hoteliers were hurting during the pandemic, many hospitality brands temporarily relaxed property improvement requirements. In turn, hotel operators may have deferred capex for maintenance and renovations due to financial constraints.

Coming out of the pandemic, hotel owners may need to set aside a larger reserve percentage as the industry recovers. Reserves for replacements have historically been between 3 percent and 5 percent of revenue for full-service hotels and 4 percent to 6 percent for select-service hotels.

Depending on the individual property and its brand, it might be appropriate to increase those percentages briefly while the property is brought back up to standards. The increased deduction would lower net operating income, which consequently would lower the market value. If a property has fallen below brand standards, it should be factored into the hotel's valuation and brought to the local tax assessor's attention.

3. Climbing Cap Rates

A benchmark for industry risk, cap rates are simply the relationship between NOI and value. When cap rates go up, values go down.

Interest rates have a direct impact on cap rates: As interest rates go up, raising the cost of debt and equity, cap rates climb. The Fed's recent interest rate hikes have driven up cap rates, pressuring down hotel values.

In many cases, the interest hikes have made it unviable to build or buy new hotels and have made hotel ownership riskier altogether. The question becomes, how should cap rates factor into property tax assessments?

There are several ways to derive cap rates for hotels, and taxpayers should consider all the methods to know which provides the most persuasive grounds for value reduction. Many tax assessors derive cap rates through market extraction by looking at the sale of comparable properties. That method ignores interest rate increases and incorporates intangible value, which is generally not taxable and hard to extract from overall value.

The band of investment method is a helpful way to derive cap rates and involves building up separate cap rates for a property's debt and equity components. This can be advantageous because it accounts for interest rate increases, which the market extraction method does not. Tax assessors need to consider the effect of interest rate hikes on cap rates, as it can create a path to lowering a hotel's tax burden.

Recent hotel revenue recovery only tells part of the story for property tax assessments. To control property taxes, hoteliers and asset managers must highlight how growing operating expenses, reserves for replacements and cap rates diminish market values. Each taxing assessor has a unique perspective on valuation, so it is always helpful to engage knowledgeable, local tax professionals to help ensure hotel owners are maximizing tax-saving opportunities.

Stephen Grant
Andrew Albright
Andrew Albright is an attorney and manager and Stephen Grant is an attorney at the Austin, Texas law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC, the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. The firm devotes its practice to representation of taxpayers in property tax disputes.

Fair Property Taxes Vital to Manufacturers

Tax considerations often drive site selection and form an importance piece of the reshoring puzzle.

COVID-19 laid bare many problems inherent in offshore supply chains and spurred widespread interest in reshoring manufacturing to the United States. As companies and communities explore site selection and expansion opportunities, they should remember that manufacturing profitability often hinges on tax strategy.

Staging a comeback

For the first time in decades, industry and the public sector are working to make American manufacturing competitive in a rapidly changing global marketplace. The recent enactments of the Inflation Reduction Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the CHIPS and Science Act have directed billions of dollars into enhancing domestic manufacturing capacity.

The semiconductor industry presents a high-profile case study. The United States holds 12 percent of the world's semiconductor manufacturing capacity, eroded from 37 percent in 1990. The CHIPS Act's $52 billion in federal funding is intended to strengthen domestic semiconductor manufacturing, design and research and reinforce the nation's chip supply chains, fortifying the economy and national security along the way.

Simultaneously, the United States is becoming a leading producer of electric vehicles and vehicle battery plants. Since 2021, announced U.S. investments in semiconductors and electronics exceed $166 billion, and announced U.S. investments in electric vehicles and battery manufacturing exceed $150 billion.

Deciding where manufacturing occurs depends partly on proximity to suppliers, available labor, distribution hubs and customers, and operating costs. Property tax is typically a significant component of operating costs. That's why tax abatements on real property and equipment are a commonly offered incentive.

Most states offer incentives to attract industry, and one of the hotbeds for increased American manufacturing has been the southeastern United States, specifically South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina. All are leaders in foreign direct investment.

Abatements generally provide a manufacturer with predictable property taxes, helping to overcome the uncertainty of future tax liability that can put companies at a disadvantage. An example is South Carolina's "fee in lieu of tax" agreement (FILOT) which offers manufacturers predictable and consistent taxation. Generally, FILOT agreements fix tax rates and the value of real estate and improvements for the length of the agreement, while allowing manufacturers to depreciate the value of machinery and equipment.

FILOT agreements can have up to a 50-year term. However, by fixing a manufacturer's real property value at actual cost without depreciation, the owner's taxes over time may be higher than they would be without the agreement. That's because they do not account for depreciation, valuation changes or required improvements to accommodate changes in the marketplace for the manufacturer's product.By locking in the real property value, the manufacturer receives the benefits of predictability and protection from higher taxes on appreciating real property.In exchange, however, the manufacturer loses the benefit of any depreciation and takes the risk of a locked-in property value if the property's market value diminishes.

Other states offer different incentives including more traditional property-tax abatements, where a manufacturer receives a grant as a partial rebate or discount on the new property taxes the project creates. Since tax rates and taxable value assessments change over time, these systems can provide less certainty for manufacturers than FILOT-type agreements, but potentially offer more long-term flexibility to respond to changing tax rates, depending on how the agreements are negotiated.

As a manufacturer's industry evolves and demand for its products changes, flexibility to appeal tax assessments can be a key to maintaining profitability and competitiveness.

Committed but flexible

Certainly, a manufacturer is better off in an appreciating real estate market by fixing the value of the real estate and improvements. Organizations negotiating for incentives should protect their ability to protest unfair assessments of taxable value, however, because valuing a manufacturing plant in the traditional ad valorem system is challenging and subject to controversy.

For example, most state ad valorem property tax systems define "value" as a variant of "market value," assuming an exchange between a willing buyer and a willing seller. However, will the buyer of a manufacturing facility benefit from the features of a specialized building constructed for a different manufacturer's specific needs? The answer is usually "no."

Manufacturing facilities are special-purpose properties, which The Dictionary of Real Estate Appraisal defines as a "property with a unique physical design, special construction materials, or a layout that particularly adapts its utility to the use for which it was built." And changes in the manufacturing process can render many buildings economically obsolete.

If the facility's use is no longer viable, it should be appraised as an alternative use. This necessarily occurred as American industry declined. Often there were no manufacturers who could effectively use single-purpose buildings vacated by other manufacturers, necessitating drastic value reductions.

An assessor's three traditional valuation methods all have limitations. A sales comparison approach is difficult when the production facility has essentially been designed to produce specific products. Put differently, finding sales of comparable facilities can be extremely challenging.

An income approach requires a market rent calculation, but manufacturers historically own their facilities, making an income approach difficult. A cost approach using actual cost ignores that the same building might not be appropriate to respond to changes in the marketplace for the product being produced. The cost approach without depreciation also limits the manufacturer's flexibility in responding to changes in the marketplace for its product.

Remember, too, that a manufacturer must be nimble, as changes in the market or technology can render an entire plant (or industry) obsolete virtually overnight. Adapting processes may require equipment upgrades or replacement, structural modifications or other changes that affect property value.

The speed at which manufacturers need to be able to adapt to a changing marketplace, the strong desire for certainty in costs and the difficulties in valuing manufacturing facilities for tax purposes all argue in favor of valuing real property and improvements on the basis of cost less depreciation.

Successful reshoring will require focused efforts by the public and private sector, together with sensitivity to industry's need to be nimble and the implications of historical incentives to ensure that reshored industry remains competitive. Flexibility offers the key to long term success, and property taxes form an important piece of the puzzle.

Those cities and states looking to maintain or increase their manufacturing footprints should be mindful of this lesson in packaging incentives to attract and maintain manufacturers, and manufacturers should think critically about the valuation of their facilities for property tax purposes when evaluating competing incentive offers.

Morris Ellison is a partner in the Charleston, South Carolina, office of law firm Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP, the South Carolina member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Whit McGreevy is an associate at the firm.

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  • Tax considerations often drive site selection and form an importance piece of the reshoring puzzle.

Multifamily Assets Suffer Excessive Property Taxation

Here are some property tax strategies owners can use in the rebounding apartment sector.

Multifamily construction and renovations are enjoying a resurgence after taking a pause during the pandemic. And with residential, apartment-style rental units back in vogue with renters and investors, developers are even converting underutilized office buildings and shopping malls into multifamily housing.

As developers step up construction spending to tempt renters with an assortment of amenities, tax assessors are having a field day, tabulating costs on renovations and new projects that they are using to justify ever-larger assessments of taxable value across the sector. Multifamily owners must look out for themselves to guard against unfair, blanket assessment increases founded on these gross generalizations about the industry.

New offerings, New Renters

The target demographics for today's projects include young professionals not yet equipped to buy their own homes; middle-aged, single-family homeowners looking for a more carefree housing option; and aging individuals looking to downsize and become part of a seniors community.

Apartment models have evolved to better suit today's renters. Gone are the cookie-cutter, brick-and-mortar, garden style structures with minimal common areas. New apartment communities are more often high-end projects boasting pools, gyms, lush landscaping, retail shops and other non-traditional apartment features.

The added expense to deliver amenity-rich apartments is only one of many rising costs for multifamily developers and owners. Supply chain breakdowns, material shortages, rising interest rates on commercial mortgages, governmental bureaucracy, and increased inflation have forced owners of apartments and other commercial buildings to search for avenues to reduce their costs. While costs associated with owning and maintaining apartment buildings are trending higher, real property taxes remain one of the largest expenses, warranting an annual review and challenge.

Fortunately, in ad valorem jurisdictions where a property's tax assessment is tied to its market value, the law allows taxpayers to appeal assessments and seek relief from onerous real estate taxes. The process involves the filing of an annual administrative grievance followed by a judicial action against the tax-assessing entity.

The Protest Process

In tax appeal proceedings, the aggrieved party or petitioner bears the initial burden of proof. Assessments are presumptively valid, so it is up to the taxpayer to provide substantial evidence that calls into question the assessment's correctness. Taxpayers often meet this minimum standard by submitting a qualified appraisal.

In a court setting, once the presumption of validity is rebutted, the judge must determine by a preponderance of the evidence whether the property was overvalued. However, most tax assessment cases reach a resolution through negotiation and settlement without the need for a formal expert report or judicial oversight. A tax advisor skilled in real property tax assessment challenges is more often than not all the taxpayer requires.

The three traditional approaches to real property valuation in a tax appeal are the income capitalization, comparable sales, and cost approaches. Absent a recent arm's-length sale of the subject property, appraisal professionals, practitioners, and the courts generally regard income capitalization as the preferred method to value income-producing properties.

In utilizing the income approach, a taxpayer's team is seeking to value the property based on its net-income-generating potential. In other words, what would a buyer pay on the valuation date for the future income stream?

Point-by-Point Analysis

There are several steps to properly arrive at a value conclusion through the income approach. Understanding and following the steps will not only inform the property owner's valuation, but also provides a checklist to review and question calculations in the assessor's conclusion.

To calculate potential gross income, it is important to analyze the subject property's actual rental data and test it against market rents to reflect the property's economics. Similarly, the assessor or appraiser must gather, review and analyze occupancy and collection data. The appraiser will need to deduct for vacancy and collection loss because many buildings are seldom at 100 percent occupancy, and some tenants may be behind in their rent payments.

The same process is applied to real estate-related expenses such as insurance, utilities, and replacement reserves. These should be deducted to arrive at a net operating income before the deduction of real estate taxes.

In analyzing data for a tax assessment challenge involving income-producing property, real estate taxes are not accounted for at this stage because this is the expense in question. In addition, since the property tax expense is a percentage of market value, it is accounted for in the capitalization rate along with an appropriate rate of return reflecting the risk of investment.

Appeal prospects

How can the taxpayer gauge a tax appeal's likelihood of success? Among other things, consider the size of the rental units, location, competition, and parking to form a reliable value opinion. Give special attention to the tax system in the state and local jurisdiction where the property is located to ensure the taxpayer meets all statutory filing requirements and deadlines. If a challenge is not timely and properly commenced, the aggrieved party will lose its right to real property tax relief for that tax year.

Given the complexity of commercial property valuations and the nuances involved in disputing the correctness of valuation calculations, savvy apartment building owners may benefit by discussing their property's economics with a specialist in real property tax assessment review challenges. 

Jason M. Penighetti and Carol Rizzo are partners at the Uniondale, N.Y. office of law firm Forchelli Deegan Terrana, the New York State member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys

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  • Here are some property tax strategies owners can use in the rebounding apartment sector.

Reject Tax Assessors’ Finance-Industry Valuations

Appraisals designed for lenders often inflate assessments of seniors living real estate for property taxation.

Appraisal methodologies for financing seniors housing properties factor in more than real estate to produce amounts that exceed property-only value. That means seniors housing owners may be paying real estate taxes on non-real-estate assets.

Everyone can agree that a seniors living operation—whether independent living, assisted living, memory care, skilled nursing or some combination—consists of a variety of assets. There are real estate assets (the land and building), personal property assets like furniture and kitchen equipment, and intangible business assets such as the work force, tenants, and operating licenses. These multiple assets and asset types present a challenge when developing an appropriate ad valorem tax valuation.

To appropriately value this asset type for property taxation, an owner must show the assessor the real estate's stand-alone value. Most states acknowledge that business assets are not subject to property tax, so the intangible business assets and their respective values must be identified and excluded.

The International Association of Assessing Officers, in its guide, "Understanding Intangible Assets and Real Estate: A Guide for Real Property Valuation Professionals," has developed a four-part test to help determine whether something intangible rises to the level of an asset. The IAAO test is as follows:

1. An intangible asset should be identifiable.

2. An intangible asset should have evidence of legal ownership, that is, documents that substantiate rights.

3. An intangible asset should be capable of being separate and divisible from the real estate.

4. An intangible asset should be legally transferrable.

The Appraisal Institute's current, 15th edition of "The Appraisal of Real Estate" recognizes the valuation methodology of separating the components of assets in a business or real estate transaction. Potential intangible business assets identified in the text include contracts for healthcare service, contracts for meals, and contracts for laundry assistance, all of which represent income streams or businesses. An assembled workforce is an intangible business asset with a quantifiable value. How long would it take an operator to staff-up a property prior to opening? What are the carrying costs during that time?

Many seniors housing owners and investors feel that the entire value associated with seniors living real estate is attributable to the business. While this may be a firm belief, the real estate must have some value. For fair taxation, the taxpayer must differentiate and value both the tangible and intangible components of the asset.

Multifamily comparisons

For 30 years, Ohio law has permitted appraisers to reference data obtained from traditional multifamily properties to value just the real estate in seniors housing. The theory has been that traditional apartments are primarily real estate and lack much of the associated business value that comes with seniors living assets. Therefore, an appraiser who takes the gross building area of a seniors living property can select, analyze, adjust, and apply multifamily data to determine fair market value.

This approach presents at least two issues. One, seniors living designs differ from traditional apartments. For instance, seniors living units are typically smaller, lack full kitchens, and require wider hallways to accommodate wheelchairs. Two, the multifamily market has generally prospered in recent years while seniors living properties have struggled to recover from pandemic-related losses.

This means Ohio appraisers are comparing seniors living properties to multifamily assets selling at higher and higher dollars per unit. Multifamily properties generally experience lower vacancy, credit loss, expenses and capitalization rates than do seniors housing assets. In short, these two product types often move in opposite market directions.

Difficulties with financing data

More and more, county assessors and school board attorneys throughout Ohio rely on appraisers who value seniors living properties as if done for lending purposes. While these going-concern valuations may satisfy lenders' needs, these same techniques are not reliable or accurate enough to support a state's constitutionally protected valuation and assessment process.

Going concern appraisal reports back into a real estate value. After first developing a total value for all assets present, the appraiser attempts to extract the business value.

There are several techniques routinely used in appraisals for financing that are inappropriate for determining taxable value. These include the lease fee coverage ratio approach, a management fee capitalization approach, and the cost residual approach. These appraisal techniques have been approved by banks, but they are largely untested in courts.

These approaches are tainted from the start because they look first to the total going concern value. That inherently requires an evaluation of business income, which should not be considered when determining a fee simple value of the real property.

Of the going concern methodologies, the cost residual method appears best suited to assess taxable property value. However, challenges and subjectivity abound when identifying and determining all aspects of depreciation that may impact market acceptance of the real estate asset, especially for an older property.

Starting with the business is problematic given the dollars involved in seniors housing resident services. Median asking rent for a conventional apartment was $1,000 per month in the Federal Reserve's 2022 Survey of Household Economics and Decision Making. By comparison, the median monthly rate for assisted living is $4,000, according to the American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living. Importantly, that $4,000 excludes fees for additional services like medication management and bathing assistance.

Service fees constitute significant revenue in most seniors housing operations. A 2019 CBRE Senior Housing Market Insight report found that 65% of the revenue in assisted living properties comes from services provided above and beyond pure rent. The 2023 JLL Valuation Index Survey found that the average "Majority Assisted Living" asset class saw an expense ratio of 71%.

Owners and appraisers must closely examine operating statements to develop and support their opinions of value. Appraisers should consider looking at properties as having multiple income streams to verify whether their opinion of value for the real estate is reasonable and supportable. Operators and investors should be open and honest about return expectations.

Because the income generated by intangible business assets at seniors living properties are taxed in other ways, assessors must continue to carefully review seniors living real estate to ensure fair taxation. 

Steve Nowak, Esq. is a partner in 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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  • Appraisals designed for lenders often inflate assessments of seniors living real estate for property taxation.

3 Keys to Appealing an Unfair Assessment

Spencer Fane's Michael Miller on the critical steps for finding tax relief.

This is a challenging time in the property tax world. Pandemic-era federal assistance programs have dried up, increasing communities' appetite for tax dollars to deal with crime, homelessness, transportation and other issues. Recognizing that inflation has put taxpayers under pressure, governments may offer tax relief to homeowners, their voters, but not to the commercial property owner.

In Colorado, a November ballot issue would reduce the valuation of a residential property by $40,000 and of a commercial property by $50,000. This will be little help to an owner of a $2 million commercial property.

Relief for the commercial property owner must instead come from a deep dive into the assessor's valuation, best performed by the property owner and an experienced property tax professional working as a team. What follows are key stages for preparing an appeal.

1. Understand and observe all filing deadlines.

Every state has a deadline for starting the appeal process. If a taxpayer misses that deadline, they lose the right to appeal. In some states, after paying their tax, a taxpayer might be allowed to file for an abatement sometime later.

It is important to provide the property tax professional with relevant information in sufficient time to analyze it before filing the appeal. This is a challenge in many cases, such as when the taxpayer receiving tax notices is out of state and their advisor is local. Contacting the advisor before tax notices go out can provide a head start, often enabling the advisor to find the property's taxable value before the notice arrives.

2. Critically analyze the assessment basis.

By itself, a substantial value increase does not qualify as a reason to appeal. Often, the assessor will justify the increase based on the general market strength shown in substantially rising prices. The taxpayer must ask, is this for the entire county, or for this specific type of property in this specific location?

A recent example illustrates how assessors' generalizations can overstate an individual property's value change. As our firm appealed a client's assessment in an expensive resort area, the local newspaper quoted the assessor stating that prices had increased 50% or even more. Available sales of comparable properties all occurred at least a year prior to the valuation period, while one was near the valuation period.

The assessor trended the earlier sales to the valuation period by making a 50% adjustment to each sales price. However, our team compared the most recent year-ago sale with the current sale of a comparable property in the same location, showing that the price per square foot only went up 14%. It was clear the 50% increase was a mass appraisal number covering the entire county, while prices in the subject property's submarket increased at a much slower pace. This deep dive yielded results in the appeal.

3. Analyze the assessor's comparable sales.

Most jurisdictions require assessors to value the fee simple estate, the real estate alone. Assessors have attempted to debate what this means, but what it clearly does not mean is a sale price based upon the income generated by a lease. Nor can the taxable value be based on the success of the business operated from the property.

Simply stated, fee simple value must be limited to the real estate, not the business. When applying this to an owner-occupied property, this means a fee-simple buyer would be purchasing a vacant property. Value is based on the price at which a willing buyer would buy, and a willing seller would sell, the property. And in the sale of an owner-occupied property, there is no lease.

Often in this situation, the assessor will nevertheless use the sale of a leased property as a comparable. It is not comparable, because the buyer is buying the income stream from the lease, not just the bricks and mortar. Moreover, the rent seldom reflects current market rent. Possibly the lease was signed when rents were higher than today, the lease escalated rents automatically, or the landlord agreed to build the property according to the tenant's specifications and increased the rent by the amortized cost. Every lease is unique. The sale of a leased property is simply not the same as the sale of a property without a lease.

While examining income properties within the assessor's comparable sales, be sure to analyze the income's source. Taxable values of income-producing properties are based on income derived from the real estate and not income derived from other sources.

A hotel buyer, for example, is buying not only the bricks and mortar, but also the flag or brand, and the hotel's reputation. These are intangibles included in the acquisition price. However, intangible value is not subject to a property tax.

Another example of this concept is seniors housing. Seniors housing has numerous profit centers beyond rent for the room. It may have a beauty shop, a physical therapy center, a recreation facility such as a bowling alley, special medical services and many other offerings. The resident pays rent, but also pays extra for the many services. For property tax purposes, the income used to determine value must be separated between business cashflow and income generated from the real estate.

Property tax in the current environment can indeed present a challenge, but it need not be overwhelming. The taxpayer must analyze the assessor's value in depth to find factors that would result in a successful appeal. It may start with sticker shock over the assessor's notice, but an experienced tax professional's analysis can level the playing field between the assessor aggressively pursuing increased funding and the property tax owner looking for tax relief.

Michael Miller is Of Counsel in the Denver office of Spencer Fane, the Colorado member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

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  • Spencer Fane’s Michael Miller on the critical steps for finding tax relief.

Drew Raines: How to Reduce Student Housing Property Tax Assessments Post-Pandemic

Not long ago, assessors' student housing properties valuations generally struggled keeping pace with the rising market.College enrollment was high, rent growth outpaced expenses and student expectations lined up with most newer facility amenities. However, the COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout changed the game.

Property taxes are often the single highest expense on a property's profit and loss statement. When market changes make student housing less profitable, the tax burden should not be allowed to remain high. When this occurs, the assessor's property valuation needs to be challenged and reduced.

Projecting Income:Look Forward, Not Back

Many jurisdictions assess student housing properties' value using a cost approach.A computer system estimates the cost to build the property new, then deducts physical depreciation based on the property's age. Due to skyrocketing construction costs, those depreciation deductions are outpaced by base cost increases. It is common to see cost-based values increase despite struggles facing the real estate market. Owners can combat increases by appealing the assessor's value.

When a student housing property owner files an assessment appeal, the appeal review board often evaluates the three prior years' operating income. This allows the appeal board to develop an income model intended to represent stabilized operations. Then the net income is capitalized, producing an estimated market value. When the market rises and rent increases, looking at the past three year's performance is probably a favorable method for taxpayers. However, in a flat or falling market, determining value based on past success proves unfair. Property values' steady upward trajectory, by and large, has stalled out given the gut-punch of 2022 interest rate hikes. Capitalization rates have risen along with the interest rates, though it becomes difficult to see clearly because sales transaction volume slowed to a trickle. Sellers would rather sit on their property than swallow the loss the current market forced on them.

For student housing specifically, it is not uncommon for brokers to cite 15% to 20% market value declines from early 2022 to early 2023. In addition to general market woes, some developers expect college enrollment to drop in the near future due, in part, to fewer students graduating from high school.This will make leasing more difficult and put downward pressure on rents and occupancy. Falling rental income should be taken into consideration by the board or tribunal hearing a property tax appeal.

Projecting Expenses: The Compounding Costs of COVID

Waves of new development during the late 1990's and mid-2010's saw student housing units grow exponentially.At the time, they were state-of-the-art facilities with all the amenities a student could desire. For some, common areas evolved from utilitarian waiting rooms to shared workspaces or workout gyms.For others, bathrooms were no longer shared with a full suite, but only a single roommate.

When the property's design fails to meet changing tenant expectations, that produces functional obsolescence. Many boom-time properties now suffer functional obsolescence.Worrisome trends that predated COVID-19 have been fast-tracked by the pandemic, becoming major problems.

Most people, including future college students, were quarantined for months and developed new tastes and behaviors. Student tenants are not as tolerant of sharing a bathroom with a roommate. One-to-one bathrooms are no longer a luxury in most markets, but trying to retro-fit a property to achieve the best bed-to-bath ratio often fails the cost-benefit analysis. When a design deficiency can't feasibly be corrected, it is known as incurable functional obsolescence.

Online shopping became a near-necessity during quarantine, reshaping our consumer habits long-term. When a building full of button-clicking students receives more Amazon boxes than envelopes, there better be package lockers or another delivery management system to handle the volume. Maybe some unutilized common area space presents an easy opportunity to convert, making this type of obsolescence curable. Even so, the cure does not come without landlord expense.

Not all new expenses involve obsolete building design. New cleaning protocols originated during the pandemic but have not receded with the COVID case count. The "janitorial" line item has swollen, further narrowing landlord margins.

Even if the building is clean, it may not be tidy. Kids who were forced to stay home for meals tend not to go out as frequently. They order-in, and they party-in, too. That creates a lot of trash. Kids do not appreciate having to haul trash down a flight of stairs or ride with it down an elevator. Trash chutes appease them, but not if the building doesn't have one.

Rising operating costs are not all associated with COVID. For example, HVAC systems that use a coolant being phased out by new regulations will have to be upgraded to comply. Also, insurance, payroll, and other outside service costs have increased with general inflation.

Increasing operating expenses drive down a property's net income and should be accounted for by tax appeal decision-makers.

Question the Assessor's Valuation

When property owners appeal their assessment based on a drop in income, "bad management" becomes the common refrain heard from assessors. This implies the property is worth more than the income indicates, because it has been poorly operated. Sometimes this is true, but if a property suffers lackluster performance caused by unavoidable market changes, the assessment should account for that. Taxpayers would be wise to seek seasoned property tax counsel for advice as to what relief may be available.

Drew Raines is a shareholder in the Memphis law firm of Evans Petree, PC, the Arkansas and Tennessee member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

What’s the Right Property Tax Valuation Approach for Industrial Real Estate?

The wrong method could leave owners with bigger bills than they should have.

Because industrial properties vary in design and function, not all valuation methods approaches apply to every property. When assessors choose an unsuitable method that inflates taxable value, the taxpayer's best appeal strategy may be to show flaws in the appraiser's approach by explaining the appropriate appraisal methodology.

Industrial properties are typically designed for a specific owner's use in manufacturing, distribution, research and development, or heavy industrial activities. These include standalone flex buildings, multiuse industrial complexes, high-tech facilities, steel mills, timber mills and other subtypes.

The basic valuation premise for property taxation is to determine what the property would sell for in an open-market transaction between a willing seller and willing buyer. Most buyers and sellers in the industrial market would have a thorough understanding of a property's best use before transacting a sale, but an assessor with a limited perspective may treat all industrial real estate as having uniform valuation characteristics.

Taxing authorities often overlook appraisal principles, that if properly applied would reduce the market value of industrial properties. Taxpayers should review their assessments to determine the assessor's valuation approach and evaluate if the appropriate input data was used and the calculations reflect the appropriate adjustments to value.

The appraiser must consider the highest and best use of the property when selecting the appropriate valuation method, considering what is legally and physically permissible and financially feasible for the property as of the valuation date. They will use one of three primary appraisal methods, which are the cost approach, sales-comparison approach, and income-capitalization approach.

Cost Approach

The cost approach is based on theory of substitution, would a prospective purchaser buy this property at a depreciated value or simply build a new facility? Using this approach, an appraiser determines the cost to build a new facility less all forms of depreciation.

A willing buyer would consider not only physical depreciation, but the property's functional operation and any external forces limiting its use. External or economic obsolescence are forces outside the property owner's control, such as government restrictions, consumer demand, or the availability of a raw product or steady labor force.

Functional obsolescence is value loss due to physical or functional deficiencies, such as an outdated building design, inefficient production layout, inadequate infrastructure or outdated equipment.

Most assessor cost models stop at physical depreciation and ignore external and functional obsolescence. They simply add up the component costs of the building, land, and equipment.

This typical cost model fails the "willing seller and willing buyer" test because a potential buyer is not going to evaluate a manufacturing facility by tallying the value of the property's components. A buyer will focus on output capacity, available raw product, available labor, and the market for the product. How many widgets can the facility produce as of the assessment date, and at what cost?

Thus, the often-missed analysis in the cost approach is to really look at theory of substitution. Would a new facility with new equipment and a better layout have higher production capacity? An appraiser should not simply reproduce the same equipment for the cost model if modern equipment offers benefits such as reduced labor, higher speed, or increased output. The appraiser must know the industry and the equipment capabilities of both the older, existing equipment and the new, technically advanced equipment.

Comparing apples to apples in the cost model seldom provides a reliable value. An example would be a plywood and veneer mill built in the 1960s that an assessor values by counting costs invested in the various add-ons and rebuilding of equipment. Simply trending the values would not capture rebuilt equipment or used-equipment purchases, overvaluing the equipment.

The appraiser should determine the cost for the widget capacity of the present facility as of the date of value and compare that to how many widgets a new facility could produce and at what cost. Next, the appraiser should consider all three forms of depreciation to arrive at the proper taxable valuation. Omitting these steps in the cost approach will overvalue the property and overtax the owner.

Sales-Comparison Approach

The sales-comparison approach compares the subject property with property that is similar to the subject. Appraisers often use this approach for single-use real estate with a high degree of market transferability such as warehouses and distribution centers. The appraiser must consider not just the comparable property's floor plate, type of construction and square footage, but also its location, market access and number of loading docks.

The sales comparison model is difficult to use for properties that lack a ready market or that suffer from external or functional obsolescence. Consider the research and development campuses built in the 1980s to house all a company's processes, from research to manufacturing and distribution. Most manufacturing and distribution moved overseas in the 2000s, leaving these campuses half empty.

Adapting these buildings for reuse depends on land-use restrictions, the market for alternative uses, available labor, and the functionality and cost feasibility of conversion. When searching for comparable sales, the appraiser should evaluate what is legally permissible and financially feasible and weigh external forces that impact demand and functional use. After selecting like-kind properties, the appraiser must adjust the sales to reflect the reality of the subject property, or it will be over-valued.

Income- Capitalization Approach

The income-capitalization approach estimates a property's value based on the income it generates, using a capitalization rate from comparable sales or market data. This approach is used for properties with long-term tenants or stable cash flows. The appraiser is to look not at what the value is to the owner, but at what a willing buyer would pay for the property. This requires carefully selected market data and proper adjustment to reflect market value.

Clearly, appraising industrial properties requires a thorough understanding of their unique characteristics and uses, as well as an awareness of economic and functional obsolescence. A knowledgeable appraiser can help the taxpayer ensure their property assessment is consistent with the marketplace to avoid overpaying property taxes. 

Cynthia Fraser is Co-Chair of Foster Garvey's Litigation Practice and the Oregon Representative of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC). The firm is the Oregon member of APTC, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Lisa Laubacher is a CMI and Director at Popp Hutcheson PLLC, the Texas member of APTC.

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  • The wrong method could leave owners with bigger bills than they should have.

Taxpayers Can Negotiate Reductions of their Excessive Property Taxes

Here are the steps to start an informal discussion with the assessor that may lead to a tax reduction.

Owners of large commercial real estate portfolios typically have internal staff to deal with assessed property values and the resultant taxes on a regular basis. But what about owners of small or medium-value properties?

How can a taxpayer, without knowledgeable staff or outside assistance, determine whether their assessment is fair or if they should seek an adjustment? And if seeking a reduction seems appropriate, going it alone through discussion with the Assessor may be productive.

Any such informal review or discussion should be the result of careful consideration and preparation. The following points are essential in that review and will help the taxpayer build and present a strong case for a reduced valuation.

Getting started

A government representative, usually the county collector, issues a property tax bill based on the value the county assessor has placed on the taxpayer's real estate. The property owner may launch an appeal to contest that assessed value. However, in many states, the tax bill arrives after the due date for appealing the assessor's valuation.

Owners should review their property's assessed value each year. Begin the process as soon as the assessor posts new values to its website, usually in January. If there has been no increase, the assessor won't provide a statement of the assessed value until it is included in the tax bill sent later in the year, at which time the appeal period will have ended in most jurisdictions.

If the assessor's value opinion is less than the taxpayer believes it should be, they can simply pay the taxes due and plan to revisit the assessor's website the next year. If the assessor's opinion is approximately the same or greater than the property owner's value estimate, however, the taxpayer should investigate further and consider whether to seek a meeting with the assessor followed by an appeal.Some jurisdictions (states) have cycles of more than one year so the valuation for tax purposes may extend beyond the first year's valuation date into the following year or years.

Know dates and procedures

Missing the filing deadline is fatal to any potential relief from property tax. Most jurisdictions will notify taxpayers of an assessment increase and provide the timeline for review on appeal. Even when an assessed value is unchanged from previous years, the owner may still deem the assessment to be excessive and worth appealing.

While the owner is entitled to appeal an unchanged valuation, in most states there is no obligation for the assessor to notify the owner of altered assessed value—at least not until the time for appeal has run out.

Learn the lingo

Appraisers, assessors, attorneys, real estate brokers and other professionals dealing regularly with property tax matters frequently use words and phrases unique to the valuation of real estate. These terms and their interpretations fill volumes of legal writing and serve as linchpins in court decisions and business transactions.

Taxpayers who familiarize themselves with valuation lingo will be better prepared to discuss value with assessing officials. (For a list of key terms and definitions, see Property Tax Terms.)

Call the assessor

Most assessors or members of their staff will meet for informal discussions prior to, and sometimes during, a formal appeal. Call to request a meeting and provide the assessor with a heads-up about which property or properties will be discussed. This will save time by ensuring the assessor's team has an opportunity to review their work and supporting data for an informed discussion.

The meeting will be informal. The assessor or representative will be prepared to defend the assessed value. It is important for the taxpayer to realize that value was probably, in whole or in part, generated by a computer.

Bring relevant materials and documents in duplicate so that a set can be left with the assessor's office. They may not want to accept them but give it a try.

The informal meeting is often the property owner's first opportunity to show the property was overvalued in the assessment. The owner will need to support their proposed value using at least one of three standard approaches to valuation, which are cost, income, and sales comparison.

Of these, a non-appraiser is most likely to apply a sales comparison. While adjustments may be necessary in the application of a comparative sales calculation, it is less complex and dependent on expert analysis than either the cost or income approach. For the non-professional, the fewer adjustments required, the better.

For example, developing an informed opinion of a single-family home value based on the sale of two nearly identical homes on the same street does not present a great challenge. The further away the sales occur and the more they differ from the subject property, however, the greater the challenge and the less reliable the sales become as comparatives.(comparables is the term appraisers use)

The cost approach, unless it reflects the actual and recent construction cost plus the land value of the property in question, requires the application of factors best left to professionals in the valuation field. The income approach is even more complex, drawing a value conclusion not from actual rent at the subject property but by applying market rents to the initial rates of return that provide the basis for prices paid for acquisition of similar properties.

Like the cost approach, income-based valuation is best left to the experts. However, an owner who owns and invests in income-producing properties may very well be able to show a lower valuation using their own formulas learned through experience and practice. If such be the case, present that opinion and back-up information to the assessor.

Escalate as needed

Assuming informal discussions fail to achieve a value reduction, the taxpayer must file a timely appeal or accept the assessor's opinion. Filing requires the owner to know and conform to the prescribed filing date. The taxpayer must also decide when or if they will engage an attorney to pursue the appeal.Jurisdictions vary on the point at which an attorney is required to pursue a formal appeal.Filing dates and the required point to seek expert assistance are critical and vary by state. It is up to the taxpayer to learn these dates for their area, and to act while there is sufficient time remaining to file and win an appeal.

Property Tax Terms

A general understanding of real estate valuation terminology is intrinsic to discussions with the assessor.

Assessed Value: The taxable percentage (usually set by statute) of the assessor's opinion of fair market value.

Fair Market Value: What a willing and informed buyer would pay to a willing and informed seller. Fair market value is not value in use, sentimental value, or personal value unique to the owner.

Deferred Maintenance: The property needs a paint job, roof replacement or similar repairs, in which case the cost of correcting the deficiency is deducted from the property's value.

Obsolescence: A curable problem of which the anticipated cost to cure is deducted from the value of the property without the problem.

Incurable Obsolescence: A problem on the property that can't be cured at any cost, such as loss of parking or loss of access due to a road project.

Jerome Wallach is a partner at The Wallach Law Firm in St. Louis, the Missouri member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys

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  • Here are the steps to start an informal discussion with the assessor that may lead to a tax reduction.

Challenge Office Building Tax Assessments

Owners can use the hurting office market to their benefit.

It's no secret that the real estate market suffered in the COVID-19 pandemic, and no property type was hurt more than office buildings. While hospitality and entertainment properties nearly suffocated, their post-quarantine rebound has been impressive. Real estate professionals who projected multiyear recoveries for hotels and movie theaters back in 2020 and 2021 have been proven wrong. Offices, however, have not been so lucky.

The pandemic hastened a work-remote trend that was already leading office tenants to downsize their spaces, and the shift soon stifled any countervailing influx of tenants that landlords could have relied upon to stabilize their properties. Tenants have also realized that if they are using remote workers anyway, they can employ overseas workers for significantly less pay and with zero office requirements. As a result, many landlords have seen their occupancy and rents drop. Some have been able to maintain rent levels by giving away major concessions or tenant improvements. Some have not.

Falling rents and occupancy deflate property values. A trending loss in property value means it's time to review the tax assessor's value of an organization's property, and to challenge the assessment if appropriate.

Why care about the office market?

Perhaps your company owns or leases a building that it fully occupies. The difficulties of the post-COVID office market are unfortunate, but they don't impact you. Your building is full.


Most jurisdictions value the fee-simple property rights of an income-producing property. Basically, that means valuation is based on capitalization of the income stream that the property would produce if leased at market levels.

This is true for owner-occupied offices, too. If the property is leased after a build-to-suit or sale-leaseback transaction, those typically above-market rents or extended terms are irrelevant to a fee-simple analysis.

If the assessor values a property for property tax purposes based on fee-simple property rights determined using a market-derived income stream, and if current market rent levels and occupancy rates are dropping, then the property's tax assessment should be dropping, too – even if the building is full.

Inflation and interest rates

The problems specific to office buildings are not the only ones for the taxpayer to consider. Inflation has made it more expensive to do just about everything, and that includes operating an office building. Payroll, utilities, insurance: All of these costs are steadily rising, even for owner-occupied buildings.

Local governments are feeling the squeeze, too. Their budgets often depend largely on property tax revenue. When inflation reduces a budget's effectiveness, there will be pressure on the assessor to find ways to dig deep and expand the tax base.

The Federal Reserve's solution for inflation was an aggressive program of interest rate hikes over the course of 2022. The rising cost of money has a significant impact on capitalization rates, which investors and appraisers use to value a property's income stream. The higher interest rates go, the higher cap rates go. The higher cap rates go, the lower property values go.

Where are the sales?

The problem with attempting to demonstrate the impact of rising interest rates on cap rates is the sheer lack of sale transactions. Banks aren't bullish on office lending right now, and sellers would rather hang on to a struggling property than sell it for less than it would be worth if stabilized. How can a taxpayer know what kind of price an office building's income stream will bring if office buildings aren't selling?

This is where the assessors will use sales of office properties to support high values. In many markets, an office property that sold in 2021 is worth significantly less today. But today, there often aren't enough comparable office sales occurring to prove declining value. Assessors can point to the most recent office sales, albeit a few years old, and justify their value on a comparative basis.

What those older sales do not reflect is the more recent plague of dropping rents and rising vacancy. The taxpayer needs a way to discount those old sales and prove what the value is today, not three years ago.

Is it time to appeal?

Consider your office property. Could it sell today for the price it sold for two or three years ago? Probably not. Maybe the organization recently bought it, or even built it, for more than it could sell for today. This is not an uncommon problem anymore.

In many jurisdictions, the best way to challenge an office property's assessed value is by using the income approach. If the building were leased at market rent, what would that look like? If the building were occupied at current market occupancy levels, how much vacancy would there be? The taxpayer may need to talk to a broker or two to answer these questions.

The taxpayer may need help to turn market data into a viable appeal strategy. A property tax professional can prepare a fee-simple income approach and help estimate the current market value of the property. In the present situation, there is a good chance property tax relief is available, even if the office building is fully occupied.

Drew Raines is a shareholder in the Memphis law firm of Evans Petree PC, the Arkansas and Tennessee member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

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  • Owners can use the hurting office market to their benefit.

Being Forearmed: Information Self-Storage Owners Can Use to Combat Inflated Property-Tax Assessments

Tax assessors are quick to increase self-storage property valuations when market conditions are strong, but they're much slower to adapt to factors that negatively impact an appraisal. Here are some items to understand and present as evidence when making the case to lower your tax assessment.

Until recently, many self-storage owners had grown accustomed to strong market conditions that resulted in steady increases to their property-tax assessments. However, now that industry fundamentals have begun to cool nationwide, they're finding that assessors don't recognize a downturn in property valuation nearly as quickly. To help defend against excessive valuations, you need to educate yourself on market trends and the impact of rental rates, capitalization (cap) rates and sales transactions on facility value.

For a decade or more, the self-storage industry has seen exponential growth in demand that ushered double-digit increases in rental rates and decreases in vacancies. Tax assessors were quick to account for this growth, pushing facility valuations higher. But now the major metropolitan markets are starting to report stagnant rates and mounting vacancy. At the same time, interest rates are rising, which depresses real estate prices and property values. Assessors should—but may not—recognize these conditions when calculating a market value.

In anticipation of an assessor's unrealistic interpretation of market conditions, self-storage owners should be ready to combat inflated assessments. You can prepare by learning your local assessment date and arming yourself with market data relevant to the valuation period.

When to Press the Assessor

Assessors use various tools to determine a property's market value, but there's subjectivity in how these resources can be used. Self-storage properties are traditionally evaluated based on their income-producing potential via a pro forma. An analysis begins with a study of market rental rates, typically derived from surveys and commercial real estate publications. Assessors will then estimate potential income using financials at comparable properties, or draw quoted rental rates from a facility's website.

As a taxpayer, you should vigilantly analyze an assessor's income-based valuation, specifically regarding the initial rental rate used. Assessors often overestimate potential income based on inaccurate survey information or by applying a rental rate that's associated with an inappropriate property classification. For example, they may classify a property as "superior" based on its location or perceived quality of construction. In reality, the facility could be "average" based on the actual rents achieved.

Potential vs. effective income is an important distinction property owners should be quick to flag. Assessors often overestimate potential rent and fail to recognize a proper vacancy factor. If helpful, you can present profit-and-loss statements as well as rent rolls to provide a true understanding of your asset's actual performance in contrast to assumed figures from unreliable sources. Doing this can lead to a substantially lower income-based assessment.

The assessor's final step in an income-based valuation is to apply a cap rate to net operating income. A cap rate is the initial, annual rate of return a buyer would receive on a property's purchase price. It measures risk and is tied to market dynamics in an ever-evolving economy. The lower the cap rate applied in an income pro forma, the higher the indicated value will be.

Assessors will always err on the side of aggressiveness by choosing low cap rates from the market. In fact, they usually derive these rates from market sales and secondary surveys, using data that often goes unvetted or is simply inaccurate. You should press appraisers to show support for the cap rates they use. Scrutinize sale data and highlight differences between your facility and the property that sold.

Be prepared to combat superficial survey information with real-world examples of how rising interest rates, inflation and other economic factors increase the risk associated with acquiring a self-storage property. Perhaps the most effective strategy for achieving a reduced assessment is to fight an assessor's aggressive cap rate with data that reflects the true risk associated with your property.

Market Value and Timing

In most jurisdictions, "market value" is tied to the concept of a willing buyer and seller. Self-storage owners should be mindful of how a purchase price will affect their valuation, as assessors will always assume that purchase price equals market value. Some states mandate sale-price disclosure to the assessor's office while others abide by non-disclosure rules. Regardless, assessors will adamantly pursue a property's sale price to support a tax assessment.

The timing of the purchase is important in relation to the assessment date. For example, if the state or county valuation date is Jan. 1, a sale subsequent to that date may not influence the valuation for that assessment period. Conversely, the basis for the assessor's valuation will likely be a sale or sales that occurred prior to the assessment.

You need to remind assessors that a sale price doesn't always represent a property's true market value. Examples of this are 1031-exchange transactions or portfolio acquisitions with prices allocated to component properties.

Remember, too, that assessors are typically tasked with finding a property's fee-simple market value. Facility purchases often include business value that is intangible and not taxable to the fee-simple estate. So, be prepared to describe the nuances associated with a sale to any assessor who makes value assumptions based on recent purchase prices.

Appraisals aren't an exact science, and assessors often turn the subjectivity inherent in the valuation process to the taxpayer's detriment. Self-storage owners and investors should be vigilant in monitoring the marketplace, their property's economic performance and transactions within their jurisdiction. This will arm them with the relevant data needed to combat aggressive valuations.

Travis Williams is a Senior Property Tax Consultant at Austin, Texas, law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC. Popp Hutcheson, which focuses its practice on property tax disputes, is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

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  • Tax assessors are quick to increase self-storage property valuations when market conditions are strong, but they’re much slower to adapt to factors that negatively impact an appraisal. Here are some items to understand and present as evidence when making the case to lower your tax assessment.

Don’t Ignore Business Personal Property Taxes

Blas Ortiz and Andrew Albright of Popp Hutcheson PLLC offer tips for decreasing liabilities.

For property tax purposes, commercial property owners concern themselves primarily with the administrative appeals and real estate taxes, while often ignoring corresponding business personal property. By doing so, those owners forfeit many tax-saving opportunities when complying with state filing requirements for and appealing taxes on business personal property. Since the majority of states tax business personal property in some form or fashion, commercial owners should follow several tax saving tips when preparing annual compliance filings.

Conduct the personal property test

Commercial property owners must realize that personal property tax savings begin during the compliance phase when formally rendering personal property value to the local assessor. This typically starts with what is reflected on the fixed asset list. In many states, taxable personal property represents anything that's not real estate, is income-producing, and not considered intangible. Generally speaking, the primary test to determine whether an asset is personal property rests on the answer to the following question: If the asset were removed from the real estate, would the real estate be irreparably damaged? A yes answer means the asset would likely be real estate. Removing real estate line items becomes crucial. Otherwise it amounts to double taxation if an asset more appropriately characterized as real estate also gets taxed as personal property. Properly delineating each asset line item as personal property or real estate is a vital first step to lowering personal property taxes.

Classify assets properly

Taxpayers will find that proper asset classification holds another key to decreasing tax liability. Certain assets may be depreciated on shorter age-life schedules if described and classified properly when reported to the business personal property assessor. The North American Industry Classification System, along with various cost estimator and valuation services provide general classification and age-life guidance when finding acceptable depreciation schedules for a company's fixed assets. A local property assessor or state department of revenue may also provide personal property classification and depreciation schedules, though it may not always be clear how that information was derived. If applicable, include potential obsolescence factors that may affect the final opinion of value. Many states periodically audit tangible personal property returns, so be prepared to explain any deviation from the assessor's depreciation schedules and the inclusion of obsolescence or inutility factors.

Understand depreciation

Commercial owners must also keep in mind that the net book value of assets on a fixed asset list, although pertinent for accounting purposes, is not considered when calculating ad valorem property tax liability. Accounting guidelines allow for depreciating assets differently than property tax depreciation. For accounting purposes, an asset is usually depreciated at a set amount each year over the asset's total typical life until it depreciates to $0. Those items often remain on the books even if the assets have been disposed of because they no longer have accounting value and, therefore, do not impact the overall book value.

However, for property tax purposes, assets are never fully depreciated to $0 value. Instead, they are depreciated to a residual value anywhere between 5 percent to 20 percent of the original cost. That being the case, when reporting assets, the preparer may look to the local assessors' asset depreciation schedules to determine each asset's depreciated value based on the asset's current age. As a corollary to that, the preparer should also confirm whether any disposed or "ghost assets" remain on the books, and if so, remove them from the fixed asset list before rendering.

Consider intangibles

The removal of intangible property continues to be a fundamental step often overlooked when reviewing fixed asset ledgers for the purpose of filing self-reported personal property renditions and returns. In certain states, items such as software and warranties are nontaxable. While being mindful of each state's specific guidelines for intangible property, consider embedded intangibles which might be identified within an asset's total capitalized cost. Removing intangible personal property line items, in accordance with state and jurisdictional laws and guidelines, can preserve potential front-end tax savings for many years.

File properly and on-time

Knowing when to report is just as important as knowing how to report. To avoid late filing penalties, be aware of the filing requirements and methods for each specific jurisdiction, such as postmark and submission deadline rules. Be aware that many assessors and appraisal districts are shifting to electronic filing vs. traditional hard copy filing. Additionally, be certain to properly identify the property by identification number, owner name and address.

Business personal property should not be ignored when determining a company's property tax liability. Following consistent and informed methodologies when filing tangible personal property compliance can create viable tax savings opportunities year after year.

Andrew Albright
Blas Ortiz
Blas Ortiz is a director and Andrew Albright a manager at Popp Hutcheson PLLC, the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. The firm focuses its practice on property tax disputes.

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  • Blas Ortiz and Andew Albright of Popp Hutcheson PLLC offer tips for decreasing liabilities.

Office-to-Residential Conversions Present Costly Problems

Developers should understand the property tax implications before attempting to repurpose buildings in downtown Washington, D.C.

With office vacancy rates in the District of Columbia at 20% and climbing, officials believe that converting office buildings to residential space is an important component of revitalizing Downtown Washington.

These complex projects pose both practical and administerial challenges, however. For developers, one important consideration of such a redevelopment is its real estate tax implications.

High hopes

District leaders announced earlier this year that they hope to add 15,000 residents to the central business district over the next five years – an ambitious goal. The hope is that bringing residents to live downtown will create a more vibrant neighborhood where people live, work, and dine.

The stark reality is that the District of Columbia has one of the lowest return-to-office rates in the country. Actual occupancy in the D.C. metro was only 43% in mid-April and drops below 25% on Fridays, according to Kastle Systems, which tracks office occupancy. Workers simply aren't returning to Downtown D.C.

While residential conversions may be one piece of the puzzle in addressing D.C.'s downtown woes, converting an office building into a residential property is no small feat. Here are a few important factors relating to real estate taxes to keep in mind when considering an office-to-residential conversion.

Real property tax rates

Real property tax rates in the District vary considerably from residential to commercial real estate. Residential properties, including multifamily apartment buildings, are taxed at a 0.85% rate. The commercial tax rate, which is used for office buildings, is more than double that rate at 1.89% for properties assessed over $10 million.

To the extent a property contains both residential and commercial space, D.C. will apply a mixed-use tax rate based on the pro-rata allocation of residential versus commercial space. Consequently, how the District classifies a property can have an immense impact on tax liability and carrying costs.

Timing of reclassification

A costly misstep would be to assume that the tax rate will immediately change from 1.89% to 0.85% after an office property is acquired for residential conversion. In fact, if there is any commercial use continuing at the building, the commercial tax rate will still apply.

Moreover, the District historically has been inconsistent in its application of when a building should "convert" from commercial to residential for purposes of tax classification. Although the D.C. Code provides a property should be reclassified when there is no current use and the property's highest-and-best use is residential, some assessors have taken a more aggressive approach and argued that the property should not be reclassified until the redevelopment is more than 65% complete.

Property acquisition

An additional hurdle lies in the acquisition process itself. When an office building is acquired for a residential conversion, higher transfer and recordation taxes apply. For commercial and mixed-use properties, the transfer and recordation taxes are 5% of the sale, as opposed to 2.9% for a purely residential building.

The mayor's proposed 2024 budget would allow the higher transfer and recordation tax rate to expire later this year, but the D.C. Council had not adopted the measure at the time of this writing and may or may not allow the higher rate to sunset. Under the current code, there is no exception for the acquisition of an office property that is being purchased for purposes of a residential conversion.


Finally, in an effort to spur redevelopment, the mayor has announced her intention to offer tax abatements for office-to-residential conversions that meet certain criteria. At this point, it is difficult to determine the financial implications of the tax abatement program for a specific redevelopment because there is no set formula for deriving the amount of an abatement.

What is known, however, is that there are specific requirements to qualify for the abatements. Among other conditions, these include:

  • Affordability. 15% of the housing units must be affordable.
  • Location. The redevelopment must be within a specific geographic area.
  • Designated contractors. 35% of the construction contract must go to specific business enterprises that have been certified by the District.

These requirements further complicate the already challenging task of successfully executing an office-to-residential conversion.

In short, the real estate tax implications of an office-to-residential redevelopment are highly dependent on the unique facts and circumstances of each case, and the varying tax rates can have huge implications for a property's development budget. A developer considering such a conversion should contact experienced counsel early in the process.

Jonathan L. Cloar is a partner at the Washington D.C. law firm Wilkes Artis, the Washington D.C. member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Sydney Bardouil is an associate at the firm.

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  • Developers should understand the property tax implications before attempting to repurpose buildings in downtown Washington, D.C.

Airport Concession Fees Are Not Rent in Property Taxation

Minnesota Supreme Court affirms decision barring use of airport concession fees in income-based property valuation.

A recent Minnesota Supreme Court ruling requires tax assessors to exclude an airport's concession fees from rent-based valuations for property tax purposes. The case offers a flight plan to lower taxes at many of the nation's transportation hubs, and underscores the importance for all taxpayers to exclude business value from taxable property value.

Every major airfield collects fees from food and beverage providers, retailers, banks and other businesses that provide goods or services on airport property. Concessionaires commonly pay these charges in addition to rent owed for the real estate where they operate. Many of these businesses are also responsible for property tax that passes through to tenants in a commercial lease.

The cases leading up to the March 29 state Supreme Court decision involved two car rental companies that challenged their 2019 tax assessments, claiming the assessor's office had overstated their property values by including the concession fee in its income-based valuation.

High-flying fees

Both Enterprise Leasing Co. of Minnesota and Avis Budget Car Rental pay a concession fee equal to 10 percent of gross revenues in addition to real estate rent for their operations at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The tax assessor for Hennepin County had historically valued the auto rentals for property tax purposes by including the concession fee in its income-based approach to valuation.

The auto rental companies challenged the valuations on their 2019 taxes in the Minnesota Tax Court. Law firm Larkin Hoffman, which represented both taxpayers, argued that the concession fees are not rent and should not be included in the income approach for property tax purposes.

The rental agencies prevailed in tax court. The court found that the concession fee is not real estate rent and that the county substantially overstated market values by including the fee in its calculations. Correcting the assessor's calculation reduced Enterprise's value from $34.873 million to $21.107 million, or 39 percent less than the initial assessment. Avis' property value dropped 39 percent as well, from $20.565 million to $12.497 million.

The county appealed the tax court's decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court, arguing that the concession fee is rent that must be used in the income approach. The Court affirmed the lower court's decision, however, holding that "the concession fee is not rent for purposes of the income approach."

Fee-simple principles

The rental agencies' case stood on fundamental precepts of fee-simple valuation. Minnesota is a fee-simple property tax state, meaning valuations for property tax purposes must value all property rights as though they are unencumbered.

Additionally, the leased-fee interest, or landlord's rights subject to contractual terms, should not be used for property tax valuations. Per the state Supreme Court, rents attributable to specific leases are disregarded except to the extent they represent market rent. It follows that business income should not be included in valuations for property tax purposes.

Taxpayers doing business at airports across the country often pay concession fees or other charges based on their revenues or business performance. Many states, like Minnesota, require those same properties to be valued on a fee-simple basis, which should neutralize any impact of business value.

In representing the rental car agencies at all stages of their appeal, Larkin Hoffman stressed the importance of these valuation concepts and how the very definition of a concession requires its exclusion from calculations of taxable property value. A concession is a "franchise for the right to conduct a business, granted by a governmental body or other authority," according to the Dictionary of Real Estate. Accordingly, if a concession fee is a payment for the right to conduct business and not for the right of occupancy, then it is a business revenue.

The county argued that because the rental agencies' concession agreements included the phrase for "use of the premises," then the concession must only be for the real estate. However, the tax court found that the concession fee was consideration for access to the airport car rental market rather than the real estate.

The tax court reasoned – and the Supreme Court affirmed – that the concession fee was not for the real estate because:

Concession fees were also paid by off-airport rental car companies, indicating that the fee is a business revenue rather than rent;

Inclusion of the concession fee in the income approach would inflate the value to 10 times greater than the cost approach, which would be clearly unreasonable; and

Inclusion of the concession fee in the county's income approach distorted other inputs.

It is well established that a fee-simple property tax valuation should exclude business value. Now, Minnesota courts have also acknowledged that when a concession fee is for the privilege of accessing the airport market rather than for the real estate, that fee represents business value.

To prevent erroneous inclusion of business value, and since airports are special-purpose properties, the court gave primary weight to the cost approach. With this decision, Minnesota's highest court has confirmed that concession fees are not rent for real estate and instead represent business value that should be excluded from the income approach.

For taxpayers in any jurisdiction that taxes property based on its fee-simple value, the recent decision is a reminder to ensure that assessors are excluding business value when calculating taxable property value. For businesses that also pay concession fees in addition to rent, the Minnesota case may provide an impetus to learn how those fees affect their own property values. And if those inquiries spur taxpayers to appeal their assessments, then the Minnesota case law may provide a valuable example and support for their arguments.

Timothy Rye, Esq. is a litigator and shareholder at Minneapolis-based law firm Larkin Hoffman, the Minnesota member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys, and a Certified General Real Property Appraiser (inactive).

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  • Minnesota Supreme Court affirms decision barring use of airport concession fees in income-based property valuation.

Mobile Home Parks Property Taxes Skyrocket

Three key factors can help owners successfully appeal excessive taxes.

Those are the assessments on a mobile home community south of Austin, Texas, that in just two years increased nearly 200% in taxable value. This near-doubling rate of annual increase has become commonplace across the state, largely due to three practices tied to appraisal district methodology.

Taxpayers who understand and can show the inherent flaws in these trends will be better prepared to argue for a reduction in their assessments.

Cost or income?

The first factor that has brought significant changes to assessed value in recent years is that county appraisers have largely changed their valuation method from the cost approach to the income approach. Rather than calculating market value by summing up the land value with the value of any onsite infrastructure, some county appraisers are using Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae appraisals to support their value conclusions.

From these leased-fee appraisals, the appraisers attempt to derive income assumptions including site lease rates, utility reimbursements, and expense ratios. This is problematic because often the appraisals they are sourcing include more than the real estate value alone and may not reflect actual sales occurring in the marketplace.

Homes or vehicles?

The second factor that has resulted in changes in assessed value is that assessors value recreational vehicle (RV) parks and mobile home communities, two fundamentally different property types, using the same income model. This presents several challenges.

Typically, both community types lease lots for placement of tenant-owned units, but the similarities end there. The amount of business value differs between the two property types.

Established RV parks such as Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts, with name recognition and amenities, draw significantly more visitors than local parks that lack name or brand recognition. An established RV park could be compared to a Marriott or Hyatt hotel, reflecting their tenants' short-term rentals and because they inherently include untaxable business value when sold.

On the other hand, a mobile home community might be compared to an apartment property with longer-term tenants and minimal, if any, business value beyond real estate. Mobile home communities have little need for name recognition or amenities when the tenants own their homes. Due to the cost of moving a unit, it is a challenge for mobile home residents to move, thus leading to higher stabilized occupancy and minimal turnover.

Infrastructure also varies between the two property types, with mobile home communities requiring more substantial utilities than RV parks. These significant differences confirm the importance of using separate models to assess the market value or taxable value of the two asset classes.

In the spotlight

The third factor that has affected assessed value is the increasing attention county appraisers have given to these two property types. In recent years, investment in mobile home communities and RV parks has risen in popularity nationwide as investors seek reliable and steady cash flows. Additionally, the supply of well-located mobile home parks has dwindled as cities have grown and changed the highest and best use of land in their path. This has increased land values, resulting in higher assessed values – a trend that will continue in the future.

As county appraisers rework their models for these asset types, they often create discrepancies between how a property has been assessed in the past and what is physically on the property, namely the total number of units and the mix between mobile home sites and RV sites. Many of these discrepancies likely still exist going into 2023, which may provide an opportunity for property owners to contest their assessed values and argue successfully for a reduction.

Historically, RV and mobile home park owners have not felt the need to protest tax assessments as often as owners of other commercial real estate asset classes. That may be changing in 2023, making this the first year many owners file a protest on their assessments.

Whether hiring a property tax professional or protesting their assessment independently, owners should utilize the points above when deriving a market value conclusion for their real estate. Inefficiencies in appraisal district models will allow significant opportunities for protests as well. Overall, if an owner receives an exorbitant 2023 tax-assessed valuation, there are many ways to appeal it successfully.
James Johnson is a senior property tax consultant in the Austin, Texas, law firm, Popp Hutcheson PLLC, which focuses 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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  • ​Three key factors can help owners successfully appeal excessive taxes.

Tax Strategies for Net Lease Properties

A guide to effectively challenge and reduce bloated tax valuations.

Nobody enjoys paying property taxes, especially when a property is over-valued. Single-tenant, net-leased properties seem especially prone to inconsistent and unfair assessments.

But challenging those valuations can be exhausting in a time when assessors are fearful and obsessed with the dreaded "Dark Store Theory." They vehemently oppose using sales of vacant properties to value their jurisdiction's store, the one with the full parking lot.

How can the taxpayer shut down the hype and bring the assessor back to the table for a reasonable negotiation? Well, that depends. Here are essential points to consider in forming a protest strategy.

Know Your State's Value Standard

Common sense tells us an appraiser must know what they are valuing before they value it. Yet, the failure to identify the property rights being valued often causes disagreement and confusion in tax appeals. These misunderstandings commonly hinge on the difference between fee-simple and leased-fee value.

The fee-simple estate of an income-producing property is essentially the value of the net income stream based on market-level rents, expenses and other variables. If the property benefits from a long-term, above-market lease, that revenue is irrelevant to the fee-simple value.

Before I finished that last paragraph, my phone rang. The caller was outraged because an assessor revalued his property at its recent purchase price. The property was clearly not worth what the taxpayer paid for it, he said, because the price was based on a net lease.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Before the caller purchased his property, it was exposed to the open market for willing buyers to make offers to the willing seller. The competitive process culminated in an arm's-length sale reflecting market value. How is that not what the property is worth?

That brings us to the second value standard, the leased-fee estate, which is essentially the value of the income stream from the actual lease in place. The caller's purchase price was exactly what the property's leased fee was worth.

So, before getting angry with assessors for relying on leased-fee sales, taxpayers should learn which property rights their state is valuing for taxation. If the state values the leased-fee rather than fee-simple estate, the taxpayer may not have a basis to complain.

Sales Won't Sell It

The "Dark Store Theory" is the term assessors apply to the use of vacant property sales in valuing occupied properties. From an appraisal theory standpoint, only vacant sales are appropriate for valuing the fee-simple interest in a leased property, because sales of leased properties exclude the right of occupancy, an essential right within the fee-simple estate.

This appraisal standard should be a boon to taxpayers challenging inflated assessments on leased properties. It's great to be right, but there's a problem. Using vacant buildings to value occupied buildings is a very tough sell to a tax panel, appeals court or other arbiter. The decision-maker's gut will turn.

Huge tax reductions have been achieved using vacant sales, so it can be done. It is spectacular in the moment, but legislatures and higher judicial bodies are likely to respond negatively. Legal victories that inflame assessors and politicians are not stable long-term solutions.

What About The Cost Approach?

Cost doesn't equal value, but sometimes estimating a newer property's replacement cost less depreciation is a good test of whether an assessment is reasonable. A cost calculation may support a value reduction, so it is worth considering in a protest strategy.

A common problem with the cost approach in net-lease tax appeals is the conspicuous difference between cost-based value conclusions and those based on income or comparable sales. If the property can't be leased or sold at a rate of return that supports its depreciated cost to build, the numbers will not line up, because there is obsolescence to account for. The decision-makers that hear tax cases dislike big obsolescence deductions, especially if the taxpayer quantifies those deductions using vacant property sales.

Many assessors use cost systems for mass appraisal, so understanding how the local system was developed is helpful. Sometimes assessors use base cost data purchased from third-party services and then tweak that information before entering it in their own systems. Tweaks can involve stretching out the useful life of properties in the source data to unreasonable lengths, or bumping default grades used for certain building types from, say, "average" to "good." Little modifications add up and may be solely to increase tax revenue.

Market Rent Is King

In a fee-simple system, a good way to approach a net-lease tax appeal is with the income approach. All net-lease properties are leased, meaning they produce income. It isn't hard for an assessor to convince a decision-maker in a tax case that the property should be valued by capitalizing its income.

The most crucial element of a fee-simple income approach is the market rent. To win a net-lease tax appeal based on income, the taxpayer must prove this one thing.

"But there is no market rent for my property type," the taxpayer says. "What am I supposed to use for rent?"

That's a real issue, because net leases almost always seem to be the product of a build-to-suit or sale-leaseback transaction, with no regard for the local market. So, how can the taxpayer prove market rent?

Go for Broker

Consider this: Commercial real estate brokers are opinionated about their markets. They know rent because it's how they feed their families. They can speak with credibility about the rent a building would command on the open market. Nobody knows market rent better, and they make powerful rebuttal witnesses who keep any off-base testimony by the assessor in check.

A broker can also be a helpful resource for the taxpayer's appraiser. They can point to meaningful, sometimes hidden information.

The combination of an appraiser's formal analysis with a broker's testimony about realistic market rent is potent and convincing evidence in a tax appeal.

Let's Be Reasonable

As the taxpayer's protest strategy takes shape, subject it to the old "reasonable man" standard.

Would a reasonable decision-maker look at the taxpayer's long list of vacant properties, compare it with the subject property that is open and thriving, and feel good about reducing the value?

Would a reasonable decision-maker look at an income approach based on a reasonable expectation of market rent for the subject building and feel good about reducing the value?

Pushing for the former may be zealous advocacy, but appearing unreasonable to both assessor and decision-maker is unhelpful. And even a victory, if it smells like overreaching, risks a legislative response. Resolving a net-lease tax appeal using a reasonable income approach is a superior long-term strategy.

Drew Raines is a shareholder in the Memphis law firm of Evans Petree PC, the Arkansas and Tennessee member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • A guide to effectively challenge and reduce bloated tax valuations.

Tax Implications for Mall Redevelopments

Legal covenants often cause excessive property taxation for mall owners that are looking to redevelop.

Repurposing malls and anchor stores is a popular topic in community development circles, but legal restrictions make redevelopment extremely difficult. Often locked into their original use by covenants, malls and anchor stores are often grossly over-valued for property tax purposes. In pursuing a redevelopment, taxpayers should ensure the properties are fairly assessed and taxed.

Debilitating obsolescence

It is difficult to overstate the plight of malls and anchors. Gone are the halcyon days when the mall was everyone's shopping destination. There is even a website,, devoted to failed malls. Credit ratings of most anchor store operators have fallen below investment grade. Commentators usually blame the retail apocalypse on ecommerce and shifting consumer spending habits.

COVID-19 exacerbated these trends and mall foot traffic has been slow to recover. Some chains, including Neiman Marcus and JCPenney, filed bankruptcy. Ecommerce volume surged in 2020 and 2021 before tapering in 2022. Ecommerce and brick-and-mortar sales have not yet reached an equilibrium.

One in five American malls have fully closed and remain "zombies" without a redevelopment plan, estimates Green Street Advisors, a commercial real estate analytics firm. A December 2022 Wall Street Journal article describing the "long death" of the White Plains Mall noted there is no shortage of dying malls. The article observed that converting enclosed shopping centers to other uses remains a "difficult feat." Repurposing, while much discussed, has not really happened.

The question is why. The answer relates, at least in part, to legal challenges inherent in changing the property's use.

Tied hands

Any property valuation begins with a highest and best use analysis. A basic assumption about real estate directs that the price a buyer will pay reflects that buyer's conclusions about the property's most profitable use. Competitive forces within the local market shape a property's highest and best use, but that use must reflect practical and legal restrictions.

Many people incorrectly assume that governmental requirements pose the only legal restrictions on use. Zoning ordinances may impose barriers, owners of neighboring properties may object to redevelopment proposals, or there may be other hinderances to changing the property's use.

Zoning limitations pale in comparison to restrictions in recorded easements and unrecorded operating agreements between mall owners and anchor department stores. While zoning may permit non-retail uses, private agreements generally do not.

Malls would be economically unfeasible without department stores and inline stores that symbiotically drive traffic to each other. Generally, anchors own their pads and inline tenants lease space from the mall owner. A typical mall is subject to two levels of private restrictions designed in an earlier day to promote the efficient functioning of the mall for retail stores.

Recorded operating restrictions or restrictive easement agreements (REAs) impact the entire mall and its anchors and are generally binding for 40 years or longer. Typically, substantive amendments to the REA require the consent of all parties, and their economic interests are not always aligned.

Unrecorded operating agreements govern the relationship between individual anchors and the mall owner. Terms typically address tenancy, hours of operation, required years of operation under a specified tradename and the size of each anchor and the mall. Operating agreements also generally restrict the size and construction of improvements on the anchor pad and regulate usage.

A simple example involves anchors using stores as a delivery point for ecommerce, a concept known as buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS). Many REAs and operating agreements severely limit implementation of this concept.

But what if the mall's highest and best use is no longer retail? Ecommerce and changed consumer practices undermine the REAs' and operating agreements' ability to ensure the property's success, but those private agreements are understandably focused on preserving retail usage.

The common party to these agreements is the mall owner, making the mall owner the logical purchaser when an anchor looks to sell. The potential economic return on any proposed redevelopment must be sufficient to encourage an entrepreneur to take the redevelopment risk for the mall and/or anchors.

Legal risk escalates the economic risk. For example, owners of some anchor properties seek conversions to multifamily or industrial use as salvation from the retail apocalypse. Even if they overcome zoning objections, attempts to change REAs and unrecorded operating agreement restrictions may require unanimous consent among owners with competing economic interests.

The anchor pad may not even be worth its unimproved land value since its use is restricted under the REAs and operating agreements to retail.

Property tax implications

While mall owners and anchors struggle to remain viable in the changed retail environment, ad valorem property taxes pose an immediate challenge. Most states value property as what a willing buyer would pay to a willing seller, but the pre-ecommerce glory of malls and anchors generally encourage high property tax valuations.

Assessors performing an income-based assessment seldom recognize how anchor chains' plunging credit ratings affect value. The sales-comparison approach is equally challenging, as anchor property transaction volume has plummeted since 2006.

Most sales involve a change to non-retail use and thereby require unanimous consent. Consent is easier to obtain when the new use increases foot traffic to the remaining inline tenants and anchors, but it is easy to envision anchors holding the process hostage in an attempt to force the purchase of their failing stores.

REAs and unrecorded operating covenants make calculation of an anchor's value extremely difficult. They also call into question the comparability of previous transactions to repurpose anchors in the same mall, since those anchors may have agreed to one specific new use but may object to another.

REAs and operating agreements often hamstring mall and anchor redevelopment. Most were signed before ecommerce and did not envision retail losing its vitality. The parties to these covenants often have divergent economic interests and perspectives, and the natural party to lead redevelopment – the mall owner – must overcome these hurdles. In the short term, however, owners should address highest and best use with assessors to reduce property tax burdens until the zombie can be brought back to life.

Morris Ellison is a partner in the Charleston, South Carolina, office of law firm Womble Bond Dickinson(US) LLP, the South Carolina member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

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  • Legal covenants often cause excessive property taxation for mall owners that are looking to redevelop.

Will a Recession Lower Your Property Taxes?

Amid talk of a downturn, Rachel Duck and Nick Machan of Popp Hutcheson PLLC offer some guidance.

As interest rates rise to combat inflation, recessionary pressure is the highest it's been since 2009. Moving into 2023, shifting market conditions have pummeled real estate values, many of which had experienced dramatic upswings during the prior 18 months. With market uncertainty and recessionary conditions bearing down upon them, property owners across the country may hope to see some relief in property tax assessments.

But does a recession equal falling property tax liability? To answer this question, it is essential to understand how a recession could influence assessed values of the various property types.

How Recessions Impact Market Values

During a recession, interest rates typically continue to climb. In commercial real estate, rising debt costs can translate to reduced transaction volume and price contraction as capitalization rates reflect buyers' increased risk. Worsening job markets and weak consumer spending may impact the demand for various property types.

Multifamily tends to be less sensitive than other property types to recessionary market conditions. During downturns, risk-averse individuals tend to prefer rental housing over homeownership. Additionally, inflationary costs can delay multifamily construction and limit supply, which helps avert supply surges that can lead to steep drops in rent and occupancy. To illustrate, while office, industrial, and retail rent fell between 14 percent and 17 percent during the last recession, multifamily rent only declined 8 percent overall.

Retail property responses to a recession vary by type, but market growth rates will likely slow across all types. Brick-and-mortar stores were already facing a potential "retail apocalypse" prior to COVID-19 as consumers increasingly shopped online. Traditional shopping malls could be the most severely impacted retail properties in a recession. Many Class B and C malls already face closure, driving many owners to repurpose them into industrial, multifamily, distribution, and even healthcare space.

Hospitality is among the most vulnerable property types in a recession, and hotel performance has been one of the most volatile over the last few years. Revenues for many properties cratered during the pandemic and some have been slower to recover than others. However, many hotels had recovered to near pre-pandemic levels in 2022, with some year-end 2022 revenues surpassing 2019 levels. Moving into a recession, pent-up leisure demand could help balance out the decline of business travel as businesses cut costs. Perhaps the biggest question marks in predicting the impact of a recession on hotel performance involve business travel volume and hotels' ability to sustain high average daily rates they adopted to increase revenue per available room and combat falling occupancy.

How Do Market Fundamentals Affect Assessed Values?

Assessors in most jurisdictions base assessments on some variation of market value, which is fundamentally the value at which the property would transact on the open market. Assessors weigh cost, income, and sales data to determine their initial valuations. They must, however, also value thousands of properties quickly, and therefore rely on mass appraisal techniques that may omit factors affecting individual properties.

Recessionary market conditions affect all three of the valuation approaches but will vary by property type, geographic area, and individual property metrics. For these reasons, a property owner's first step after receiving their assessments should be to determine whether the valuation is reasonable based on the individual market factors impacting their property as of the valuation date.

Assessors in most jurisdictions must also consider the equity of property values. Many states have laws protecting the equitable value of comparable properties, and assessors are generally intent upon making fair assessments.

Tricky Tax Rates

In addition to assessed value, the second piece of a property owner's tax liability is the tax rate. Should 2023's overall appraisal roll or tax base decline, property owners should not necessarily expect an equivalent decline in their tax liability.

Most taxing entities set their rates separately from, and usually after, assessors' determination of property values. Typically, there is an inverse relationship between a jurisdiction's tax rates and the tax base. If total valuations fall significantly, it is possible—and maybe even likely—that tax rates will rise.

As an example, imagine you own a small apartment building outside of Dallas, Texas. Due to market factors, your property's value fell to $9 million as of the Jan. 1, 2023, valuation date, down 10 percent from $10 million a year earlier. Excited, you prepare to pay a correspondingly 10 percent smaller amount on your 2023 property taxes.

The overall appraisal roll declined as well, however, and your applicable 2023 tax rate increased from 2.4 percent to 2.472 percent as a result. Instead of a 10 percent decrease, your liability shrinks 7.3 percent to $222,480, down from $240,000 the year before.

No one can predict tax rates with certainty, but owners would be wise to budget conservatively for anticipated tax liabilities. A 40 percent decline in revenue may not translate to a 40 percent decline in the assessed property valuation or ultimate tax liability for the tax year ahead. Partnering with an experienced, local property tax advisor can give owners peace of mind as they navigate the shifting market in this tumultuous year.

Rachel Duck is a principal and senior property tax consultant and Nick Machan is a manager and property tax consultant at the Austin, Texas law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC, the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. The firm specializes exclusively in property tax.

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  • Amid talk of a downturn, Rachel Duck and Nick Machan of Popp Hutcheson PLLC offer some guidance.

Property Tax Pitfalls in 'Crane City USA'

Tennessee's appeal process allows Nashville taxpayers to challenge the complicated assessment of new construction.

Over the past decade, Nashville has enjoyed a baffling explosion of growth that sent cranes shooting up all over the city, festooned with developer names like Bell, Clark and Giarratana. Highrise towers of glass and steel rose out of the old rail yards like the emerging monolith in the opening scene of "2001: A Space Odyssey" multiplied in a funhouse mirror.

The Metropolitan Government is eager to add new projects to its tax rolls, and its Assessor of Property decides when and how that happens. The assumptions made by the Assessor's office about a project's cost and timing dictate how quickly and how much a new building is taxed. So, as always, taxpayers need to keep an eye on what the assessor is doing.

The assessor's difficult job has become even more complicated in the post-COVID quagmire of supply chain failures. Twelve-month projects have stretched into 24-month projects, and the assessor's assumptions about completion times have been thrown out of whack. To make matters worse, Tennessee's property tax statutes were not designed to give relief for construction delays or lengthy projects, and the clock is ticking.

New Construction Assessed at Material Cost

The last Davidson County reappraisal was in 2021, and the next will be in 2025. Normally, the assessor's values remain unchanged over the four-year cycle, but new construction is an exception to that rule.

Under the statute for assessing projects under construction, if a new improvement is partially complete on Jan. 1, the assessor is to value the property for that year at land value plus the cost of materials used in the improvement as of that date. This materials-only value favors taxpayers because it excludes labor costs.

The construction documents that are generally accepted as evidence of project costs do not typically segregate labor versus material costs, however. Those costs are most often listed as combined totals, making the exact material costs difficult to determine.

One example from a recently reviewed document described work that included a $279,000 line item for "caulking." Unless labor and materials are both included in that number, that's a heck of a lot of white goop! Rather than demand proof of exact material costs, assessors will sometimes allocate material costs based on a pre-established rule of thumb.

Substantially Complete?

Now for the tricky part. The new construction statute allows assessors to pick up new improvements after Jan. 1, so long as the structure is "substantially complete" prior to Sept. 1 that same year. So, for example, if a building is 50 percent complete at Jan. 1 and 100 percent complete at Sept. 1, the assessor will prorate at the 50 percent value for eight months of the year, and at the 100 percent value for four months of the year. If the improvements are not "substantially complete" by Sept. 1, the assessor must wait to pick up the as-complete value in the following year.

Tennessee has no statutory definition of "substantially complete" for purposes of adding the full value to the tax rolls, but cases make it clear that tenant finish-out and certificates of occupancy are not required. In the absence of simple, objective standards for completion, assessors make subjective judgments about completion that may not favor the taxpayer. Taxpayers can challenge those judgments through an administrative appeal.

Adding Insult to Injury

Under Tennessee law, new improvements may not be valued as incomplete for more than one year after construction began. Now, your immediate reaction might be, "That's ridiculous! How can you value an incomplete property as complete just because it took longer than 12 months to construct!?"

The assessor in Davidson County has taken the position that the statute prevents them from using the taxpayer-favorable, materials-only value in the second year a property is incomplete. They will likely still use the cost approach to determine the appraised value but add back the cost of labor that was taken out in the first year, greatly increasing the tax burden before the property is generating income. The legislature has not acted to provide relief from this further insult to developers already injured by increasingly protracted construction timelines.

The Good News

Tennessee assessors are only authorized to reassess a property at specific times, but taxpayers can appeal the assessor's Jan. 1 value of Nashville property to the Metropolitan Board of Equalization every year. If the assessor issues a prorated assessment for a new construction project later in the year, the taxpayer can appeal that value directly to the State Board of Equalization.

In light of the complexity of Tennessee's law on the assessment of new construction, owners of new projects in Nashville should seek counsel as to whether their assessments are fair and legal and avail themselves of the right to appeal if appropriate.

Drew Raines is a shareholder in the Memphis law firm of Evans Petree PC, the Arkansas and Tennessee member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • ​Tennessee's appeal process allows Nashville taxpayers to challenge the complicated assessment of new construction.

American Property Tax Counsel

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