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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.

Nov
17

Defending Against Tax Jurisdictions’ Attacks on Market Value

Michigan's Menards case offers valuable lessons to help taxpayers get fair property taxation.

While taxpayers typically pay property taxes based upon their property's market value, assessors frequently misapply evidence or even redefine market value to rake in excessive taxes.

The recently resolved Michigan Tax Tribunal case of Menard Inc. vs. City of Escanaba illustrates several of these efforts to collect excessive taxes and suggests arguments a property owner can use to challenge them.

What is market value?

Market value is the price willing, knowledgeable buyers and sellers in an arms-length transaction would agree the property is worth. Market value differs from insurance value or replacement value because it reflects what a typical buyer would pay for a property as it is. Market value also differs from value to the owner, which reflects how a particular property contributes to the owner's business operation.

Appraisers typically determine market value using one or more of three valuation techniques:

The sales comparison approach adjusts sales of similar property to indicate the likely selling price of the subject property. The income approach values property by considering the present value of the income it would likely earn if rented, whether or not it actually is rented. The cost approach values property by considering its cost of replacement, reducing that cost by all forms of depreciation including physical deterioration, functional obsolescence and economic obsolescence. Such depreciation can and should be quantified by data also utilized in the income and sales approaches.

The Tax Jurisdiction's Evidence

The subject property in the Menard case was a big box retail store, larger than most, with a main floor area over 150,000 square feet and with additional accessory space. The owner used the space as part of its multistate retail business operations and as a delivery point for its internet sales. The building was not subject to a lease.

The tax jurisdiction proposed valuing the store using sales of smaller home improvement stores occupied by Lowe's or Home Depot as tenants pursuant to build-to-suit leases. It also sought to use the rental rates in these build-to-suit leases as evidence of market rent. It claimed that the Menards store suffered no material obsolescence, based on evidence drawn from this build-to-suit data.

As the term suggests, tenants under build-to-suit leases have contracted with a developer to build the store to their specifications. The parties set lease terms before construction even starts, calculating the lease rate to cover all construction costs and provide the developer's expected profit. In essence, such leases recover replacement cost even if market value is less than replacement cost.

Taxpayer's counterpoint

The taxpayer successfully argued such evidence did not reflect the market value of Menards' store. The selected sales reflected the value to the owners of using the stores in their specific retail operations. The lease rates were high enough to recover actual construction costs for each property—not what any other retailer would pay to rent a space not built specifically for its business model. This data, virtually by definition, would not indicate obsolescence in the subject property.

When such stores sold, the taxpayer argued, the sales price reflected the value of a lease to a creditworthy tenant that of course was already using the building in its retail operations. Besides generating cash flow designed to recover construction costs, the specific leases were signed during periods of higher interest rates than on the valuation dates, so that by the time of valuation, the leases provided an above-market return on the original building investment. What the tax jurisdiction called sales of comparable buildings were effectively bond sales from one investor to another secured by a retail building.

A buyer of Menards' property, if it sold, would not receive cash flow from a build-to-suit lease. In fact, it would not receive cash flow from any lease. The tax jurisdiction should have either adjusted the sales to remove the effect of above-market leases, or used sales unencumbered by a lease and for which no lease adjustment would be necessary. Some tax jurisdictions derisively call such transactions "dark store" sales, but they are frequently the best evidence of a building's market value. It is the building that is subject to property tax—not the business operating within the building.

Lessons learned from the Tribunal's decision

The tribunal rejected the tax jurisdiction's build-to-suit lease rates and sales with build-to-suit leases in place.Instead, the Tribunal used the taxpayer's proposed lease rates for conventionally leased buildings in the local area.Such lease rates better reflected the market rent a buyer of the subject property could reasonably expect to collect, and therefore best indicated obsolescence suffered by the subject property.

These lessons apply to valuing any type of building. Build-to-suit rents do not reflect market rent-- except by accident. Alleged comparable sales with build-to-suit leases are typically not comparable to a subject property that is owner occupied.

Even if the subject property is already fully leased with a build-to-suit lease, if local law requires use of market rent, the actual rent from the build-to-suit lease could be given far less or no weight. During the Great Recession, in market lease states, even fully occupied buildings at high contract rent had their values reduced because market rents had fallen. Finally, increased e-commerce volume and changing consumer habits may render many existing retail stores oversized. Office buildings and the tenants' current spaces may be oversized due to higher proportions of people working from home or virtually. Oversized buildings in light of current market conditions suffer from obsolescence that must be reflected in market value.

The Michigan Tax Tribunal resolved the Menard case this year after several years of litigation. Perhaps that resolution can now help other taxpayers to recognize unfair assessment practices, and to build stronger cases as they seek fair assessments for their own properties.

Steven P. Schneider is a partner and Tax Appeals Practice Group member in the law firm Honigman LLP, the Michigan member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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  • Michigan’s Menards case offers valuable lessons to help taxpayers get fair property taxation.
Nov
14

How Operators Can Reduce Hotel Property Tax Bills

When the early pandemic sent hotel occupancies plummeting and uncertainty soaring, it also created clear opportunities for many hotel operators to reduce property tax bills by appealing their assessments.

Today, however, it can be difficult to know whether appealing an assessment still makes sense. Record selling prices are being reported on a macro level despite increasing interest rates, rapid inflation and ongoing unpredictability in many markets. This gives taxpayers a potentially confusing array of mixed messages affecting valuation.

Hotel operators should heed the real estate adage that "all properties are unique," a saying that certainly rings true in the current hospitality market. To really understand hotel values, it has become essential to delve into what drives demand at each property.

Value Judgments

I recently heard an appraiser sum up the hotel market recovery as follows: "At the beginning of the pandemic, we thought it was going to take five years [for hotels to recover], but it turned out it was more like two to three," he said. "And if a property isn't recovering by now, then it's probably not going to."

This was, admittedly, an oversimplification, but it seems to reflect the reality in many places.

Laurel Keller, an EVP at of Newmark Valuation & Advisory's gaming and leisure division, observed that the recovery has been uneven across different markets and hotel types. "I've seen a range of recoveries, from midscale hotels that recorded their best top-line revenue and profit margins ever last year, to full-service hotels still performing at levels below pre-pandemic," Keller said. "In most instances, average rate growth has been substantial over the past 18-plus months, though occupancy recovery has been slower."

So, how can an owner or operator know if their hotel is fairly assessed?

For property tax purposes, most states recognize that hospitality properties are operating businesses (also called going concerns) of which real estate is only one value component. The other components are the furniture, fixtures and equipment, and the intangible business value.

To reduce property taxes, an owner must challenge the assessor's property value assessment, and that value pertains only to the real estate component. Failing to prove the proper allocation of overall value among the going concern components can result in an owner paying taxes on non-taxable property.

Two Approaches

There is widespread agreement that a lodging operation carries a business value that must be separated from the real estate to determine taxable property value. However, for the past two decades there has been debate about how to tease out those separate values. This ongoing discussion is dominated by two generally accepted valuation methods. The more conservative of the two assumes that the removal of management and franchise fees from the income stream offsets the hotel's business value. That approach gained favor in many jurisdictions in the early 2000s for its straightforward and simplistic nature.

Several prominent court decisions in recent years have endorsed a more robust analysis, however, to ensure that all non-taxable assets are removed from the real estate assessment. This more detailed approach considers the values associated with intangible items such as a trained workforce, reservation systems and brand goodwill.

One expert witness recently described post-pandemic hotel analysis as "granular," and noted that seemingly minor differences between properties have become more important than ever. As an example, he pointed to two properties in his market with the same flag which would have been considered comparable three years ago, but subtle differences in their locations relative to office submarkets, sporting facilities, and hospitals could now make a big difference in performance and valuation. Despite appearing similar on the surface, each property has unique demand factors.

In a similar vein, an owner of hotels throughout the United States used the term "hyperlocal" to describe property performance in 2022. As an example, the owner cited two upscale hotels about a mile apart from each other in the same submarket, just outside of a large metropolitan area. Pre-pandemic performance at both properties was similar and relatively predictable. Today, the property slightly closer to the airport is thriving while the other struggles to get back to 2019 performance levels.

It also can be difficult to make sense of the news around recent acquisitions. Even as billions of dollars are pouring into the extended-stay sector nationwide, owners in some markets are looking to convert their extended-stay properties to apartments. Similarly, 2022 has seen significant investment in hotels along interstate highways despite indications that occupancy may be starting to decline in that subsector.

"Pandemic recovery has varied widely from property to property and market to market and been far more protracted for some hotel assets," Keller said. "More surprisingly, we are now seeing performance decreases at some hotels that experienced a surge in leisure-oriented travel last year. So, the recovery is ongoing, and perceived rapid recovery at some hotels may have been slightly misleading."

Perhaps the key takeaway from all this is that the reported "recovery" in the industry doesn't equate to a recovery for every hotel.

Just as all properties are unique, all taxing jurisdictions have their own rules and idiosyncrasies. Understanding the intersection between accepted appraisal practices and a jurisdiction's particular laws around the assessment of going concern properties is essential to ascertaining whether a particular hotel is fairly assessed.

Operators seeking assistance in evaluating their property tax assessments should lean toward qualified appraisers and tax counsel with local knowledge, which can help identify opportunities to right-size taxes and articulate the narrative behind each property in question.

Brendan Kelly is a partner in the Pittsburgh office of law firm Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, the Ohio, Illinois and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Oct
25

The Sanctity of Fair and Square Property Taxation

Assessors often need reminding that property owners are entitled to equal, uniform treatment, notes Stephen Grant of Popp Hutcheson PLLC.

Across the country, state constitutions require that property taxes be equally and uniformly assessed. And thank goodness for that.

Without such constitutional guarantees, local taxing authorities would have the unfettered ability to single out individuals, property types, or categories of property owners for taxation by a different standard, possibly taxing them out of existence.

Fairness Trumps Market Value

Generally, taxpayers can challenge their property tax assessments by arguing that the appraised value of their property exceeds its fair market value. However, if a conflict exists between taxation at market value and equal and uniform taxation, equal and uniform taxation must prevail. Various court cases have upheld this principle and underscore its importance. In short, the guarantee of equal and uniform taxation is designed to protect taxpayers and ensure equal treatment of all commercial and residential property owners.

Despite constitutional protections, unequal appraisal by local taxing authorities persists. There are several reasons for this, including data errors and tax officials' willingness to single out recently sold properties to assign value, commonly referred to as "sales chasing."

Tax assessors continue to appraise recently sold property at or near its actual sales price but leave the taxable values of other, similar properties unchanged. A business cannot compete in its respective market if it is being taxed more heavily than its competitors. Compounding the issue, many commercial leases pass through property tax expenses to tenants who ultimately bear the brunt of higher property tax bills.

Further, a property appraised according to the high end of market values may nonetheless be unequally assessed if other comparable properties are valued at the lower end of the market. Over time, the variation created by that practice would result in affected property owners being saddled with higher assessments and potentially higher tax liabilities than similarly situated properties. At the minimum, this practice raises a question of whether properties within a taxing district are being taxed to an equal and uniform standard.

Taxpayer Recourse

When one parcel is unequally appraised compared to similar properties, what recourse do taxpayers have to ensure equitable taxation?

While most state constitutions require that taxation be equal and uniform, only a few states have adopted a statutory remedy to accomplish that goal. Where available, the statutory unequal appraisal provision permits taxpayers to appeal or protest when an assessor has appraised their property using a different standard than those used for other properties. Accordingly, a property owner can seek relief if their property was treated differently from other properties in the same tax base, even when their appraised value does not exceed fair market value.

Texas has what may be the most robust statutory unequal appraisal remedy in the country. The provision states that a property shall be valued for property taxes based upon the median level of appraisal of a reasonable number of comparable properties, appropriately adjusted.

When selecting comparable properties, it is important to consider several factors, including but not limited to the properties' use, competitive set, neighborhood, and size. While the Texas statute does not define what a "reasonable number" of comparable properties is, consideration should be given to the quality and number of comparable properties used.

After selecting a reasonable number of comparable properties, adjustments are then made to the appraised values of the comparable properties to put them on equal footing. The adjustments account for differences between the selected comparable properties and the subject property, such as location, age, and size. When determining what adjustments to make, the focus should be on elements that directly affect the properties' value.

The final step is to compare the median adjusted value per square foot of the comparable properties and see how they correlate to the subject property. If the subject property has a higher value per square foot than the calculated median, then there is an equity issue.

Fair Fights

The equal and uniform remedy serves as a helpful tool for taxpayers when challenging their property's assessed value. For instance, disputing a property's market value may not be viable in some situations, and a taxpayer's only recourse may be to argue that their property has been unequally appraised.

For example, a hypothetical taxpayer purchased a 300,000-square-foot, Class-A office building for $55 million during the prior tax year. The appraisal district subsequently assessed the building for property tax purposes based upon the purchase price, despite assessing other Class-A office buildings of similar size and location at a lower price per square foot.

By engaging in sales chasing, the appraisal district has unfairly appraised the subject property in relation to its competitors. However, if the state had adopted an equal and uniform remedy, then the taxpayer could challenge the property's value on the grounds that it was unequally appraised even if the assessor deemed the sales price to be fair market value for property tax purposes.

Challenging tax values on an equal and uniform basis is an effective remedy. It addresses the practice of sales chasing, counters assessors' tendency to use high sales prices to raise property taxes across an entire market and offers a coherent alternative to simply arguing that an assessment is excessive.

The unequal appraisal remedy is a readily accessible argument, particularly for homeowners, because it provides taxpayers with a more straightforward option than a market value appeal. It enables taxpayers to forego the high cost of procuring expert appraisers by allowing them to instead build an argument by identifying a representative sample of similar properties from the appraisal district's own website.

In sum, if your state has an equal and uniform remedy—use it. If your state does not have an equal and uniform remedy, consider urging lawmakers to adopt one in your state.

Stephen Grant is an associate at the Austin, Texas, law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC. Popp Hutcheson focuses its practice 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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  • ​Assessors often need reminding that property owners are entitled to equal, uniform treatment, notes Stephen Grant of Popp Hutcheson PLLC.
Sep
13

Seniors Housing Needs Long-Term Tax Care

Follow these steps to stop excessive property tax assessments.

In a nation that has faced a host of new challenges since the pandemic began, the seniors housing sector has carried one of the heaviest burdens. COVID-19-related mortality risk for those 85 years old or older is 330 times higher than for those 18 to 29 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Notwithstanding those odds, 51% of all seniors housing properties including independent care, assisted living and skilled nursing reported zero deaths from COVID-19. Yet the industry continues to grapple with increased costs, worker burnout, hiring challenges and occupancy issues that have ravaged their operations.

Like a vaccine that stimulates a stronger immune response, hard times can spur organizations to boost efficiency and fortify themselves against other threats, such as inflation. In this vein, seniors housing owners must identify ways to turn their troubles into positive influences.

As the industry seeks to allocate money from areas that don't compromise care, property tax strategy should be near the top of their lists for potential savings. Moreover, reduced taxes tend to have a long-term impact. When assessments are low, they tend to stay low, which may serve to insulate the industry from the impacts of inflation.

How to reduce property tax liability

Obtaining those property tax savings is not easy, however. Although it seems apparent that the industry has suffered, taxpayers that want a reduction in taxes must prove their property has lost value; they cannot rely on the good will of assessors to adjust the assessment.

Taxpayers must look at their tax challenges in a way that reflects the impact to the business. That said, assessors will want to concentrate on real estate value irrespective of the business. Many will reference sales of properties that were priced on the value of contractual leases to the operator, or assessors may look at the income to the owner based on contract rents. Taxpayers need well-documented arguments to counter these positions.

While separating the real property value from the business value, real estate assessments must also consider the negative effect that a struggling business exerts on the real estate.

Taxpayers can follow a three-step financial feasibility study to help prove the need for an assessment reduction.

1. Determine the net operating income (NOI) under COVID-19 and its legacy. It is important to document the new costs necessary to safeguard and serve residents in this new environment.

2. Separate income associated with services from real estate income. Be sure to remove from income any governmental stimulus that will not be ongoing.

3. Finally, use the resulting real estate NOI to show the effects of that income stream on real estate value.

Step 2 is critical, and it must start with the business. Conduct a forward-looking income analysis that includes all increased costs, from the added costs of employing and motivating a weary workforce to inflation and expenses associated with new health standards.

After documenting the new NOI from the independent living, assisted living, or skilled nursing operation, determine whether that income is sufficient to justify the business. Taxpayers can do this by applying a return to the cost of services. The expenses that are separate from normal real estate operations are associated with the service side of the business, and those outlays are expected to generate sufficient income to create a return on that investment. Remove the return from the overall net operating income, thus separating the income from business and real estate. The result is NOI that reflects more closely that of the real estate.

Perform a similar analysis to determine whether the net income attributable to real estate is sufficient to justify the real estate cost. It is important to remind the assessor that the operating business can only pay rent if there is money available, even if that rent is just a figure used in a formula to determine real estate value. At this point, the taxpayer can apply a capitalization rate to the net real estate income to arrive at the real estate value.

Apply to other valuation approaches

The financial feasibility study described above will also help taxpayers and assessors determine how to adjust the cost approach to valuing real estate. Likewise, the analysis can inform adjustments to comparable sales data. Indeed, that initial financial feasibility will help in all aspects of the tax challenge and should be well documented.

Assessors are not all-knowing, so unless the taxpayer shows them a good reason to change approaches, they will work with their normal procedures. Often, assessors look to the property's construction cost (less physical depreciation based on age), sales of similar properties and/or the income generated from contract rents to determine an assessed value.

Without an initial feasibility analysis, an assessor may focus on construction costs without regard to whether the property's use will justify those costs. Or they may use contract rents for the subject property or competing properties, either of which were likely established with pre-pandemic metrics.

Simplistic shortcuts, such as assuming a percentage of the total net income that should be attributable to business and the other to real estate, are not ideal and may lead to inflated values of taxpayers' properties.

In theory, there should be a greater impact on the value of those properties that require more service. But because of the variations between properties and nuances of seniors housing types, a fresh look is needed for all of them.

A good starting position for the taxpayer is to ask, "what would we pay to acquire the property, knowing what we know today?" Comparisons to sales of other properties are more complicated than in the past and should be adjusted with an eye toward the feasibility analysis. Properties that cannot achieve sufficient occupancy and income to justify operation are not directly comparable to optimally occupied properties.

There are states where a reduction in the assessment may carry forward indefinitely. Approaching assessed value with a strong team will pay dividends for years. Conversely, an approach that is not well thought out will make future attempts to reduce taxes more difficult. But by taking the proper steps, a taxpayer can position themselves to drive the best result and be able to provide the service and living standards that our most vulnerable residents deserve.

J. Kieran Jennings is a partner in the law firm of Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, the Ohio, Illinois and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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  • Follow these steps to stop excessive property tax assessments.
Sep
12

Net-Lease Tenants Can Appeal Property Taxes

New York Court of Appeals rejects lower court decision, affirms that occupiers obligated to pay property tax have the right to protest assessments.

In a far-reaching decision, New York's highest court has affirmed the rights of tenants under a commercial net lease to protest assessments and reduce their real property tax burden. The ruling reversed a State Supreme Court dismissal of a petition on the grounds that only a property's owner can file an administrative grievance with the Board of Assessment Review.

In a net lease, the tenant is responsible for paying real estate taxes and other expenses stated in the lease. In The Matter of DCH Auto vs. Town of Mamaroneck, the Court of Appeals in June 2022 published a unanimous decision stating that tenants contractually obligated to pay real estate taxes and authorized to protest assessments may file tax appeals even when they do not hold title to the underlying real estate.

Restoring a precedent

DCH Auto operated a car dealership in a net leased property in Mamaroneck, New York. Its lease with the owner required DCH to pay the property's real estate taxes in addition to rent.

Commercial tenants with this type of lease commonly file tax appeals to correct excessive tax bills and mitigate operating costs. These occupiers include retailers such as department and big-box stores, office building users, banks, drug stores and other businesses.

In the subject lease, DCH had the express right to challenge the subject tax assessment. Pursuant to the statute, it filed an administrative grievance with the town's Board of Assessment Review. The Board denied the challenge, after which DCH petitioned for judicial review.

The town moved to dismiss, arguing that the petition was invalid because the incorrect party had filed the administrative grievance before the Board of Assessment Review. They alleged that the failure of the property owner to file the administrative appeal precluded judicial review of the board's determination.

The lower court agreed and dismissed the petitions on the ground that only a fee owner may file the initial grievance complaints under the New York statutory scheme. The State Supreme Court's Appellate Division, Second Judicial Department, affirmed the petition's dismissal.

Thus, in one fell swoop, the Appellate Division obliterated over 100 years of precedent, which held that a net lessee that pays the real estate taxes is a proper party to file an administrative complaint challenging the assessment. Prior to the DCH lower court decision, it was never disputed that a net lessee was a proper complainant for filing both an administrative complaint and judicial petition. The lower court's ruling effectively required absentee property owners – who do not pay the real estate taxes and have no skin in the game – to file an administrative appeal before a net lessee can file a judicial petition.

The Appellate Division decision placed in jeopardy thousands of real estate tax assessment appeals filed by commercial net lessees who have relied upon common, accepted practice and precedent, and interposed an owner standard where none is present in the plain terms of the relevant statutes.

Fortunately, the Court of Appeals reversed the lower court's decision.

Who's who?

The case turned on statutory interpretation and analysis of legislative intent. At issue was Section 524(3) of the New York Real Property Tax Law (RPTL), which sets forth the process for the review of real property tax assessments. The provision specifies that an administrative complaint must be made by "the person whose property is assessed." If a complaint is denied, then "any person claiming to be aggrieved" can file a judicial appeal pursuant to Article 7 of the RPTL.

The Town of Mamaroneck's position was that the property owner must file the administrative complaint before any aggrieved person can challenge the result in court.

The Court of Appeals held that DCH and all commercial net lessees with the right to challenge assessments are included within the meaning of "the person whose property is assessed" under RPTL Section 524(3).

In its decision, the Court of Appeals considered the text of the statute and noted that "a person whose property is assessed" is not defined. A comprehensive review of the legislative history ensued, beginning with an analysis of the initial text of the statute as it existed prior to 1896. The original statute permitted "any person" to file an administrative complaint. In 1896, lawmakers amended the wording to "a person whose property is assessed." The Court examined the record, cited the New York State Commissioners of Statutory Revision that addressed the change in 1896, and noted that "there is no change of substance" with the revised wording.

In reversing the lower court's action, the Court of Appeals based its decision upon the evolution of the statutory text and the consideration of the underlying legislative intent. The Court made clear that it was not the legislature's intent to limit the meaning of "a person whose property is assessed" to the owners of real property, and that the reference includes net lessees contractually obligated to pay the real estate taxes.

Notwithstanding the DCH decision, commercial net lessees should ensure their tax appeals are not challenged by making certain that their right to file a tax appeal is clearly stated in their lease.

Jason M. Penighetti is an attorney at the Mineola, N.Y., law firm of Koeppel Martone & Leistman LLC, the New York State member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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  • New York Court of Appeals rejects lower court decision, affirms that occupiers obligated to pay property tax have the right to protest assessments.
Sep
07

John Stark: Obtain Fair Property Tax Assessments for Student Housing

Student housing valuation is often saddled by two common units of comparison that multiply the opportunities for confusion and disagreement in appraising value for property taxation. For a more convincing property tax appeal, it is important for the taxpayer to ensure their property's valuations line up on both a per-square-foot and a per-bed basis.

This article will discuss the importance of a proper unit mix and rent roll analysis to reconcile values between these units of comparison. We will also discuss current trends in student housing, including free services and concessions designed to boost occupancy, that should be accounted for in an income analysis to make sure appraisal districts do not overvalue the real estate.

Price Per Square Foot vs. Price Per Bed

Although student housing owners typically lease their properties by the bed and calculate investment value by that metric, many appraisal districts value student housing on a price per-square-foot basis. This can lead to errors in an assessor's potential gross income assumptions. Further exacerbating overvaluations, many appraisal districts do not distinguish lease-per-bed student housing from traditional, lease-per-unit multifamily apartments. This failure to differentiate leads to erroneous assumptions of market rents and cap rates.

Student housing properties often have different rental rates and occupancy rates for various lease tiers. One-bedroom units, for example, typically garner the highest rents; the more beds in a unit, the lower the per-bed rental rate is likely to be. These variations make it imperative that an assessment accounts for occupancy in relation to the lease tiers in which those occupancies or vacancies occur. In reviewing an assessment or building a case for revaluation, make sure the more expensive, one-bedroom rental rates are not grossed up against cheaper, four-bedroom vacancy rates.

The taxpayer can factor rental rates and occupancy by unit type into mirrored, weighted-average analyses to establish two parallel income calculations with matching indications of value. Showing a similar value result on both a per-square-foot basis and on a per-bed basis makes for a persuasive property tax appeal.

Other Income and Intangibles

Within these mirrored, weighted-average analyses, it is also important to consider other income and any intangible property that may not belong in the calculation of taxable real estate income. Market definitions may vary by jurisdiction, so be sure to follow local practices in determining what income is attributable to the real estate.

Common examples of other income and intangibles include free internet, valet trash collection, utility allowances, pet fees, free shuttle service to campus, meal plans, premiums for unit add-ons (view, balcony, high floor), in-unit washer/dryer vs. appliances rental fees, furnished units, and free vs. paid parking. There are sure to be other examples of "freebies" and "perks" that a property provides to entice occupancy.

Because many assessors will include an assumed 8 percent to 12 percent of other income on top of the potential gross income gleaned from the rent roll and income statement, it is easy for an assessor to accidentally double dip on other income or accidentally include as taxable some intangibles baked into the achieved or scheduled rent.

Likewise, when performing a comparative analysis or determining market rents, it is also important to adjust for these sources of other income and intangibles. Not every competing property within the same market will offer an identical set of perks, amenities, or concessions to drive up occupancy.

Market Trends

Since COVID-19 and the return to campus, many student housing properties are providing substantial concessions to stabilize occupancy. At some properties, these concessions equate to as much as 25 percent of potential gross income for the 2022/2023 academic year.

It is hard to know whether this trend will continue in coming academic years, but it is important to realize that many assessors do not automatically adjust for concessions when using asking rents in their calculations of potential gross income. When discussing the property with an assessor, be sure to distinguish between asking rents (often labeled "market rents" on a rent roll) and actual achieved or scheduled rents after concessions.

Because assessors frequently lump together student housing with traditional multifamily properties in their market surveys, they often use cap rates driven by traditional, multifamily transactions when they value student housing. Given that student housing cap rates are typically 50 to 100 basis points higher than conventional multifamily cap rates, it is important to make sure assessors are using appropriate cap rates in their analyses.

When preparing property tax appeals for student housing properties, it is important to keep in mind how much these properties differ from traditional multifamily real estate. The differences in leasing structure, units of comparison, higher rates of other income, numerous intangibles, required concessions and higher cap rates all contribute to a unique model that is distinct from traditional multifamily apartments.

Providing a reconciled approach that combines price per square foot with price per bed is a great place to start discussions with the assessor and to make sure you are talking "apples-to-apples." Additionally, differentiating asking/market rents from achieved/scheduled rents – while adjusting for intangibles, other income, and concessions – will smooth out most differences with the assessor's income-based assessment.

John Stark is a tax consultant at the Austin, Texas-based law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC, which focuses its practice on property tax disputes. The firm is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Aug
30

New Legislation, Programs Incentivize Affordable Housing Developers

Owners who understand the nuances of tax incentives, abatements and exemptions can gain an upper hand in reducing their property taxes.

The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) has long been a key device in the affordable housing tool chest. Although it has been the primary source of financing for the construction and preservation of affordable housing, the tax credit has not allowed the vast expansion of affordable housing development
that many communities need to keep up with rapidly growing demand.

With rents and materials costs rising amid rapid U.S. inflation, cities and rural areas alike need more resources to help keep many Americans in quality affordable housing.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, only two states (West Virginia and Arkansas) have housing costs that put a two-bedroom rental within the reach of a fulltime worker earning less than $15 per hour.

The recent spike in residential real estate prices and now increasing interest rates are forcing more potential home buyers to rent. This has left fewer units available, which drives up rents and further reduces the supply of affordable housing throughout the country. As of April 2022, more than half of U.S. consumers were living paycheck to paycheck, reports financial services company LendingClub.  

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and the U.S. Census Bureau, the national median rent increased more than 145 percent from 1985 to 2020, while median income increased by only 35 percent.

Clearly, more needs to be done to assist developers in the construction of affordable housing. Fortunately, many cities and states are implementing new legislation and programs that will directly assist developers who expand the affordable housing market.

State, Local Initiatives
Texas — In Austin, Affordability Unlocked is a development bonus program that waives or modifies some development restrictions in exchange for providing affordable housing.

In return for setting aside half of a development's total units as affordable, developers can receive increased height and density limits, parking and compatibility waivers and reductions in minimum lot sizes for the project.

The program is designed to increase the number of affordable housing units developed in Austin and to fully leverage public resources by allowing housing providers to build more units in developments that include significant amounts of affordable housing.

Washington, D.C. — Tax abatements for affordable housing are available that provide a reduction equivalent to 75 percent of the difference between the property tax owed before and after development. To be eligible, at least 5 percent of the units in the development must be reserved for low-income households, and an additional 10 percent of units must be reserved for households earning up to 60 percent of area median income (AMI).

The tax abatement is good for 10 years. The affordability requirements apply for at least 20 years, with a $10,000 penalty per year for each unit that does not meet income set-aside requirements during the final 10 years.

Illinois — In 2021, Illinois enacted legislation to develop and coordinate public and private resources targeted to meet the affordable housing needs of low-income and very low-income residents. The act applies to all counties within the state and allows each county to administer the applications for the property tax incentive.

In Cook County, for example, property owners with seven or more multifamily units may apply for the Affordable Housing Incentive, if they can prove a set of conditions that would qualify the property for one of three tiers of relief.

For example, an applicant with a pre-existing building that has spent more than $8 per square foot on rehabilitation of major building systems and has at least 15 percent of the units available at or below 60 percent of AMI qualifies for the "15 Percent Tier" incentive.

Major building systems include heating and cooling, electricity, windows, elevators and more. This incentive will reduce the property tax assessment by 25 percent for 10 years and can be renewed for two consecutive terms.

New York — Although state lawmakers allowed New York's longstanding 421a abatement to expire in June 2022, some property owners can still qualify for relief under the New 421a Program. The New 421a is available to projects that began construction between Jan. 1, 2016, and June 15, 2022, and will be completed on or before June 15, 2026.

Projects that commenced construction on or before Dec. 31, 2015, also may opt into the new program if they are not currently receiving 421a benefits. Applications must be filed within one year after completion, and construction benefits would be retroactive.

Benefits of the New York program include a construction period tax exemption of up to three years, plus post-construction exemptions of 10 years (two years full, plus an eight-year phase-out period); 15 years (11 years full, plus a four-year phaseout); 20 years (12 years full, plus an eight-year phaseout); or 25 years (21 years full, plus a four-year phaseout).

In post-construction periods, qualifying properties are exempt from the increase in real estate taxes resulting from the work. The length of benefits depends on location, commencement of construction and affordability within the project.

All market-rate rental units become subject to rent stabilization for the duration of the benefits, with initial rents approved by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Affordable rental units are rent stabilized for 35 years.

Massachusetts — Multifamily property owners can claim a tax exemption for any portion of the property used for affordable housing purposes. The exemption is calculated by multiplying the amount of tax ordinarily due by the percentage of floor area set aside for affordable housing purposes.

The exemption is granted on a year-to-year basis for units serving households earning up to 80 percent of AMI, and the local board of assessors reviews tenants' income information to confirm eligibility. Because the exemption is granted on a year-to-year basis, there is no long-term affordability requirement.

Oregon — The Multiple-Unit Limited Tax Exemption Program requires that at least 20 percent of rental units be affordable to households earning 60 percent of AMI,or 80 percent of median family income in high-cost areas, for the 10-year term of the exemption.

Hundreds of programs throughout the country offer tax credits, abatements or other incentives. In markets that are happy to assist willing partners in providing affordable rental housing for their communities, developers can gain an upper hand by learning to fully understand and navigate the application process.

Molly Phelan is a partner in the Chicago office of the law firm of Siegel Jennings Co. L.P.A., the Ohio, Illinois and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC) , the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Owners who understand the nuances of tax incentives, abatements and exemptions can gain an upper hand in reducing their property taxes.
Jul
27

New Jersey Tax Court Supports Taxpayers’ Rights

A New Jersey township learns that tax courts don't always buy into theoretical constructs.

Our tax courts live in a hypothetical world where they review property tax assessments in a theoretical manner to mimic the actual marketplace. Often municipal officials use this paradigm to distort concepts and achieve high values that cannot be realized in the market. The case of CIBA Specialty Chemical Corp. vs. Township of Toms River highlighted this dichotomy.

The subject property is an industrially zoned, 1,211-acre former chemical plant in Toms River, New Jersey. The plant produced industrial dyes and resins for over 40 years. Unfortunately, the manufacturing process also created significant industrial waste that was treated and disposed of on site, significantly contaminating the soil and groundwater.

The environmental contamination was so severe and pervasive that the entire property was designated a Superfund Site and was placed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (USEPA) National Priorities List in 1983.

Commercial operations at the site ceased in 1996, but environmental remediation work has been both active and ongoing. The controversial nature and extent of the contamination has embroiled the property and township in public controversy, federal criminal prosecution, and a number of civil lawsuits initiated by both public entities and private citizens.

Further complicating matters, the subject property is in a protected coastal zone adjacent to a tributary known as Toms River. This added layer of government oversight by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection serves to safeguard sensitive coastal areas and endangered species from overdevelopment. When put into practice at the subject property, these regulations either completely prohibit or severely restrict redevelopment activity on most of the property.

Any proposed redevelopment at the property would require the prospective developer to navigate this labyrinth of federal and state regulations, obtain consent and cooperation from a number of federal and state agencies, and garner support from the local municipality and public interest groups to avoid politicization of the zoning and planning processes at all levels.

Undaunted by these regulatory restrictions, the town asserted that not only could the property be developed, but that numerous residential housing units could be constructed on the site despite the current zoning or the pervasive contamination. And, of course, the town sought to tax the property on its potential residential value.

It was undisputed that the USEPA was the primary regulatory authority from whom a market participant would have had to obtain approval before attempting to redevelop any portion of the site. The town's own expert conceded this fact. The USEPA has total control over the property while remediation is taking place and will reject any proposal it believes may interfere with selected remedial action, or that would lack public support.

Despite overwhelming evidence that USEPA regulations would prohibit any development, that the zoning didn't allow residential construction, and that the public opposed the site's redevelopment, the town was undeterred. Its leaders argued that high-density housing could have been developed on the property with a rezoning, justifying its revaluation as residential rather than industrial real estate.

The frequent use of hypothetical scenarios encourages assessors to fly far from the reality of the marketplace to justify otherwise unsupportable assessments and increased tax burdens. Finding comfort in this hypothetical world, the town appealed to the perceived taxing-authority bias of the New Jersey Tax Court.

To create their hypothetical world in court, the town redefined key words in the USEPA regulations to establish results that were completely inappropriate for a rational reading of the rules. They stretched logic and applied to the subject property actions that USEPA had taken at other Superfund Sites. In doing so, they assumed that all contaminated sites can be treated the same, and that the case workers at this site will make decisions based on events at other remote Superfund sites, rather than basing decisions on the facts related to the subject property.

The town contrived its self-serving arguments to satisfy an outrageous assessment. It is all too often that the hypothetical nature of the court's standards and the theatrical nature of appraisal theory invite the clear distortion of marketplace reality.

The only saving grace in the system is that the courts assigned to decide these cases are trusted to end the nonsense and craft a decision based on fact and actual dealings. That does not always happen, but here, it did. In a detailed and thorough decision, the court summarized the overwhelming data that proved the taxpayer's case.

The court concluded that the entirety of 1,211 acres was development-prohibited, due to its status as an active Superfund Site and USEPA's ongoing institutional controls. The USEPA's oversite documents, which are legally enforceable and filed with the county clerk, restrict any development at the property unless the USEPA approves, or the site is partially or fully delisted as a Superfund site.

Reality finally hit home for the municipality when it was compelled to refund the taxpayer over $18 million.

These types of rulings in taxpayers' favor are rare. Nonetheless, taxpayers must continue to press courts to recognize market reality. It is not the courts' job to protect the municipal tax base.

Brian A. Fowler, Esq.
Philip Giannuario, Esq.
Philip Giannuario and Brian A. Fowler are partners at the Montclair, New Jersey, law firm Garippa Lotz & Giannuario, the New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • A New Jersey township learns that tax courts don't always buy into theoretical constructs.
Jul
16

Minimize Taxation of Medical Office Buildings

Nuances of ownership and operations can reduce or eliminate ad valorem liability for property owners.

How municipalities and counties tax medical real estate can vary by modes of ownership, location and how a property affects the local economy. Much, however, depends on each taxing entity's goals and its degree of interest in attracting hospitals, creating medical hubs, enlarging commercial areas or encouraging excellent health care locally.

A typical approach to achieving some or all of these goals is for local government to control the property. This can be through outright ownership, where the facilities are leased out. Governments can also create an economic zone and issue bonds to finance the area's development. Each of these methods poses property tax issues.

In a direct ownership scenario, the government owner is exempt from taxation. The operating and management company that leases the property has tax liability for its going concern, however. That going concern has untaxed intangible value, but also will have onsite assets such as medical equipment that can be taxed under standard code approaches at fair market value. They can also be taxed under a modified fair market value, which is a common incentive designed to entice investment by medical businesses.

If the local government chooses a development-bond approach, it will create a development district entity to issue bonds, with proceeds from bond sales paying for construction of the hospital or other facility. A private entity would lease the facilities under the cost of the bonds, with lease payments going toward retiring the bonds. Lease provisions would set out agreed-upon valuations for property tax purposes. These valuations can be flat or adjusted over time. Once the bonds are paid off, the terms of the lease can be extended or modified.

After using one of these favorable property tax techniques to establish a footprint for a healthcare district, development or zone, the governmental body may widen its impact by offering lower taxes within the area. These adjustments would favor medical facilities that support hospitals or medical practices nearby.

For example, a community could use tax breaks to encourage construction of medical office buildings. If the economic district includes other buildings that would be useful to the healthcare industry, it can offer similar tax incentives to encourage development and use of those facilities. Likewise, such incentives can be used for standalone facilities within the economic district.

For governments that do not envision a medical district but want to foster broader access to healthcare providers, tax policy can create special tax methods without uniformity restrictions. This would encourage small medical investments throughout the community. Examples would include free-standing treatment facilities such as "doc in a box" walk-in clinics, urgent care facilities and small medical office buildings.

Strategies for tax exemption

In Georgia, hospitals can be owned in a couple of ways to avoid taxation. First, the government can own the hospital and lease it to a non-profit manager or operator. So long as the lessee remains a non-profit, the real property is tax exempt. If the leasehold transfers to a for-profit entity, the tax exemption disappears and the management or operational entity becomes responsible for the property tax.

Second, the local government can create an economic development zone using bonds. Within any leaseholds created by the bond issuer, property tax responsibility can be addressed by contract. This can range from zero liability to points on a sliding scale, and will usually correlate to the gradual elimination of the bonds.

Another scenario involves an exempt property that is then acquired by a for-profit operator. In Michigan and Georgia, such a transfer will void the tax exemption, subjecting the facility to full taxation at fair market value. A question remains about a retransfer of the operations to a non-profit, which may or may not restore the tax exemption. In Minnesota and Kansas, the ownership is through the government but the facility must be operated as a non-profit.

In some jurisdictions hospitals can be a taxing authority. In Texas and Iowa, rural hospital districts can levy a component of the property tax millage rate. The hospital district then uses that portion of the millage rate to pay part of its operating expense. This allows rural hospitals to maintain their operations by spreading costs throughout the community, rather than to the users of the system. In recent years states have tended to reduce property taxes overall, which has squeezed revenue for rural health systems in states that allow hospitals to participate in taxation.

Personal property, which is movable property such as medical equipment, can be treated in different ways. If the operation is a non-profit, the personal taxes are exempt. Liability is more complicated if the owner of the personal property is a for-profit entity operating within an exempt property; in such instances the personal tax rates apply.

On the other hand, a non-profit may operate within a taxable medical office building, in which case the personal property is still exempt. In fact, a building may have multiple tenants, some of which are non-profits and some of which are for-profit. In such a scenario, each business would have to be examined to determine whether personal tax exemptions apply.

Brian J. Morrissey is a partner in the Atlanta law firm of Ragsdale Beals Seigler Patterson & Gray LLP, the Georgia member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Nuances of ownership and operations can reduce or eliminate ad valorem liability for property owners.
May
04

Three Keys to Protesting Retail Property Tax Assessments

Shopping center owners need to be especially vigilant regarding unfair taxation in 2022.

Property owners should expect to receive a Notice of Appraised Value from their appraisal district by mid-April. This year it is imperative that retail property owners submit an assessment protest prior to the deadline and help to establish fair taxable valuations in the post-pandemic marketplace.

Since March of 2020, COVID-19 has brought uncertainty and ongoing challenges to real estate owners. People often discuss the commercial real estate "winners and losers" of COVID-19, and of the four commercial real estate food groups, retail certainly suffered one of the heaviest initial blows. But how has the property type recovered as the pandemic has evolved? This article explores where exactly retail falls, and then offers strategies to argue more effectively for reduced assessments.

Evolving trends

To develop a full picture of the current state of shopping centers, one must look back to 2019 and early 2020 before the pandemic. In 2018, approximately 5,800 retail stores closed nationwide and only 3,200 opened, for an overall deficit of 2,600 locations. In 2019, the size of the annual store deficit nearly doubled with 5,000 more closures than openings. Ecommerce sales volume rose steadily from 2010 through 2019, which, coupled with accelerating physical store closures, clearly indicate a slowdown in the need for traditional storefronts.

In 2021, county assessors were generally conservative in raising values, primarily due to pandemic-related issues such as tenants going out of business and owners being forced to defer and abate rent. Additionally, shopping center transaction volume dropped throughout 2020, which forced appraisal districts to rely on limited data to arrive at market rents and capitalization rates for their 2021 models.

County appraisal districts preparing assessments for 2022 will most likely attempt to significantly raise taxable values to reflect what they view as a retail rebound that occurred during 2021. While assessors may conclude that retail is recovering well as the pandemic evolves, the data and overall trends fail to support that position.

If an appraisal district takes an aggressive stance in raising values, citing the "booming return of in-person retail shopping," it will be crucial for appellants to show the lingering state of uncertainty in the retail real estate market. Toward that end, the following three strategies will be keys to successfully arguing for reduced assessments.

1. Consider the tenant mix. When appealing taxable assessed values, either during the administrative process or later in district court, property owners must consider the tenant mix of their shopping centers and how the pandemic affected their retailers.

For instance, a center containing a drycleaner and a trampoline park will take much longer for those tenants to recover from the pandemic than many other properties. With work-from-home becoming the norm, many people no longer need pressed clothes. In addition, ball pits and trampolines crowded with children fail to appeal to a pandemic-conscious society. These trends are reflected in rents, with rates for specific uses such as these flattening or even declining since the onset of the pandemic.

2. Review the property's classification. The second strategy for appealing values is to review how the property is classified on the tax rolls. As many owners begin to utilize space in alternative ways, the center may no longer be operating entirely as a retail center. In other words, it may be more appropriate for it to receive either a light industrial or fulfillment center classification.

Amazon, for example, has been converting shopping malls into last-mile distribution centers steadily for the past six years. Amazon converted about 25 shopping malls into distribution centers between 2016 and 2019, Coresight Research reported. Converting stores to distribution spaces in a shopping center will drastically reduce foot traffic for any remaining retail tenants and negatively affect the customer experience, resulting in a lack of desirability for retail investors.

3. Demonstrate shrinking retailer footprints. It is no secret that consumer visits to physical retail locations is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels. Black Friday foot traffic in 2021, for instance, was down approximately 28 percent from 2019 levels, according to Sensormatic Solutions data. While in-person shopping will likely remain an element of the retail experience, there is a lingering sense of uncertainty surrounding its significance, especially with the strong adoption of curbside pickup.

Some major retailers have addressed this issue by downsizing stores. Target stores, for example, have historically averaged 130,000 square feet, but of the 30 stores the brand opened in 2020, all but one used a smaller format, according to pymnts.com. These small-format and college campus stores average 40,000 square feet, while some are much smaller.

It is reasonable to suspect that other retailers will follow suit, rendering many larger, anchor spaces within shopping centers obsolete and harder to fill with tenants. As the tide shifts to a "less is more" philosophy when it comes to store footprints, both appraisal districts and taxpayers should incorporate this increased risk into value calculations by raising cap rates in their models. Not only do shrinking store footprints and conversion of space to distribution uses bring an increased level of uncertainty to the asset class, but last-mile distribution centers also fail to command retail rents.

When shopping center owners receive assessed values for property taxation in the coming months, they should compare the assessments to values received in prior years, especially 2019. If the valuation trend of a particular property fails to make sense – either due to the overall uncertainty and risk surrounding brick-and-mortar retail or due to property-specific issues such as tenant mix and use of space – it will be extremely important for the taxpayer to act by protesting the property's taxable assessed value. 

Sam Woolsey is a property tax consultant at Austin, Texas, law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC., which focuses its practice on property tax disputes and is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Shopping center owners need to be especially vigilant regarding unfair taxation in 2022.
Apr
27

How to Dispute Unfair Property Assessments in Six Steps

Multifamily owners can avoid excessive property taxes by being prepared with the right research and documentation.

Property tax systems vary from state to state across the country, with differing procedures in each assessor's jurisdiction. Complicating things further, the personalities of assessors and their staff influence the way they interact with property owners or their agents.

It is the responsibility of the property owner or their agent to learn and adapt to the procedures and behaviors at work in their assessor's offices. However, there are universal preemptive steps that property owners in any jurisdiction can take to combat excessive valuations. These property-specific action items and best practices can significantly increase the chances of a successful valuation protest.

1. Document Property Financial Statements

In most appraisal systems, income-producing apartment property will be valued using the income approach. Arguably the most important pieces of information the apartment owner can present in protesting assessed values are the property's rent rolls and profit-and-loss statements. The timely preparation and completion of these documents prior to a protest is essential to any discussion of fair market value. Key line items such as potential gross income, vacancy and collection loss, and net operating income can assist in negotiating lower assessed values. Market rent, in-place rents, and occupancy are key indicators on a rent roll and should be shared with assessors, in most cases, to help them determine how a property is performing.

2. Conduct Market Rent Surveys

Collaborating with property managers to finalize market rent surveys can provide extremely valuable evidence to discuss with the assessor. Most jurisdictions rely on general market data to compute values across the submarket. Market surveys specific to a property typically entail more reliable data and can be used to strengthen the property owner's market value analysis.

3. Vet Comparable Sets

In addition to a market value analysis, many jurisdictions allow taxpayers to present an equity argument. In an equity claim, property owners or their agents will be looking at assessed values of the subject property's set of comparables, which are similar properties in the area that can provide reference points in determining market value. If the appraiser's list of comparables contains apartments not found on the market survey, the taxpayer will have a good reason to request that those be removed from the set being discussed. This strategy is valuable when an appraiser or assessor is using higher-class apartments in the subject property's submarket, thereby inflating the equitably assessed value.

4. Document Deferred Maintenance and Bids

An argument often heard during valuation protests is "my property has deferred maintenance, and therefore should be valued at a discount." This argument will be more likely to succeed if the taxpayer validates their assertions using contractor bids, pictures, or some proof of the amount of maintenance that needs to be done. Obtain bids before the valuation date, detailing work that needs to be done, including the cost of materials and labor. Also before the valuation date, document damages with pictures, if possible. Following this advice will differentiate the subject property from a long list of others claiming deferred maintenance with no support for the cost of repairs.

5. Learn Relevant Tax Laws

Property owners should educate themselves about the property tax system in their property's state and specific jurisdiction. Deadlines play a very important role, so make sure to meet and understand them. Missing a deadline can forfeit the opportunity to contest an assessed value, precluding relief for an excessive appraisal. Property tax laws and local regulations can be daunting, and the avenues that lead to success can be easily overlooked. In some situations, the property owner will want to speak with a local property tax professional to explore available options.

6. Build and Maintain Assessor Relationships

It is important to realize that the assessor assigned to a protest will likely be someone the taxpayer will be interfacing with throughout the valuation process and potentially for the entire term of property ownership. Integrity and honesty in every interaction with the assessor will help to establish trust and strengthen this relationship over time, which will benefit the taxpayer in the long run. The simple act of beginning a dialogue with the assessor early in the protest process can increase a property owner's chances of reaching a timely and successful settlement.

Advance completion of financial statements that could support a tax protest should be an annual priority for any property owner, as this data is invaluable in arguing for a lower assessment. While this sounds like a routine process for most property owners, the assessment timeline is different in every jurisdiction and may not coincide with your typical year-end financial audit. Finalizing market rent surveys and collecting bids for deferred maintenance will add to the chances of success. Learning the property tax rules and deadlines affecting the property, or having an educated team versed in the state or local market, will directly impact success. Finally, building long-lasting relationships with assessors based on openness and reliability is not only common courtesy, but can make assessors more receptive during the appeal process, and therefore increase the likelihood of achieving desired results.

James Johnson is a senior property tax consultant in the Austin, Texas law firm of Popp Hutcheson PLLC, which focuses its practice 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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Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Multifamily owners can avoid excessive property taxes by being prepared with the right research and documentation.
Apr
19

7 Post-Pandemic Commercial Property Tax Tips

Consider each of these proven strategies to minimize ad valorem tax bills.

Record-breaking commercial real estate trading activity during 2021 is having a marked impact on property values in 2022. Transactions in 2021 were up 88% from 2020 and were 35% above 2019 levels, according to Ernst & Young. The large number of sales in 2021 extended to all categories of real estate, and many commercial property types experienced significant price increases.

Market values are the basis for property tax assessments in most taxing jurisdictions. As post-pandemic market values fluctuate due to higher prices, property owners need to adopt strategies to keep their assessed property values down. As we emerge from COVID-19 here are seven key considerations to minimize property tax assessments even as prices increase.

1. Report Property Operating Metrics. A commercial property's market value is based on its financial performance. A weak property will have poor performance indicators, such as excessive vacancy or below-market rental rates. Poor performance is usually the basis for a reduced assessment and a lower property tax bill. Where possible, property owners should report these types of performance indicators to taxing authorities each year before assessed values are set and tax bills go out.

2. Allocated Prices in Real Estate Portfolios Are Not Market Values. A buyer purchasing a real estate portfolio will typically allocate the total price paid over all the acquired real properties as well as other, non-real-estate assets. Investors create these portfolio purchase allocations for income tax, accounting, financing or other purposes, and they may commission an "allocation" appraisal for bookkeeping or underwriting purposes. Allocations of total portfolio price or value to individual properties in a portfolio are rarely a good indication of a property's market value, however. Likewise, allocation appraisals are unhelpful or even detrimental in determining taxable market values because they may not account for the unique aspects of an individual property.

3. Transaction Type May Affect Value. Market values can also be impacted by the nature of the transaction and its participants. For example, REITs set purchase prices for real estate portfolios based, in part, on income tax considerations. Similarly, when a transaction involves the acquisition of an entity that holds various types of assets, the price paid will include payment for assets other than real estate alone. Non-real-estate motivations for purchasing properties and non-realty components of a transaction must be removed in order to determine the market value of the real estate alone. Otherwise, the values for the real estate will be above market.

4. Only Real Estate Is Subject to Property Taxation. As previously mentioned, property portfolios will sometimes convey with other assets. These can include personal property, such as fixtures and equipment, or intangible assets and rights like contracts, licenses and goodwill. Market values for these non-real-estate items are evaluated differently from real property and some, such as intangible assets and rights, are not subject to property taxation at all. In addition, any "synergy" or "accretive" value from a portfolio sale is intangible and should be excluded when assessing a specific property's value for property tax purposes.

5. Properties May Not Stabilize at Pre-Pandemic Levels. Properties that were hardest hit by changes related to COVID-19 may take years to return to pre-pandemic performance levels, and some may never fully recover. Awareness of a particular industry's recovery will be key to understanding whether market values and property tax assessments for that property type will return to pre-2020 levels. Uncertainties about time to stabilization reduce real estate values. The knowledge that some properties may never achieve pre-pandemic performance levels puts long-term investment value into question, which decreases the current value of those properties and lowers their taxable value.

6. Leasehold Interest Values May Not Match the Market. Investors buy and sell commercial properties based on the net income they produce. However, if the leases generating that income are above or below market, the value derived from rents will not be at market. In addition, lease rates from synthetic or operating leases used to finance the purchase of a portfolio of properties will not produce market value for individual properties unless those lease rates happen to be set at market levels.

7. If All Else Fails, File a Property Tax Appeal. Taxpayers who work proactively with their local tax assessor are often able to achieve reduced assessed values and lower property tax bills. Property owners should address each of the previous six points with the local assessor. Nevertheless, there will be times when attempts to reduce assessed values are unsuccessful. In those cases, property owners should be prepared to file an appeal by the deadline and pursue it, preferably with the assistance of a knowledgeable property tax advisor.

Cris K. O'Neall is a shareholder in the law firm of Greenberg Traurig LLP, the California member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Consider each of these proven strategies to minimize ad valorem tax bills.
Apr
06

Pitfalls in Price Disclosure on Real Estate Acquisitions

Reported transaction prices tend to show up again as overstated taxable property values, advises attorney Jerome Wallach.

The old maxim that no good deed goes unpunished might well be applied to official disclosure of the acquisition price on real estate.

Many jurisdictions require the disclosure of a property's sale price after the sale closes. All too often, buyers respond by reporting a number which includes non-real-estate components. Although they are acting in good faith, these investors seldom realize that the local tax assessor may use the acquisition price they report in determining the property's market value for ad valorem tax purposes. That can result in an overstated assessment when the price reflects the value of the going concern constructed on the property rather than the real estate alone.

Disclosure exposure

There are several reasons a buyer will broadcast the exchange price for acquired real estate to the public domain. The new owner may want the number known because it will enhance the public image of the buyer's business. It may be a legal requirement to report the purchase price. Many jurisdictions require the filing of a certificate of value, for example. Whatever the reasons, the buyer and soon-to-be owner closing on a real estate acquisition should be careful how the deal is characterized when reported.

Tax assessors, appraisers and other real estate professionals are skilled at tracking down sale prices. There are also services that regularly publish sale prices gleaned from a variety of sources. Taxpayers should assume that the assessing authorities will learn the price of their property acquisition.

While purchasers of real property typically factor in the effect of property taxes on the net cash flow, they may not consider the impact the exchange price can have on property taxes in the coming years. Frequently, the higher the published transaction value, the more that news will bolster the buyer's business reputation. Not so for property tax consequences, however, because assessments and ongoing property tax liability will often increase in proportion to the published transaction amount.

An assessor seeing a certificate of value or reading a published sale price can and frequently will rely on that number as the property's market value, against which ad valorem taxes are levied. Unfortunately, that number may not fairly represent the taxable value of the real estate if it includes value from non-real-estate components, which are not subject to ad valorem taxes.

Differentiate real estate value

Hotels provide an example of how the reported sale price differs from the real estate value. Appraisers cite comparable hotel sales in terms of value per room, which may include the television, beds and other items in each room as well as the hotel's brand and other components of business value that are exempt from property taxation. Some analysts adjust for the non-realty components of per-room sales data, but most do not.

However, the problem isn't unique to the hospitality sector and may apply equally to other property types.

In the larger view, the same miscalculation could apply to other properties where non-realty components were part of the transaction. Non-real-estate sources of transaction value can include leases in place, brand recognition, in-place management and trained workforce, personal property such as vehicles and furniture, and ongoing business operations within the property. The assessor may have included all these elements, inappropriately, in the value of the real estate. This is a situation the taxpayer could have avoided by correctly reporting that the price exchanged for the property included non-real-estate items.

Disclose with care

Exercising some foresight in describing the elements of the sale at the time of closing could mitigate the unwanted effect of triggering an inflated tax assessment on the subject property. In reporting, the buyer should pay attention to how they characterize the acquisition price, with a view toward how the information may influence an assessor's calculation of taxable value.

It is predictable that the assessor will be aware of the purchase price. In fact, the number is required public disclosure and will, in all probability, become the assessor's opinion of market value. At any hearing or proceeding resulting from the taxpayer challenging the assessor's opinion of market value, the assessor will likely put forth the public disclosure document as prima facie evidence of market value.

The new owning entity can protect itself by laying the groundwork for assessment appeals when it discloses the transaction amount. When appropriate, the closing statement should clearly represent that the acquisition is for going-concern value, which encompasses both real estate and the business operating in that real estate. An asterisk after the number, with an accompanying footnote, would suffice as long as there is a clear indication that the number relates to enterprise value.

Assessors frequently rely on the acquisition price of a going concern as equaling the value of the real estate alone. When that occurs, a buyer's footnote on a price disclosure can pay dividends in any proceeding challenging the assessor's opinion of value.

Jerome Wallach is principal at The Wallach Law Firm in St. Louis. The firm is the Missouri member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Reported transaction prices tend to show up again as overstated taxable property values, advises attorney Jerome Wallach.
Mar
16

The Tax Appeal Life Cycle

District of Columbia taxpayers can appeal assessed property valuations through three levels of review.

In the District of Columbia, a prudent taxpayer must observe important steps and deadlines to appeal a real property tax assessment. Strict code provisions, government policies and procedures govern the appeal process, so understanding the typical lifecycle of an appeal provides a head start in making sure a property is fairly assessed.
Here is a look at what to expect as a case advances:

Assessment and notification
Assessors reassess all real property in the District each year using a Jan. 1 valuation date that precedes the start of that tax year. For example, Tax Year 2023 runs from Oct. 1, 2022 through Sept. 30, 2023. Thus, corresponding assessed values are as of Jan. 1, 2022.

The District typically will mail assessment values and update the MyTaxDC.gov website on or around March 1 each year, sending its estimate of market value to the owners of more than 205,500 parcels. This will be the taxpayer's first glimpse of the valuation and potential tax liability for the following tax year.

These assessed values are released without supporting documentation, however.

To determine how an assessor derived the value, the taxpayer or a duly authorized agent must contact the Office of Tax and Revenue to request a copy of the assessor's workpapers. These documents will be critical in formulating the basis for any possible appeal.

1.) Office of Tax and Revenue
The first-level tax appeal deadline is April 1. While the property owner may not have all the relevant documents they need to properly analyze their assessment by this time, the taxpayer must meet the filing deadline or waive their right to any further appeal for the tax year.

Fortunately, the first-level petition is a one-page form completed online and requires only basic property information to satisfy the requirement. Continuing with a first-level appeal, however, demands further analysis.

The assessor may use one of the three common approaches to derive a proposed value — the income, cost and/or sales comparison approach — or any other approach that can be supported. For large commercial properties, the most common practice is to use the income approach in conjunction with the District's mass-appraisal model.

Mass appraisal uses market assumptions based on property type, submarket and classification. These assumptions derive from taxpayer-submitted income and expense reports (I&E) for the previous tax year. The assessor derives the property's net operating income using market assumptions and divides the result by a market capitalization rate loaded with the applicable tax rate. Or, in the case of retail properties, the assessor uses a net lease rate and an unloaded capitalization rate to arrive at taxable value.

Consequently, the yearly filing of income and expense reports is an integral part of the assessment process and is mandatory for most owners of income-producing properties. At the beginning of each calendar year, the District issues its notice of income and expense report filing requirements, along with unique access and submission codes for taxpayers to report their sensitive financial information using an online portal.

This portal opens in January, giving taxpayers adequate time to comply with the I&E submission deadline, which is on or about April 15 each year. (Due to a holiday, Tax Year 2023 I&Es are due Monday, April 18, 2022.) Timely compliance with this requirement is imperative, as failure may result in a 10 percent penalty on the subsequent tax year's liability. A local tax advisor can be a great help with this complicated process.

Once complete, and when applicable, the I&E will be a vital component to the analysis and validity of a tax appeal. If the taxpayer believes an appeal is warranted, they can move to a first-level hearing. This administrative appeal to the assessor of record generally occurs in May or June. The assessor reviews information the taxpayer provides and can adjust the value by first-level decision.

2.) Appeals Commission
If the initial appeal does not provide a satisfactory result, property owners may continue to the next administrative level. The taxpayer must initiate an appeal to the Real Property Tax Appeals Commission (RPTAC) within 45 days of the first-level decision or forfeit additional appeal rights.

Filing a petition with RPTAC requires the taxpayer to produce specific information such as property and financial data as well as supporting evidence to prove the current assessment is incorrect.

In other words, the assessment is presumed correct unless and until the taxpayer proves otherwise. RPTAC hearings generally occur between early October and the end of January. Hearings before a panel of two or three commissioners allow both parties to argue their positions and to answer commissioners' questions. The Commission should issue its decisions by Feb. 1 of the relevant tax.

3.) D.C. Superior Court
The District issues real property tax bills in March and September of the relevant tax year. This means, barring extraordinary disruptions that can include global pandemics, administrative appeals should be completed prior to the issuance of these bills.

If an administrative appeal does not achieve a result the taxpayer believes is fair, a further appeal to D.C. Superior Court is available.

To appeal to the Superior Court, the taxpayer must first pay all taxes in full and file a petition by Sept. 30 of the related tax year.
The proceeding will ostensibly become a "refund" lawsuit and may take several years to reach a resolution. However, if successful, taxing entities will be required to provide an additional 6 percent interest with any refund amount.

Importantly, any tax representative must be an active member of the D.C. Bar Association to handle this stage of appeal, which is a court proceeding. Therefore, to maximize the effectiveness of a tax appeal, a local tax attorney is best situated to guide a taxpayer through the life cycle of a property tax appeal.

Sydney Bardouil is an associate at the law firm Wilkes Artis, the District of Columbia member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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  • District of Columbia taxpayers can appeal assessed property valuations through three levels of review.
Mar
09

New York City Tax Assessments Disregard Reality

New York City has published three tax-year assessments since COVID-19 swept into our world. The New York City Tax Commission and New York City Law Department have had ample opportunity to reflect and refine their thinking on those assessments.

The disease broke out in Wuhan, China, in late 2019 and soon spread around the world. Most of New York City noticed its impact in February and March of 2020 as businesses shut down at an accelerating rate, warranting government mandates and additional closures.

So, what did New York City do for the 2020-2021 tax year? It significantly raised tax assessments. The Tax Commission and other review bodies refused to base their valuations upon the devastating catastrophic effects of COVID-19 that had ravished the city.

Why do this? The answer is technical. New York City values real estate on a taxable status date, which is Jan. 5 each year. On Jan. 5, 2020, COVID-19 did not exist in assessors' evaluation process. Nor did it exist in the review of assessments later in the year.

Employment restrictions, mask mandates and lockdown requirements made it impossible to operate theaters, hotels, restaurants and many other businesses. These restrictions took effect long before the first installment of property tax payments for the 2020-2021 year had to be paid. Yet hotels found that their tax bills exceeded their total revenue. Other businesses had similar experiences.

The city's next assessment, for the 2021-2022 tax year, reduced assessments by 10 to 15 percent in some sectors, and by as much as 20 percent for hotels. It was too little, too late, and many businesses were failing. The assessment review process was slow and unsympathetic to the plight of businesses devastated by COVID-19.

The Jan. 5, 2022 assessment roll attempted to recoup a modest amount of the value trimmed from taxpayers' properties the previous year in spite of the destructive effects of the Omicron variant that were at their height on the Jan. 5 valuation date. That is the truth: New York City's newly released fiscal 2022-2023 property tax assessment roll presents a market value of almost $1.4 trillion, an 8 percent increase in taxes and estimated taxable assessments of $277.4 billion. That sounds like too much!

Real estate tax increases have come at a time when most property owners and businesses have not even begun to recover from the pandemic's economic impact. Foreign and business travel have disappeared; street traffic is down and empty storefronts abound.

Commercial rents in Herald Square, for example, are down 27 percent from pre-pandemic levels. However, high bills due to ever-increasing inflation remain to be paid. Mortgages, payrolls and maintenance costs add to the burdens of businesses in New York City. Most properties are still struggling, and many are falling behind.

The hospitality sector has been hit especially hard. Hotel revenues and prices have dropped to unsustainable levels. COVID-related rules and fears have evaporated any sustainable growth in tourism. One example of the pandemic hotel market value decline is the recent sale price of the DoubleTree Metropolitan at 569 Lexington Ave., which was 50 percent less than the price it sold for in 2011.

While a few market values have increased, tax increases should have been delayed. For Class 1 real estate, which includes residential properties of up to three units, total citywide market value rose 6.7 percent to $706.8 billion from the previous year's tax roll.

For Class 2 properties­ — cooperatives, condominiums and rental apartment buildings —the total market value registered $346.9 billion, an increase of $27.8 billion, or 8.7 percent, from the 2022 fiscal year. For Class 3 properties, which include properties with equipment owned by gas, telephone or electric companies, market value is tentatively set by the New York State Office of Real Property Tax Services at $43.6 billion.

Last but definitely not least, total market value for commercial properties (Class 4) increased by 11.7 percent citywide to $300.8 billion. Manhattan had the smallest percent increase in market value at 10.3 percent. Class 4 market value is down $25.2 billion, or 7.7 percent, below its level for the 2021 fiscal year. Hotels registered a market value increase of only 5.3 percent.

These slight increases in market value do not warrant this year's increase in taxes. Businesses are still being affected by the economic impact of the pandemic and need time to recuperate. The city's Department of Finance admits that although values increased for the 2023 fiscal year, they remain below the 2021 fiscal year values for many properties due to the impact of the pandemic.

The Department of Finance also acknowledged in its announcement of the tentative tax roll that commercial property values remain largely below pre-pandemic levels. This underscores why the increase in taxes should have been delayed, at least until properties and businesses attain pre-pandemic values.

Strategies for Relief

In appealing assessments, property owners can improve their chances for obtaining relief by quantifying property value losses. For hotel owners and operators, this means gathering documentation showing closure dates, occupancy rates and any special COVID-19 costs incurred. Most industry forecasts anticipate at least a four-year recovery period for hotels to reach pre-pandemic revenues.

Retail and office property owners should be prepared to show any declines in gross income and rents received or paid on their financial reports filed with the city. Residential landlords should list tenants that vacated and those that are not paying rent.

In conclusion, tax assessments must reflect the entirety of what this pandemic has done to the real estate industry over the past 24 months. New York City authorities must provide tax relief for property owners, and taxpayers and their advisors will need to take an active part in obtaining reduced assessments.

Joel Marcus is a partner in the New York City law firm Marcus & Pollack LLP, the New York City member of the American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Mar
02

Fresh Ideas for Reducing Your Self-Storage Property Taxes

There's a spotlight on self-storage real estate values these days, which means owners need to make sure they're receiving a fair assessment of their property. Consider the following strategies to counteract excessive property taxes.

Since the arrival of COVID-19, no real estate sector has seen property values rise faster than self-storage. It's even outpacing warehouses, which are skyrocketing in the face of demand for fulfillment centers to handle spiking e-commerce volumes.

Simply put, self-storage is booming, and it isn't going unnoticed by investors; nor will assessors, who are charged with valuing properties for ad valorem tax purposes, ignore the trend. For this reason, owners and their advisors should be revisiting tried-and-true tax strategies and considering new ways to combat excessive property assessments.

Historically, many self-storage owners have been content to fly under the radar, accepting their assessed values without protest to avoid drawing too much attention. Given the recent industry growth, however, assessors will likely shine a light on the segment, pushing for higher assessed values. When that spotlight hits, it'll be time for taxpayers to fight for fairness. Until then, you should explore the tactics that have worked previously and new ones that might now be beneficial.

An Apartment for Your Stuff

One traditional method of lowering tax liability is to value self-storage like apartments. Most assessors and multi-family owners rely on the income approach, looking at rents, subtracting expenses, and capitalizing net operating income (NOI) based on the amount of risk in the investment.

The rental rates for apartments, like those for self-storage, are easily obtained online. But a key to accurate valuation is differentiating between asking rents and actual rents. The latter are always lower. If the owner or assessor isn't using actual rents or fails to fully consider all concessions, the property is being over-assessed.

Another strategy is to attack the cost approach, which assessors sometimes use instead of the income approach. It determines the replacement cost as if new of all the property's improvements, depreciates those improvements, and adds in the land value as if vacant. Almost everyone who employs the cost approach uses the Marshall & Swift Valuation Service cost manual (M&S). This practice has flaws, particularly when used by assessors in a mass appraisal setting. While M&S determines physical depreciation based on age, it can't and doesn't consider functional or economic obsolescence.

Functional obsolescence is a method of depreciating replacement cost based on issues within a facility, such as design flaws or property aspects that aren't as desirable in the marketplace as they once were. Economic obsolescence, also referred to as external obsolescence, is a method of depreciating the replacement cost based on factors outside of the property, such as a recession or, say, a global pandemic. Since M&S doesn't take these obsolescence features into account—and neither do assessors—self-storage owners and their representatives had better make sure they do.

If these time-tested methods don't yield the desired market value, the owner may choose to employ newer methods that've helped to achieve assessment reductions for other property types.

A Hotel for Your Stuff

When valuing hotels, many owners and assessors will use the income approach. They'll take the room revenue, subtract expenses, factor in risk and capitalize the NOI to reach a value. The problem with this method is some revenue in the income stream comes from intangible, non-taxable sources.

For example, a hotel's franchise or flag and the management agreement, among other items, can add to the revenue stream. These intangible elements should be identified and removed from the income approach to preclude valuing or taxing something that's intangible and, therefore, non-taxable.

There's a corollary argument to be made when it comes to self-storage. The "Big 5" brands in the market are publicly traded real estate investment trusts, each with an easily recognizable name and reputation that's likely to drive more traffic and revenue than an off-brand or non-branded facility. And a brand is an intangible asset, exempt from property tax.

As the Big 5 are also involved in the management side of the business, they're likely to bring intangible value from their operational expertise into the income stream. That revenue has nothing to do with the property's real estate value. The same can be said of the income generated from the sale of packing items such as boxes, tape and locks. These sales don't indicate value to the real estate, but rather value to the business.

Hotels can also suggest comparison metrics applicable to other property types. In addition to comparisons by price per square foot, hotel analyses can consider value per key, room revenue multipliers and revenue per available room. Like hotels, self-storage properties can be compared to each other in several ways. These can include value per lock, unit revenue multipliers and revenue per available unit. Of course, an appraiser or assessor would need to adjust for factors like interior vs. exterior access, climate-controlled vs. non-climate-controlled space, and single vs. multi-story improvements.

Which units of comparison to use for the most advantageous outcome will vary by taxing jurisdiction and the type of self-storage property. If it's in an area that requires all individual property types to be valued fairly and equitably, these units of comparison and the adjustments become ever more important to arrive at the correct value.

With nowhere to hide from the assessor's spotlight, the hope is that self-storage owners and their representatives will actively protest their increasing assessments. It's time for them to be proactive and creative in their arguments to achieve reductions.


Greg Hart is a Director 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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Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • There’s a spotlight on self-storage real estate values these days, which means owners need to make sure they’re receiving a fair assessment of their property. Consider the following strategies to counteract excessive property taxes.
Feb
02

For Office Owners, It's Time to Make Lemonade

Attorney Molly Phelan on how to reduce property tax liability.

Office property owners may feel they are getting squeezed from all sides in 2022, but the right strategy can help them turn lemons into lemonade by reducing property tax liability.

The Bad News: Inflation was up 7.1 percent year over year in December, its highest rate since 1982.

The Culprits: Supply chain issues (raw material shortages, seaport congestion and logistic limitations), labor shortages (general wages up 5 percent, retail wages up 15 percent), and a housing shortage (national apartment vacancy at 2 percent and average rent growth above 15 percent year over year).

The Response: The Federal Reserve signals a shift to tightening monetary policy, indicating future interest rate increases.

The office market is facing headwinds of its own. Numerous corporations have announced permanent shifts to hybrid in-person/work-from-home operations for office staff, significantly decreasing demand for office space. Rental rates have dropped anywhere from 5 percent to 33 percent during the pandemic, depending on market and class. Although Manhattan rents for Class A space have increased 2 percent in the past year, the net operating income for these properties is down 7 percent due to increased costs and lease concessions.

In the Midwest, office landlords previously expected to provide one month of free rent per year to woo tenants. Now brokers are reporting a free rent ratio of 1.6 months per year, with leases over 10 years pushing two months per year. Tenant improvement costs have increased approximately 44 percent since the beginning of the pandemic, and turnaround time for occupancy has increased from 30 days to 60 days.

Farther down the balance sheet, things aren't much better. Energy prices tracked in the S&P Goldman Sachs Commodity Index ended 2021 59 percent higher than in the beginning of the year. Labor costs, from janitorial staff to property managers, have increased as well.

The Good News: Although the market has handed office landlords a bucket of lemons that are putting downward pressure on average net incomes, landlords can make lemonade from this data to significantly reduce their real property tax liabilities, even if their NOI has not yet taken a hit.

The Strategy: Pivoting from a direct capitalization value analysis to a discounted cash flow approach can capture the effects of investor outlook data on a property's market value. Appraisers and assessors who value office properties typically figure direct capitalization in their income analysis to estimate fee simple market values. This is standard practice in stabilized markets but is a poor fit to current conditions.

With the dramatic changes and uncertainty in the office market, appraisers should be conducting discounted cash flow analyses, which identify the market conditions investors are anticipating as of the valuation date. The DCF analysis examines the market like an investor would, considering trends such as rental rate reductions and increases in operation costs and vacancy. These factors are then built into pricing models.

Savvy investors are aware of a sleeping giant that few assessors or taxpayers are identifying, and that is shadow vacancy. While landlords are still collecting income on current leases, there is no reflection of the market's precarious situation in their income. A DCF, however, identifies upcoming vacancy and reductions in market rents, which may have a significant effect on NOI.

Methods Compared

Let's compare the two approaches, beginning with a look at direct capitalization applied to a 500,000-square-foot office complex. As of Jan. 1, 2022, its tenants are paying $25 per square foot in net rent, or a maximum $12.5 million in annual attainable rent. Stabilized vacancy is 8 percent and operating expenses are 20 percent, or $2.3 million annually. A capitalization rate of 6.5 percent indicates a market value of $141,538,462. In Illinois, outside of Cook County, an assessment level of 33.33 percent and a tax rate of 5 percent equates to a tax liability of $2,358,738.

 By contrast, a DCF model would also reflect that market rent has dropped to $23 per square foot, reducing the asset's revenue capacity to $11.5 million per year. It would show that market-wide vacancy is expected to rise to 12 percent, that expenses have increased to 27 percent, and that the subject property has 100,000 square feet offered for sublet at $20 per square foot. Additionally, 20 percent of its leases mature in the next two years and a total of 50 percent of its leases will end within five years.

Paired with the estimated increases in interest rates as indicated by the Federal Reserve, the cap rate could easily increase to 7.5 percent for the specific property. The DCF analysis using these factors indicates the market value is $102,120,000 and the taxes are reduced to $1,701,830. The difference in tax liability is $656,909, or a reduction to the tenants of $1.31 per square foot in tax pass throughs.

Commercial real estate investors across the board rely on the discounted cash flow model, but few taxpayers or their advisors use the strategy in contesting property assessments. Given the additional information and analysis required to perform the analysis, not all appraisers can properly construct a credible discounted cash flow model.

For success, it is critical that both the taxpayer's advisor and appraiser be able to knowledgeably discuss the differences between the two models, and in an assessment appeal, be able to explain why the discounted cash flow model is a more reliable methodology in this market.

To remain competitive, landlords must reduce occupancy costs for tenants and their own holding costs as they take back more vacant space. Even if an assessment has been lowered or remained stable over the past few years, having a credible team provide an alternative view can offer a competitive advantage moving forward.

Molly Phelan is a partner in the Chicago office of law firm Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, the Illinois, Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Attorney Molly Phelan on how to reduce property tax liability.
Jan
16

Don't Just Accept Your Tax Assessment

Ensure tax bills reflect continuing value reductions for office assets caused by COVID's long-term effects.

Since early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended lives and disrupted the normal course of businesses, including those in the commercial real estate market. As in many other sectors, however, this public health crisis has not affected all commercial properties equally.

Real estate occupied by essential businesses such as grocery stores, sellers of household goods, and warehouse clubs, for example, have weathered the pandemic well. A few have even increased their market share. By contrast, many office buildings, hospitality and non-essential retail properties have suffered severely.

Taxing jurisdictions and assessors have responded to the crisis with varying degrees of success. The Ohio Legislature passed special legislation (spearheaded by Siegel Jennings Managing Partner Kieran Jennings) to allow a onetime, 2020 tax year valuation complaint for a valuation date of Oct. 1, 2020, since the usual tax lien date of Jan. 1 would not have shown the effects of COVID. Other assessors applied limited reduction factors to account for the sudden pandemic-induced decrease in property values.

As values recover, it is important for taxpayers to monitor still-unfolding consequences as they review their property tax assessments.

Initially, hotels and experiential property uses suffered the steepest losses as travel declined or completely halted. While the long-term effects of COVID-19 are still emerging as the pandemic progresses, office properties may be the real estate type changed the most, and perhaps permanently so. Central business districts and suburban campuses or headquarters have been particularly hard hit.

In the last six to 12 months, many people have returned to working in an office at least part of the time, especially since vaccinations have become widely available. However, the emergence of virus variants has stalled the full return to the office that looked imminent earlier this year.

Some firms including Twitter, Zillow, Spotify, and Dropbox decided that they will not require workers to return to the office at all, making remote working a permanent option. Other companies including Google, Nationwide, Microsoft, and Intuit will continue with a hybrid model that requires workers to be in office some of the time.

Many of those employers are using an office hoteling model. Hybrid arrangements require less physical office space per employee, although employers will need to balance having fewer employees onsite against the desire for low-density occupancy.

With more employees working remotely, many office tenants have subleased space they no longer need, adding to available office supply. For example, toward the end of 2020, the Chicago metro region's office market reached a record high in available sublease space, with two-thirds of it in the central business district. For employees who work in CBDs, there is an added concern of commuting via public transit.

In the initial stages of non-essential business closures and governmental stay-at-home orders across the country, many tenants sought rent abatements and concessions. Tenant defaults and increased unemployment exacerbated office vacancy levels.

Some of the workforce in more densely populated markets may have relocated away from central business districts, at least at the beginning of the pandemic, also influencing office space demand. As acceptance of remote work increased, both employers and workers not tied to a physical office location gained employment and talent-search opportunities beyond their local markets. This, too, has influenced the demand for office space.

The Columbus area's overall office vacancy rate was more than 23 percent in the third quarter of 2021, according to Cushman & Wakefield. That vacancy figure includes more than 1 million square feet of sublease space but does not include offices leased but underutilized – or not used at all – because of employees working from home.

As these vacancy rates and over-abundant sublease inventory demonstrate, there is a disconnect between the space that office tenants are currently leasing and their actual real estate needs. As leases expire, it will not be surprising to see tenants renegotiate for smaller footprints and shorter durations as they adjust to their changing requirements.

The shrinking need for office space is not limited to markets with dense populations and public transit commuters. In fact, these trends reverberate in suburban markets. Multiple large suburban office buildings in the Cleveland area, together totaling almost two million square feet, were 75 percent empty in the fall of 2021 because of employees working remotely.

This suggests that property tax assessments may be based on outdated lease information. Accurate valuation of office properties for taxation will require proper consideration of lease renewals and related activity. In reviewing assessments, it will be critical to scrutinize any older sale transactions assessors used for comparison that were based on pre-pandemic leases.

Positive signs are emerging for the commercial real estate market overall. Bloomberg recently reported that domestic U.S. travel for the year-end holidays is expected to be near pre-pandemic levels. Downtown foot traffic, hotel stays, and visitor counts have been climbing back from the lows seen early in the pandemic.

Despite this good news, office properties face persistent challenges. Recently, Marcus & Millichap reported that the office sector was one of the only property types lagging in 2021 commercial real estate transaction volume compared to the same time in 2019. (The other was medical office.) Flexibility on the part of both tenants and owners will be key in riding out the continuing waves of lease maturities and renewals in this changing market.

Since assessors are often using lagging data in their assessments, attention to the continued effects of COVID on office properties will be vital to ensuring that property tax valuations reflect a property's fair market value. Remember, too, that various assessors are treating COVID effects differently, so as always, it is wise for property owners to consult with experts familiar with assessment law and appraisal practice in their local jurisdictions. With careful observation of market changes, strategic planning and review with trusted tax experts, taxpayers can help ensure that their real estate tax burden is fair.

Cecilia J. Hyun (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) is a partner with Siegel Jennings Co., L.P.A. The firm is the Ohio, Illinois and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Cecilia is also a member of CREW Network.
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Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Ensure tax bills reflect continuing value reductions for office assets caused by COVID’s long-term effects.
Dec
23

APTC: Ohio School Districts Push for Excessive Property Taxes

A recent order from the Ohio Board of Tax Appeals highlights a troubling aspect of real property tax valuation in the Buckeye State, where school districts wield extraordinary authority to influence assessments. In this instance, courts allowed a district to demand a taxpayer's confidential business data, which it can now use to support its own case for an assessment increase.

Ohio is one of the few states that permit school districts to participate in the tax valuation process, allowing a district to file its own complaint to increase the value of a parcel of real estate, and permitting a school district to argue against a property owner that seeks to lower the taxable valuation of a parcel of real estate.

Steve Nowak, Siegel Jennings Co.

Generally, school districts looking to increase tax revenue will review recent property sales for opportunities to seek assessment increases. Likely candidates for an increase complaint include real estate that changed hands at a purchase price or transfer value that exceeds the county assessor's valuation. That is not always the case, however.

In the case that gave rise to this article, there was no recent sale of the subject property, which is a multi-story apartment building. The apartment building owner had done nothing to draw any assessor's attention to their property in recent years — it had not been listed for sale, for example, nor had the owner recently refinanced the property.

Blind assertions

In the apartment building case, the school district filed a complaint to increase the county's valuation from $3.85 million to $4.63 million. At the local county board of revision hearing on the school district's complaint, the school district failed to present any competent and probative evidence that the apartment complex was undervalued as currently assessed.

The school district could not present evidence of a recent sale because there had been no sale. The school district also failed to present an independent appraisal witness to testify that the apartment complex was undervalued. Not surprisingly, the county board denied the school district's request to increase the valuation of the subject property.

This is where things got tough for the property owner, and where other Ohio taxpayers may face similar dilemmas. Having received the county board's denial of its complaint, the school district filed an appeal to the Ohio Board of Tax Appeals (BTA) to relitigate its argument that the apartment complex was undervalued.

Once a case is appealed to the BTA, the parties to the case obtain the right to conduct discovery. This is a process intended to help parties in a legal disagreement to "discover" or learn the case and evidence the opposing side may present against them.

Here, as part of its discovery requests, the school district asked that the property owner provide directly to the school district copies of rent rolls, income and expense information and other business records.

Not wanting to turn over such sensitive information, the property owner filed a motion for protective order and requested the BTA deny the school district's prying requests into the day-to-day operations of the apartment building's financial performance. Because discovery is granted as a matter of right on appeal and the threshold for discovery requests is fairly low, the BTA denied the property owner's request for a protective order.

Facing what it believed to be an unconstitutional infringement of its right to privacy, the property owner appealed the BTA's decision denying the request for a protective order to the next appellate level. The taxpayer laid out its arguments of why the school board's baseless complaint seeking to increase the property owner's valuation was unconstitutional.

The appellate court was unmoved, however, and issued a short order upholding the BTA's decision denying the property owner's motion for protective order.

Private data shared

Faced with the appellate court's order, the apartment building property owner was left with no choice but to turn over to the school district years of rent rolls and years of income and expense records for the property. The school district then provided the property owner's own confidential and sensitive business information to the district's appraiser.

Thus, after failing to produce sufficient supporting evidence of its original valuation assertions, the very evidence the school district will now rely upon to increase the property owner's real estate valuation (and tax bill) will have been provided by the property owner itself.

Cases like the one outlined above illustrate the unfettered discretion that school boards have in deciding on what properties to seek increased valuations. This puts Ohio real estate owners' rights at risk, and needs to be responsibly and reasonably curtailed.

Steve Nowak is an associate in the law firm of Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, the Ohio, Illinois and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Dec
22

How to Lower Excessive Property Tax Assessments in a COVID-19 World

The right to appeal property tax assessments may be more important than ever in the wake of COVID- 19. Despite the pandemic's disastrous and continuing effects on the value of many classes of real estate, some property owners saw tax assessments increase dramatically in 2021 and fear 2022 will bring additional increases.

What is the Value, Anyway?

When property owners receive their 2022 assessments, their first step should be to determine whether the valuation is, indeed, excessive. The right to appeal an assessment does not mean that an appeal is always prudent, so carefully analyze your property's performance in the context of the current valuation.

For example, suppose you own a mid-size, multitenant office property outside of Austin, Texas. Market vacancy rates increased to 20% in the fourth quarter of 2021 from 12% at year-end 2020, but asking market rents increased 10% in that time. Your office property fared better than the general market and only increased its vacancy to 5% when one small tenant did not renew its short-term lease.

The property's in-place rental rates were unaffected and unpaid rent from tenants at year-end 2021 was minimal. The property's assessment for 2022 indicates a 20% decrease from the previous assessment.

Although there are many additional circumstances to consider, in this scenario, it may be best to forego an appeal.

In many cases, however, property owners may see dramatic jumps in assessments for 2022 that do not reflect actual property performance and market fundamentals. Taxpayers and assessors alike are seeking how best to analyze the value implications of the past 18 months on different property types going forward.

Vacancy levels have affected individual office properties quite distinctly, and pandemic performance seems to be largely influenced by market location, tenant mix, and landlords' flexibility in negotiating lease terms moving forward.

An Uncertain Future for Office

The office market has suffered from continuing uncertainty despite a recovery in jobs. According to Cushman & Wakefield's Q2 Office Market Beat report, "even as occupiers increasingly clarify post- pandemic future workforce policies and set targets for employees to return the office, leasing activity has remained below pre-pandemic levels."

Moving into the fourth quarter of 2021, there is uncertainty among employers as to what return-to- office policies will even look like. Resurgence of COVID-19 cases in many markets, as well as dramatic shifts in labor preferences during historically high rates of workforce migration, have forced many employers to reconsider or delay their initial return-to-office policies.

Delivery of office product that began construction before the pandemic exacerbates vacancy woes. Cushman & Wakefield reported that, as of the second quarter of 2021, "more office space was delivered in each of the past three quarters than any other quarter in the past three years except Q4 2019."

However, vacancy levels have affected individual office properties quite distinctly, and pandemic performance seems to be largely influenced by market location, tenant mix, and landlords' flexibility in negotiating lease terms moving forward.

An Insider's Perspective on Value

Hartman Income REIT owns and manages office, retail, industrial, and flex properties across Texas. David Wheeler is Hartman's chief investment officer and executive vice president and has been with the firm since 2003. He shared some insight into what he has seen across the market during the past 18months and his expectations for the future.

How was your occupancy affected during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Wheeler: "The pandemic has both positively and negatively affected our occupancy rates here at Hartman. At the end of 2020, we closed about 3% lower in occupancy, but as we moved into 2021, maintaining our focus on the small tenants and flexible lease terms, we captured 130,000 square feet of net absorption in the first quarter. Today, we are on track to reach 1,000,000 square feet in new, signed leases this year, a record breaking number for the firm."

How is your leasing activity currently?

Wheeler: "Our leasing activity is currently standing on a very solid foundation; we intend to end the year with this 1,000,000 square feet of newly signed leases. We also recently launched BIZSUITES, a new business entity aimed to address the post-pandemic workplace needs of small businesses and start-ups, which has drawn significant attention to our suburban office buildings."

Have you seen certain classes of properties struggle more than others?

Wheeler: "Retail and office property classes struggled more than industrial and flex. Industrial space continued to rise in popularity during the pandemic as many people moved a significant portion of their spending online to e-commerce. However, certain types of retail and office benefitted during the pandemic. For example, grocers and home-improvement retailers benefitted tremendously. For office, the suburban buildings like Hartman gained significant occupancy as businesses and individuals emptied from high-density central business districts."

What do you see as any shifts in space utilization that may be necessary to maintain successful levels of occupancy moving forward?

Wheeler: "Dedensification is an important shift in space utilization that is already taking place. I see it upholding occupancy numbers at least through the uncertain times of the pandemic. For

the past decade, office space per employee steadily shrank from 250 square feet to less than 100 square feet. Now, with health concerns, space trends are erring on the side of more space per person, with some businesses even moving back to the individual office model. At Hartman, we've had several tenants expand their space to allow more breathing room in their offices."

What is a property owner to do?

The best evidence for a value correction is the property's actual performance. Communicate clearly and early with your assessor and provide all relevant documentation.

Office property owners should describe concessions and flexible lease terms that may affect valuation. Occupancy and rental rates alone may paint an inaccurate picture of the property's performance. Did tenants receive any free rent? Did new tenants sign short-term leases, resulting in higher long-term vacancy risk? Did you provide significantly higher tenant improvement allowances to incentivize tenants?

As Mr. Wheeler indicated, Hartman maintained occupancy rates in its office and retail centers by focusing on flexible lease terms. Such terms may affect valuation differently than traditional, longer- term leases but changes such as these may prove essential to correct valuation.

Remember, everyone is working toward a goal of accurate valuation under challenging and unpredictable market conditions. Whether communicating directly to the assessor or during the appeal process, conveying specific factors that have affected your property's value is the best approach to achieve a fair assessment in 2022 and beyond.

Rachel Duck, Esq.
Rachel Duck, CMI, is a Director and Senior Property Tax Consultant at Austin, Texas, law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC. Popp Hutcheson is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Nov
29

Pandemic Hits Movie Theater Property Values

But taxpayers can take certain measures to get a fair shake on their tax assessments.

Diminishing tax liability may offer a silver lining amid a horror show of declining property values playing out for owners of silver screen properties across the nation. Many theater owners will pay more than their fair share in property taxes, however, unless and until they educate local tax assessors of the sinister influences that oppress their businesses.

Movie theaters have been one of the hardest-hit industries during the COVID-19 pandemic. Spaces where the big screen once lit the faces of attentive viewers fell dark and silent, to sit lifeless for months. Studios released only 23 films in 2020, the fewest since 2003, and box offices sold less than 225 million tickets (see chart, Annual Ticket Sales Plummet).

As regulations eased, cinemas emerged far behind the pack of other businesses in a race to resume normal operations. Now, most states are allowing 100% occupancy in movie theaters; however, this does not mean movie-goers are rushing back to theaters. What is there to attract them? Some of the most anticipated new movies had their 2020 premiere dates pushed to middle or late 2021, with some even transitioning directly to streaming platforms like HBO.

On top of the lack of content, theaters are wrestling with new consumer preferences developed during quarantine. Streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu posed a threat to in-person cinemas long before COVID-19 ever indirectly accelerated the preference for home movie viewing. On the flipside, drive-in theaters saw an uptick in attendance during the pandemic, showing that consumers still enjoy watching a movie in an atmosphere specifically tailored for films.

While most industries are asking "Where do we go from here?" the big question for real estate professionals is "How does this shift in the economy affect property value?" As for movie theaters, there seems to be an opinion divide between optimistic hope for a rebound and a pessimistic expectation for further decline.

Cinemas were already difficult to value because of their unique usage and a lack of comparable transaction data across the country; now, weak ticket sales give appraisers and tax assessors a bigger hurdle in valuing movie theaters. Theater amenities are evolving to match consumer demand with reclinable chairs, full dining and drinking experiences, and higher-quality digital screening. Older theaters face design issues that deter conversion to modern cinemas. As a result, the total number of theaters in the United States has decreased by over 25% since the late 1990s (see chart, A Quarter-Century Contraction).

Theaters also present red flags to investors seeking properties for conversion to other commercial uses. Most theaters are constructed with sloped floors and high ceilings, for example. While those conditions are ideal for audiences to enjoy a film, few businesses would find those characteristics appealing for their own use. Most organizations would consider those building features detrimental and deduct the cost to remove them from the purchase price.

This illustrates a re-use utility issue with movie theaters – not many enterprises can utilize the real estate efficiently as is. To an investor in any industry outside of cinema or live entertainment, modifications to the theater would be required to make the space usable, decreasing the price that they would pay to purchase the building. The appraisal industry describes this as a Highest and Best Use issue, because a movie theater is arguably not the most efficient or profitable use of the space.

An investor would expect the property to require a large and costly conversion to make the space suitable for its most efficient and profitable use. These renovations would entail many risks. Movie theaters tend to be a riskier investment in general due to the specialization of the industry, but adding on the unknowns of transitioning the building to a more efficient use increases the risk to an investor.

Give Assessors the Facts

A theater owner should be aware of these issues when reviewing their property tax assessments. As county assessors value buildings using mass appraisal methods or software, they are unlikely to consider all the pressing issues that cinema owners face.

While a shift in the current market is inevitable, not all hope is lost in the movie theater industry. In an article by Bloomberg CityLab, K.C. Conway, chief economist of the CCIM Institute, shared some promising opportunities for the reuse of outdated theaters. As Conway observes, adaptive reuse can create affordable housing, reduce blight, and put old retail stores back on the property tax rolls. Some of the adaptive reuse opportunities already put into action include turning former cinemas into offices, e-commerce warehouses, and fulfillment centers. In Goodyear, Arizona, a nine-screen theater was repurposed to serve as the Arizona Department of Transportation's headquarters and Motor Vehicles Division office.

Although adaptive reuse offers some opportunities to reduce the number of vacant, outdated movie theaters in the market, the industry will still have a fundamental supply and demand problem – the supply of movie theaters surpasses the demand from moviegoers, operators, and investors. Changes in movie viewing preferences were already in motion when COVID-19 accelerated those trends.

As many outmoded movie theaters currently sit, physical obsolescence inhibits their transitioning either to a modern cinema or to a new use. The theater industry will continue to face obstacles, including finding investors to take on the risk of purchasing vacant theaters. And owners must educate tax assessors using factual information to demonstrate the profound decline in market value that some movie theaters have sustained.

 Molly Luhrs is an intern with Popp Hutcheson PLLC and a graduate student at Texas A&M University's Master of Real Estate program. Popp Hutcheson PLLC focuses its practice 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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  • But taxpayers can take certain measures to get a fair shake on their tax assessments.
Nov
17

Does Your Property Tax Assessment Reflect COVID-19's Long-Term Challenges?

Here are a number of approaches to defending against excessive tax assessments.

Countless companies have seen their top and bottom lines decimated by COVID-related shutdowns, travel restrictions and changing consumer preferences since the start of the pandemic. Yet for many taxpayers, property tax values have changed little or even increased.

Many of these taxpayers have been surprised to receive property tax bills that do not reflect the real and lingering economic challenges that the retail, hospitality, office and other industries have, are, and will continue to face. These taxpayers – and even those in industries better suited to weather the storm – should give special attention to ensuring they receive fair and reasonable assessments.

Observe Valuation Dates, Notices and Appeal Deadlines

With a large percentage of employees working remotely, together with an inconsistent postal service, it is more important than ever to have dedicated employees and knowledgeable property tax professionals reviewing property value assessments annually and filing timely protests when warranted. Failure to receive a tax valuation notice rarely excuses a missed protest deadline, so it is vital to know and comply with applicable deadlines.

Many property tax bills issued in 2020 were based on statutory valuation dates that preceded the emergence of COVID-19. For instance, assessors working under a valuation date of Oct. 1, 2019, or January 1, 2020, were quick to tell taxpayers to "wait until next year" before assessments could reflect any impact from COVID-19.

Not surprisingly, some assessors are now arguing that the pandemic was temporary and that its worst effects have passed. In some jurisdictions, assessors simply carried forward the prior year's cost-based value with no adjustments to account for additional depreciation or functional and economic obsolescence. In other cases, assessors have relied on pre-pandemic sales during the relevant tax cycle to justify increases over the preceding tax year.

Many locales had few sales in the early stages of the pandemic, and in these cases, the assessor may downplay or entirely ignore the actual impact of COVID-19 on market values. In contesting assessments in each of these cases, it is helpful to not only demonstrate the immediate difficulties that began in March 2020, but also the pandemic's lingering effects on the taxpayer's current and future operations.

Although the pandemic has affected all industries, certain sectors face unique challenges that will persist well beyond the initial virus surges and vaccine rollouts. These include, but are not limited to, brick and mortar retailers competing with ever-expanding e-commerce, office buildings competing with flexible work options including remote work, and hotels competing for elusive business travel in a cost-cutting environment. Some of these challenges are trends that began long before the pandemic, such as the slow death of enclosed malls as consumers increasingly favor lifestyle centers and online shopping.

COVID-19 Influences by Property Sector

Retail. Since the early 2000's, e-commerce's share of total retail sales has increased each year. The pandemic accelerated that trend, arguably by years, when people who had long resisted shopping online no longer had the same in-store options, and experienced online shoppers became more comfortable buying things like groceries and large-ticket items online.

These evolving shopping habits certainly affect the desirability and value of retail real estate, especially of those buildings constructed before the scope of today's e-commerce world could be contemplated. Landlords must now think outside the box when re-tenanting shopping centers, often filling vacancies with restaurants, service and entertainment concepts. These uses can create parking, zoning and other challenges for centers built for traditional retail.

In the case of big box stores, companies such as Walmart are looking at converting portions of existing stores to warehouse or fulfillment space for e-commerce. All these changes to keep up with the rapidly evolving marketplace shine a light on the functional and economic obsolescence present in many retail properties.

Office. Office landlords are also facing rapid market evolution, including an accelerating trend toward more remote and flexible work options. The pandemic made Zoom meetings ubiquitous and gave employees a taste, and perhaps a future expectation, of more work-from-home opportunities.

In light of the Delta variant's spread, many large companies have delayed their anticipated returns to the office, with Google now postponing its return until at least January 2022. Although some of the pandemic's effects on office occupancy have already occurred, the full impact will continue to play out as leases expire and companies reevaluate the volume and design of office space they require.

Hospitality. The hotel and travel industry suffered some of COVID-19's most immediate and devastating financial casualties. Leisure and business travel ground to a near halt, with hotel stays and flight counts falling to once-unimaginable lows. Corporate travel has yet to make a meaningful recovery and remains at a fraction of pre-pandemic levels. Throughout the country, corporations are cutting back on travel budgets as they weigh its costs and health risks against alternatives such as video conferencing.

Business travel and events are unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024, according to a recent American Hotel & Lodging Association survey. Although the leisure travel industry benefitted from pent-up demand during the summer of 2021, the Delta variant has undermined that temporary resurgence. And even with the recent increase in leisure travel, airplane traffic is still well below 2019 levels.

These are just a few of the industries that will continue to see COVID-19 weigh down their businesses and property values. Property and business owners should closely review their property tax values to make sure assessments adequately reflect the specific challenges affecting their properties, to include the pandemic's immediate, ongoing and future financial impact.

Aaron D. Vansant is a partner in the law firmDonovanFingar LLC, the Alabama member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Oct
06

Property Tax Relief for the COVID Years

Strategies for getting value adjustments on assets impacted by the pandemic, from attorney Cynthia Fraser.

Last January I penned an article for this publication titled: "Will 2021 Bring Property-Tax Relief?" I never imagined we would enter a second phase of outbreaks and continued economic fallout related to COVID-19.

Because most states assess property for taxes as of Jan. 1 each year, last year's assessments did not reflect the pandemic's catastrophic impact on real estate in 2020. This year, as jurisdictions certify tax rolls to reflect real market values as of Jan. 1, 2021, property tax relief may depend on the taxing jurisdiction's recognition of external obsolescence due to COVID-19.

Businesses and commercial properties in my hometown of Portland, Ore., are still suffering from not only work-from-home policies and social distancing mandates related to COVID-19, but also the long-term effects of civil unrest downtown following the death of George Floyd. While downtown experienced a glimmer of revival this summer, many once-vibrant small businesses and restaurants remain boarded up or vacant. Whether from COVID-19 or riots, these external influences affected property market value during 2020.

Across the nation, many companies have extended remote-work policies through the end of the year, leaving office buildings a ghostly reflection of their bustling heydays and slowing recovery of commerce dependent on office worker customers.

A visible occupancy decline for commercial real estate that housed offices, restaurants, small retail stores and hotels should be hard to ignore. Unfortunately, tax assessors have been reluctant to recognize these realities when assessing taxable property value, even when the marketplace reflects downward trends.

Obtaining relief will require the taxpayer to effectively document the market impact of COVID-19 during 2020 and into 2021. Their focus should be on the market, property class, rents, vacancies and property sales, as well as the property characteristics that tenants and investors were seeking on the date of value, Jan. 1, 2021. The following paragraphs cover key points to consider.

Will Workers Return to the Office Full Time?

The office market may undergo the most significant long-term adjustments to the pandemic. In fact, office changes that started in 2020 will continue into this next tax year. The shrinking of office footprints appears to be lasting as remote work becomes acceptable and, in fact, necessary to attract and keep talent.

Younger office workers in particular are voicing a strong desire to work from home permanently or part-time. The reality is that most office workers have gotten off the merry-go-round of spending 12 hours of each day commuting and working. Walking to the kitchen table or a bedroom office with coffee in hand has its appeal to many.

Work from home may be a necessity for many with younger children at home. During 2020, most schools and daycare facilities closed completely, leaving parents no choice but to pivot to full-time daycare on top of work.

Likewise, in 2020 businesses began projecting space needs going into 2021. In Portland, mass transit operator TriMet polled its workers and found an overwhelming aversion to a return to the office. Accordingly, the public agency reduced its office footprint, redesigned workspaces to accommodate "hoteling" or shared workstations, and allowed many employees to permanently work from home. The private industry is quietly following suit, as 2021 shows no real slowdown in COVID-19.

The Hotel Industry Languishes

Perhaps no other industry has been harder hit than the hotels and conventions industry that collapsed in 2020. Not only did pleasure travel come to a standstill, but Zoom meetings and virtual conventions replaced business travel to become the new normal in 2021. The result was high vacancy in 2020 and lingering uncertainty over how long these properties will continue to be underutilized, sending a ripple effect through other commercial spaces.

The Market Wild Card: Housing

The wild card for 2020 was housing. Single-family homes across the nation saw exponentially rising prices that should make a tax assessor's heart soar. However, rent moratoriums for most of 2020 devastated some landlords. Documenting the costs associated with nonpaying renters, including higher management fees for evictions, may be used for challenging this past year's taxes. Rent moratoriums are an external market force outside a landlord's control, making them an incurable, negative external factor.

Demonstrating External Obsolescence

When requesting a lower assessed value for 2020, taxpayers should be ready to show how pandemic effects contributed to external obsolescence for their properties, requiring a depreciation adjustment to real market value. It will be important to address not only how changing occupier demand is affecting values in that property type but also the real estate's location and the degree to which its value depends on the surrounding submarket.

Identify all external factors, including those addressed in this article that impacted the property in 2020. These are economic influences outside the taxpayer's control and create an external obsolescence to the property that is incurable.

Appraisers recognize external obsolescence as an acceptable valuation adjustment to a property's market value. The Appraisal of Real Estate, published by the Appraisal Institute, recognizes the term and its application as a form of depreciation.

External obsolescence can be temporary or permanent and has a marketwide effect that typically influences an entire class of properties. This depreciation or obsolescence adjustment can be applied on a year-by-year basis to reflect the impacts of COVID-19 on the real estate for 2020.

Any assessor's argument that there may not be long-term impacts on the real estate is irrelevant to the 2020 assessment year when using an external obsolescence adjustment. For tax year 2020, at least, there can be no doubt that the majority of commercial real estate was hit hard by the pandemic and merits an external or economic adjustment. When approaching the assessor to request a value reduction for 2020, come prepared with economic market data to support an external obsolescence adjustment.

Cynthia M. Fraser is a shareholder at Foster Garvey, PC, in the firm's Portland, Oregon, office, and is the Oregon Representative of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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  • Strategies for getting value adjustments on assets impacted by the pandemic, from attorney Cynthia Fraser.
Sep
30

Understand the Impact of Intangibles

How to use these factors to reduce a senior living property's tax assessment.

The longstanding debate over intangible value in commercial real estate taxation rages unabated, and nowhere is the squabbling fiercer than in valuing seniors living facilities. Because these properties generally transact based on income from a going concern rather than from real estate, taxpayers planning to acquire a seniors facility should consider how to separate intangible value prior to acquisition. Simply waiting for the annual tax bill is a recipe for incurring inflated cost and an inferior investment return.

Skilled nursing facilities, assisted living and other seniors housing subtypes often require state-issued licenses personal to the operator. Critically, seniors housing sales typically involve the transfer of a going concern including a valid operating license, assembled workforce and other business assets required for the operation. In other words, sales involve more than just the real estate, and the intangible personal property component involves more than just goodwill.

Acquisition pitfalls

A seniors housing owner's overall return may hinge on tax consequences. Common considerations include real estate transfer taxes, allocation of basis for income tax purposes, real and personal property tax assessments, and segregation of readily depreciable or amortizable assets from non-depreciable or non-amortizable assets.

A common mistake is to use the transaction price as the consideration in the deed. That consideration is the basis for transfer taxes and should exclude tangible and intangible personal property value. Many assessors will revalue the property based on deed consideration, which is easily identifiable and theoretically reflects both parties' valuation of the land and improvements. Thus, citing overall transaction value on the deed can lead to inappropriate excessive taxation.

Instead, define consideration in an allocation agreement at or before closing, which is when the property's federal income tax basis is determined. This generally identifies four components: land (non-depreciable); buildings or improvements (generally depreciable); tangible personal property (generally depreciable); and goodwill or ongoing business value, represented by intangible personal property or business enterprise value. A cost segregation study is helpful but not required.

Loans secured by senior living facilities often pose valuation challenges. Lenders underwriting on a going concern basis need to address whether the state-issued licenses can be secured. The Small Business Administration requires SBA lenders to obtain a going-concern appraisal for real estate involving an ongoing business. Those appraisals must value the separate components and be completed by an appraiser trained in valuing going concerns.

The federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which regulates commercial banks, requires lenders to use a competent appraiser but does not specify appraiser course requirements.

Property tax issues

State law generally requires tax assessors to value only real estate, based on a hypothetical transaction involving the real estate only. Therein lies the rub, because the property's income reflects a combination of real property and tangible and intangible personal property. There is now general agreement that hotels and most seniors living facilities involve intangible value.

The problem is isolating the intangible value. For example, in a 2020 decision involving Disney's Yacht & Beach Club Resort, the Florida Court of Appeals noted that though the nearly 1,200-room hotel's business and real estate values are linked, the assessor is required to value only the real estate, not the going concern.

Some older literature suggests that real estate value contributes only 73 percent to the value of independent living properties, 53 percent to assisted living values, and only 36 percent to the value of a skilled nursing facility. The remaining, non-taxable value, is from the going concern.

The Appraisal of Real Estate provides that going-concern value "includes the incremental value associated with the business concern, which is distinct from the value of the tangible real property and personal property." The Dictionary of Real Estate Appraisal, 6th Edition, defines intangible property as "nonphysical assets, including but not limited to franchises, trademarks, patents, copyrights, goodwill, equities, securities, and contracts as distinguished from physical assets such as facilities and equipment."

State-issued seniors housing licenses fall squarely in the definition of intangible personal property but can be difficult to value, demanding business valuation skills in addition to real estate appraisal skills.

Appropriate approaches

Appraisers typically try to value real estate using the cost, sales comparison, and income approaches, none of which fit seniors housing well. Moreover, charged with valuing many properties, assessors often employ mass appraisal techniques ill-suited for valuing complex going concerns.

Sales comparison drawbacks include the skewing effects of portfolio sales. Common in seniors housing, portfolio prices can obscure the consideration for individual properties or may include significant price premiums over individual sale prices, for reasons completely separate from real estate value.

Some appraisers will use the nearest multifamily sale as a comparable transaction. Yet most types of seniors housing offer abbreviated individual kitchens, if any, and smaller individual living spaces designed to encourage seniors to use the common facilities. If an appraiser is going to use a traditional multifamily property as a comparable, it must be adjusted to retrofit the property as conventional apartments.

To use an income approach, the appraiser must recognize that a huge portion of the seniors housing rent is not attributable to shelter but to services. As noted, seniors apartments are typically designed to get people out of individual units and into common areas. Common spaces usually generate higher expenses and are built to encourage the use of services such as shared dining rooms.

Similarly, compared with standard apartments, expenses for seniors living facilities involve higher maintenance, utility, management and administrative fees generally associated with the property's intangible value. Further, continuing care retirement communities exercise significant synergies between service levels as residents age. Proper analysis of these income and expense figures requires expertise generally removed from an assessor relying on mass appraisals.

Recognizing that many seniors living facilities include substantial intangible value, a 2017 white paper by the International Association of Assessing Officers (IAAO) suggests the cost approach is the proper method for extracting intangible value. Replacement cost certainly offers an easily understandable way for extracting that value.

While correct in valuing new construction, however, the cost approach has questionable utility for older facilities. Replacement cost will often not reflect value, since one can question whether a seniors facility would be rebuilt in the absence of a license. That raises a problem best analyzed as whether the facility represents the property's highest and best use.

The real valuation answer is anything but simple.

At its heart, the debate over how to value seniors care facilities rests on assessors engaged in a hypothetical exercise which is not reflective of the market. Without agreement on how to value the real property when a transaction involves a going concern, the debate will continue.

Morris Ellison is a partner in the Charleston, South Carolina, office of law firm Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP. The firm is the South Carolina member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Sep
15

Tricky Issues Impact Shopping Center Property Taxes

It's critical for landlords to understand how variations in performance affect property tax liabilities.

Property tax assessments of shopping centers and other retail real estate may not capture the full extent of value losses those properties sustained in 2020. To avoid paying more than their fair share of taxes, it is important for retail owners to examine how market conditions affect each aspect of the tax assessor's approach to valuing their real estate.

In most jurisdictions, assessors value real estate for property taxes as of Jan. 1 of each calendar year. Most appraisal districts assess retail properties at market value derived from the income approach, as would an investor looking to acquire one of these properties. Market value in this case is the probable price at which a property would sell in a competitive and open market, where the buyer and seller are motivated, well informed and acting in their own best interest, and with reasonable exposure time and typical financing.

In a stable environment, most appraisal districts' assessors capitalize the prior year's net operating income to reach a market value. Since the 2020 retail property market was less than stable, a modified approach could be to start with a stabilized value, then calculate the rent loss and leasing costs required to stabilize the asset.

The pandemic and stay-at-home orders affected retail property subtypes in varying ways, and performance often varied from property to property within a subtype through most of 2020 and into 2021. Multitenant strip centers saw large occupancy declines as a 20% drop in customer traffic nationwide left many tenants unable to pay rent.

Mall Mayhem

Malls were among the hardest hit properties. Foot traffic in some malls dropped nearly to zero and mall anchors including JC Penney, Macy's, and Dillard's began liquidating many locations. Prior to the pandemic, enclosed shopping malls and brick-and-mortar stores were already struggling to maintain customer traffic related to massive increases in ecommerce. The effects of changing consumer behavior, in addition to mandated stay-at-home orders, accelerated this shift to ecommerce, and many mall-based tenants closed their doors completely.

Big box retailers arguably fared better than other store categories, as those designated as essential businesses remained open throughout 2020. Because of this, in many cases sales volume at big box retailers (especially those with grocery components) outpaced sales at other retail property types. Store sales do not equal market value for the purposes of property tax assessments, which underscores the need in 2021 for property owners to be more aware than ever of tax assessors' valuation standards.

While appraisal districts may emphasize increased sales volume in big box retail, property owners need to remember that business performance does not equal real estate value. Store sales may be up, but an increasing percentage of these sales come from online orders. Property owners must prove that, despite increased sales volume overall, big box property values are generally flat or decreasing. Ecommerce has weighed on real estate values for the past few years and has forced big box retailers to re-evaluate their approach to storefronts.

Rent Adjustments

The pandemic forced property owners to make significant rent concessions to keep tenants in place throughout 2020, when those occupiers were able to do so. These rent concessions should reduce effective rents in the retail market, with variation by location and submarket. Additionally, with a large portion of tenants unable to pay rent, the retail market saw massive collection losses and climbing vacancy rates.

If a property is operating below average market occupancy, the assessor or appraiser must include a discount for lost rent or an adjustment for the cost of lease-up. Together with rent concessions, increased vacancies reduce the effective gross income these properties can produce.

Since most multitenant retail leases are structured on a triple net basis that requires tenants to pay for taxes, utilities, common area maintenance, administrative expenses and insurance, property owners are on the hook for 2020 expenses that they would normally pass through to tenants who are no longer in place. This could expose property owners to increased levels of risk.

The pandemic also compelled property owners to reallocate capital expenditures to make buildings more resilient to virus transmission risks. As a result, other necessary capital expenditures may have been deferred, which could impact the bottom line and increase the difficulty of finding potential buyers for these properties.

Questionable Cap Rates

After calculating net operating income, appraisal districts will then capitalize that income with a chosen capitalization rate to determine market value. The pandemic's effect on cap rates is difficult to ascertain, however, and lenders have grown more cautious. The increased risk associated with retail properties today requires an upward adjustment in cap rates, with a correlating decrease in property market values.

Property tax is a significant expense to the property owner, with numerous issues and nuances to consider. Managing this cost may appear daunting but can be accomplished effectively with the correct understanding of the market conditions affecting the property. It is important to understand the subtleties of how assessors value the property, or to partner with an experienced advisor with that knowledge. SCB

Nick Machan is a tax consultant at Austin, Texas, law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC, which focuses its practice 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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  • It’s critical for landlords to understand how variations in performance affect property tax liabilities.

American Property Tax Counsel

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