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Beware The Costs Of Hidden Capital

Owners Must Examine The Tax Consequences Of Making Capital Improvements Before Breaking Ground

For nearly 40 years, states have attempted to protect property owners from rapidly escalating property tax bills by limiting increases in the taxable value of real estate.  Often referred to as “caps,” these limitations are myriad and complicated, but share a tendency to distort the market for developers of new space and for property owners seeking to improve existing commercial properties.

How so?  Laws are state-specific, but taxpayers purchasing or improving real estate may lose the benefit of the cap on their property’s value, and incur a substantial tax increase on top of the acquisition or improvement cost.  In other words, caps discourage property owners from improving their properties, while owners who know how caps apply can access tremendous savings.

Caps in Action

Caps apply by limiting increases in taxable value for properties subject to reassessment that would otherwise rise to reflect the market.  For example:  California’s Proposition 13 generally limits annual valuation increases to 2 percent, even if the property’s market value is rising at a faster rate.  Common triggers for reassessment are an ownership change, countywide reassessment and improvements to the property.

Some states exempt a fixed percentage of any increased assessed value following an ownership change.  Ownership changes can include not only title transfers but also internal transfers of interests in the entity that owns the property.  To access this exemption, the taxpayer may need to take some timely action, such as filing a claim or meeting other state requirements.  Miss the deadline, and the exemption disappears.

Consequences of an oversight can be dramatic.  For example, an apartment complex previously assessed, capped or otherwise, at $20 million sells for $30 million.  Rather than incur taxes reflecting the full $10 million increase in value included in the sale price, the buyer qualifies for a 25 percent tax exemption, or $7.5 million.  Yet, failure to file a timely exemption application could result in taxation of that otherwise exempt $7.5 million of the total value.

Many jurisdictions cap value increases during periodic reassessment.  Florida generally limits annual increases to 10 percent of assessed value for the prior year.  South Carolina, which theoretically reassesses every five years, limits increases to 15 percent of the property’s prior assessed value unless there has been a property improvement or a change in ownership.

Some limits disappear if there has been an ownership change.  Florida generally defines an ownership change as any sale or transfer of title or control of more than 50 percent of the entity that previously owned the property.  South Carolina has adopted a much more complicated system of assessable transfers of interest (ATI’s).  The definition of an ATI runs for four full pages in the South Carolina Code.

Impaired by Improvements

With tax caps, taxpayers who improve their properties face even greater potential tax consequences, because states generally remove artificial caps on new construction and major renovations.  In other words, the total cost of improvements can include not only construction expenses but also a substantially heavier tax burden.  The result places an improved income-producing property at a serious disadvantage in competing with unimproved properties.

What constitutes an improved property? Florida has adopted a bright line test by examining whether the improvements increase value by at least 25 percent.  California law protects properties from reassessment so long as any work is normal maintenance or repair, or the improvement does not make the property “substantially equivalent to new.”

South Carolina is much more complicated and unclear.  The state requires assessors to include the value of new construction in valuing properties, but its statutes fail to define “improvements,” leaving interpretation to local taxing authorities.

The result is a patchwork quilt of inconsistency.  In order to circumvent South Carolina’s 15 percent cap on periodic reassessment, some counties have adopted a stepped approach to increases in value, although such a procedure is clearly unauthorized by statute.  Other counties simply add the value stated in building permits to existing assessed value in order to derive a new value, though the market would never see a sale on that basis.  Still other counties assume stabilization in valuing a new or improved income-producing property such as a hotel rather than accurately valuing the property before stabilization.  Clearly, a property owner improving a property faces a potential hidden cost in the form of increased taxes by loss of the statutory cap.

Reimplementation of tax caps on an improved income-producing property further complicates an owner’s prediction of costs.  Whatever the method of valuing the improvements, how does South Carolina’s 15 percent general cap apply to future valuations when the property value may be much greater?

If the taxing authority simply adds the cost of the increased value set forth in building permits, has the taxing authority fully captured an increase in value which, in turn, may be subject to re-imposed caps?  To state the obvious, an owner will not improve a property merely to re-cover the cost of improvements, but rather sees the potential of income gains exceeding improvement costs.

Most income-producing properties will generally require some period of time for lease up or stabilization.  Should the taxing authority be allowed to make assumptions of future income that the market would not make if the property sold prior to stabilization?  These questions have no easy answers.

Regardless of the system used for valuing new improvements, caps give a competitive advantage to owners of unimproved property in the form of lower costs.  Property owners must examine the obvious – and hidden – tax consequences of improvements to determine whether potential income from improvements justifies the costs.

Morris Ellison Photo Current july 2015Morris Ellison is a partner in the Charleston, S.C., office of the law firm Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice LLP. The firm is the South Carolina member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Morris Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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