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Challenge Office Building Tax Assessments

Owners can use the hurting office market to their benefit.

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

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

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

Why care about the office market?

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

Wrong.

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

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

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

Inflation and interest rates

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

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

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

Where are the sales?

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

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

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

Is it time to appeal?

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

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

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

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