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Don't Stack The Tax Deck Against Yourself

Tax expert warns of property taxation issues buyers may be unaware of when acquiring an asset.

In the mysterious realm of property tax valuation, it is hard enough to get a proper and decent property tax value on commercial property on a good day. It's even harder when the deck is stacked against you, and harder still when you are the one stacking the deck.

In many states, property transfers are significant revenue-raising events for taxing entities. In Georgia, the transferor (the grantor or seller in a transaction) takes the lead in filing form PT-61, which is filed along with the deed, and typically the transferor pays the tax. Generally speaking, the transfer tax burden amounts to $1 per $1,000 of asset value, which is less than in other states. The transferee, or the buyer in a transaction, may pay little attention to what happens with form PT-61, especially since the tax is paid by the transferor.

But county tax assessors pay particular attention to the PT-61, with serious implications for the transferee's future property tax liability.

How serious? Consider that even valuation professionals can find it challenging to distinguish between real estate value and the value of a business operated from the real estate. For example, Bill Gates inventing Microsoft and operating it from his garage does not create a billion-dollar garage.

Sometimes distinctions are less clear. Assume someone purchases a daycare center for $2 million. The buyer is acquiring a business that brings the building to life, providing care to hundreds of little ones crawling around and demanding attention, generating revenue to the owner in the process. That business has value and is worth, say, $1 million. Indeed, the business is why the buyer acquired the property.

A closing attorney involved in the deal's real estate aspect sees a $2 million check at closing for a building operating as a daycare center. Suddenly that $2 million appears on the PT-61. Rest assured, when the tax assessor sees $2 million on the PT-61 (and assuming the assessor has no thoughts that the value may be understated), the job is done. The value is affixed to the property. The property owner must show that the affixed value is grossly overstated, a burden complicated by the very closing where the owner acquired the property reflecting the $2 million value. Try explaining that to three lay members of a board of equalization. In these situations, the owner frequently pays twice the real estate taxes which should be owed, often perpetually.

Other types of properties are even more treacherous for buyers. Hotels are one example, especially higher-end properties that collect substantial revenue from needy guests willing to pay for pampering (perhaps hundreds of the not-so-little ones meandering around and demanding attention). At least the appraisal sector has developed some valuation standards for hotels.

A more challenging area is retirement homes or skilled nursing centers. Many of these structures are 50 to 60 years old with linoleum floors or aging carpet, window air conditioning units and in a condition which might charitably be described as basic. Were they standing vacant, the buildings may well be demolished. In such a case, business value derives from the units' designation as worthy of a "certificate of need," a government-issued document that verifies a need for the services provided at the property and grants approval and licenses for that activity.

The real estate and business may be worth $10 million but the real estate by itself may be worth only a minor fraction of that amount. Putting a value of $10 million on the PT-61 form may result in a huge tax liability, both for that property and for those similarly situated.

Calling a certificate of need "real property" is a major stretch. It is a license to operate a particular business from that property, an intangible personal property right subject to revocation. The revenue generation is already subject to income taxes; trying to collect real estate taxes because of that revenue is hard to justify, even if an assessor thinks of this type of business as a "cash cow," as one confided recently.

Even appraisals, most often done to help procure financing, are seldom helpful. Appraisers will talk in terms of the value and number of beds (some of which may be 50 years old) to justify a business' value or cash flow to support the loan. But this ignores the huge expenditures on patient care, nurses, support staff, training, safety, health and related matters for which Medicare, Medicaid and insurance pay for reimbursement. Few appraisals of nursing facilities focus on separating underlying real estate value, and many appraisals are worth little in negotiating with tax assessors.

For properties like these, rent doesn't determine value, either. A renter in these situations is renting a business more than renting real estate.

Despite the complexities of separating business value from real estate value, a buyer can at least avoid common mistakes. Pity the transferee who unknowingly allows a closing attorney to put the entire $15 million purchase price on a PT-61, when the property can't be worth that without including the retirement or nursing home business. Some type of discounted cash construction cost analysis is one way of approaching real estate value.

It is imperative to demonstrate a fair, reasonable and understandable allocation of real and personal property tax values on the PT-61. An assessor will merrily accept the seller's assertion that the full purchase price is applicable to real estate. The purchaser's pride in enriching county coffers will pale when the purchaser can no longer clear enough revenue after taxes to repay loans or even stay in business. The process to avoid that outcome starts when the property is acquired.

William Seigler IIIWilliam J. Seigler, III 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. He can be can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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