Assessors Often Overvalue Centers, Ignoring Vacancies and Other Issues
"Landlords must diligently review property taxes yearly, looking at assessments based on current marketplace conditions."
Most shopping center owners are being overtaxed and do not even know it. Or they do not realize it until they get their tax bill. The problem is in the way taxes are figured by local assessors- a methodology that was only adequate, at best, during good times, but which has become a severe handicap to landlords during this lengthy economic downturn.
In most states assessors take a mass appraisal approach, trying to determine as quickly and ubiquitously as possible the fair market value of all the shopping centers within a tax district using existing data. The assessor is looking at the market value of the property based upon fee-simple value, which is the value of the real estate without encumbrances - that is, what it would sell for if it were vacant and available for sale or lease at market rates.
"The reality is, there are few cases of commercial property selling where you have a vacant building for sale without encumbrances," said Kieran Jennings, a Cleveland-based partner at Siegel, Siegel, Johnson & Jennings. "Typically, it is partially occupied, fully occupied, et cetera. Often there are deed restrictions in place." Jennings is a member of the Washington-based American Property Tax Counsel, which assists property owners in the U.S. and Canada with tax issues.
"Assessors will look at a market, they will review published sources on cap rates, et cetera, to come up with a model that will be used on shopping centers across the board," said Darlene Sullivan, a partner at Austin, Texas-based Popp, Gray & Hutcheson, and also a member of the APTC. "They have to get their numbers out quickly and apply the model without looking specifically into any condition."
Assessments are levied in similar fashion in Michigan. "In Michigan, as in most states, value is based on market as opposed to contract rent," said Michael Shapiro, a Detroit-based partner at Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn, and an APTC member. "In general, the assessor uses a cost approach that has not adequately accounted for obsolescence in the market, reduced demand for property, greater vacancies and increased cap rates. All these factors have a negative impact on value. "There are two general ways overtaxing occurs. The first is the time-lag effect of a slumping market, and the second involves the lease adjustments often made to keep tenants in place, but which assessors do not take into account.
Indiana landlords were being victimized by the calendar until laws there were changed, says Stephen Paul, an Indianapolis-based partner at Baker & Daniels and an APTC member. "Our assessment date is a year behind our value date," Paul said. "For example, the assessment date was March 1, 2009, but the valuation date was January 1, 2008, and the market changed dramatically. On March 1, 2009, market conditions were worse than at the value date. People were taxed currently, but based on values when the market was much better."
The more common failure in tax assessments is the inflexibility of assessors or their inability to consider the lease inducements necessary to keep tenants. "I have a number of clients that are regional and local shopping center owners," said Jennings. "Since the fall of the real estate market, there has been tremendous pressure on them to keep tenants in place. So they have gone from net leases to gross leases, put in buildouts and removed square footage."
All these things mean that actual rents are less than what they appear to be to the assessor. Jennings gives one example where tenants will stay in place, but take up less space. To keep tenants, landlords will allow them to halve their space, which means they have effectively cut income in half. "Now when the assessors come along, they see all of your storefronts are occupied, but many of the tenants have reduced space," said Jennings. ''The landlord has pockets of dead space that will probably never be used again. The assessor is assessing you at rents that are $15 to $20 a square foot, but only half that space is being used, so the effective rent is really $7.50 to $10 a square foot. And it is not showing up in any published data, and assessors can only work from what is published."
That problem rarely gets rectified because, for competitive reasons, shopping center owners are reluctant to share information, which means, of course, that the assessors are working from incomplete data. "Shopping center owners are not amenable to giving out information to assessors," said Paul. "The landlord doesn't want to give out the details of a lease, so the assessor will say: 'If I'm not entitled to look at the lease, I have to make my own assumptions, which will be done on incorrect information. Afterward the taxpayer has to file an appeal against the assessment and layout the reasons why it was excessive."
Overtaxing is a problem not just for the shopping center owners, but for the tenants as well. Most leases are triple-net, which means that taxes are passed through to tenants, so a lower tax will benefit the tenant in the end, Sullivan says. "Tenants need someone to be aggressive for them to keep those triple nets down," she said.
This can also be problem with competitive shopping centers. Consider two similar shopping centers across the street from each other, each with the same type of vacancy. One center is valued at $100 per square foot, and the other at $130 per square foot. Because of triple net, tenants will be enticed to the center taxed at the lower rate, because all things considered, the expense of leasing will be lower.
An assessor equipped with nothing more than the cost approach will find it difficult to quantify value losses without going through a detailed income approach, something that assessor is going to lack the time to do. Most appeals processes will recognize this and adjust accordingly.
In Michigan when an appeal is filed, the parties generally get together and discuss the specifics, and usually the matter is resolved without a hearing or trial, says Shapiro. "We have handled many shopping center appeals, and in recent years we have not gone to trial on a shopping center. Some get resolved while preparing for trial, and some get resolved when a formal, independent appraisal is submitted.
"Not every place is so easy. In Ohio and Pennsylvania third parties such as school systems have joined the fray: fighting to keep assessments high because so much funding comes from levies. Lower assessments mean less revenue for the school districts. "In the event, you are able to convince the assessor to reduce taxes based on, say, half the leased space used," said Jennings. "The school districts in Ohio and Pennsylvania can come in and file their own tax appeal to raise the value of a given property." Landlords must diligently review property taxes yearly, looking at assessments based on current marketplace ' conditions, Shapiro says. "My clients are fighting assessments," he said, "because assessors were ignoring the function obsolescence of their properties, which in some cases meant a 50 percent reduction in value."