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How the New Tax Law Affects Property Taxes

Due diligence is required to determine whether possible tax increases can be abated.

President Trump's Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is the first sweeping reform of the tax code in more than 30 years. Signed into law on Dec. 22, the plan drops top individual rates to 37 percent and doubles the child tax credit; it cuts income taxes, doubles the standard deduction, lessens the alternative minimum tax for individuals, and eliminates many personal exemptions, such as the state and local tax deduction, colloquially known as SALT.

While Republicans and Democrats remain divided on the overhaul's benefits, there is a single undeniable fact: The sharp reduction of the corporate tax rates from 35 percent to 21 percent will be a boon for most businesses. At the same time, employees seem to be benefiting too, with AT&T handing out $1,000 bonuses to some 200,000 workers, Fifth Third Bancorp awarding $1,000 bonuses to 75% of its workers, Wells Fargo raising its minimum wage by 11% and other companies sharing some of the increased profits with employees.Companies are showing understandable exuberance at the prospect of lower tax liability, but investments many firms are making in response to the changes may trigger increases in their property tax bills.

Some companies already are reinvesting in their own infrastructure by improving and upgrading inefficient machinery or renovating aging structures. Renovations to address functional or economic obsolescence can help to attract new tenants and, most significantly, command higher rentals for the same space.

The real property tax systems in place for most states are based on an ad valorem (Latin for "according to value") taxation method. Thus, the real estate taxes are based upon the market value of the underlying real estate. Since the amounts on tax bills are based on a property's market value, changes or additions to the real estate can affect the taxes collected by the municipality.

Generally speaking, most renovations such as new facades, windows, heating or air conditioning will not change the value or assessment on a property. The general rule is that improvements which do not change the property's footprint or use, such as a shift from industrial to retail, shouldn't affect the property tax assessment. However, an expansion or construction which alters the layout of a property can – and usually does – result in an increased property assessment. Since real estate taxes are computed by multiplying the subject assessment by the tax rate, these changes or renovations can significantly increase the tax burden.

Recognizing that this dynamic could chill business expansions, many states offer a mechanism to phase-in or exempt any assessment increases. This can ease the sticker shock of a markedly higher property tax bill once construction is complete.

New York offers recourse in the form of the Business Investment Exemption described in Section 485-b of the Real Property Tax Law. If the cost of the business improvements exceeds $10,000 and the construction is complete with a certificate of occupancy issued, the Section 485-b exemption will phase-in any increase in assessment over a 10-year period. The taxpayer will see a 50 percent exemption on the increase in the first year, followed by 5 percent less of the exemption in each year thereafter. Thus, in Year 2 there will be a 45 percent exemption, 40 percent in Year 3 and so on.

Most other states have similar programs to encourage business investments and new commercial construction or renovations. The State of Texas has established state and local economic development programs that provide incentives for companies to invest and expand in local communities. For example, the Tax Abatement Act, codified in Chapter 312 of the tax code, exempts from real property taxation all or part of an increase in value due to recent construction, not to exceed 10 years. The act's stated purpose is to help cities, counties and special-purpose districts to attract new industries, encourage the development and improvement of existing businesses and promote capital investment by easing the increased property tax burden on certain projects for a fixed period.

Not long ago, the City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, enacted a 10-year tax abatement from real estate taxes resulting from new construction or improvements to commercial properties. Similarly, the State of Oregon offers numerous property tax abatement programs, with titles such as the Strategic Investment Program, Enterprise Zones and others.

Minnesota goes a step further and automatically applies some exemptions to real property via the Plat Law. The Plat Law phases-in assessment increases of bare land when it is platted for development. As long as the land is not transferred and not yet improved with a permanent structure, any increase in assessment will be exempt. Platted vacant land is subject to different phase‑in provisions depending on whether it is in a metropolitan or non‑metropolitan county.

Clearly, no matter where commercial real estate is located, it is prudent for a property owner to investigate whether any recent improvements, construction or renovations can qualify for property tax relief.

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