"External obsolescence may be market-wide or industry-specific, international, national, or local in origin. It can be temporary or permanent, but in most cases, the property owner is unable to fix the problem..."
Shopping center owners often find that factors beyond their control detract from the marketability and profitability of their investments, particularly in the current depressed market. Economic change and evolving technology, for example, have altered the way retailers and property owners transact business. While lenders keep a tight grip on potential financing, brick-and-mortar retailers must compete against an increasingly global, virtual marketplace.
Despite — and indeed because of — this bleak picture, property owners have reason for optimism. Several states and localities, including Chicago and Indiana, are in the midst of systematic property reassessments. Because this cycle of reassessments falls during a time when retailers are still struggling under the effects of the recession, property owners have an opportunity to reap tax savings from this market turbulence and increase the property's bottom line.
The goal of a property tax assessment is to apply the tax rate to an accurate property value. This value is generally set at either market value or at the property's value-in-use. A property's value, however it is set, can be affected by any number of factors, the most important of which for retail properties is the property's ability to earn rental income.
Imagine a neighborhood shopping center with leaking roofs and peeling paint. Perhaps the tenant spaces are awkwardly shaped or poorly constructed. An investor would value this property less than an otherwise comparable property in better condition. This depreciation, called physical and functional obsolescence, is due to the physical condition or flaws in the construction of the property.
But just as a property can suffer from physical and functional obsolescence, a property can suffer depreciation from sources external to the property itself. This depreciation, termed economic or external obsolescence, is a usually incurable loss in value caused by negative influences outside the property. External obsolescence may be market-wide or industry-specific, international, national, or local in origin. It can be temporary or permanent, but in most cases, the property owner is unable to fix the problem.
In order to use external obsolescence to reduce a property's tax assessment, the owner must first identify whether external obsolescence is present. Then the owner must quantify the effect of the obsolescence on the property. Unsupported claims of obsolescence are unlikely to impress an assessor and encourage a reduction in the property's assessment.
To quantify the obsolescence, the owner must know its source. Shopping centers in today's market are subject to external obsolescence from a variety of sources. General economic conditions have reduced the demand for leases and have resulted in fewer tenants. Existing tenants, feeling pressure from lower-overhead competitors, are seeking lower rents to reduce strain on their business. Many retail lease rents are based on a percentage of sales, and as sales fall, so does rental income.
As a result of the real estate boom in the middle of the last decade, many markets are oversupplied with competitive properties, and some uncertainty exists as to the future of brick-and-mortar retail. Further, buyers and sellers are still cautious while engaging in sales, and lenders continue to restrict available capital. Changes in interest rates, inflation, capitalization rates, and elected officials can all have an effect on property value.
Proving cause and effect
After identifying the source of the property's obsolescence, the owner must be able to show the impact of the obsolescence on the property. For example, if the owner has lowered rents in order to keep or attract tenants, the valuation of the property should reflect that lowered income earning potential. Decreased demand from investors, whether because of financing restrictions or lower income potential, should reduce the assessment to reflect the smaller market for investment properties.
And when determining value by comparing the sale of similar properties, owners should emphasize the differences in market conditions, which reduce the value of the property.
For most properties, the largest expense after debt service is the property tax bill, so any reduction in that tax burden can drastically improve the property's profitability. Thus, while the economic climate may be turbulent for some time, prepared and informed property owners can use the nuances of external obsolescence to help weather the storm.