"The varying directions of price trends demonstrate that now, more than ever, Atlanta property owners should closely review property tax assessments and make specific determinations regarding the correctness of the valuation. General sales trends and perceptions provide insufficient basis for deciding whether or not to appeal the county assessment notice..."
The year following a real estate acquisition is a critical tax year or the property's owner. An assessor will typically latch onto the recent sale price to support a reassessment of the property's taxable value to equal that transaction amount, effective in the following tax year.
When the new assessment arrives, some taxpayers will recognize the familiar sales price amount reflected in the property's assessed taxable value, breathe a sigh of resignation and plan to be taxed accordingly. Yet there is good reason to question the new assessment's accuracy, even if it equals the acquisition price.
Georgia law provides that the transaction amount a buyer pays for real estate in an arms-length, bona fide acquisition shall be the property's maximum allowable fair market value for property tax purposes for the following tax year. Accordingly, purchasers of property in one tax year should expect to receive ad valorem tax assessment notices for the subsequent tax year at a value no higher than the purchase price. In other words, the taxable value may be lower than the acquisition amount.
There are several analyses that a wise taxpayer should consider when reviewing the tax assessment received in the year following the property's purchase.
Some county taxing authorities use the purchase price as the taxable value for the next tax year by default. That price may not be an appropriate valuation, however.
Often the assessor is unaware that the purchase price may reflect an analysis of factors other than the value of the real estate alone, and that the price, therefore, may exceed the true fair market value. In that event, the taxpayer should identify and explain those factors to the assessor.
Examples might be special financing arrangements, the financial stability of certain tenants, the duration of existing rental terms, or the transference of non-real estate items such as personal property and/or intangibles. Intangibles may include an in-place work force, favorable contracts for property management or other non-taxable items.
Another potential consideration is that the property's financial performance may have varied from the expectations the purchaser entertained at the time of the acquisition. Perhaps physical changes to the property since the time of purchase have decreased its value; for example, the owner may have razed or demolished part of the improvements in preparation for remodeling or repair that did not occur before Jan. 1.
In short, the purchaser should not blindly accept a transaction value from the previous year as the real estate's de facto taxable value.
Be on the lookout for sale-chasing assessors. Sale chasing occurs when a tax assessor changes assessments only on properties sold in a given year and leaves assessments unchanged on similar properties that did not change hands.
Property owners should be diligent, comparing the assessment of newly purchased property relative to assessments of similar properties in the same market that have not sold, to determine if their own assessment is accurate. Compare assessments of similar properties on a per-square-foot basis, a per-key basis, or on a per-unit basis, depending on the property type, to determine if a question about fairness in valuation may exist, and whether further analysis is warranted.
In addition to comparing the assessment of the purchased property to the assessments of comparable properties that have not sold, the wise property owner should also compare the assessment to the assessments of com-parable properties in the same market that were sold in the preceding year.
The taxpayer may need to calculate and compare a gross rent multiplier ratio. To determine this ratio, divide the assessment of the real estate by its annual rental income before expenses such as taxes, insurance, utilities, etc. (It may require a market survey or direct inquiry to acquire that data.)
While this method ignores differences in vacancy rates, if the gross rent multiplier for the taxpayer's real estate is much higher than the multiplier for similar properties that sold in the same market and calendar year as the subject property, then the taxpayer may have a legitimate cause for complaint.
In a hypothetical example, a property sold for $25.3 million in 2014, has the potential to generate $2.5 million in rent annually, and received a 2015 county tax assessment of $25.25 million. The ratio of the county assessment divided by the rent potential results in a gross rent multiplier of 10.1.
Another property sold in 2014 at a price of $27.4 million, has annual rent potential of $3.4 million, and the 2015 county tax assessment on this property was $23.2 million. This second property's gross rent multiplier is 6.82. A third property that did not sell was assessed at $30.68 million for 2015 and its annual rent potential was $4.5 million, resulting in a gross rent multiplier of 6.82.
After making these comparisons, the taxpayer in this example can make a good argument for a lower assessment. It is worth mentioning that taxpayers must adhere strictly to applicable appeal deadlines.
Clearly, sale price does not necessarily equal fair market value. Shrewd taxpayers in Georgia should carefully review, research and analyze their assessment notices to determine whether the county taxing authority has merely made a cursory assessment of the fair market value of their property based solely on the purchase price. If so, an appeal may be in order.