Funds set aside to maintain, repair and upgrade capital assets are the lifeblood of many commercial properties today. Known as “reserves for replacement,” the treatment of these major operating expenses in the calculation of a property’s value can significantly influence its tax burden. Mishandling that calculation can cost a taxpayer dearly.
Replacement funds are essential resources that enable hotels and resorts to renovate every few years, a critical task if they are to remain competitive. Likewise, department stores and most in-line retailers in shopping centers must rejuvenate their properties in order to keep customers coming. Even fast food outlets must update their spaces, as well as their menus, on a regular basis to maintain sales.
The sums that hospitality, retail and food outlets spend to renovate or refresh their properties on a regular basis are sizable, sometimes as much as 5 percent of total revenues. Reserves are a significant expense these properties must bear, and have a major impact on a property’s bottom line.
Property tax assessments for commercial properties usually reflect income that the properties produce. The greater a property’s net revenue, the higher the property’s assessed value and tax burden will be. Clearly, it is in the taxpayer’s interest to make sure tax assessors do not inflate that net revenue by improperly accounting for expenses in their value calculations.
Above the Line or Below?
In many industries, replacement reserves are an above-the-line expense deduction, which means they are deducted along with other operating expenses to determine net operating income. If the reserve is large, its deduction can greatly reduce a property’s net income.
Why do accountants and appraisers handle reserves this way? Because the above-the-line deduction of reserves permits properties to be compared on an apples-to-apples basis.
For example, the replacement reserves deduction for one hotel may vary from the deduction for another hotel for a variety of reasons, including intensity of use, age of the facility and so forth, based on the owner /operator’s knowledge of what is needed to keep that hotel competitive.
Removing reserves from the picture enables an appraiser or assessor to compare the net income performance of comparable competing properties on a uniform basis. Such comparisons are also important to investors.
Reserves and Property Taxes
As described above, the deduction of replacement reserves as an expense affects a property’s net income. If the assessor fails to deduct the reserves, or deducts them after net income in a below-the-line calculation, the net income will be higher. Conversely, if the appraiser deducts reserves as an operating expense, net income will be lower.
Net income often underpins property tax values and tax assessments. If the assessor deducts reserves and net income is lower, then the property’s taxes will be lower. If not, the taxes will be higher.
In some states, including California, tax authorities mimic market participants in their treatment of reserves. That means that for some properties, assessors deduct reserves so that properties can be directly compared for appraisal and valuation purposes. The consistent handling of reserves also permits taxing authorities to develop capitalization rates from comparable sales transactions.
Reporting Inconsistencies can Increase Taxes
While participants in a particular real estate sector — say, hospitality or retail — generally handle reserves in the same way, it is difficult to learn about the amount of replacement reserves deducted for a specific property due to the confidentiality of financial statements. If financial statements are available, the property’s operator may ignore industry standards and report reserves below the line, or may not report reserves at all.
The amount of reserves reported, usually as a percentage, may also vary from property to property even within the same property class. Finally, a property operator may simply use an arbitrary figure for reserves, which does not represent the actual cost of the replacement reserve deduction incurred.
Disparities in reporting reserves can significantly skew the net income, which is the basis for a property’s assessed value and property tax bill. Taxing authorities exacerbate the problem when they handle replacement reserves inconsistently, either because of inconsistent reporting or because the assessor attempts to correct financial statements that omit replacement reserves or appear to inaccurately report replacement reserves. If the assessor uses incorrect data, or incorrectly adjusts the data, the property values will be incorrect and the taxes based on those values will be erroneous.
Getting Reserves and Taxes Right
Taxpayers can insure their local assessor properly handles reserves in assessing and taxing their properties by taking these simple steps.
1. If the taxpayer provides financial statements to the tax authorities, make sure to report replacement reserves consistently with industry practice. If most industry participants report on an above-the-line basis, follow that practice.
2. If the taxpayer is spending replacement reserves, report the full amount of those reserves. Failure to report or under-reporting will likely increase the property’s taxes.
3. Ask to see the financial statements from other properties that the taxing authority is using to value the property. If the assessor won’t disclose those statements, at least ask to see the portion showing the amount of reserves and the how they are being handled.
4. If investigation shows that reserves are being improperly handled and a property is over-valued, meet with the tax authority’s appraiser to discuss the situation and, if necessary, use the appeals process to correct the assessment.