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Some Justice for Taxpayers

How a Compelling, Well-Prepared Property Tax Appeal Can Defeat An Unlawfully Excessive Assessment

" A compelling case that is well presented gives the taxpayer the best chance at success."

It's no secret to taxpayers that appealing property tax assessments can be challenging. Typically, taxpayers bear both the burden of proof and the risk of a decision that not only protects government revenue but also ignores the facts and applicable law. Nevertheless, sometimes a compelling and well-prepared property tax appeal can result in tax justice.

A 2013 Michigan Tax Tribunal decision exemplifies the potential for achieving a fair outcome. In this case, the tribunal determined the market value of an apartment complex with 779 units. The analysis was substantially the same for both tax years involved, so just the first valuation date is discussed here.

The taxpayer claimed that the property was worth less than $13,400 per unit. Based on sales of apartments in the area, on an absolute and relative basis, this is a low value for an apartment property in the subject market. To prevail, the taxpayer had to carefully present its case using three essential components:

  • A convincing explanation of why the subject property's per-unit value was so low;
  • A well-reasoned appraisal based upon both the income approach and sales comparison approach, which demonstrated that the property was worth what the taxpayer contended and refuted the contentions and analysis of the government's assessor and appraiser; and
  • Legal authorities whose testimony supported the taxpayer's position.
  • The taxpayer needed each of these three ingredients to achieve total victory. It would have been insufficient for the taxpayer to have simply presented an appraisal that reached value conclusions supporting their contentions. In recent years, there have been numerous cases where the tribunal found taxpayer-filed appraisals to be flawed and unpersuasive.

Winning the Case

The taxpayer gave a compelling explanation for the property's low value. In this case, the property's one- and two-bedroom units averaged a mere 581 square feet. The onebedroom units, which comprised more than 70 percent of the apartments, were only 550 square feet. Those measurements were far smaller than those of the area's other apartment complexes, which averaged 750 and 850 square feet for one- and two-bedroom units, respectively.

As the owner explained to the tribunal, the original developer had built the units decades before to serve relatively unskilled young adults working in area factories. The small unit sizes made the apartments affordable for these first-time renters.

The Great Recession reduced demand for all types of apartments, which hurt occupancy and rental rates for the entire apartment market. This economic obsolescence adversely impacted the subject property's value. Further, the recession negatively impacted the subject property far more than other apartment properties because the huge downturn eliminated so many factory jobs for relatively young and unskilled workers. As those jobs disappeared, so did single renters who wanted small units, saddling the property with enormous functional obsolescence.

Given these explanations of the property's deficiencies, the judge could readily accept that even when occupancy improved and became stabilized, the complex would have above-market vacancy and would be limited in the rents it could charge, while forcing the owner to bear most of the utility costs.
These facts were an integral part of the direct capitalization income approach in the taxpayer's appraisal. In this income approach, the appraiser first determined the property's net operating income with occupancy that had reached a stabilized level. This required providing and analyzing the income and expenses of comparable properties as well as the subject property's financial results in recent calendar years. The appraiser applied an appropriate capitalization rate to the stabilized net operating income to determine the property's value as stabilized. The appraiser then subtracted the costs of rent concessions and lost rents the property would experience as it increased occupancy to a higher stabilized level.

In the sales comparison approach, the appraiser presented sales of six comparable properties, and where applicable, made adjustments for numerous elements of comparison, including location and age. Significantly, the appraiser's analysis included not only the commonly used per-apartment unit basis but also a per-square-foot analysis.

The appraiser gave some weight to this sales comparison approach but relied primarily on the income approach. Their testimony, supported by testimony of one of the taxpayer's senior managers, not only satisfied the taxpayer's burden of proof but presented a compelling case.

Having heard this powerful evidence, during the cross-examination of the government's witnesses, it was easier for the judge to see the flaws in the assessor's income and sales comparison approaches. Also, the taxpayer's counsel was able to cite a legal precedent to refute the government's cost approach, which ignored functional and economic obsolescence.

Ultimately, the tribunal rejected the government's value contention, which was 50 percent higher than the taxpayer's, and adopted the taxpayer's claimed value.
For taxpayers who are inexperienced in handling property tax appeals, these cases can be fraught with pitfalls that result in excessive taxation and exasperating endings. A compelling case that is well presented, however, gives the taxpayer the best chance at success. And as this case shows, there are times when tax justice is indeed attainable.

MANDELL Stewart

Stewart L. Mandell is a partner in the law firm of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn L.L.P., the Michigan member of the American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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