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Tax Trap: Don't Overlook Occupancy in Property Assessments

Assessors too often value newly constructed apartments as fully occupied, producing excessive assessments.

Developers frequently ask how to estimate property taxes on newly constructed multifamily properties, and tax assessors often provide an easy answer by adding up the value of building permits or by projecting the project's value when fully rented. However, this seemingly simple question grows complex when the assessor's valuation date precedes full occupancy and the ramifications of a wrong answer can linger for years.

Consider these points to value a new multifamily project more accurately.

Valuation Methods

Charged with valuing hundreds or thousands of parcels, assessors often seek a quick way to value a new multifamily project.

The cost approach offers the quickest and easiest route for the assessor, who estimates the current expense to construct an identical structure. One way to do this on a new project is to add the value of the building permits to the land value.

While building costs are clearly a factor in the decision to build, the cost approach ignores the market preference to value income-producing projects based primarily on income.

The assessor's second-easiest option is to rely on an appraisal's stabilization value and ignore the time and cost required to achieve stabilization. In valuing a not-yet-built multifamily project using an income approach, appraisers preparing a financing appraisal should, but don't always, calculate two different values: the "at completion" value and the "stabilized" value.

"At completion" is the project's value when construction is complete but prior to being fully leased. The prospective market value, or "as stabilized," reflects the property's projected market worth when, and if, it achieves stabilized occupancy.

The Dictionary of Real Estate defines stabilized value in terms of the expected occupancy of a property in its particular market, considering current and forecast supply and demand, and assuming it is priced at market rent. To determine a property's fair market value prior to stabilization, one must account for the monetary loss the owner will incur prior to stabilization.

Development Issues

Improvements generally trigger reassessment. The assessor's statutorily mandated valuation date generally ignores the development calendar's key milestones, most importantly the construction commencement, completion and revenue stabilization dates.

The developer makes assumptions during the development process, calculating the cost of building and operating the improvements as well as the rents that can be achieved. This calculation serves as the basis for a pro forma of an income and expense analysis of the project when fully leased.

Construction loans reflect building costs and subsequent time and money needed to achieve full lease-out or stabilization. Banking regulations require the lender to obtain an appraisal. The completed, but not yet stabilized, project incurs costs in the form of income not received during initial leasing, until it reaches stabilization.

Permanent financing depends on the stabilized value, which, in turn, depends on the project's income. Appraisals for permanent loan commitments obtained prior to the project's completion use a prospective valuation date and must contain various assumptions as to the property's financial condition on that prospective date.

The FDIC's Interagency Appraisal and Evaluation Guidelines authorize using a prospective market value in valuing a property interest for a credit decision. The Uniform System of Professional Appraisal Practices requires disclosure of assumptions in an appraisal with a prospective market value, as of an effective date subsequent to the appraisal report's date.

Assumptions regarding the anticipated rent at stabilization and the time required to lease the property are key to calculating stabilized value. Also critical are incentives the owner may offer prospective tenants during lease-up, and the project's projected income once fully leased. The appraisal should clearly disclose these assumptions, but they can still prove incorrect.

Clear disclosure of assumptions is critical. Unfortunately, many appraisers fail to adequately disclose their assumptions, and shortcut to the project's stabilized value.

Valuation Dates

Most state statutes prohibit taxation of improvements while under construction. The project usually comes on line for tax purposes after completion but prior to stabilization.

Being mandated by statute, the valuation date often does not account for where the multifamily project is on the spectrum between completion and stabilization. Unsophisticated assessors charged with valuing these projects often employ mass-appraisal techniques and may value the asset similarly to the market's stabilized properties.

Statutory Caps

Some states cap potential increases in tax value, which may magnify impact of the initial tax valuation. Caps limit increases that would otherwise bring values up to the market. For example, South Carolina properties undergo countywide reassessment every five years, but property values ordinarily cannot increase by more than 15 percent from the previously determined value.

Assessors know that a project's value at completion will nearly always be lower than its stabilized value because stabilization takes time and costs money. Competition may lower the project's achievable income, too. This knowledge can spur assessors to reach for stabilized values regardless of whether the project is yet stabilized. This taxes the unrealized, additional value between completion and stabilized levels.

A Matter of Time

All of the above considerations involve a timing disconnect between the property's actual condition on the statutorily mandated valuation date and its estimated future value based on fallible projections by the lender, developer or assessor. Axiomatically, assumptions don't always hold true. Lease-up may take longer than expected and may require concessions that increase cost. In over-built markets, the stabilized income may be lower than originally anticipated.

Charged with calculating true or fair market value as of a statutorily mandated valuation date, the assessor should examine how the market would value the property as of that date. If the asset has not achieved stabilization, the assessor should discount appropriately for time and financial costs required to achieve stabilization.  That is what the market would do, and is what the assessor is statutorily obligated to do.

And that should be the answer to the seemingly simple question of how to value newly constructed multifamily projects for tax purposes.

Morris Ellison is a partner in the Charleston, S.C., office of the law firm Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP. The firm is the South Carolina member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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