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What's The Basis For Your Assessment?

Assessors must value only the 'sticks and bricks,' not the business enterprise.

What can Indiana assessors value for property tax purposes? The answer is simple – the fee simple interest and nothing more. Yet assessors stray from that straightforward rule with alarming frequency.

In valuing land and improvements, assessors are not permitted to assign value to personal property; that is assessed separately. They also must refrain from assessing intangible assets – which are non-taxable – or the business operations conducted on or within a property. Profits may be subject to corporate income tax, but not property tax.

The fee simple interest is the absolute, unencumbered ownership of the real property, the sticks and bricks, subject only to the limitations imposed by the governmental powers of taxation, eminent domain, police power, and escheat.

A fee simple interest means the owner retains the right to sell, lease or occupy the property. If the assessor values more than the fee simple interest, he or she has gone too far. Such assessments are not only erroneous as a matter of law, but also bad public policy because they result in double or otherwise illegal taxation.

Establishing Precedent

The Indiana Board of Tax Review, which oversees property tax appeals at the state level, has recognized that the market value and market value-in-use standards do not permit “assessors to assess things other than real property rights for ad valorem taxation.” In fact, the Indiana Tax Court has dismissed assessors’ efforts to value more than a property’s fee simple interest.

In 2013, the court rejected an assessor’s reliance on above-market contract rents to establish a commercial property’s value. The taxpayer based its rents on sale-leaseback transactions, which included an investment component, and thus sold more than ownership rights in property.

In an earlier ruling, the court agreed that “one should approach the rental data from [sale-leaseback] transactions with caution, taking care to ascertain whether the sales prices/contract rents reflect real property value alone, or whether they include the value of certain other economic interests.”

Indiana law requires assessors to determine a property’s true tax value, which for property other than agricultural land means the “market value-in-use of a property for its current use, as reflected by the utility received by the owner or by a similar user, from the property.”

Too often assessors misunderstand and misapply this standard by seeking to value the taxpayer’s specific, on-site business operations.

Profitability is Irrelevant

Even if the taxpayer’s business is successful, the building in which its business is regularly conducted must be valued no differently than a similar, vacant building. Consider this ex-ample:

In an industrial park, two 10-year-old buildings sit side-by-side, identical in size, shape, condition, construction materials and workmanship. The same external or economic factors impact both properties’ values.

On the assessment date, an extremely profitable business uses Building A at full capacity and around the clock. In contrast, Building B is vacant, though it had previously served the same general purpose as Building A. Despite the owner’s best efforts, no business is conducted on the property.

Objective, reliable market evidence undisputedly indicates that the true tax value of the fee simple interest of Building B is $1 million as of the date of value.

What is the indicated value of the fee simple interest of Building A? It’s (fee) simple: $1 million.

How can that be, especially when business is going gangbusters inside Building A? The answer is that we are not valuing that business activity. In an arm’s length transaction, assuming a fair sale occurs, a reasonable and prudent third party looking to acquire either building would pay no more than the value of the sticks and bricks – $1 million – regardless of the profitability or lack thereof of business operations conducted there.

Let’s further assume that the owner of Building A was instead the third-party buyer, faced with the same choice of two identical buildings, one vacant and the other occupied for profitable uses.

Even knowing with near certainty that its business operations would be remarkably lucrative, the buyer would not pay $1 more for either property than the market would bear. According to the market, both properties are valued at $1 million.

The buyer is not acquiring a trade name or workforce, or the seller’s trademarks, trade secrets, machinery and equipment, customer lists, licenses or contracts. It is acquiring land, a building, and yard improvements, and the value of those for both buildings is the same.

Nobody said determining the fair value of property is always easy. But in Indiana it should always be fee simple.

Brent Auberry

Brent A. Auberry is a Partner in the Indianapolis law firm of Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, the Indiana member of the American Property Tax Counsel. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  

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