Menu

Property Tax Resources

Our members actively educate themselves and others in the areas of property taxation and valuation. Many of APTC attorneys get published in the most prestigious publications nationwide, get interviewed as matter experts and participate in panel discussions with other real estate experts. The Article section is a compilation of all their work.

Jun
06

Benjamin Blair: Creative Deal Structures Can Yield Tax Benefits

Managing expenses is one of the best ways to ensure the long-term profitability of investment properties, and prudent developers know the importance of carefully monitoring and challenging property tax assessments. But student housing, as a subsector populated largely by tax-exempt educational institutions, presents unique opportunities to minimize taxes for some projects.

Excepting abatements and other local incentives, there are two principal ways to minimize property taxes: The property can be entitled to a statutory tax exemption, or the property can be deemed to have a value of zero dollars. In certain instances, creative structuring can take advantage of these options to improve the developer's cash flow and returns.

Beneficial vs. actual ownership

One of the most potent ways to minimize property taxes is a statutory exemption. For university-owned housing, exemptions will almost always eliminate the tax bill before it arrives in the mail. But what if the property is owned by a private developer, not the university?

Although private ownership by a for-profit entity often sentences real estate to a lifetime of property tax liability, some states disregard formal ownership for property tax purposes, focusing instead on who benefits from the asset. In states adopting this "beneficial ownership" doctrine, the law may treat privately owned properties the same as university-owned real estate, entitling them to exemptions otherwise limited to properties used for educational purposes.

Consider the example of a small private college that wants to develop new on-campus housing, but lacks the resources to borrow the necessary funds to construct the building. Instead, the school contracts with a private developer, which builds the student housing and leases it to the college. The school then operates and maintains the property as student housing, just as it would any other dormitory.

Even though a private developer owns the structure, the benefits of the building go to the college, which may be deemed the beneficial owner of the property. Because the college's intent is not to earn a profit, but rather to support its educational mission by providing housing for its students, the property is exempt.

This structure still allows the developer/owner the right to earn a reasonable return on its investment in the property. This result is logical when one considers that the college's intent is to finance the construction of on-campus housing. If the college financed the construction of a dormitory with a bank loan, the school would not be disqualified from claiming an exemption just because the bank earned a return on its loan.

Precluding profit in this manner would effectively prevent any educational institution from borrowing funds at market rates to finance any construction. Just as the bank is entitled to a reasonable return on its loan, the student housing developer is entitled to a reasonable return on the lease.

Of course, beneficial ownership works in both directions, potentially making an otherwise-exempt property taxable. If university-owned property is leased to a private party who uses it to make a profit, then the property would likely not be entitled to an exemption. Even though the true owner is an exempt educational entity, the beneficial owner is not exempt.

Leaseholds without market value

Even when a property lacks a statutory exemption, however, it will not incur property tax liability if it is deemed to have a negligible market value. An assessed value of zero dollars will always result in zero taxes owed.

A recent case from the West Virginia Supreme Court shows how a new student housing development – or, at least, the developer's leasehold interest in the development – could properly be assessed as having no market value.

In that case, a university leased land to a developer for the purpose of developing student housing with a retail component. The developer constructed the improvements on the leased land at its own expense and transferred title of the new building to the university, which executed a sublease to use the student housing. As the subtenant, the university offered the on-campus housing to students, collecting rent and turning it over to the developer, who then returned 50 percent of the net cash back to the university as a payment on its lease.

The university operated the residential facilities, therefore, while the developer was compensated for constructing the improvements and retained the right to sublease the retail space. The developer's interest in the property was a leasehold.

Because university-owned property is exempt, the university's interest in the property was not taxable. But in West Virginia, leaseholds are taxable real property interests, meaning the developer's interest needed to be assessed. The county assessor concluded that the developer's interest in the property had a value independent from the university's exempt interest, and assessed that interest. The developer challenged the assessment, arguing for a zero value.

The case eventually came before the state Supreme Court, which held that the value, if any, of a leasehold interest is based on whether the leasehold is economically advantageous to the lessee and freely assignable, so that the lessee can realize the benefit of the lease in the marketplace. After all, market value is measured by what the interest could garner if sold on the open market.

If the lease could not be freely assigned to another party, it would have no value in the marketplace. Because the lease was drafted in a way that the assessor conceded was not freely assignable, the Court affirmed that the value of the developer's leasehold interest was zero.

Beware potential pitfalls

The applicability of these strategies to a particular project is fact-dependent. For example, some states, especially those with large amounts of public lands, tax possessory interests. In those states, a government-owned property leased to a private entity can be taxed if the private entity has a "possessory interest" in the real estate. Likewise, privately owned improvements on exempt land can be taxable because the tax is being imposed on the improvement, rather than on the whole property. And assessors eager to increase the tax base can still challenge even the best structuring.

Not all development deals will be ripe for these types of exemption-planning opportunities, nor will all student housing developers find these strategies compatible with their business objectives. Competent tax counsel can help developers weigh the myriad factors that may determine what strategy can deliver the best returns.

But property taxes are one of the largest ongoing expenses of property ownership, so opportunities to minimize their impact on a project's financial results deserve full consideration. With some creativity, developers can improve their own profitability while also helping their academic partners achieve their goals. 

Benjamin Blair is a partner in the Indianapolis office of the international law firm of Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, the Indiana and Iowa member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
Apr
18

Protect Your Rights To Protest Tax Assessments In Texas

Learn best practices for meeting property tax deadlines and handling property tax appeals.

Beset by ever-increasing tax assessments, Texas property owners are allowed to seek a remedy by protesting taxable property values set by appraisal districts. The property tax system can be intimidating, however, and the process is complex and fraught with pitfalls.

To maximize results, taxpayers must understand the assessment process and the deadlines governing filings and protests. What follows are best practices for protecting the right to protest in Texas, along with some tips for meeting key deadlines. And remember, deadlines are subject to exceptions and may change for specific properties, so consult the Texas Property Tax Code or a property tax professional to verify applicable dates.

Learn the appeal timeline. 

Strict filing deadlines govern renditions, protests, litigation appeals and tax payments. Failure to comply with these deadlines may be devastating, resulting in forfeiture of the taxpayer's appeal rights and incurring substantial penalties and interest.

Meet protest deadlines.

Texas appraisal districts value real and personal property annually, usually as of Jan. 1. For commercial real estate, appraisal districts are required to deliver notices of appraised value by May 1 or as soon thereafter as practicable. Taxpayers in most jurisdictions can expect to receive notices of appraised value sometime in April. The deadline for protesting an appraised value is the later of May 15 or 30 days after the date the notice was delivered to the property owner.

In certain situations, appraisal districts are not required to send notices of appraised value, such as when the appraised value of the property did not increase from the prior year. A best practice is to track all documents and follow up with the appraisal district if you have not received a notice by late April to ensure you have the relevant information prior to the May 15 protest deadline. Keep in mind that it is the taxpayer's responsibility to inform the appraisal district of the taxpayer's current address.

When is the business personal property rendition deadline? 

Taxpayers are required to render information regarding their business personal property to appraisal districts annually, generally by April 15. Appraisal districts may extend the deadline until May 15 upon written request by the property owner, a common practice. This deadline can vary, however, depending on whether a Freeport exemption for the property is allowed.

Determining rendition deadlines can be complex and property owners should make sure to communicate with appraisal district personnel about deadlines early on in order to avoid penalties for late reporting. Penalties generally equal 10 percent of the total tax due.

Prepare for hearings. 

After filing a protest on time, property owners are scheduled for a formal hearing before the Administrative Review Board. Often the appraisal district will schedule an informal hearing with an appraiser prior to the formal hearing. Most formal and informal hearings take place between April and July of the tax year in question, and many protests are resolved during this process. Preparation is the key to success.

More deadlines: 

The review board will determine a property value and issue an "order determining protest." Document the date the order is received and follow up with the appraisal district if you do not receive appropriate documentation within a few weeks of the formal hearing date. A property owner has 60 days from receipt of the order to file suit in district court appealing the review board's results.

Taxing entities are required to mail tax bills by Oct. 1 or as soon thereafter as practicable. Taxes become delinquent if not paid before Feb. 1 of the year following the property valuation. That is, for the 2019 tax year, taxes are due on or before Jan. 31, 2020. An active protest or lawsuit does not excuse a property owner's obligation to pay taxes prior to the delinquency date, and failure to pay taxes in a timely manner forfeits the right to proceed with an appeal in court. If an owner prevails in its appeal, the overpayment will be refunded.

Best practices for appeals

Regardless of appeal status, communicate early and often with the appraisal district and provide requested documentation and information. Informal settlement conferences are good opportunities to get to know the appraiser assigned to the protest and to understand the assumptions supporting his or her analysis.

Be prepared with all required documentation including hearing notices, property-specific information and any appointment-of-agent forms. Consider further protecting appeal rights by filing an affidavit stating the taxpayer's position in advance of the formal hearing date. An affidavit on file protects the taxpayer in the event that they are unable to attend the hearing.

What if I miss my deadline?

Let's assume a taxpayer purchased a retail center for $2 million in December 2018. The appraiser valued the property at $3.5 million for 2019, but the owner believes the purchase price reflects market value. The taxpayer missed the May 15 protest deadline, however.

Fortunately, there is an additional, backstop remedy. Property owners may file a motion to correct the appraisal roll, provided that the assessor's value exceeds the correct appraised value by more than one-third. For our hypothetical retail center, the correct appraised value would need to be less than $2.625 million for the motion to succeed.

The motion to correct the appraisal roll can be filed through the date that the property taxes are due, which in this scenario would be Jan. 31, 2020. Like other protests, the review board's ruling on a motion to correct the appraisal roll may be appealed to district court.

Taxpayers should pay attention to the details of protest procedures and deadlines or hire the right team with the expertise and experience to do so. Otherwise, the owner may get burdened with an excessive appraisal due to missed deadlines or mismanaged internal procedures. Protecting appeal rights is essential to properly managing property tax expense.


Rachel Duck, CMI, is a senior property tax consultant at the Austin, Texas law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC and Kathy Mendoza is a legal assistant at the firm. Popp Hutcheson devotes its practice to the representation of taxpayers in property tax matters and is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Learn best practices for meeting property tax deadlines and handling property tax appeals.
Apr
18

How Office Owners Can Help Lower Sky-High Property Tax Assessments

​The American Property Tax Counsel argues that if a property tax assessment is premised on a uniform per-square-foot value, rental rate or vacancy rate for all office properties in a metro area, the assessor is likely going to overlook distinguishing factors in submarkets that could benefit building owners.

Managing fixed expenses is the best way to ensure the long-term profitability of investment properties, especially in a flat market. The largest continuing expense for most commercial properties is the property tax bill, and in a market with skyline-defining properties and headline-grabbing sales prices, tax assessors have multi-tenant office properties in the crosshairs.

Any reduction in tax burden can drastically improve an investment's profitability, competitiveness and tenant retention. As another assessment season begins across the Midwest, understanding tax assessors' common errors can equip property managers and owners with the tools necessary to review the accuracy and reasonableness of the assessments on their office properties and, when appropriate, challenge those assessments.

Know the relevant market

To an outsider, the office market can appear monolithic. To such people, rent, occupancy and other income characteristics of office properties are consistent throughout the market. But pulling data from the wrong market can lead assessors to an incorrect result.

For example, assessors may assume that Class A downtown office towers are the best-performing assets in the market, and value them accordingly. Contrary to this perception, though, Class A properties may not outperform all Class B or Class C properties, and downtown may not be the strongest office submarket in a certain metro area.

Nowhere is the distinction between office submarkets clearer than in the downtown-suburban divide. In many Midwestern markets, suburban office properties tend to be newer, have better occupancy, and in some cases, command higher rents than their downtown competition.

The factors influencing the relative performance of downtown and suburban office properties vary, but they include employees' desire to work closer to their homes, and comparatively low land prices, which allow office building construction with the larger floorplates many tenants prefer. Suburban office markets also typically are able to offer free parking, while paid parking — which is common in the central business district — increases occupancy costs for tenants and their employees. Downtown towers though may appeal to large law firms, accounting firms and banks seeking a prestigious address.

If an assessment is premised on a uniform per-square-foot value, rental rate or vacancy rate for all office properties in a metro area, the assessor is likely failing to consider distinguishing factors in submarkets. Finding those distinctions can benefit owners on either side of the downtown-suburban divide.

Don't blindly trust sales

Assessors are often too reliant on sales data. Although some properties may be valued by considering sales prices for comparable properties, office properties do not neatly lend themselves to such an analysis. Applying the recent sales price of a downtown office tower to all other office towers in the downtown area may seem reasonable on its face, but fails to recognize how buyers and sellers interact in the office market.

For many real estate types, an assessor can identify comparable sales and adjust those transactions to reflect differences between the comparable and subject properties. Unlike owner-occupied buildings, investment properties that are otherwise similar are not easily adjusted for real estate-related factors. This is because market participants do not settle on sales prices based on attributes of the real property, but on attributes of the income stream.

Buyers of multi-tenant office buildings are motivated by the durability of the income stream, reflecting either potential for growth or existing leases with creditworthy, in-place tenants. Knowing a target's income characteristics, buyers apply their own capitalization rate thresholds and back into the sales price. But that price necessarily reflects the particular income stream being purchased, which may have limited applicability to another property. This approach is opposite to the way many assessors believe sales prices are set.

This is not to say that sales of comparable properties are entirely irrelevant in valuing an office property for tax purposes. For example, because capitalization rates reflect the behavior of investors in the market, sales of properties that are comparable as investments can inform the selection of a capitalization rate in a particular analysis. But if an assessor has used a recent sale as the sole basis to set the assessments of the competitive set, whether their assessments truly reflect the market is questionable.

When income isn't income

As income-generating assets, office properties are most commonly valued using the income approach. But even though office rents are not as attributable to personal or intangible property as is, for example, a hotel's income, the rents paid by office tenants are not entirely attributable to the real estate. Simply capitalizing a building's existing income stream mistakenly assumes it is.

The market for office properties in many areas is extremely competitive, and nearly all leases in some markets reflect tenant incentives like improvement allowances. Even long-standing tenants expect such incentives when their leases are up for renewal, and tenants are accustomed to using those allowances to refresh their space. Landlords, in turn, collect marginally higher rent that amortizes those costs over the lease period. But the impact of above-market allowances must be removed from the lease rate in determining the market level of rent. An assessor cannot say that a lease is $15 per square foot if the landlord paid the tenant $5 per square foot upfront.

Assessors also often misunderstand reimbursement income. Triple-net leases are uncommon in the office market; instead, landlords build an assumed level of expenses into their base rent and if the expense exceeds that base-level in future years, the tenant reimburses the landlord for the excess. Some assessors mistakenly view reimbursement income as additional profit. But, as the word "reimbursement" suggests, landlords only collect reimbursement income when, and to the extent, expenses exceed the base amount. Assessors should be reminded that reimbursement income is not a profit center.

As the office market continues its slow expansion, assessors are eager to capitalize on the most visible parts of the city skyline. But by grounding the assessor in the economic realities of the office market, diligent owners and property managers can reduce fixed expenses, lower tenant occupancy costs and ultimately improve profitability.

Benjamin Blair is a partner in the Indianapolis office of international law firm Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, the Indiana and Iowa member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys​.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • The American Property Tax Counsel argues that if a property tax assessment is premised on a uniform per-square-foot value, rental rate or vacancy rate for all office properties in a metro area, the assessor is likely going to overlook distinguishing factors in submarkets that could benefit building owners.
Mar
28

Unfair Taxation? Governments Need to Fix the Right Problem

​Investors should be wary when taxing authorities single out properties to be assessed in a method that is inconsistent with the treatment of other taxpayers in the same class, says attorney Kieran Jennings.

Recently, The New York Times published an article on property taxes imposed on retailers under the headline "As Big Retailers Seek to Cut Their Tax Bills, Towns Bear the Brunt." This and similar articles question the fairness of how retailers have reduced their tax bills by using sales of unoccupied stores as comparable transactions to establish the assessed value for an occupied store.

The local government has cried foul, and the article concentrates on the perceived end result―lost revenue for government coffers.

What is missing from the article is basic tax law, which holds that all taxpayers in a given class must be taxed uniformly. Thus, the series of bad decisions that led local government to overtax retailers made communities dependent on inflated revenue. The initial mistake many assessors made was to seize upon sales prices associated with leased retail stores without critically examining the transactions.

Investors, and taxpayers in general, should be wary when taxing authorities single out properties to be assessed in a method that is inconsistent with the treatment of other taxpayers in the same class.

FUNDAMENTALS OF FAIRNESS

Most state constitutions specify that taxes must be uniformly assessed, which requires assessors to follow the same rules for all taxpayers within a class. At the most simplistic level, the rules of the game must be consistently applied to all and not changed to affect the outcome.

To understand how equally applied rules achieve fair taxation of property, bear in mind this fundamental truth: The assessor's goal is to measure the value of real estate only. Taxing entities then use that value to determine the tax. A lack of well-thought-out rules and procedures created the problem of non-uniform assessment.

Many states don't even have a clear definition of what they are trying to measure. States use terms such as "true value" or "true market value" without any further defining language. For most people, fair value simply means what a home would sell for in an open-market transaction. But commercial real estate is not that simple and requires clear definitions applied uniformly to all taxpayers.

Commercial property values are influenced by many factors unrelated to real estate. Consider how, under various circumstances, the same property might sell for wildly different values: An owner-occupied property will sell based on what the market will pay for the building once it is vacant, either for the new owner to occupy or as an investment for the buyer to lease-out at market terms.

The same property, were it leased at an above-market rental rate or to a highly credit-worthy tenant, functions much like a bond and will sell based on a market capitalization rate and for a greater price than the owner-occupied property.

Finally, the same property leased with long-term, below-market lease terms or a less credit-worthy tenant might sell for less than the owner-occupied price or the above-market-leased example. In each scenario, the same property sells for different amounts. Without a clear set of guidelines, establishing value based on sales price would be inconsistent even for a single property, much less an entire class.

Of the three scenarios, the only method that can be replicated consistently and applied to owners of both leased and owner-occupied real estate alike is that of the owner-occupied property. Owner-occupied interest is the unencumbered, fee-simple interest, which makes it the measuring stick common to all taxpayers. All other interests are influenced by non-real-estate factors such as lease terms or business value.

MORE CONFUSION

Adding to the confusion is the ever-changing commercial real estate sector, where market data is full of sales that include non-real-estate influences. The single-tenant market, for example, has evolved from almost exclusively retailer occupancy to include specialty uses and even nursing homes and hospitals.

The assessment goal should be to measure the real estate value alone, ensuring that all taxpayers are taxed with the same measuring stick, but confusion comes in when the sales alone don't indicate real estate value. Leased sales indicate the value of the real estate along with the tenant's credit-worthiness, the life of the lease and a host of other factors that can include enterprise zones and outside influences.

The court cases that are clarifying the methodology and the measuring stick appear to reduce assessments, when they are actually correcting the assessments and requiring assessors to value the same interests for all taxpayers. Defining terms and ensuring rule uniformity protects all taxpayers. There is no foul to be called and the losses affecting some local governments are the result of their own mistakes.

The cure is simple, but the short-term pain for community coffers is significant. States must establish clear definitions and guidelines around property rights so that assessors can value all real estate without encumbrances. Local governments cannot rely on a single taxpayer subset to carry the tax burden.

J. Kieran Jennings is a partner in the law firm of Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Investors should be wary when taxing authorities single out properties to be assessed in a method that is inconsistent with the treatment of other taxpayers in the same class, says attorney Kieran Jennings.
Mar
06

Onerous Property Tax Requirements Proposed

True to campaign promises, the new Cook County assessor has proposed sweeping legislation that borrows the most burdensome tax requirements and penalties from jurisdictions across the country. But will this enhance transparency or simply saddle taxpayers with inaccurate assessments and the need for costly appeals?

The 2018 race for Cook County Assessor ended in Fritz Kaegi beating out incumbent and long-time political powerhouse Joseph Berrios. Kaegi's campaign promises targeted the "insider" game of property tax appeals and proposed to bring fairness and transparency to the Illinois property tax appeal system.

The proposed requirements would only be imposed on commercial or income-producing properties worth more than $400,000, or residential properties with seven or more units worth more than $1 million. Residential properties with six units or less, as well as mixed-use commercial/residential buildings with six or fewer apartment units and less than 20,000 square feet of commercial area, are exempt from reporting income data.

In Cook County, these commercial properties will be required to submit income and expense data to the assessor prior to July 1 each year, and attest to the truthfulness of such information. Counties outside of Cook County may adopt the same requirement.

Property owners who fail to file the required information may receive a notice from the assessor demanding its submittal. If the taxpayer fails to report the income pursuant to the notice, the taxpayer will be fined 2 percent of the previous year's total tax bill. If the taxpayer still does not submit evidence within 120 days of the original notice, the proposal adds a second penalty of 2.5 percent of the prior year's tax bill.

As if these financial penalties were not enough, the taxpayer who fails to provide the information within 120 days is precluded from appealing the subject property's tax assessment. Furthermore, the Cook County State's Attorney's office is granted the right to subpoena the income and expense data from the tax payer on an annual basis.

None of the legislation eliminates the right to appeal to the Board of Review, however.

So, will the proposed statute bring fairness and transparency to the appeal process? No.

Round hole, square peg

The requirement to file income and expense data is not revolutionary. In many cases, taxpayers file appeals based directly on the property's income data rather than incur appraisal expenses. On the other hand, income-producing properties that commission an appraisal will provide the income and expense data to the appraiser in order to explain any differences between the actual rents in the subject property and the market rents used to calculate the assessment. Thus, the new rules will not necessarily bring more transparency to the values of multimillion-dollar commercial properties.

For the institutional investor, the greatest concern about the proposal is the validity and application of the collected income and expense data. As the old saying goes "garbage in, garbage out."

The assessor claims that the collection and aggregation of data directly from taxpayers will help identify the true rental market value of specific real estate. The concern is that taxpayers will be reporting a variety of unadjusted rents rather than market rates. Market rates take into account the differences between gross, modified and triple net leases, as well as tenant improvements, concessions, length of lease, sale-leasebacks and a host of other factors. Without adjustment to market rates, the data will be incorrect and the assessments will be inflated. This will produce a higher rate of appeal on an annual basis and impose greater appeal burdens on all involved.

Furthermore, the new requirements will bring the greatest harm to smaller commercial investors who may not be filing property tax appeals at all. Many of these are mom-and-pop organizations that keep handwritten ledgers and have market values between $400,000 and $1 million. The annual reporting requirement and respective penalties would be financially burdensome to taxpayers in this group, many of whom never undertook the expense of filing an appeal. Now those taxpayers may be open to valuation increases on an annual basis and have to spend money on appraisals and attorney representation.

And transparency?

The proposed statue prohibits "non-personal income and expense data" the assessor collects from being accessed through Freedom of Information Act searches. Does this indicate that the data sets the assessor produces cannot be analyzed by the taxpayer for accuracy? Where is the fairness and transparency in that?

If the statute passes, the hurdle for Illinois taxpayers will be to clearly identify the difference between market rents and actual rents for each of their properties, which may result in extremely burdensome requirements and penalties. The mandated steps may require intricate analysis and could result in property owners expending time and money responding to annual notices for documentation, fines for noncompliance, and the inability to challenge illegal assessments as a right.

Much of the income-and-expense statements, rent rolls and other data the assessor seeks are already available in documentation currently being submitted in support of annual appeals. Based upon this readily available data, the assessor should be able to generate guidelines that reflect current rental rates, occupancy levels and capitalization rates.

If Cook County taxes need reform, this is not the reform.

Molly Phelan is a partner in the Chicago office of the law firm Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, which has offices in Cleveland, OH, Pittsburgh, PA and Chicago. IL and is the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys
Mar
01

Finding Tax Savings in Free-Trade Zones

The FTZ Act prohibits state and local taxes on tangible personal property.  Here's what you should know about the potential for reducing your tax bill.

Foreign-trade zones can offer substantial tax savings for businesses involved in various aspects of manufacturing and international trade. While there are costs involved in setting up and maintaining such a zone, the prospect of escalating trade wars is spurring companies to explore the FTZ designation as a potential cost-control measure.

First, some background. FTZs are the U.S. equivalent of what are known internationally as free trade zones. Authorized under the Foreign Trade Zones Act of 1934, they are usually in or near U.S. Customs and Border Protection ports of entry, and are generally considered outside CBP control. Many communities have integrated these zones into state or local economic development incentive programs.

Broadly speaking, FTZs are designed to stimulate economic growth and development. In an expanding global market, countries increasingly compete for capital, industry, and jobs, and FTZs promote American competitiveness by encouraging companies to maintain and expand their U.S. operations. The zones accomplish this by removing certain disincentives associated with operating in the U.S.

The best-known incentive is designed to level costs among domestic and foreign- manufactured goods. For a product manufactured in a foreign country and imported to the United States, the duty is based on the finished product rather than on its individual parts, materials, or components.

Domestic manufacturers must often pay duties on multiple parts, materials, or components that are imported to be incorporated into a finished product. When those duty payments are added together, the cost of the finished product is higher than for comparable finished goods. FTZs correct this imbalance by assessing duties on products manufactured in an FTZ as if they were manufactured abroad.

Companies operating in FTZs enjoy a number of other benefits:

• No duties or quotas on re-exports

• Deferred customs duties and federal excise taxes on imports

• Streamlined customs procedures

• Exemption from certain state and local taxes

These benefits become increasingly valuable to domestic companies during trade wars, particularly when the disputants impose steep tariffs on manufacturing parts, materials, and components.

STATE AND LOCAL FTZ RULES

FTZs are subject to the laws and regulations of the U.S., as well as those of the states and communities in which they are located, with one significant exception: The Foreign-Trade Zone Act specifically prohibits state and local ad valorem ("on the value") taxation of imported, tangible personal property stored or processed in one of these zones, or of property produced in the United States and held in the zone for export.

Several states, including Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia, impose ad valorem tax on business inventory. In a handful of other states, including Alaska, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Michigan, some jurisdictions tax some inventories. But even in these states, most legislatures have carved out "freeport" exemptions from ad valorem taxes on merchandise being shipped through the state.

The problem is, the longer it takes for the merchandise to be shipped out of state, the greater the temptation for an enterprising tax assessor to conclude that the merchandise is no longer actively in transit. In such cases, the exemption may no longer apply and the merchandise could become subject to an inventory ad valorem tax.

FTZs may offer a safe harbor from these taxes. Foreign and domestic merchandise may be moved into a zone for operations, including storage, exhibition, assembly, manufacturing, and processing. Such merchandise may remain in a zone indefinitely, whether or not it is subject to duties. And, while no retail trade of foreign merchandise may be conducted in an FTZ, foreign and domestic merchandise may be stored, examined, sampled, and exhibited in the zone.

Of course, there is a catch. When a proposed FTZ designation could result in a reduction to local tax collections, the zone's governing authority must consider the potential impact on local finances. Specifically, an applicant must identify the local taxes for which collections would be affected, and provide documentation that the affected taxing jurisdictions do not oppose the FTZ designation. Importantly, in jurisdictions that already have "freeport" exemptions to ad valorem taxes, the adverse impact would be limited only to the amount of ad valorem taxes imposed on inventory that is determined by a tax assessor to have come to rest in the state, such that it is no longer subject to the "freeport" exemption.

There are costs associated with FTZs, including application fees and assessments as well as operating fees to maintain the designation. Therefore, individual companies must conduct their own cost/benefit analyses and determine whether these zones are right for them. A competent legal or tax advisor can help to project initial and ongoing costs.

Considering the other trade uncertainties currently buffeting manufacturers, eliminating ad valorem tax exposure alone may warrant using an FTZ.

Angela Adolph is a partner in the law firm of Kean Miller LLP, the Louisiana member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • The FTZ Act prohibits state and local taxes on tangible personal property. Here's what you should know about the potential for reducing your tax bill.
Feb
27

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.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Assessors too often value newly constructed apartments as fully occupied, producing excessive assessments
Feb
12

Atlanta: Undue Assessments May Be Coming

Here's what taxpayers should do if the tax controversy now brewing causes large property tax increases

Recent headlines questioning the taxable values of Atlanta-area commercial properties may threaten taxpayers throughout Fulton County with a heightened risk of increased assessments.

Changes in the Midtown Improvement District, which extends northward from North Avenue and along both sides of West Peachtree and eastward, are rapidly reshaping the Atlanta skyline. Multiple new buildings under construction rise 19 to 32 stories, ushering in more than 2,000 new apartment units as well as hotel and office uses.

Amid this intense construction, Fulton County tax assessors have come under fire in newspaper and broadcast news reports that showed assessed taxable values were well below the acquisition prices paid for many commercial properties. Both Atlanta and Fulton County have ordered audits to determine whether assessors consistently undervalued properties, resulting in lost revenue.

While it may be unsurprising that assessors failed to keep up with rapidly changing market pricing in a development hotspot like Midtown, the news coverage and government scrutiny may pressure assessors to increase commercial assessments across the board. Owners of both newly constructed and older properties should diligently review the county's tax assessment notices, sent out each spring, to determine whether they should appeal their assessed values.

Know the assessment process

Understanding the permissible approaches to valuation is key for the taxpayer to determine whether to appeal an assessment. The two most commonly used methods are the income approach and the market or sales comparison approach, both of which can be problematic if incorrectly applied by the county assessor.

Assessors typically value apartments and office buildings using the income approach. Initially, however, assessors use mass appraisal methods that may not reflect the specific financial realities of the individual property. Taxpayers should examine each of the various components of the county's income model and question whether each element of the formula is appropriately applied to their property.

By utilizing data from the market, has the assessor overestimated the rental rates for the property? Property owners should analyze and discern whether it is beneficial to provide the previous year's rent roll to the assessor in order to argue that the county's model rental rate is inaccurate for their property. An older complex or building may have new competition from a recently built property offering up-to-date amenities. Not only will the older property be at a disadvantage to charge premium rents, but the newer construction is also driving its taxes higher.

Has the assessor used a market occupancy rate that does not correctly indicate the property's occupancy level? In order for the income approach to accurately achieve both physical and economic occupancy, the vacancy and collection loss should take into account both the occupancy rate and concessions that the owner provides to renters to maximize occupancy. Again, in a fluctuating market with new construction competing against old, occupancy rates can be affected.

In using market data, has the assessor underestimated the expenses for the property? Perhaps the expense ratio used is inappropriate for the property. If so, property owners can demonstrate this by providing the previous year's income and expense statement to the assessor, differentiating their property from the mass appraisal model.

A common area of disagreement is the capitalization rate. A capitalization rate is the ratio of net operating income to property asset value. Has the assessor used a cap rate that is derived incorrectly from sales of properties that are not comparable to the taxpayer's property?

Has the assessor properly added in the effective tax rate to the reported base cap rate from the comparable sales because the real estate taxes were not included in his allowable expenses? If the effective tax rate is not added to the base cap rate, and real estate taxes are not included in the expenses, the result is a lower cap rate, and thus, an artificially and incorrectly higher value. An analysis of the accurate application of the sales comparison or market approach is helpful in making the determination of the appropriate cap rate.

Many factors go in to determining if sales are sufficiently similar and can be relied upon. The comparable sales used should be of a similar age as the subject property. Older properties usually command a lower price per unit or lower price per square foot than newly constructed properties.

The comparable sales used should be similar in square footage to the subject property, with similar square footages in the various units within the property, because larger average unit size usually generates higher rents and also results in a quicker lease-up.

Consider the type of purchaser involved in the comparable sale transactions. Private investors typically pay less for properties than institutional purchasers such as real estate investment trusts because REITs are able to obtain lower-cost loans.

Similarly, if below-market-rate financing was already in place and the buyer was able to assume the loan, then the sale price may have been artificially inflated. Another circumstance to examine is, if the seller provided a significant amount of financing in the sale, there may have been unusually favorable financing terms; if so, the sales price must be adjusted.

Another aspect to investigate is the existence or lack of substantial deferred maintenance at the time of sale in comparison to the subject property. The necessity for additional capital expenditures after a purchase can affect the purchase price.

It is helpful to inquire into the effective real estate tax rates of the sold properties in order to determine if they are sufficiently similar to the subject property. Jurisdictions or taxing districts with lower tax rates can cause properties to sell for higher prices. Taxing neighborhoods with higher tax rates tend to generate sales with lower values, and thus, higher cap rates.

All commercial real property owners in Fulton County should carefully examine their tax assessment notices, because higher valuations by county assessors may be on the horizon. Property owners do not want to pay sky-high taxes based on what may be reflexive assessments stemming from the latest headlines.

Lisa Stuckey and Brian Morrissey are partners in the Atlanta law firm of Ragsdale Beals Seigler Patterson & Gray LLP, the Georgia member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Here’s what taxpayers should do if the tax controversy now brewing causes large property tax increases
Dec
21

Beware of Double Taxation on Personal Property

While Texas solved the problem, your state may not have addressed the issue.

Many states tax business personal property, a classification that includes furniture, fixtures, equipment, machinery and, in some states, inventory. Whatever the jurisdiction, the values of business personal property and real estate can easily be conflated in ad valorem taxation, unfairly burdening the taxpayer with an additional appraisal and/or taxation.

If you live and work in a state that doesn't tax business personal property, it may be included with the taxes on your real estate anyway. If you are in a state that taxes personal property, you might be taxed for it twice. While it seems contrary to acceptable appraisal practice to include personal property in the real estate value and then to additionally appraise and/or tax the same items, it does happen.

The Texas Legislature wrestled with this problem of additional valuation and taxation for more than a decade. That process and the resulting tax law offer important lessons that may help taxpayers and lawmakers in other states.

Texas gets personal

In 1999, the Texas Legislature enacted Section 23.24, titled "Furniture, Fixtures and Equipment," as a new statute in the State Tax Code. Prior to its enactment, furniture, fixtures and equipment were often included in the appraised value of income-producing real estate for ad valorem taxation. They were also subject to a separate business personal property tax. Section 23.24 eliminates this double taxation as long as the method used to value the real estate takes the business personal property into account.

There are many different kinds of property but only a few approaches to valuation. When the values of real property and personal property are mixed, it is usually because they are being assessed as components of an operating business using the income approach. Hotels and motels, nursing homes, restaurants and convenience stores are among the property types at greatest risk of having real estate and personal property values combined.

An assessor valuing the real estate component of an operating business will likely use the income approach. This method bases value on the income stream a business can generate using the real estate and personal property as components of a business enterprise.

A hotel doesn't have a business without beds, and a restaurant doesn't have a business without tables and chairs. As such, a value determined using the income approach is going to include the value of the real estate and the personal property, as both contribute value to the enterprise's income stream. It's clear to see how using the income approach can conflate real and personal property value into one.

The cost approach keeps those values separate. Using this method, an assessor or appraiser looks only at the value of the land as if it were vacant, then adds the value of improvements based on the cost to construct those improvements minus any depreciation. There is no accounting for, nor any risk of conflating, the business personal property within the real estate while using this approach.

In many instances, however, appraisal districts that were not using the cost approach – or had switched from the cost approach to the income approach from one year to the next – were still additionally appraising and even maintaining a separate account for the business personal property. This would seemingly violate Section 23.24.

Many appraisal districts disagreed, claiming that a separate account for business personal property enabled them to deduct that amount from the real estate. In doing so, they believed that there would be no additional burden on the owner, who would only be paying taxes once on the personal property.

While the tax liability may not be increased, an appraisal district with a separate account for personal property still creates burdens for the owner. The taxpayer is required to file a rendition on the personal property stating either "the property owner's good faith estimate of market value of the property or, at the option of the property owner, the historical cost when new and the year of the acquisition of the property."

If owners fail to file this rendition on personal property already being accounted for in the value of the real estate, they are subject to a penalty that increases their tax liability by 10 percent. It hardly seemed fair that the taxpayer should have these obligations and liabilities regarding property that was already intertwined with the value and tax for the real estate. Two consecutive legislatures agreed.

In 2009, lawmakers created a subsection to Section 23.24. This statute intended to exorcise the appraisal districts' method of having a second account for the personal property and/or attempting to separate or subtract the value of the personal from the real when both values had already been combined in the real estate. Some appraisal districts were still requiring renditions (and seeking penalties for failure to do so) on property value already captured with the real estate.

In 2011, the next legislature removed the additional and needless burden to render business personal property that is not to be appraised separately from real property in the first place. The law now says that if business personal property is being appraised under Section 23.24, then the owner is not required to render anything.

Implications for other states

Check your state's laws regarding the taxation of personal property and make sure you're not already paying those taxes on the real estate.

Texas and Oklahoma tax inventory as well as business personal property, and not only is the tax present, it's prevalent. In 2016, personal property tax made up 12 percent of the property tax base in Texas and nearly 23 percent of Oklahoma's property tax base.

Whether personal property tax is present and/or prevalent in your state, make sure you are not paying personal property taxes where it isn't taxable, or paying it twice in jurisdictions where it is taxable.

Greg Hart is an attorney in the Austin law firm of Popp Hutcheson PLLC, which focuses its practice on property tax disputes and is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • While Texas solved the problem, your state may not have addressed the issue
Dec
19

Runaway Property Taxes in New Jersey

Tax courts don't always recognize market value in setting property tax assessments.

Most real estate is taxed ad valorem, or according to the value. The theory is that each person is taxed on the value of the real property they own.

The New Jersey Constitution (Article VIII, Section 1, paragraph 1) stipulates that property is to be assessed for taxation by general laws and uniform rules, and that all non-agricultural real property must be assessed according to the same value standard.

Our statutes define the standard of value as the true property value. We call this market value, or the most probable price a property will bring in a competitive and open market under conditions requisite to a fair sale. That assumes the buyer and seller are each acting prudently and knowledgeably, and that the price is unaffected by undue stimulus.

In 2005, the state Tax Court, in a General Motors case, openly admitted it was making a determination that the highest and best use of the property was as an auto assembly facility. By this determination, the court set public policy indicating that this highest and best use fairly and equitably distributed the property tax burden.

In this case the court felt it was necessary to conclude the highest and best use of the property at issue was an auto assembly plant because to do otherwise may allow features of the property to go untaxed and therefore lower the value of the plant. The court also stated that this determination was consistent with and effectuates the public policy of fairly and equitably distributing the property tax burden. All of this was concluded while the market data suggested a different result, given that no auto manufacturing facility had ever before been sold to another automobile manufacturer. Further, by law, the tax court's role is to determine value, not to redistribute the tax burden.

The history of the Tax Court has, in practice if not in theory, interpreted the constitution and statutes of real property taxation to find value in a uniform and stabilized manner. In other words, although the market may vary over a period of years under review, the court would attempt to stabilize the effect of the differences when rendering opinions.

The Tax Court would also set precedent by using methods of valuation not normally used in the marketplace because it deemed the data before it at trial to be lacking. It has, for example, applied a cost approach to determine value when a buyer would purchase a property based on an income approach. This is common in court decisions, but often runs afoul of true market motivations and distorts the conclusion of value. The more the courts reach these types of decisions, the further away they move from concluding market value.

The court's attempt to carry these principles forward has appeared in various ways over the years. As early as 1996, in a case involving a super-regional mall with anchors not separately assessed, the Tax Court deemed the income approach inappropriate to value the stores and instead valued the stores on a cost approach. Today, the legacy of that decision requires plaintiffs to present a cost approach, which is not evidence of market value. This may well distort a property's valuation.

Issues such as capitalization rates are also problematic for certain assets in Tax Courts findings. Over the years, court precedent has set rates that often do not reflect the market. This is especially evident today when valuing regional malls classified as B or C grade. The market capitalization rates are well over those the courts have historically found. Although transactions verify this market data as accurate, the courts fail to recognize it, making it difficult for plaintiffs to prevail with values based on actual, transactional data.

In January 2018, after a number of decisions that rejected plaintiffs' approach, our Tax Court appears to have taken some pause. It recognized that by rejecting proofs from the market and data forwarded by taxpayers, it was ultimately failing to conclude to warranted assessment adjustments.

It stated:

"there has been some criticism of late, that the Tax Court perhaps has raised the bar for meeting the standard of proof too high in property tax appeals, given arguendo, what could be viewed as a growing trend seen in a number of recent decisions, where the court rejected expert opinions and declined to come to value. While such a suggestion may give the Tax Court pause for self-examination and reflection, it must not serve to invite expert appraisers to abrogate their responsibility of providing the court with 'an explanation of the methodology and assumptions used…'"

The quote seems to recognize that the proof bar was getting so high that a plaintiff could never prove its case. A more realistic view of the proofs provided by a taxpayer comes with it the recognition that market data and actions from market participants are the touchstones of value that should establish our assessments.

Philip Giannuario, Esq. is a partner at the Montclair, N.J. law firm Garippa Lotz & Giannuario, the New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Tax courts don't always recognize market value in setting property tax assessments.
Dec
03

Texas Hotel Owners: Proceed with Caution

Confusion Regarding Tax Code's Rendition Requirements Creates Penalty Trap

A provision in the Texas Property Tax Code requires hotel assessments based on an income analysis to include personal property. However, misunderstanding associated rendition requirements can cause unexpected penalties for hotel owners.

In Texas, both real and personal property are taxed at 100 percent of assessed value. Prior to 1999, a hotel's real and personal property were valued under separate accounts. A hotel's income and expense stream, however, incorporates value generated by both real and personal property.

For instance, a nightly hotel room rate covers the rent for the real property (the room itself) as well as personal property (the furniture and fixtures in the room). This blended income formerly created unique challenges when using the income approach to value hotels for property tax assessments.

In a move toward simplification and to protect against potential double taxation, lawmakers added Section 23.24 to the tax code in 1999. This provision prevents furniture, fixtures and equipment included in a real property valuation from being taxed a second time under a separate, personal property account. The statute was amended in 2009 to stipulate that, for properties such as hotels, the value of real and personal property must be combined into one assessment if the assessor uses an income analysis.

Specifically, Section 23.24(b) states that "in determining the market value of the real property appraised on the basis of rental income, the chief appraiser may not separately appraise or take into account any personal property valued as a portion of the income of the real property, and the market value of the real property must include the combined value of the real property and the personal property."

Section 23.24 simplifies the valuation process for hotels valued under an income analysis, presuming that total income reflects the contributory value of the real and personal property and that separating the two is an unnecessary step when both portions are taxed at a 100 percent assessment ratio.

The legislature amended Section 22.01 in 2011 to include subsection "m," which provides that "a person is not required to render for taxation personal property appraised under Section 23.24."

Taxpayer pitfall

As a result of these provisions, many hotel owners assume that their personal property will be included in the real property assessment and do not submit annual renditions to county appraisal districts. But what happens if a jurisdiction does not value a hotel using the income approach?

The caveat in Section 23.24 is that the property is valued "on the basis of rental income." Because the income approach is just one of three recognized approaches to value, this statute does not eliminate the independent consideration of personal property in ad valorem taxation for hotels in Texas.

Although assessors value most hotels based on income, there are several common scenarios in which they may use an alternative method, triggering the creation or continuation of a separate personal property account.

Jurisdictions often value newly constructed hotels using the cost approach during the first one to two years of operation, prior to stabilization. Harris County almost exclusively values hotels on the cost approach for the first year following construction.

Hotels that have been in operation for some time but have reached a point of significant renovation or decline in value may also be valued using the cost approach. In such scenarios, the assessor will value personal property under a separate account, and may require the property owner to submit a personal property rendition report.

Failure to render in a timely fashion results in a penalty equivalent to 10 percent of the total taxes due. Unfortunately, the hotel owner is often unaware of rendition requirements until they are penalized for a late rendition.

Rendition required

The following example illustrates how incorrect assumptions about an assessor's valuation methodology can result in unexpected rendition penalties.

Let's assume the assessor has valued a hotel under an income analysis since the taxpayer acquired it in 2010. Based upon this history and prior interactions with the assessor, the owner did not file a personal property rendition with the county appraisal district for tax year 2018.

The property had suffered a significant decline in performance over the past few years despite dramatic increases in land value in the area. After reviewing the documentation provided, the assessor decides to value the hotel at land value, with a minimal contributory value assigned to the improvements.

Since this approach is based upon a cost analysis and not an income approach as in prior years, Section 23.24(b) no longer applies. The switch in methodology triggers the creation of a separate business personal property account for the hotel.

Because the taxpayer's discussions with the assessor begin at an informal hearing after the rendition deadline, the owner does not learn of the change in methodology or resulting new personal property account until the opportunity to comply has passed. Consequently, the taxpayer incurs a 10 percent penalty for failure to file a timely personal property rendition.

An ounce of prevention

It can be challenging to establish complete clarity on an assessor's methodology prior to the rendition deadline. As in the previous example, scheduled discussions with assessors often occur after the deadline. A hotel owner may choose to file a protective rendition to avoid the possibility of unexpected penalties.

In any case, the key to avoiding unnecessary penalties is to communicate as early and often with the county assessor as possible, or hire someone who is able to do so on the taxpayer's behalf. With a thorough understanding of the property tax code and clear communication with county assessors, hotel owners in Texas may bypass the penalty trap.

Rachel Duck, CMI is a tax consultant at Popp Hutcheson PLLC, which represents taxpayers in property tax matters and is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Confusion Regarding Tax Code's Rendition Requirements Creates Penalty Trap
Nov
26

The Silver Tsunami Portends Excessive Tax Assessments

What You Need to Know to Successfully Appeal Your Inordinate Property Taxes

For some time, owners and operators of seniors housing properties have been aware of the staggering demographic statistics, such as the Census Bureau's projection that the baby boomer population will exceed 61 million when the youngest boomers reach 65 in 2029. This is truly the Silver Tsunami. Yet, even seniors housing professionals may be surprised by excessive property tax assessments that break otherwise carefully constructed budgets.

Before discussing what seniors housing owners can do to combat an excessive property tax assessment, it will help to review why some taxpayers will receive such unwelcome notifications. Factors include the large and increasing number and variety of seniors housing projects, coupled with the mass-appraisal methods that assessors typically employ.

With tens of thousands of units constructed each year, the country now has over 3 million seniors housing units ranging from independent living to assisted living, memory care and/or nursing care. Appropriate assessment methods depend on whether a property is an all-encompassing, continuing care retirement community; freestanding with only one component (such as independent living only); or comprising several (but not all) of these subtypes.

Unfortunately, assessors with limited resources usually use a cost-based methodology that is cost-effective for valuing a large number of properties. That may work for residential assessments in areas with similar homes, but given the significant differences between seniors housing properties, this approach can create an enormous tax problem for taxpayers who own seniors housing.

An outrageous assessment

In one recent case, the owner of a newly constructed property was shocked to receive an assessment valuing the property about 30 percent above its actual cost.The resulting taxes would have exceeded the owner's budget by over $250,000, not only ruining cash flow, but also destroying more than $2 million of market value.

Fortunately, there are measures taxpayers can take to counter excessive assessments. A critical initial step is to confirm any appeal deadline. Not only do rules differ across the country, but in many states the appeal deadline depends on when the notice is sent.

Further complicating this point is that more than one formal appeal may need to be filed, and taxpayers often have a narrow window within which to file. Generally, if a taxpayer receives a notice and misses a required appeal deadline, there are no second chances for that tax year.

Other important steps are to determine the applicable value standard and the assessment's basis. Usually (but not always) the standard will be market value, or the probable cash-equivalent price the property would fetch if buyer and seller are knowledgeable and acting freely. To determine that value, the assessor usually will have used an incomplete and improper cost approach that only adjusted for physical depreciation.

For these typical cases where the assessor has estimated market value using a flawed cost approach, drilling down deep into the assessor's cost methodology may produce a gusher of tax savings. In the aforementioned case, the assessor had used the costs for constructing a very expensive skilled nursing facility. Correctly using the assessor's cost estimator service for the subject property, which was mostly comprised of independent living units, reduced the cost by about $10 million.

Additionally, an assessor's cost-based valuation often will only account for depreciation from the property's physical condition. A proper cost approach must also account for any functional or external obsolescence.

Functional obsolescence can be substantial, especially for older properties, because consumer preferences change over time. What consumers may have desired years ago may now constitute a poor offering.

External obsolescence, which is often due to adverse economic conditions, can impact a property regardless of its age. For example, there will be external obsolescence if new properties overwhelm market demand in an area, or if the inevitable next economic downturn lowers market values.

Other scenarios

While atypical, sometimes assessors will use an income approach or sales comparison approach to value seniors housing properties. As with the cost approach, those approaches introduce many ways for assessors to reach erroneous and excessive value conclusions. One potentially large error is valuing the entire business and failing to remove the value attributable to services, intangibles or personal property.

In the previously mentioned case, the taxpayer's appraiser used the income approach and concluded that the seniors housing property had a total business value of approximately $22 million. The appraiser then determined that about $1 million of that value was attributable to services and intangibles and about $800,000 was attributable to tangible personal property as shown in the table below.

Market Value of Total Business Assets ---- $22M
Less Tangible Personal Property ---- ($800,000)
Less Services and Intangibles ---- ($1M)
Market Value of real property ---- $20.2M

In a similar vein, the Ohio Supreme Court recently reversed the Ohio Board of Tax Appeals in the case of a nursing home property where a taxpayer's appraiser had determined that only about sixty-two percent of the total paid for all assets was for the real property. The Board of Tax Appeals had summarily rejected the appraiser's analysis as a matter of principle. The Ohio Supreme Court reversed and ordered the Board to reconsider the appraiser's analysis, and determine what amount, if any, should be allocated to items other than real estate.

These cases underscore that an assessor who uses the income or sales comparison approach and mistakenly values the entire business, rather than the real property alone, can improperly inflate a real property assessment by a material amount.

Another step taxpayers can take to achieve tax justice is to involve experienced tax professionals and appraisers. As the above analysis shows, property tax valuation appeals have many procedural nuances as well as legal and factual issues that must be addressed. In addition, in some jurisdictions there may be a basis to obtain relief based on the assessments of comparable properties.

As the inevitable Silver Tsunami inundates markets, there will be more seniors housing properties and more instances of excessive tax assessments. To the extent that the surge in the elderly population depletes local government finances, whether due to government pension plan shortfalls or otherwise, there should be no surprise if property tax bills increase.

The owners and operators of seniors housing properties will need to carefully monitor their property tax assessments and remain vigilant to avoid painful and excessive taxation.

Stewart Mandell is a partner and leader of the Tax Appeals Practice Group at law firm Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, the Michigan member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • What You Need to Know to Successfully Appeal Your Inordinate Property Taxes
Oct
23

How to Avoid Excessive Property Taxes

Knowing what to look for in monitoring your assessments can help avoid over taxation.

As robust occupancies and escalating investor demand in many markets drive up property tax bills for multifamily housing, apartment owners must continue to monitor their assessments to avoid overtaxation. Knowing what to look for can ease this task, and the place to start is with a firm grasp of the assessor's methodology.

Many taxpayers are unaware that assessors typically use a mass appraisal technique to derive assessments without referencing or even collecting details about a property's unique characteristics or performance. Property owners who understand the mass appraisal procedure have a distinct advantage in identifying assessment errors, and this knowledge can inform the apartment owner's arguments when they choose to fight excessive valuations.

Rooted in Generalities
The burden on appraisers to generate thousands of property values, often annually, is colossal. For this reason, assessors determine most market values for assessment purposes through mass appraisal, which is the process of valuing a group of properties as of a given date using common data, standardized methods, and statistical testing. Assessors using mass appraisal rely upon valuation equations, tables, and schedules developed through mathematical analysis of market data.

Mass appraisal analysis begins with assigning properties to classes or strata based on highest and best use. Valuation models are created for defined property groups, such as industrial or office, and are then calibrated to reflect the market factors for that specific market or submarket.

The International Association of Assessing Officers (IAAO) sets mass appraisal standards for assessors, by which an assessor can appraise the fee simple interest in property at market value. These standards set the preferred methods for mass application of the three traditional approaches to value (cost, sales comparison, and income). Armed with this information, apartment owners can attack mass appraisal procedures that result in values that don't reflect a property's true market value.

Property Data Errors
IAAO standards dictate that valuation models should be consistently applied to property data that are correct, complete, and up-to-date. However, assessor records commonly contain errors relating to a property's age, total square footage, net leasable area, number of apartments, unit mix, and facility amenities. An error in one of these fundamental property characteristics can significantly increase a property's overall assessment.

When arguing errors in specific property data, apartment owners should be prepared to share a current rent roll with their assessor in order to document the property's square footage, net leasable area, number of units, and unit mix. It may also be helpful to provide the assessor with copies of the property's most recent marketing materials, which show the project's various floor plans and amenities. Finally, pointing out land-size discrepancies or external nuisances such as traffic or airport noise can be helpful in arguing for lower values.

Income Approach
Assessors typically use the income approach in valuing apartments. Mass appraisal application of the income approach begins with collecting and processing income and expense data gathered from the marketplace. Appraisers then compute normal or typical gross incomes, vacancy rates, and expense ratios to arrive at a net income that is capitalized using a market-driven cap rate. This approach is often problematic because it fails to take into account a property's unique economic performance in a dynamic market.

Perhaps the best defense against excessive appraisals is to attack an assessor's mass appraisal income pro forma. Apartment owners should distinguish their property's rental rates and expense ratios from market data by providing current and prior-year operating statements if the numbers support a value reduction. Assessors often overestimate rent and underestimate expenses.

Owners should also provide occupancy reports to portray the property's occupancy trends, compare the property's occupancy level with market comparables, and outline any concessions and allowances the owner provides renters to maintain occupancy. The standardized vacancy and collection loss factor used in a mass appraisal income approach rarely captures the true physical and economic occupancy of a project.

Finally, owners should refute cap rates derived from sales of properties that aren't comparable to the subject.

Mass appraisal is a necessary evil that apartment owners should guard against. Knowing how assessors apply the procedure will help taxpayers in their continued fight to reduce property taxes.


Gilbert Davila is a partner in the law firm of Popp Hutcheson PLLC , the Texas member of 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.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Knowing what to look for in monitoring your assessments can help avoid over taxation.
Sep
28

Big Box Stores Suffer Excessive Taxation

Careful preparation is the key to contesting these unfair property taxes.

It may be paradoxical that big-box retail has lost property value in real estate markets where commercial property values in general are climbing, but that is the message many owners must convey to achieve a lower property tax bill.

For decades, big-box properties generated significant tax revenue for schools and local governments, but that story is changing. Annual valuation gains of 2 percent to 10 percent annual increases may have become a simple rule of thumb at one time for assessed values, but are no longer expected or acceptable to most big-box owners. Instead, there is now a major struggle between the big-box owners and the local property tax assessor.

Many companies have changed their real estate and marketing strategy to adapt to declining big-box property values. Toys R Us, Kmart, Sears and other stores have either closed stores or no longer exist. Others, including Walmart and Target, have adapted to suit customers who are no longer happy shopping in a mega store, or having to walk to a distant corner of a mega store to pick up a toothbrush, a bottle of milk or a pair of shoes.

Many retailers have achieved positive results by reducing store sizes. Target moved away from the superstore format to stores of 25,000-45,000 square feet, emphasizing the "grab and go" concept rather than the full grocery store.

Some experiments have not worked so well. Walmart opened a number of smaller, "neighborhood" Walmarts, only to close many a few years later. Mega stores still exist, but while commercial real estate values in general may be soaring, the value of these mega stores generally is not.

Yet, the local assessors do not see it that way, applying either a simple, across-the-board increase based on the general market, or using the standard cost, income capitalization and market/sales approaches to perpetuate valuation increases that ignore changing retail dynamics.

Points of contention

The cost approach often results in an inflated and unrealistic value that no one would pay in an open-market transaction. The cost approach should only be used on a relatively new building with little depreciation or obsolescence to take into account. The original cost may also include single-purpose features which have little or no value to a second-generation user.

Finally, if the building is to be repurposed, there is enormous added cost to convert a mega store to multi-tenant occupancy or to a different use with a shallower usable depth; it may not be economically feasible.

The income approach is often unavailable since these stores are most often owner-occupied, and this approach should only be applied for a rental property. An owner-occupied property should never be required to produce income and expenses in the context of a valuation of the property for property tax purposes. Such information values the business that is being operated from the property, and not the bricks, mortar and land.

This leaves the third option, the market or sales approach, as the primary appraisal method. Here starts the war.

First, many assessors see a Walmart, Kohl's, Target or a Lowe's store differently than they do a local mom-and-pop store operated from a similar property. Yet this is wrong, because it violates basic principles of property tax valuations.

A taxing entity cannot collect property taxes on the value to the name as an ongoing business, but only on the bricks, mortar and land. Buildings with comparable size, location, age, quality and other real estate characteristics should have the same value, regardless of whether there is a national name on the building.

Second, most big boxes are owner-occupied. If sold, there would be no lease to transfer to the buyer; the building would be vacant and available to the buyer for its own use or subsequent leasing to a user-tenant. The way to apply this sales approach in such cases is to compare the big box to comparable sales of non-leased property that are, or soon will be, vacant and available.

Such sales in the relevant period are often hard to find. Many of these properties linger on the market for years before they are sold or repurposed. As a result of such few sales for comparison, the assessor will gravitate to using sales of leased properties.

A leased property is a totally different animal from an owner-occupied, big box store. The sale is based on the lease itself – the remaining term on the lease, the net income generated, the tenant's credit and the like. Often, the lease predates the sale by years and does not reflect current market rent. Sometimes the property was a build-to-suit project with rent based on the cost resulting from the user's specific requirements, which resulted in an initial inflated cost to build.

Case in point

This played out in one of my recent cases. The assessor valued a big box at $105 per square foot, based on recent sales of leased properties, with the rent in most of them being established 10-20 years earlier. Some were build-to-suit leases.

There was, however, a recent sale at $75 per square foot of a vacant big box store in a neighboring county. The Colorado Board rejected the assessor's valuation, finding that a vacant store represented the true market value, and reduced the taxable value to $10 million from the assessor's $15 million. This $5 million reduction resulted from digging into the assessor's analysis, pointing out the flaw in the cost and income approaches, and eliminating sales of leased properties.

The battle will soon start anew, and it is never too early to start accumulating the necessary data that will determine the victor.

Michael Miller is Of Counsel at Spencer Fane LLP in Denver, CO. The firm is the Colorado member of the American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation or property tax attorneys.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Careful preparation is the key to contesting these unfair property taxes.
Sep
18

How Property Valuation Differs for Corporate Headquarters

Lack of data makes for more important conversations between advisors and property owners.

Corporate headquarters present unique challenges and opportunities in property valuation discussions with tax assessors. Managing taxes on any real estate property requires an understanding of all three traditional approaches to value, but headquarters are unusual in that good data are hard to find.

This article highlights common sticking points in value discussions for this unique property set. A collaborative discussion between an advisor and property owner on these few areas can lead to a successful tax reduction.

Cost considerations

A headquarters defines an enterprise, but many of its defining improvements lack value to potential buyers.

Especially with newly constructed or renovated projects, or when lacking comparable data, the assessor will often rely heavily on the cost approach to estimate market value. This can result in a high valuation with room for fruitful discussion about ways to support a value decrease.

Under the cost approach, an assessor using reproduction cost will frequently understate depreciation and obsolescence. It is important to also review treatment of the economic age-life method, which is often misapplied. The effective age, rather than the actual age, must be measured against the life expectancy of improvements.

Deferred maintenance also requires deductions. Good appraisal practice mandates that short-lived items should first be costed out by category — items such as windows, HVAC systems, carpet, roofs and restrooms — before determining their remaining useful life and cost of replacement based on capital plans.

If the appraiser resorted to a cost approach due to a lack of data for other approaches, in the case of an older headquarters with functional issues not designed to current standards, a replacement cost approach is preferred.

The replacement method projects the cost to reconstruct the buildings using modern materials, design and layout standards. This eliminates the need to estimate depreciation for superadequacies and poor design. It provides a better indication of the existing improvements' contribution to market value.

With preparation, the taxpayer can tell a powerful story of how to build the functional equivalent of the headquarters.

Income and sales

The income approach to value is seldom helpful, in part because of the difficulty in finding market rents for a single-user property of considerable size. The assessing authority may want to use multi-tenant rent comparables, but an explanation of the costs of the conversion from single- to multi-tenant use will reveal a significantly lower value conclusion.

The sales comparison will be the most relevant approach to value in most cases. Appraisers often use gross building area as a measurement unit of comparison for single users, but comparing by net rentable area (NRA) will go far to account for the reduction in value a building experiences when needs and usage change.

The appraiser must also use NRA for comparable sales. Factors such as remote working, benching and collaborative space needs will make more traditional and formal spaces within the building less valuable. Changes in how the corporate workforce uses office space can render many areas obsolete and deductible from NRA, such as auditoriums or an oversupply of formal conference rooms.

Another argument that helps to manage value in the sales comparison approach is to point out that parcels surrounding improvements should not be valued as fully functional and available building sites. Separating land from a corporate campus can diminish the campus' value.

Determining the economic impact to the comparables' sale prices when excess land might be at issue requires a more thorough analysis than simply looking at a land-to-building ratio and using the ratio as an adjustment criterion. The land-to-building-ratio adjustment alone does not measure the economic productivity of any excess land on the comparables in relation to the economic productivity of the headquarters land. There may be difficulty in developing the site due to terrain, or a corporate user might lose the right to add square footage elsewhere on campus if land is partitioned and sold.

There are good arguments to be made surrounding value adjustments for any renovations in a corporate campus. Often a corporate headquarters is physically complicated and evolving. If renovations add space, there is often an imperfect fit to the existing space. The taxpayer may argue that the new space suffers a discount because of the imperfect efficiency inherent in the blending of new and old.

Discussing conditions of sales comparables with the assessor is useful for appropriate adjustments. Often, the assessor lacks access to detailed offering memoranda or insights into the motivations of the buyer or seller, such as instances where a developer would pay more to acquire an assemblage, or if there is a need for cash, or unusual tax considerations.

Set the stage for a productive discussion with the assessor by first initiating an informative dialogue with the building engineers and manager. Ask them about the changing nature of the campus and their predictions about future changes.

On meeting with the assessor, share capital replacement plans and how the building must be changed due to internal industry needs and external trends. A meeting of the minds with the taxing authority on the cost and market approaches discussed above can lead to a successful value reduction.


Margaret A. Ford, is a member of the law firm Smith Gendler Shiell Sheff Ford & Maher, the Minnesota member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Ford can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Lack of data makes for more important conversations between advisors and property owners.
Sep
14

Are All Bricks Created Equal?

Proper functional obsolescence may not be factored into the estimates provided by the cost estimating services.

Appraisal districts across Texas often use the cost approach to determine market value for property tax purposes, and when valuing certain commercial properties via the cost approach, county appraisers frequently use cost-estimating services. These services enable appraisers to estimate the cost of the subject property's improvements as if they were new, as well as determine the depreciation to apply to the subject.

Cost estimators can be a great resource and valuation tool, but the appraiser is likely to reach an incorrect value conclusion using estimates from one of these services without also incorporating proper analysis of functional obsolescence.

Functional obsolescence is one of the three types of depreciation that measures a building's function and utility against current market standards. Given this, placing all weight on a service's depreciation estimates could lead to incorrect assessments that ignore functional obsolescence within the property's total depreciation.

The Trouble With Tables

Cost-estimating services typically provide depreciation tables that contain depreciation data for multiple commercial property types. County appraisers often cite these tables as their main source of depreciation support when using the cost approach.

It is important to know that these tables typically assume that all components of the improvements for the various property types depreciate equally across time. So for example, a brick used in a multifamily or office development will depreciate at the same rate as a brick used in a fast-food restaurant or movie theater.

Often-overlooked warnings from these services point out that certain real estate product types are subject to functional obsolescence that occurs rapidly and can significantly reduce the economic lifespan conclusion for the applicable property type. Given this information, a determination of total depreciation for the subject property must include an appropriate functional obsolescence analysis.

Evaluating functional obsolescence involves an analysis of the utility of the improvements, and how that degree of usefulness affects total depreciation. As an example, consider the fast food industry, which has evolved drastically over the past few decades.

As fast-food real estate models from the 80's and 90's continue to become obsolete, new models have appeared to attract and retain the millennial and Generation Z customer base. Because of this, it is common practice for fast-food companies to refresh their store models every five to 10 years, with a complete rebuild taking place every 20 to 25 years.

This refresh-and-rebuilding cycle is necessary to fit ever-changing consumer tastes and demands for this real estate product type. While the store refresh may include new flooring, additional exterior decoration and color schemes, a complete rebuild is necessary when the utility of the building no longer fits the current design standards demanded by the market. An economic life of 20 to 25 years may be appropriate to capture the potential functional obsolescence associated with this industry.

Picture A Theater

Movie theaters are another competitive product type that may be subject to functional obsolescence outside standard physical depreciation. Theaters built in the 1990s and 2000s may struggle to compete with the eat-drink-and-play models that continue to increase in popularity. Across Texas, select stand-alone theaters that lack dining, bar, and event options continue to see revenues decline.

Theaters without these features often lack the capacity to add a commercial kitchen, bar service, or bowling alley into their existing structure, which limits the utility of the property based on market tastes and preferences. These older theaters may also contain large projection rooms that were previously used to house large equipment and film reels. Given the arrival of digital cinema, most projection rooms now require less space to house and project content into the auditorium.

Auditorium spaces are also evolving, based on the capacity to house premium luxury sections or reclining seats with independent power modules. These popular seating features have resulted in auditoriums having less seating capacity, given the additional space required for each seat. Clearly, it is important to analyze and recognize any applicable functional obsolescence that could affect this property type.

Real estate product types continue to evolve along with consumer standards and tastes; it will be important to consider the impact these requirements have on a building's utility over time.

Cost-estimating services are a great tool that is used frequently for valuation, but it is important to know what is – and what is not – reflected in their information. Once assessors realize this distinction, they can apply proper analysis of total depreciation in their cost-approach determination of a property's market value.


Kirk Garza holds the MAI designation of the Appraisal Institute and has earned the CCIM designation through the CCIM Institute and the CMI designation from the Institute of Professionals in Taxation (IPT). Kirk is a Director and licensed Texas Property Tax Consultant with the Texas law firm of Popp Hutcheson PLLC, which focuses its practice on property tax disputes and is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Joseph Jarrell and Jordyn Smith are graduate students at Texas A&M University's Master of Real Estate program. They may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Proper functional obsolescence may not be factored into the estimates provided by the cost estimating services.
Aug
08

How to Challenge Your Property Tax Assessments

A step-by-step guide from a veteran attorney to navigating the process of disputing real estate valuations by local government.

In most jurisdictions, taxpayers may meet with the assessor or assessor's representative to deliberate and possibly resolve issues concerning taxable real estate valuation.

First, contact the assessor's office to request a meeting. Getting past recorded messages may be a challenge in some instances, but talking to a human being is necessary.

During that initial phone call, be prepared to describe the problem and point of the discussion, then ask for a date and time to meet. Be sure to request the meeting in sufficient advance of filing deadlines for any appeal process.

Before the meeting, identify an objective (typically a lower assessment) and a plan to achieve that outcome. Be optimistic, but recognize that the assessor's office may reject the taxpayer's position. During the discussion, be reasonably flexible; passion and anger are seldom persuasive and will detract from an otherwise sound argument.

Fix the facts

There are a number of valid concerns other than overvaluation which, if properly addressed and corrected, can result in significant savings.

The most obvious reason to discuss the property with the assessor is the need to correct a simple mistake on the part of the assessor's office. Computer-generated assessed values are now widely used and accepted. The resulting values are no better than the data fed into the database, so review assessments with an eye on the broad picture.

Pay particular attention to the address and all measurements, which are common sources of error. Be sure the property hasn't been confused with some other property of greater value. If the property is improved, review the records available on the assessor's website to see if the improvements are accurately described and that the land is properly measured. Call any mistake of fact to the assessor's attention.

Most jurisdictions recognize varying degrees of assessment value depending on property classification. Typical classifications are commercial, residential and agricultural. Each class is assessed at a different percentage of its market value.

Usage is the primary classification determinant. For instance, undeveloped property zoned commercial may be a productive farm, in which case its classification would be agricultural. Point out to the assessor that the property is being farmed and was so used on the tax valuation day. Bring photos and records to establish that farming was the use on value day, and continues to be so.

Make a similar argument in any situation where the assessor classified the property higher than its actual use. Along the lines of classification, some properties are exempt from taxation if used regularly for charitable, religious and educational purposes.

Unless the use is easily recognized and accepted, it is unlikely the assessor's office will alter its opinion in an informal meeting. The meeting is an effort to convince the assessor that the property is overvalued for tax purposes.

Study the concepts

Unless the taxpayer is a valuation expert, it's probable he or she is meeting with someone who knows more about property values than the owner does, or at least believes that to be the case. A fundamental understanding of valuation methods is critical to a meaningful dialogue.

Volumes are written on the subject and the law books are full of cases dealing with value concepts. The following provides a thumbnail sketch of these concepts.

The three approaches accepted by all valuation experts are cost, income, and market or sales comparison. Assessors use these approaches daily, and look at property through these lenses.

Cost. If the property was purchased and improved with a new structure or structures within the last five years, the total cost of acquisition and improvement is a good indicator of what the property is worth and how it should be valued for tax purposes.

In the absence of a recent transaction, a credible opinion of the cost to replace the improvements on the property may be useful. There are manuals recognized by value experts that may assist in obtaining and presenting such an opinion as evidence.

Market. If the house next door, built just like the subject home, sold yesterday, then that sale price is a good indicator of the value of the subject house. On its face, the method of seeing what similar properties sell for seems the simplest and most direct way to determine a property's value.

If only it were so. The more variances there are between the properties, the greater the comparison challenge. Differences can include location, date of sale, condition of the property—the list goes on.

In dealing with the assessor, present listings and recent sales of properties similar to the subject property, if possible.

Income. In short, this is the present value of future benefits, and is the price a knowledgeable person would pay to acquire the future income stream of a given property.

Under this approach, value is typically determined by dividing the net income by the capitalization rate, or the buyer's initial annual rate of return. The capitalization rate, or cap rate, provides a formula for value calculation, and the higher the cap rate, the lower the value conclusion. The assessor will have a firm opinion of the cap rate and is unlikely to be swayed, but it's worth a try.

In many instances, arguing the general market cap rate with the assessor is futile. A better approach may be to show why the assessor's cap rate should be adjusted because of conditions unique to the property. Look for conditions that are beyond the owner's control and constitute risk to future income.

Arguments challenging the assessor's cap rate could include the greater risk of lost income due to external factors, such as a highway change or a major demographic shift.

Assessors and their staff consider themselves professionals meriting respect as public servants. To achieve any result from conversing with them, they should be dealt with accordingly.

At the conclusion of the meeting, be sure to document any agreement reached.



Jerome Wallach is a partner at The Wallach Law Firm in St. Louis, the Missouri State member of 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..

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • A step-by-step guide from a veteran attorney to navigating the process of disputing real estate valuations by local government.
Aug
08

Oversupply, Taxes Choke Self-Storage Growth

 According to Gilbert Davila, principal at Popp Hutcheson PLLC, an Austin-based law firm specializing in property taxes, the hikes are primarily attributable to basic increases in construction and investment in self-storage properties across Texas. Based on how pricing for commercial real estate in Texas has generally skyrocketed in recent years, appraisal districts are now able to derive very low cap rates for many of the properties they assess. In addition, Davila says appraisal districts are only just beginning to have access to comprehensive data to use in valuing properties in this sector. "Prior to the last couple years, appraisal districts weren't very aggressive on self-storage owners, and now they're playing a  game of catch-up" he says. "However, we should be past the worst of the exponential increases and should see more stagnant property tax valuations for the year 2018."

Davila also points out that many self-storage owners are now protesting their assessments in court. Because Texas law requires all properties within a certain jurisdiction to be assessed equally and uniformly with facilities of similar sizes, this litigation should help lower the median level of valuation for self-storage assets.

Jul
23

Ohio’s Misguided Tax Fix

A proposed law to close the "LLC Loophole" from real estate transfer taxes is a solution in search of a problem.

Ohio legislators are drafting a measure to apply the state's real estate transfer tax to the transfer of any ownership interest in a pass-through entity that owns real property. This proposal will cause more problems than it solves.

Ohio assesses its transfer tax, called a conveyance fee, on each real estate transaction based on the purchase amount reported on a conveyance fee statement and filed with the deed. If a pass-through entity owns the property, a sale of interest in that entity is exempt from transfer tax. The proposed changes would apply the conveyance fee to those transfers, however.

Also, if the property purchase price exceeds currently assessed value, recording the conveyance fee statement and deed with the county will usually trigger a lawsuit by the school district to increase the assessment and tax bill.

Transfers exempt from transfer tax include gifts between spouses or to children; sales to or from the U.S. government, the State of Ohio or any of its political subdivisions; transfers to provide or release security for a debt or obligation; and sales to or from a non-profit agency that is exempt from federal income tax, when the transfer is without consideration and furthers the agency's charitable or public purpose. Generally, the policy is to impose the transfer tax only after a market transaction with market consideration.

What's the problem?

Lawmakers consider the proposal on transfer tax and pass-through entities a tool to fix the problem of real estate value escaping taxation, both at the time of transfer and, more importantly, as part of the assessment. The two supposed loopholes that the proposal aims to close are:

  1. The transfer tax loophole argument assumes that some buyers may structure their purchase as an entity transfer, in part, to avoid the transfer tax, which can be significant for a highly valuable property.
  1. The property tax loophole describes the more likely "problem" the proposed law purports to address. This argument suggests that some buyers attempt to avoid real estate tax increases when the purchase price is higher than the current tax assessment by structuring the deal as an entity transfer

Ohio assumes that a recent, arm's length sale price is the best evidence of property value for real estate taxation. Filing the deed and conveyance fee statement prompts the school district to file a lawsuit to increase the taxes. The conveyance fee statement indicates the purchase price, carries evidentiary weight and is presumed to be completed under oath, even though as a practical matter it is more like a clerical function and seldom completed by any party to the sale.

When interest in the ownership entity transfers without direct conveyance of the real estate, the transfer tax is inapplicable under current law and no purchase price is recorded. Some sales may be structured this way, trying to avoid exposure to an increase in property taxes by filing a conveyance fee statement.

Everyone should bear their share of the tax burden based on fair property valuation, but this proposed bill does not solve the problem of people skirting their responsibility. It also can lead to unintended consequences including the loss of privacy, increased transaction costs, implementation and enforcement costs, and less real estate investment.

A multilayered dilemma

There is no indication that using a pass-through entity is even an effective way for investors to avoid triggering an increased assessment. Ohio school districts file increase complaints not only when deeds and conveyance fee statements are recorded, but also in response to mortgages, LLC transfers, SEC filings, and sometimes the opinion of outside consultants. There is little evidence that significant numbers of sales are missed because they are the transfer of ownership interests. Thus, there is no loophole that needs to be closed.

The proposal disrupts uniformity, because using a recent purchase to set the assessment midway through Ohio's three-year valuation cycle treats taxpayers who've recently bought their properties differently than others. This is non-uniform treatment, which the Ohio Constitution prohibits.

The conveyance fee statement is often completed and filed by someone not a party to the sale. Common errors occur, usually in allocating the total asset purchase price. Historically, these incorrectly reported purchase prices were being applied to set real estate tax values with increasing rigidity, leading to assessments that did not accurately reflect the value of the real estate.

Assessments should only value real estate, but assessments based on these total asset prices would include the value of non-real estate items as well. To the extent that the value of these other items -- for example, an ongoing, successful business operation -- were also being taxed through sales taxes or a commercial activity tax, these taxpayers were subjected to double taxation.

The solution exists

A recent amendment to the tax law mandates that a real estate assessment reflect the unencumbered fee simple interest. The Ohio Supreme Court recently confirmed in its Terraza 8 LLC vs. Franklin City Board of Revision decision that the amendment requires assessors and tribunals to evaluate all circumstances of a sale, and not blindly apply the number reported on the conveyance fee statement.

The appraisal of the unencumbered fee simple interest provides uniform assessment for all taxpayers, while acknowledging the circumstances of real world transactions. It limits double taxation by making sure real estate tax is based on real estate value only, and yields consistent results whether a sale price is higher or lower than the current assessment.

It ensures uniform measurement and taxation for everyone; just as you would not impose taxes based on gross profits for one taxpayer and net profits for another. It also ensures that the tax is applied consistently, whether the owner just bought the property, has owned it for decades, leases it, occupies it, owns it individually or owns it through interests in a pass-through entity. Valuing the unencumbered interest also results in predictability, aids budgeting, and alleviates deal-killing uncertainty.

There are legitimate reasons to convey property through the transfer of ownership interests in an LLC or other pass-through entity, including privacy or other tax planning. The proposed bill undercuts those legitimate concerns without addressing the perceived problem of real estate value escaping taxation. Consistently valuing the unencumbered fee simple interest of real property through uniform assessment and uniform application ensures that no real estate value escapes taxation, and that no taxpayer bears more than their fair share of the burden.

Cecilia Hyun is a partner at the law firm Siegel Jennings Co. L.P.A., which has offices in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. The firm is the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • A proposed law to close the "LLC Loophole" from real estate transfer taxes is a solution in search of a problem
Jul
10

Reduce Property Taxes Through Acquisition and Capital Project Planning

Savvy commercial real estate professionals keep property-tax planning on their checklists for acquisitions and capital projects.

Why? Because they know that considering property taxes early can save money and reduce hassle later, whether the project is acquiring a business that owns real estate, developing real estate, remodeling a property or adding to existing improvements. And given that businesses overall spend more on property tax than any other state and local tax, considering property tax while planning these projects is a valuable opportunity to improve the bottom line.

The first step is to identify how the acquisition or other proposed actions might affect the property's taxable value. This depends on the local jurisdiction's assessing practices and on how an assessor will relate the sale price or project cost to taxable market value.

States treat sales information in varying ways. Ohio, for example, presumes a property's sale price to be its market value for calculating property taxes. Other states include the sale price in the overall algorithm for all properties but do not use it to determine the value of the specific property that sold. Still others ignore the price altogether.

There are several ways that price may differ from value. For one, the transaction may include non-taxable elements, such as a business, in addition to real property. Or the sale price of an office building may reflect added value for a lease at an above-market rental rate.

In a common scenario, the price paid for a portfolio of senior-living facilities will include the value of each facility's real property, the value of each facility's tangible personal property, and the value of each facility's resident lists, service arrangements, goodwill and other intangible (and therefore untaxable) personal property. The allocation of the purchase price among the various components may not reflect the market value of each component, even when the overall transaction price reflects market value. And sometimes a buyer pays more for a property than it is worth generally on the market. This is often due to the buyer's own investment strategies and thus requires an assessor to distinguish between investment value and market value.

A buyer should ideally evaluate how the price relates to the property's market value in the lead-up to the transaction. This is key to projecting property taxes going forward, in light of the transaction and the way the particular jurisdiction reacts to (or ignores) different types of transactions. It is also important to ensuring that the assessor receives accurate information in states where assessors learn of and react to sales prices.

This early planning can influence the portion of the price allocated to taxable value and help limit it to market value. Part of this is specifically identifying nontaxable, intangible components in the transaction documents in a way that conforms to the jurisdiction's property tax laws.

Another key step is to make sure any documents filed for real estate transfer taxes reflect the value of the taxable component instead of an overall value, thereby managing both the real estate transfer tax and future property taxes. Opportunities may exist to avoid or minimize the transfer tax, depending on the specific laws in each jurisdiction.

Many a buyer has reported the full sale price (or allowed the seller to do so, in jurisdictions where the seller reports the transaction), realizing too late that the reported sum included components that should have been reported differently. The buyer should also consider property taxes when reviewing any press release about the transaction. The new owner may find itself bound to what was reported, whether to government or the media, in later property tax appeals.

Also, preserving certain transaction details, such as the valuation analysis and rationale, may help later as support material or to dispute errors in discussions with the assessor.

Lastly, if information about the transaction goes public in a way that may lead to a misunderstanding by the assessor, reacting promptly can be crucial. This often involves discussing the information with the assessor to provide additional context, such as explaining when a buyer paid a premium above the property's market value.

Similar considerations apply to other types of project strategies, such as plans to develop real estate, renovate or remodel a property, or add to existing improvements. In each instance, early consideration of property taxes often proves useful. Doing so not only aids in projecting future property taxes, but can also guide the owner in reducing those taxes through choices made while carrying out the project.

Norman J. Bruns and Michelle DeLappe are attorneys in the Seattle office of Garvey Schubert Barer, where they specialize in state and local tax. Norman Bruns is the Idaho and Washington representative of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Norman Bruns can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Michelle DeLappe can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Savvy commercial real estate professionals keep property-tax planning on their checklists for acquisitions and capital projects.
Jun
27

Is the New Federal Tax Law a Boon for Residential Rentals?

The federal government has long encouraged owning a home over renting. Housing subsidies in the tax code effectively lower the after-tax cost of homeownership, which has helped taxpayers move out of residential rentals and into their own homes. The Jeffersons might not have credited tax policy for it in their 1970's sitcom, but it has assisted taxpayers in "moving up" to bigger and better homes. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA) makes sweeping changes to the tax code for individual taxpayers that directly impact their ability to transition from renting to owning their home.

About 34 million households, or 44 percent of U.S. homes, carry a mortgage with annual interest charges that exceeded the prior standard deduction. With the new standard deduction, that group shrinks to around 14 million, or 15 percent of U.S. households, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR).

And while the TCJA nearly doubles the standard deduction, it caps the deduction for state and local taxes -- including income, sales, and property taxes -- at $10,000 for both single and married taxpayers. This one-two punch could significantly impair some taxpayers' appetite for homeownership.

Two household examples

NAR prepared an analysis that illustrates this potential impact. In the first of two examples, a single taxpayer earns $58,000 per year, rents an apartment, and claims the standard deduction. Her tax liability for 2018 under the prior law would have been $7,491 but, under the TCJA, she pays just $6,060 and enjoys a tax cut in the amount of $1,431.

Now assume she purchases a home for $205,000, putting down 3.5 percent with a 30-year mortgage fixed at 4 percent interest. Further assume her first-year mortgage interest would total $7,856 and she would pay property taxes of $2,050.

As a first-time homeowner, her tax liability under the prior law would be $5,393. The tax benefits under the prior law save $2,098, which effectively lowers her monthly mortgage payment by $175 per month. Under the TCJA, her tax would be $5,423 (a $30 increase!) and the differential between renting and owning a home, which was $2,098 under the prior law, has shrunk to just $637 or $53 per month.

In the second NAR example, a married couple with three children and an annual household income of $120,000 leases a home and takes the standard deduction. Their tax liability for 2018 under the prior law would have been $11,370 but, under the TCJA, they pay $8,999 and enjoy a tax cut in the amount of $2,371.

Now assume they purchase a home for $425,000, putting down 10 percent with a 30-year, fixed rate mortgage at 4 percent interest. Further assume their first-year mortgage interest would total $15,189 and they would pay property taxes of $4,250.

Under the prior law, the couple would lower their tax liability for 2018 by $3,219 by purchasing a home instead of renting. This amount effectively lowers their monthly mortgage payment by over $268 per month. Under the TCJA, their tax would be $8,051 (a $100 decrease) and the differential between renting and owning a home, which was $3,219 under the prior law, has shrunk to just $948 or $79 per month. (For NAR's analysis and further discussion of Apartment Lists' examples, visit https://www.nar.realtor/tax-reform/the-tax-cuts-and-jobs-act-what-it-means-for-homeowners-and-real-estate-professionals.)

As these examples illustrate, the TCJA offers an incentive to homeownership, but it is considerably less valuable than the previous incentive. Thiseffectively levels the playing field between renting and owning a residence. In fact, after accounting for additional costs associated with homeownership such as maintenance, neighborhood association dues and local district fees, the scales may now tip in favor of renting.

Thus, taxpayers may forego the traditional path, and choose not to move up from renting to purchasing a home. Instead, they may choose to climb within the rental market. That is, they may move to bigger and better residences and may spend more on their residences , but they are likely to rent rather than buy.

At the same time, the TCJA is fueling investors' interest in the rental market so that more options will likely be available for taxpayers who forego owning a home in favor of renting. To that end, the TCJA offers more favorable treatment of pass-through income. And, income property owners are still able to deduct interest payments on mortgages, with no cap.

These factors make it more profitable for investors to own income-generating property such as multifamily apartments or single family rentals. So, while the TCJA may increase taxpayer demand for renting homes, it also encourages investors to invest in residential properties and make bigger and better rental units available to renters. Whether by accident or design, the TCJA is likely to result in significant benefits to the rental market.

Angela Adolph is a partner in the law firm of Kean Miller LLP, the Louisiana member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
May
29

Cash in on Tax Savings for Green-Buildings

Energy-efficient buildings may not yet command premium rents and prices in smaller markets, but green features could mean property tax savings.

A growing number of commercial properties incorporate energy-efficient attributes that exceed basic code requirements. While conserving resources, these sustainable building strategies can also enhance the owner's bottom line by reducing operating costs. As investors consider developing or buying green properties in certain markets, though, they should consider a less-obvious source of savings – their property tax bills.

No single set of attributes defines a green building; rather, sustainable structures lie on a spectrum. At one end are otherwise-conventional buildings with modest upgrades, ranging to a high end of properties employing comprehensive design and operational strategies that approach zero net consumption of energy or water.

The features most commonly associated with green building tend to be efficient heating and cooling equipment, better insulation, rainwater catchment and on-site power generation methods such as solar, wind, or geothermal. While roof-top solar panels garner attention, other design attributes including passive solar collection, drought-tolerant landscaping, and building-control systems can be equally effective at achieving sustainability objectives. Ultimately, each attribute adds costs to the construction or operation of a property, while not necessarily generating the same incremental gain in value.

How green is the market?

Green design and operations have become standard for Class A properties in many primary markets. With above-average adoption rates, the investment premium for energy-efficient attributes may disappear and properties lacking those attributes may decline in value. Similarly, buildings without green features may be at a competitive disadvantage in attracting potential tenants and buyers.

In many secondary and tertiary markets including across the Midwest, Southeast, Great Plains and elsewhere, however, buyers and tenants have not shifted their preferences toward green construction. This greatly reduces the direct economic benefits of green features. When the pool of tenants willing to pay premium rent for energy-efficient features approaches zero, the pool of buyers demanding those features likewise declines.

Accordingly, whether green attributes have an overall positive or negative impact on a property's market value is highly dependent on the local market, even when the nation overall shifts demand toward such features. Energy-efficient construction may be a market prerequisite in one location, while constituting over-engineering and over-building in another. The question for owners of sustainable buildings evaluating their tax assessments, then, is how buyers and sellers in that market react to specific green features.

Necessary, adequate or superadequate?

Assessors often value properties, at least initially, based on the costs of construction, using either replacement cost tables or information from construction permits. But most green buildings have higher upfront costs, with a goal of achieving long-term efficiency objectives. A green building assessed purely on a cost basis, without considering whether its features are above-market, may be over-assessed and, as a result, overtaxed.

Any cost-based property valuation must account for all depreciation, from ordinary wear-and-tear to obsolescence brought about by market factors. One type of functional obsolescence is superadequacy, which applies to an attribute that exceeds current market requirements. Essentially, a superadequacy is a cost without a corresponding value increase.

Importantly, obsolescence is measured against the market, so even a newly constructed property with no physical deterioration could suffer from substantial obsolescence. A particular green feature might represent a positive value element, a market requirement, or functional or external obsolescence, depending on the property type and location.

Of course, as market demands evolve, some features that were superadequate when originally constructed may become standard. Tax assessments must reflect property and market conditions on a certain date, however, and until the market changes, must account for superadequacies.

And while superadequacy is an element of the cost approach to value, it should be a consideration in income- or sales-based analyses as well. The value of green features, like everything else in an appraisal, must be supported with market research and data. If no demand is found for the property's features, that must be reflected in the value conclusion.

Getting the value right

Assessors may ask: "If a green building has an out-of-pocket cost of $1 million, how can it appraise for only $750,000? Why would an investor spend the extra money?"

Certain items may motivate a particular owner, but property tax assessments are usually based on the real estate's market value alone, regardless of business value or intangible value. If the market does not recognize a feature as valuable, then the value a particular user assigns to that feature is irrelevant for property tax purposes.

In questioning how a green feature affects a property's market value (as opposed to its value to the user), consider whether the feature creates a direct monetary benefit to the property owner or user, either in the form of higher income or lower expenses. Sustainability features may boost the owner's business, perhaps resulting in goodwill or broader market recognition, but that increase will not necessarily accrue to the real property itself. And indirect benefits – those nonmonetary benefits to the community or environment – are unlikely to change real estate value.

Valuing a green building involves most of the techniques used for conventional properties, but the nuances and complexities require greater knowledge and training. Local tax assessors, particularly in smaller jurisdictions where sustainable features have not reached market acceptance, often lack that requisite knowledge. It is no wonder that assessments often fail to consider all of the relevant market factors, creating opportunities for taxpayers to appeal excessive assessments.

As demand for sustainable buildings expands, assessors want to capture that growth in the local tax base. But by focusing on whether the local market demands or ignores energy-efficient features, diligent owners can reduce their property's tax assessments and achieve significant savings.


Benjamin Blair is an attorney in the Indianapolis office of the international law firm of Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, the Indiana and Iowa member of 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..

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Energy-efficient buildings may not yet command premium rents and prices in smaller markets, but green features could mean property tax savings.
May
24

Use obsolescence to lower hospital property taxes

Property taxes based on excessive valuations are smothering traditional hospital owners.

All too often, tax assessors ignore functional and economic obsolescence that increasingly afflict hospitals, instead treating these assets as financially productive institutions that hold their value. Hospital owners, however, can leverage obsolescence to reduce taxable values and property tax bills.

Click the link below to continue reading.

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/finance/use-obsolescence-to-lower-hospital-property-taxes.html

Daniel R. Smith, Esq., is a principal with and general counsel for Austin, Texas law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC, the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Kevin Shalley, CMI, is a tax consultant and manager with Popp Hutcheson PLLC, specializing in healthcare properties.

 Contact Daniel at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and Kevin at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Property taxes based on excessive valuations are smothering traditional hospital owners.
May
08

How the New Tax Law Affects Property Taxes

Due diligence is required to determine whether possible tax increases can be abated.

President Trump's Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is the first sweeping reform of the tax code in more than 30 years. Signed into law on Dec. 22, the plan drops top individual rates to 37 percent and doubles the child tax credit; it cuts income taxes, doubles the standard deduction, lessens the alternative minimum tax for individuals, and eliminates many personal exemptions, such as the state and local tax deduction, colloquially known as SALT.

While Republicans and Democrats remain divided on the overhaul's benefits, there is a single undeniable fact: The sharp reduction of the corporate tax rates from 35 percent to 21 percent will be a boon for most businesses. At the same time, employees seem to be benefiting too, with AT&T handing out $1,000 bonuses to some 200,000 workers, Fifth Third Bancorp awarding $1,000 bonuses to 75% of its workers, Wells Fargo raising its minimum wage by 11% and other companies sharing some of the increased profits with employees.Companies are showing understandable exuberance at the prospect of lower tax liability, but investments many firms are making in response to the changes may trigger increases in their property tax bills.

Some companies already are reinvesting in their own infrastructure by improving and upgrading inefficient machinery or renovating aging structures. Renovations to address functional or economic obsolescence can help to attract new tenants and, most significantly, command higher rentals for the same space.

The real property tax systems in place for most states are based on an ad valorem (Latin for "according to value") taxation method. Thus, the real estate taxes are based upon the market value of the underlying real estate. Since the amounts on tax bills are based on a property's market value, changes or additions to the real estate can affect the taxes collected by the municipality.

Generally speaking, most renovations such as new facades, windows, heating or air conditioning will not change the value or assessment on a property. The general rule is that improvements which do not change the property's footprint or use, such as a shift from industrial to retail, shouldn't affect the property tax assessment. However, an expansion or construction which alters the layout of a property can – and usually does – result in an increased property assessment. Since real estate taxes are computed by multiplying the subject assessment by the tax rate, these changes or renovations can significantly increase the tax burden.

Recognizing that this dynamic could chill business expansions, many states offer a mechanism to phase-in or exempt any assessment increases. This can ease the sticker shock of a markedly higher property tax bill once construction is complete.

New York offers recourse in the form of the Business Investment Exemption described in Section 485-b of the Real Property Tax Law. If the cost of the business improvements exceeds $10,000 and the construction is complete with a certificate of occupancy issued, the Section 485-b exemption will phase-in any increase in assessment over a 10-year period. The taxpayer will see a 50 percent exemption on the increase in the first year, followed by 5 percent less of the exemption in each year thereafter. Thus, in Year 2 there will be a 45 percent exemption, 40 percent in Year 3 and so on.

Most other states have similar programs to encourage business investments and new commercial construction or renovations. The State of Texas has established state and local economic development programs that provide incentives for companies to invest and expand in local communities. For example, the Tax Abatement Act, codified in Chapter 312 of the tax code, exempts from real property taxation all or part of an increase in value due to recent construction, not to exceed 10 years. The act's stated purpose is to help cities, counties and special-purpose districts to attract new industries, encourage the development and improvement of existing businesses and promote capital investment by easing the increased property tax burden on certain projects for a fixed period.

Not long ago, the City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, enacted a 10-year tax abatement from real estate taxes resulting from new construction or improvements to commercial properties. Similarly, the State of Oregon offers numerous property tax abatement programs, with titles such as the Strategic Investment Program, Enterprise Zones and others.

Minnesota goes a step further and automatically applies some exemptions to real property via the Plat Law. The Plat Law phases-in assessment increases of bare land when it is platted for development. As long as the land is not transferred and not yet improved with a permanent structure, any increase in assessment will be exempt. Platted vacant land is subject to different phase‑in provisions depending on whether it is in a metropolitan or non‑metropolitan county.

Clearly, no matter where commercial real estate is located, it is prudent for a property owner to investigate whether any recent improvements, construction or renovations can qualify for property tax relief.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Due diligence is required to determine whether possible tax increases can be abated.
May
08

Don’t Forget Obsolescence in Property Tax Appeals

It's critical for owners to identify both economic and functional obsolescence in order to fight unfair tax assessments.

New technologies, shifting markets and aging buildings can drive economic obsolescence across entire industries. Equally important for the taxpayer, these factors also affect individual property values from a functionality perspective. Understanding both economic and functional obsolescence is essential to properly evaluate tax assessments for accuracy.

Determining functional obsolescence requires an analysis of the property's layout and technologies in use. This exercise attempts to quantify any adjustment in value that amplifies or outpaces downward trends occurring in the market, or accelerates depreciation beyond a straight-line basis. This may include external trends having a unique negative effect on the property's functionality.

Likewise, economic obsolescence can affect a property's value.Such an analysis involves external factors not necessarily specific to the property that may compromise its value on the open market.Declining trends in markets within an industry can signify reasons for impaired values both nationally and regionally.Moreover, international competition may underscore weaknesses within an industry that explain a reduction in a particular property's value.

In ascertaining the decline in a property's value due to economic obsolescence, the analysis must attempt to quantify that decline and offer reasons explaining it.These reasons need to be identified and reasonable, a rationale correlating values assigned to those reasons. For example, a facility may have a decline in excess of industry averages, such as changes in transportation costs and infrastructure in comparison to other supplying markets.It could become much less expensive to ship product from South America than to ship by rail in parts of the United States.

In an uncertain economic climate or a declining or stagnant real estate market, the need to evaluate obsolescence in property assessments is obvious. But even in times of growth and rising real estate prices, taxpayers should consider functionality in reviewing an assessment.

In Georgia, for example, regulations governing property assessments require local taxing authorities to take obsolescence into account. The statute lacks any description of the precise mechanics involved in measuring obsolescence, however, and assessors often forego such an evaluation.

A given jurisdiction's tax return may apply depreciation schedules, but those may not incorporate the concept of functionality. If unaddressed in depreciation schedules, then functional obsolescence needs to be captured as an adjunct to depreciation. Poor economic times or deterioration in a property's utility will exacerbate normal depreciation.

The degree of functional obsolescence is reflected in the utilization of the property. A comparison between full versus actual property usage can indicate the degree of functional obsolescence. Look for evidence of the gap between full and actual historical changes in operating income and production.

Functional vs. Economic Obsolescence

Given that the discrepancy between full and actual property utilization is unique to the facility and not industry-wide, it is functional. This could be explained by technological differences between competing facilities and the subject property. At the same time, external economic factors may contribute to the property's comparative decline.

For example, a printer may use antiquated equipment and technology that require it to keep large facilities for both production and warehousing. Comparisons will identify a gap in functionality between the property and those of more modern competitors using smaller facilities and newer technology. Faster production at newer printing operations may also require less warehousing, because projects are completed more quickly for shipping. The impact of this obsolescence on value is unique to the subject property, reflecting reduced functionality.

On the other hand, great changes are transforming the printing industry. These external factors may be detected in exactly the same way as functional change, but on an industry-wide basis.

Declining demand for an industry overall can impair a particular property's value. Such a sea change can exist within a robust economy, too: In our example, a digital culture has rejected the traditional model for printing to a significant degree, as the widespread use of electronic records and communication has reduced demand for paper printing.

A mine provides another example. Over time, miners extract the most accessible minerals using the least costly means. The layout and operation would have been originally set up to facilitate this process.

As mining continues, the remaining minerals may become more expensive to extract per unit of raw material. This added cost reduces operating income. The mine may require new infrastructure to continue operations. These periodic expansions may be inefficient, again increasing processing costs.

It may be true that, were the mine to be redesigned from scratch, no one would duplicate the existing operation because of the production costs. This reflects deteriorating functionality. On the other hand, industrial demand for the mined product may evaporate due to innovations that make the material unnecessary in processes that once required it.

Changing market forces can impact value. Until recently, the United States was a net importer of natural gas, supporting demand for facilities that enabled the import of liquid natural gas. Now that the United States is a net exporter of natural gas, those same facilities that handled the import of natural gas are more obsolete and less valuable.

Obsolescence is an important consideration in valuing property, regardless of economic conditions. This is especially true for functional obsolescence, but can also be true for economic obsolescence. In valuing property, it is important to remember there is significant overlap between the two, and many factors and influences may explain overall obsolescence.

Brian J. Morrissey is a partner in the Atlanta law firm of Ragsdale, Beals, Seigler, Patterson & Gray, LLP, the Georgia member of 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..

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • It's critical for owners to identify both economic and functional obsolescence in order to fight unfair tax assessments.

American Property Tax Counsel

Recent Published Property Tax Articles

Single-Family Rental Communities Suffer Excessive Taxation

To tax assessors, an investor's single-family, build-to-rent neighborhood is a cluster of separately valued properties.

Multifamily investors are accustomed to paying property taxes based on an assessor's opinion of their asset's income-based market value. But for the growing number of developers and investors assembling communities of single-family homes and townhomes for...

Read more

The Tangible Tax Benefits of Excluding Intangibles

Jaye Calhoun and Divya Jeswant of Kean Miller LLP on an assessment strategy that may help you trim your property tax bill.

Few states impose property tax on intangible assets such as a trade name, franchise, goodwill and the like. Indeed, some office buildings, industrial properties and big-box stores don't derive...

Read more

Don't Miss a Property Tax Deadline

Here are five of the most important dates and timelines to be aware of.

Local governments impose a staggering property tax levy on Texas' commercial and residential property owners, who are their primary source of operational funding. Property tax revenue totaled more than $73.5 billion for the 2021 tax year and...

Read more

Member Spotlight

Members

Forgot your password? / Forgot your username?