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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.

Jul
08

ATTN OWNERS: BEWARE OF PROPERTY TAX INCREASES DURING COVID-19

What do you need to know to fight excessive increases in Texas this year and next?

As if a global economic contraction and what is most likely an unfolding recession across the United States were not enough, many commercial real estate owners across Texas have seen their taxable property values increase this year. While many of these owners are calling for property tax relief to offset the financial burden they are suffering due to stay-at-home orders and business closures triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, they may be unsure of potential remedies to pursue or arguments to make.

Given that the date of valuation is Jan. 1, 2020, property owners searching for relief are limited as to the information that appraisal districts will consider for this tax year. Potentially limited relief in 2020 does not mean taxpayers lack options, however.

There are three key strategies that commercial property owners need to implement in 2020 if they want to maximize reductions in taxable value for this and future years.

1. Consider filing a 2020 appeal – even if the taxable value did not increase from the prior year. The state was already shutting down non-essential activities as appraisal districts were preparing to mail out their 2020 Notices of Appraised Value. Most appraisal districts delayed the mailings while exploring various options, including freezing property values and granting temporary exemptions for properties affected.

In the end, most appraisal districts conducted reappraisals as originally planned and the Texas Attorney General shot down the idea of temporary exemptions as, in his view, the statutory authority allowing issuance of exemptions did not cover purely economic, nonphysical damage to property. The result of this was that, in the majority of cases, the values sent out had no consideration for losses due to the pandemic.

A taxable value that did not increase year over year in an up market may not warrant an appeal during ordinary times, but these are not ordinary times. In 2020, such appeals are important to taxpayers for several reasons.

First, the focus on the pandemic has shifted the narrative that dominated the news cycle in the months in and around the date of valuation. Does anyone remember the retail apocalypse? According to Business Insider, over 9,300 stores closed in 2019 and thousands more were slated for closure in 2020. This was all before COVID-19. If your property was affected by this or other economic factors, a freeze in value may not appropriately reflect the market value of the asset.

Secondly, appealing now may be a sound decision because the 2020 value may be used as a benchmark for future relief. In Texas, each year stands on its own and is valued independently of prior years. However, given that the effects of the pandemic are unlike anything we have seen before, it is reasonable to predict that in order to track the decline in value, appraisal districts may look to the 2020 appraisal roll as a starting point.

In Texas, the deadline to appeal property tax values is May 15, or 30 days from the date the Notice of Appraised Value was delivered to the property owner. Given that some jurisdictions delayed their mailings, it is important to review your Notice of Value to determine your deadline to appeal.

2. Consider the tax rate as well as taxable value. It is important to remember that a value freeze without a freeze in tax rates may still result in an increase in taxes. While actions taken by the Texas Legislature in 2019 promised relief by addressing tax rates, even those measures are currently up for debate as local districts are questioning whether the pandemic allows them to exceed the revenue-raising limits put in place by the Legislature.

Texas may not resolve this dispute until it assesses the full extent of economic damage and weighs it against the needs of the taxing units to meet their budgets. The appeals process will still be the first avenue for relief, but a very close second will be to lobby the local taxing jurisdictions to not raise, and perhaps even lower, property tax rates.

3. Keep track and provide documentation of COVID-19 losses. Even though COVID-19 losses may not be fully considered for tax year 2020, taxpayers need to initiate conversations about the economic impact to the property's financials so that appraisal districts can start building the valuation models for 2021 with these factors in mind.

In 2021, property owners should be ready to present documentation demonstrating any declines in occupancy or revenue, as well as any bankruptcies affecting the property. If the taxpayer's current record keeping does not reflect slow-paying or non-paying tenants, consider tracking those items. Changes to business models, such as adding patio seating or curbside pick-up lanes, may also affect the ultimate indication of value for 2021, so keeping track of those expenses will be equally important.

As property owners go through the 2020 appeals process, it may be beneficial to consider keeping the option open to file a lawsuit in district court to seek additional relief. The longer the property owner and its advisors have to gather information and calculate the depth of the economic impact, the better positioned the team will be to obtain a fair 2020 value.

In the end, being proactive during these times is essential to obtaining relief where it appears there may be no relief in sight.

Darlene Sullivan is a Principal in Austin, Texas, law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC, which represents taxpayers in property tax matters. The firm is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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  • What do you need to know to fight excessive increases in Texas this year and next?
Jun
09

Navigating D.C.’s Tax Rate Maze

An evolving and imperfect system has increased property taxes for many commercial real estate owners.

If you own or manage real property in the District of Columbia and are wondering why your real estate tax bill has gone up in recent years, you are not alone. One common culprit is rising assessed value, but that may not be the main or only source of an increase.

A less obvious contributor may be a new, different, or incorrect tax rate. Since tax rates vary greatly depending on a property's use, staying diligent when it comes to your real estate's tax class and billed rate is critical.

The District of Columbia applies differing tax rates to residential, commercial, mixed-use, vacant and blighted properties. Why is this important? Because the classification can make a considerable difference in annual tax liability – even for two properties with identical assessment values.

For example, a multifamily complex assessed at $20 million incurs a tax liability of $170,000 per year while the same property, if designated as blighted, incurs an annual tax liability almost twelve times greater at $2 million. Therefore, the assessed value is just one piece of the puzzle.

Keeping a sharp eye on a property's tax bill for the accuracy of any tax rate changes is paramount. This requires knowledge of current rates, the taxpayers' legal obligations, and how to remedy or appeal any issues that arise.

New Rates for Commercial Property

Property owners in the District should be aware of a recent change to tax rates on commercial real estate. The Fiscal 2019 Budget Support Emergency Act increased rates for commercial properties starting with Tax Year 2019 bills.

Prior to the enactment of this legislation, the District taxed commercial properties with a blended rate of 1.65% for the first $3 million in assessed value and 1.85% for every dollar above $3 million. The new measure replaces the blended rate with a tiered system, taxing a commercial property at the rate corresponding to the level in which its assessed value falls. Those levels are:

Tier One, for properties assessed at $0 to $5 million, taxed entirely at 1.65%;

Tier Two, for properties assessed at $5 million to $10 million, taxed entirely at 1.77%; and

Tier Three, for properties assessed above $10 million, taxed entirely at 1.89%.

The residential tax rate for multifamily properties remained flat at 0.85%.

Mixed Use

The District of Columbia Code requires that real property be classified and taxed based upon use. Therefore, if a property has multiple uses, taxing entities must apply tax rates proportionally to the square footage of each use. However, it is ownership's legal obligation to annually report the property's uses by filing a Declaration of Mixed-Use form. Owners of properties with both residential and commercial portions should be hypersensitive to this issue.

The District typically mails the Declaration of Mixed-Use form to property owners in May, and the response is due 30 days thereafter. If the District fails to send a form to an owner, it is the owner's responsibility to request one. Remember, the owner must recertify the mixed-use asset each year. Failure to declare a property as mixed-use may result in the entire property including the residential portion being taxed at the commercial tax rate (up to 1.89%).

Vacant & Blighted Designation

If you have ever opened a property tax bill and faced a staggering 5% or 10% tax rate, congratulations, your property was taxed at one of the District's highest real estate tax rates.

Each year the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) and the Office of Tax and Revenue are charged with identifying and taxing vacant and blighted properties in the District. The D.C. Code defines vacant and blighted properties for this purpose, and there is a detailed process governing why and when DCRA may classify a property as vacant. Nonetheless, in each tax cycle DCRA wrongfully designates properties as vacant or blighted, so it is paramount that the taxpayer understands their appeal rights.

To successfully appeal a vacant property designation, an owner must comply with one of the specifically enumerated and highly technical exemptions. One such exemption applies if the property is actively undergoing renovation under a valid building permit. However, the taxpayer should consult with an attorney, as there may be other requirements to qualify for an exemption. An owner wishing to appeal this designation must file a Vacant Building Response form and provide all applicable supporting documentation to DCRA.

Moreover, an owner may appeal a property's blighted designation by demonstrating that the property is occupied or that it is not blighted. Since an appeal of a blighted designation requires a more detailed review of the condition of the property itself, photographic evidence must be used to supplement any documentation provided.

Fixing Erroneous Rates

When dealing with local government and statutory deadlines, time is not on the taxpayer's side. It is important that as soon as an error is identified, the property owner understands the next steps. In some situations, the D.C. code or official government correspondence will lay out the process precisely for the property owner, identifying the who, what, where, when, why and how's of appealing a property's tax designation. However, sometimes a taxpayer will receive a bill without explanation.

In both scenarios, it is best to consult with a local tax attorney.  These professionals have experience dealing with these issues, as well as with the corresponding governmental entities.  A knowledgeable counselor can be an invaluable resource to guide you through any tax issue.

Sydney Bardouil is an associate at the law firm of Wilkes Artis, the District of Columbia member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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  • An evolving and imperfect system has increased property taxes for many commercial real estate owners.
May
04

Texas' Taxing Times

​How changes to the Texas property tax law may impact you, and how COVID-19 plays a role this season.

Property taxes are big news in Texas. Last year, property taxes were a primary focus of the 86th Legislature, and Gov. Greg Abbott deemed property tax relief so important that he declared it an emergency item.

The 2019 legislative session produced significant modifications to tax law. Here's a rundown on the most noteworthy changes affecting taxpayers in 2020, along with a look at how fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic may complicate the taxpayer's position.

Removing the Veil

Property taxes are not only big news, but they are also confusing, particularly given the "Texas two-step" appraisal and assessment process. After an appraisal district values a property, taxing entities separately tax that property based upon the final determined value. For a single property, a taxpayer may owe five or more taxing entities spread among three assessors' offices. Understanding the ultimate tax liability for such a property can be a monumental task for taxpayers.

Senate Bill 2 addressed the confusion and promoted transparency and truth in taxation, earning it the title of "The Texas Property Tax Reform and Transparency Act of 2019." Each appraisal district is now required to maintain a website with useful information that allows taxpayers to better understand their tax bills. The website must include the three pertinent tax rates summarized in the table below (the names of which Senate Bill 2 also revised for clarity). Additionally, appraisal districts will calculate the effect that each taxing entity's proposed rate would have on its overall tax collection and include an estimate for any proposed increase's effect on a $100,000 home. Finally, the websites must provide the date and location of public hearings to address concerns with any proposed increases.

 Revenue Increase Limits

In addition to transparency, lawmakers fought to create some avenue of property tax relief. What ultimately passed between Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 3 was a limit on tax revenue increases by jurisdiction. This restricts the amount that taxing entities can increase revenues through tax rate setting.

Beginning in 2020, most taxing entities will have a maximum revenue increase limit of 3.5% year over year. To adopt a tax rate that increases revenue over 3.5%, that taxing entity must call an election for approval. This new cap is significantly lower than the prior law, which allowed for up to an 8% increase in tax rates year over year without voter approval. Junior college districts, hospital districts and other small taxing units including those with tax rates of 2.5 cents or less per $100 of valuation retain their 8% permitted increase. (For clarity, this article expresses tax rates in dollars per $100 of assessed value.)

Relief from school district taxation falls under a separate calculation, which was revised by House Bill 3. For the 2019-2020 school year, maintenance and operations (M&O) rates will be compressed by 7%. For school districts with a Tier 1 $1.00 M&O rate, the rate drops by 7 cents to 93 cents on the dollar.

For 2020-2021, local school district rates will compress by an average of 13 cents, based on statewide property value growth exceeding 2.5%. The M&O rate caps will vary across school districts, and the Texas Education Agency will publish all maximum compressed rates.

Other Relevant Procedures and Policies

While tax system demystification and revenue increase limits were the major reforms, lawmakers enacted many administrative and procedural changes as well. Administrative process changes now prohibit value increases at an Appraisal Review Board (ARB) hearing, add ARB member training requirements, and create special ARB panels to hear protests for complex properties. Additionally, the business personal property rendition date moved to April 15.

In a win for those litigating appraised values, the state revised Section 42.08 of the property tax code, allowing a taxpayer to pay less than the full amount of tax on a property with pending litigation. Previously, if the final property value from a lawsuit resulted in a tax burden exceeding the amount originally paid, the taxpayer incurred delinquent penalties and interest on the remaining amount owed. The revision removes the taxpayer's risk for attempting to discern where a litigated value may settle by eliminating the possibility of penalties and interest on the additional tax due.

Uncertain Times

Despite changes enacted in the 2019 Legislative Session, at least some of those reforms are on hold as the state and its communities respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Gov. Abbott's Mar. 13 disaster declaration allows cities, counties and special districts to use the old 8% threshold on revenue increases rather than the new 3.5% limit.

Further, the governor has the authority to change deadlines during a disaster. As of Mar. 19, Texas had suspended in-person Appraisal Review Board hearings and may extend that suspension into the normal administrative protest season.

Rapid developments may continue to disrupt the property tax assessment and appeal process in 2020. How the disaster will ultimately affect the 2020 property tax cycle remains to be seen, but the recent changes enacted in law will shape the property tax process in Texas for years to come.

For more detailed information on property tax law changes, please refer to the 2019 Texas Property Tax Code, additional resources on the Texas Comptroller's webpage, and consult with a property tax professional.

Rachel Duck, CMI, is a Director and Senior Property Tax Consultant at the Austin, Texas, law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC. 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.
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  • How changes to the Texas property tax law may impact you, and how COVID-19 plays a role this season.
Apr
17

Higher Property Tax Values in Ohio

The Buckeye State's questionable methods deliver alarmingly high values.

A recent decision from an Ohio appeals court highlights a developing and troubling pattern in the state's property tax valuation appeals. In a number of cases, an appraiser's misuse of the highest and best use concept has led to extreme overvaluations. Given its potential to grossly inflate tax liabilities, property owners and well-known tenants need to be aware of this alarming trend and how to best respond.

In the recently decided case, a property used as a McDonald's restaurant in Northeast Ohio received widely varied appraisals. The county assessor, in the ordinary course of setting values, assessed the value at $1.3 million. Then a Member of the Appraisal Institute (MAI) appraiser hired by the property owner calculated a value of $715,000. Another MAI appraiser, this one hired by the county assessor, set the value at $1.9 million. The average of the two MAI appraisals equals $1.3 million, closely mirroring the county's initial value.

Despite the property owner having met its burden of proof at the first hearing level, the county board of revision rejected the property owner's evidence without analysis or explanation. The owner then appealed to the Ohio Board of Tax Appeals (BTA).

In its decision on the appeal, the BTA focused on each appraiser's high-est and best use analysis. The county's appraiser determined the highest and best use is the existing improvements occupied by a national fast food restaurant as they contribute beyond the value of the site "as if vacant." The property owner's appraiser determined the highest and best use for the property in its current state was as a restaurant.

With the county appraiser's narrowly defined highest and best use, the county's sale and rent examples of comparable properties focused heavily on nationally branded fast food restaurants (i.e. Burger King, Arby's, KFC and Taco Bell). The BTA determined that the county's appraisal evidence was more credible because it considered the county's comparables more closely matched the subject property.

By analyzing primarily national brands, the county's appraiser concluded a $1.9 million value. Finding the use of the national fast food comparable data convincing, the BTA increased the assessment from the county's initial $1.3 million to the county appraiser's $1.9 million conclusion.

On appeal from the BTA, the Ninth District Court of Appeals deferred to the BTA's finding that the county's appraiser was more credible, noting "the determination of [the credibility of evidence and witnesses]…is primarily within the province of the taxing authorities."

Questionable comparables

Standard appraisal practices demand that an appraiser's conclusion to such a narrow highest and best use must be supported with well-researched data and careful analysis. Comparable data using leased-fee or lease-encumbered sales provides no credible evidence of the use for which similar real property is being acquired. Similarly, build-to-suit leases used as comparable rentals provide no evidence of the use for which a property available for lease on a competitive and open market will be used. However, this is exactly the type of data and research the county's appraiser relied upon.

A complete and accurate analysis of highest and best use requires "[a] n understanding of market behavior developed through market analysis," according to the Appraisal Institute's industry standard, The Appraisal of Real Estate, 14th Edition. The Appraisal Institute defines highest and best use as "the reasonably probable use of property that results in the highest value."

By contrast, the Appraisal Institute states the "most profitable use" relates to investment value, which differs from market value. The Appraisal of Real Estate defines investment value as "the value of a certain property to a particular investor given the investor's investment criteria."

In the McDonald's case, however, the county appraiser's highest and best use analysis lacks any analysis of what it would cost a national fast food chain to build a new restaurant, nor does it acknowledge that the costs of remodeling the existing improvements need to be considered.

If real estate is to be valued fairly and uniformly as Ohio law requires, then boards of revision, the BTA and appellate courts must take seriously the open market value concept clarified for Ohio in a pivotal 1964 case, State ex rel. Park Invest. Co. v. Bd. of Tax Appeals. In that case, the court held that "the value or true value in money of any property is the amount for which that property would sell on the open market by a willing seller to a willing buyer. In essence, the value of property is the amount of money for which it may be exchanged, i.e., the sales price."

Taxpayers beware

This McDonald's case is not the only instance where an overly narrow and unsupported highest and best use appraisal analysis resulted in an over-valuation. To defend against these narrow highest and best use appraisals, the property owner must employ an effective defense strategy. That strategy includes the critical step of a thorough cross examination of the opposing appraiser's report and analysis.

In addition, the property owner should anticipate this type of evidence coming from the other side. The property owner's appraiser must make the effort to provide a comprehensive market analysis and a thorough highest and best use analysis to identify the truly most probable user of the real property.

Steve Nowak, Esq. is an associate 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.
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  • The Buckeye State’s questionable methods deliver alarmingly high values.
Apr
16

Property Tax Crush Demands Action

Without steps by government officials, coronavirus-related property devaluations won't be taken into consideration, warns veteran tax lawyer Jerome Wallach.

U.S. businesses and lawmakers face an array of challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking ahead, let's add one more legislative task to that list which, if addressed early, will better enable the economy to bounce back from the current disruption: Provide tax relief for the owners and tenants of commercial properties devalued by vacancy stemming from the virus and efforts to slow its spread.

One of the only tools available to federal, state and community leaders seeking to slow the spread of the disease has been to limit opportunities for person-to-person transmission. Ever-tightening restrictions, either voluntary or enforced, limit or halt the use of commercial properties ranging from restaurants, bars and hotels to call centers, office buildings, stores, entertainment venues and other structures.

While necessary, these measures will drive growing numbers of tenants into distress up to and including closing their doors, defaulting on lease payments or both. Near term, this will slash property income streams and reduce property owners' ability to pay expenses including property tax on partially or fully vacated properties. Longer term, companies struggling to regain their footing and new tenants moving into spaces vacated during the crisis can expect much of their monthly occupancy costs to include a weighty property tax burden based on assessments completed when real estate values were near all-time highs.

Widespread devaluations likely

Even before President Trump declared a national emergency related to the coronavirus on March 13, researchers were tracking widespread commercial real estate devaluations as reflected in REIT performance. The day before the emergency declaration, economists at the UCLA Anderson School of Management concluded that the U.S. had already entered into a recession. The following Tuesday, March 16, news reports of a Green Street Advisors presentation conveyed that the performance of REITs and drop in share prices suggested investors had marked down asset values, on average, by 24% over the course of the previous month. According to news coverage, a Green Street presenter predicted that private market real estate values would decline by another 5% to 10% over the next six months.

Such a rapid decline in property income and market value creates worrisome property tax implications for taxpayers in most jurisdictions. In months to come, when landlords and tenants may anticipate struggling to recover from the pandemic in a flat or recessionary economic environment, they can also expect to receive property tax bills (or tax liability passed through and attached to their lease obligation) based on pre-crisis property values. In many cases, those assessed values will far exceed current fair market value.

Assessors in the jurisdiction in which this writer practices value real property for ad valorem tax purposes as of the first year in a two-year cycle. This means that, for most local owners, property tax bills they receive this year and last year both reflect their property's fair market value as of Jan. 1, 2019. The time to appeal the 2019 value as set by the assessor has long since run out. Short of an intervening event such as a fire or tornado damage, or perhaps construction or addition of a building or other physical improvement, the Jan. 1, 2019, base value is effectively carved in stone and is no longer subject to legal review or modification.

In those jurisdictions where the value may be determined later, it is most typically set on Jan. 1 of the current year. Even if time remains to contest those values, however, most tax statutes would treat any change in value occurring after the effective valuation date to be irrelevant to tax bills based on that valuation date.

Appeal to lawmakers

COVID-19's impact on property values will be profound if not catastrophic. It would seem to be a callous response for a government official to say, in effect, "So what? The assessor followed the law and valued your property before the pandemic."

A storied law professor used to tell his students, this writer among them, that "there is no wrong without a remedy." Paying taxes based on a value that no longer exists is a wrong, yet there seems to be no immediate remedy.

Indeed, few tax codes will provide taxpayers with relief from the unfair burden they face in the wake of this sudden, global crisis. Remedy will require educating lawmakers and the public about this pending tax dilemma.

Phone calls, letters, texts and emails to government officials at any level may help. Perhaps, together, we will find a solution that balances government revenue requirements with current property values.

Jerome Wallach is a partner at The Wallach Law Firm in St. Louis, the Missouri member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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  • Without steps by government officials, coronavirus-related property devaluations won’t be taken into consideration, warns veteran tax lawyer Jerome Wallach.
Apr
15

Property Tax Planning Delivers Big Savings

Ask the right questions, understand your rights and develop a strategy to avoid costly mistakes.

When it comes to property taxes, what you don't know can hurt you. Whether it is failing to meet a valuation protest deadline, ignorance of available exemptions or perhaps missing an error in the assessment records, an oversight can cost a taxpayer dearly. Understanding common mistakes — and consulting with local property tax professionals — can help owners avoid the pain of unnecessarily high property tax bills.

Think ahead on taxes

Many owners ignore property taxes until a valuation notice or tax bill arrives, but paying attention to tax considerations at other times can greatly benefit a taxpayer. For example, it's good practice to ask the following questions before purchasing real estate, starting a project or receiving a tax bill:

Does the property qualify for exemptions or incentives? Every state offers some form of property tax exemptions to specific taxpayers and property types. Examples include those for residential home-steads, charitable activities by some nonprofits and exemptions for pollution control equipment. Similarly, governments use partial or full property tax abatements in their incentive programs for enticing businesses to expand or relocate to their communities. While many of these programs are industry-specific, it is important to consider all of the taxpayer's potential resources and the costs and benefits of pursuing each.

In most cases, a taxpayer must claim an exemption or obtain an abatement in order to receive its benefits. Failing to timely do so may lead to the forfeiture of an applicable exemption. If the taxpayer becomes aware after the deadline that it may have qualified for an exemption, it is still prudent to speak with a local professional.

Once the exemption is in place, review the assessment each year to ensure it is properly applied. Additionally, taxpayers and their representatives should closely follow legislative action affecting the exemptions that may be available.

How will a sale or redevelopment affect the property's tax value? For instance, will the sale trigger a mandatory reassessment or perhaps remove a statutory value cap? If a change in use removes an exemption, will it trigger rollback taxes or liability equal to the amount of taxes previously excused under the exemption? Will the benefit of an existing exemption be lost for the following tax year?

Taxpayers that fail to ask these questions risk underestimating their tax bill, which can quickly under-mine an initial valuation analysis and actual return.

Learn whether the purchaser or developer must disclose the sales price or loan amount on the deed or other recorded instruments. If so, avoid overstating the sales price by including personal property, intangible assets or other deductible, non-real estate items. Assessors often use deed and mortgage records in determining or supporting assessed value, and it can be an uphill battle trying to argue later why a disclosed sales figure is not the real purchase price.

Don't assume, without further inquiry, that the tax value will stay unchanged following a sale; nor that it will automatically increase or decrease to the purchase price. In determining market value, the assessor may consider (or disregard) the sale in a variety of ways depending on the jurisdiction, transaction timing, arm's-length condition and other factors.

Perhaps the assessor will change the cost approach assumptions to chase a higher purchase price, or disregard a lower sales price suspected of being a distressed transaction. A local, knowledgeable adviser can help the taxpayer set reasonable expectations for future assessments following a sale or redevelopment.

Plan to review, challenge

Before the valuation notice or tax bill arrives, make a plan to review it and challenge any incorrect assessments within the time allowed. An advocate who thoroughly under-stands local assessment methodologies and appeal procedures can be invaluable in helping to craft and execute a response strategy.

The first hurdle in any property tax protest is learning the applicable deadlines. This can be more difficult than it appears, as local laws don't always require a valuation notice. For instance, some states omit sending notices if the value did not increase from the prior year. Additionally, many states reassess on a less-than-annual basis, although there may be different periods within the reassessment cycle in which appeals can be filed.

It is critical to understand the reassessment cycle and protest periods in every jurisdiction in which a taxpayer owns property. Missing a deadline or required tax payment can result in the dismissal of a valuation appeal, regardless of its merits.

The owner, or the company's agent, should understand not only appraisal methodology but also legal requirements governing the assessor. Is there a state-prescribed manual that dictates the application of the cost approach? Does the assessor use a market income approach to value certain property types?

In some jurisdictions, assessors reject the income approach to value if the owner fails to submit income in-formation by a specific date. In others, submitting income information may be mandatory.

With mass appraisal, assessors often make mistakes that will go undetected if not discovered by the taxpayer's team. Has the assessor's cost approach used the correct build-ing or industry classification, effective age of improvements, square footage, type of materials, number of plumbing fixtures, ceiling height, type of HVAC system, etc.?

Even one small error could skew the final value and should be timely brought to the assessor's attention, whether or not in a formal protest setting.

In addition to correcting the error for future assessments, the owner should determine whether it is entitled to a refund for previous taxes paid and, if so, timely file any refund petitions.

With countless jurisdictions and varying assessment statutes, it is unreasonable to expect a property owner to master property tax law. Yet with proper planning and local advisors, taxpayers can avoid pitfalls they may have otherwise overlooked.

Aaron Vansant is a partner at DonovanFingar LLC, the Alabama member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys​.
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  • Ask the right questions, understand your rights and develop a strategy to avoid costly mistakes.
Mar
09

The Terrible T’s of Inventory: Timing and Taxes

​States that impose inventory taxes put their constituent businesses at a competitive disadvantage.

Inventory taxes pose an additional cost of doing business in more than a dozen states, and despite efforts to mitigate the competitive disadvantage the practice creates for many taxpayers, policymakers have yet to propose an equitable fix.

Virtually all states employ a property tax at the state or local level. The most common target is real property, which is land and land improvements; and tangible personal property such as fixtures, machinery and equipment.

Nine states also tax business inventory. Those are Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas,Mississippi, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland and Vermont. Another four states – Alaska, Michigan, Georgia and Massachusetts – partially tax inventory. In these 13 states, inventory tax contributes a significant portion of overall property tax collections.

From a policy standpoint, however, inventory tax is probably the least defensible form of property tax: It is the least transparent of business taxes; is "non-neutral," as businesses with larger inventories, such as retailers and manufacturers, pay more; and it adds insult to injury for businesses whose inventory is out of sync with finicky consumer buying habits.

A few fixes

Taxpayers have had few options in attempting to reduce inventory tax liability because an inventory's valuation is seldom easily disputed. So, modeling a classic game of cat and mouse, some enterprising businesses would move their inventory to the jurisdiction with the lowest millage, frantically shuttling property about before the lien date. Taxing jurisdictions eventually caught on, however, and many of these states adopted an averaging system whereby taxpayers must report monthly inventory values that are then averaged for the year. So much for gaming the timing of taxes.

The underlying problem is that imposing an inventory tax puts that state's businesses at a competitive disadvantage. At the same time, local jurisdictions cannot easily afford to give up the revenue generated by inventory taxes.

When West Virginia was contemplating phasing out its inventory tax, one state legislator pointed out that the proposal placed elected representatives in the predicament of telling educator constituents the state could not afford to pay them sufficiently, while turning to another group of business constituents and relieving them of a tax burden which would create a hole in the state's revenues.

Some states including Louisiana and Kentucky have implemented creative workarounds, such as giving income or corporate franchise tax credits to businesses to offset their inventory tax liability. But these imperfect fixes add uncertainty and unnecessary complexity to a state's tax code.

For instance, when Louisiana implemented a straightforward inventory tax credit in the 1990s, businesses paid local inventory tax and were reimbursed for the payments through a tax credit for their Louisiana corporation income/franchise tax liability. The state Department of Revenue fully refunded any excess tax credit.

Between 2005 and 2015, however, the state's liability more than doubled. In 2015, the Legislature imposed a $10,000 cap on the refundable amount of an inventory tax credit and allowed any unused portion of an excess tax credit to be carried forward for a period not to exceed five years. Then in 2016, lawmakers increased the fully refundable cap to $500,000 and adjusted how the excess tax credit could be taken, but left the carry-forward period unchanged. This has created another inventory tax timing problem: Businesses now lose any unclaimed excess tax credit at the end of that carry-forward period, and businesses have no assurances that the tax credit amounts won't be lowered or otherwise made less user-friendly the next time the state faces a fiscal crunch.

Kentucky recently implemented its own inventory tax credit system. Even less taxpayer friendly than Louisiana's approach, it provides only a nonrefundable and nontransferable credit against individual income tax, corporation income tax and limited liability entity tax. The state is phasing in the tax credit in 25% increments each year until it is fully claimable in 2021.

Texas has taken a different tack by offering businesses a limited, $500 exemption for inventory tax. Unadjusted for inflation since its implementation in 1997, however, the exemption for business personal property has lost relative value as the cost of living has increased. The Texas Taxpayers and Research Association recently evaluated Texas' inventory tax and found that the $500 exemption in today's dollars is equivalent to only $367 in 1997 dollars. The association further noted that a property valued at $500 generates, on average, a tax bill of $13, which is less than the likely cost of administering the tax. Not surprisingly and quite rightly, the association recommended increasing the amount of the exemption.

Clearly, these workarounds are not really working for this problem. What's the best solution for Louisiana, Kentucky, Texas and the rest of the inventory tax states? Join the rest of the crowd and simply abolish the inventory tax, as a task force created by the Louisiana Legislature recommended in 2016. No more cat and mouse games, no more paltry exemptions and no more convoluted tax credits. At least in this regard, businesses in all states would be on the same competitive footing.

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.
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  • States that impose inventory taxes put their constituent businesses at a competitive disadvantage.
Feb
03

Why Assessor Estimates Create Ambiguity

Kieran Jennings of Siegel Jennings Co. explains how taxpayers and assessors ensure a fair system, with tremendous swings in assessment and taxes.

A fundamental problem plaguing the property tax system is its reliance on the government's opinion of a property's taxable value. Taxes on income or retail sales reflect hard numbers; real estate assessment produces the only tax in which the government guesses at a fair amount for the taxpayer to pay.

Assessors' estimates of taxable property value create ambiguity and public scrutiny not found in other taxes, and incorrect assessments can lead to fiscal shortfalls that viciously pit taxing authorities against taxpayers seeking to correct those valuations. Worse yet, the longer a tax appeal takes to reach its conclusion, the worse the outcome for both the taxpayer and government. Paradoxically, swift correction of assessment roll protects the tax authority as well as the taxpayer.

As an example, Utah daily newspaper Desert News reported in December 2019 that, due to a clerical error, Wasatch County tax rolls recorded a market-rate value of $987 million for a 1,570-square-foot home built in 1978. The value should have been $302,000. The Wasatch County assessor said the error caused a countywide overvaluation of more than $6 million and created a deficit in five various county taxing jurisdictions, according to the county assessor. The Wasatch County School District had already budgeted nearly $4.4 million, which it was unable to collect.

How does an overvaluation error cause taxing districts to lose money? In many, if not most jurisdictions, the tax rate is determined in part by the overall assessment in the district as well as the budget and levies passed. Typically, there is a somewhat complex formula that turns on the various taxing districts, safeguards and anti-windfall provisions.

Simply stated, tax rates are a result of the budget divided by the overall assessment in the district. A $1 million budget based on a $100 million assessment would require a 1 percent tax rate to collect the budgeted revenue. If the assessment is corrected after the tax rate is set, however, then not all the revenue will be collected and the district will incur a fiscal shortfall.

The sooner a commercial property assessment is corrected the healthier it is for all involved. In the Utah example, had the error been corrected prior to the tax rate being set there would have been no impact on the taxpayer, the school or any of the taxing authorities.

FAIRNESS FOR THE COMMON GOOD

Most state tax systems are flawed and provide inadequate safeguards for taxpayers—if the tax systems were designed better, there would be less need for tax counsel. By understanding the workings of the property tax system, however, taxpayers can help maintain their own fiscal health as well as help to maintain the community's fiscal well being.

As with all negotiations, it is important to understand the opponent's motivations. Although residential tax assessment typically is the largest pool of overall assessment, taxing authorities know that commercial properties individually can have the greatest impact on a system when they are improperly assessed, to the detriment of schools and taxpayers. That makes it important to act as quickly as possible in the event of an improper assessment. And, importantly, resolutions that minimize impacts to the government can maximize the benefit to the taxpayer.

A lack of clear statutory definitions, political tax shifting or a simple error can cause a breakdown in the tax system. In Johnson County, Kan., the assessor raised the assessments on all big box retail stores, in some cases by over 100 percent. Recently, the Kansas State Board of Tax Appeals found those assessments to be excessive. The board reduced taxable values in several of the lead cases back to original levels, and the excessive assessment caused a shortfall.

The Cook County, Ill., assessor has been in the news for raising assessments on commercial real estate in many cases by more than 100 percent. If those assessments are found to be excessive, it could be detrimental for the tax authorities and taxpayers alike. In Cook County, the assessor has stated that the increase is in response to prior underassessment.

SEEK UNIFORMITY, CLARITY

With tremendous swings in assessment and taxes, how can taxpayers and assessors ensure a fair system? Uniform standards and measurements are the answer.

Like the income tax code, the property tax code is criticized for being confusing and overly wordy. To achieve greater equity and predictability, clarity is key. Defined measures of assessed value and standards to ensure uniform assessment results will help create transparency and ensure fundamental fairness between neighbors and competitors, so that no one has an advantage nor a disadvantage.

All taxpayers must be subject to the same measurement. For instance, a government cannot apply an income tax as a tax on gross income for one taxpayer and on net income for another. Likewise, one taxpayer should not be taxed on the value of a property that is available for sale or lease, and another owner taxed based on the value of its property with a tenant in place. Because tax law under most state constitutions must be applied uniformly, one set of rules must be established for all, and what is being taxed should be clearly defined.

Tax laws often include phrases like "true cash value" and "fair value." To be clear, the only measure of taxable value common to all property types is the fee simple, unencumbered value. The value of a property that is measured notwithstanding the current occupant or tenant is not necessarily the price that was paid for the property; it could be higher or lower. And because this concept is difficult for many taxpayers and assessors to understand, there needs to be a second check on the system; that safeguard is taxpayers' right to challenge their assessment based on their neighbors' and competitors' assessments.

To protect themselves on complex matters, it is often helpful for taxpayers to hire counsel that is intimately familiar with the law, real estate valuation and the local individuals with whom the taxpayer will be negotiating. To reduce the need for counsel, get involved with trade groups and state chambers of commerce, which can aid in correcting the tax system.

Uniform measurements of assessment, the ability to challenge the uniformity of results, and swift resolutions combine to create fairness and stability, which in turn enhance the fiscal health of both taxpayers and tax districts.

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.
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  • Kieran Jennings of Siegel Jennings Co. explains how taxpayers and assessors ensure a fair system, with tremendous swings in assessment and taxes.
Nov
21

Achieving Fair Taxation Of Big Box Retrofits

Issues to address to ensure a big box retrofit doesn't sustain an excessive tax assessment.

As more and more large retail spaces return to the market for sale or lease, creative investors are looking for ways to breathe new life into the big box. These retrofits saddle local tax appraisal districts with the difficult task of valuing a big box in a new incarnation.

When the appeal season approaches, it is important to look for key changes to the appraisal district's valuation model for the existing structure to ensure that the property is being assessed fairly after the retrofit. Whether the jurisdiction employs the income or cost approach to value commercial property, having the correct classification, effective age, effective rent and correct net rentable area are among the most important factors for an accurate assessment. In addition, the assessor will need to account for functional obsolescence and the possible existence of surplus land.

Valuation models previously used by taxing authorities likely factored in a single-tenant building. If the new use converts the building to a multitenant structure, the assessor should factor in the conversion. Perhaps the appraisal district previously classified the use as Freestanding Retail or Big Box Retail, and now it is a Call Center, Church, or Gym. Ensuring that the classification of the property is correct is the first step in getting a more accurate assessed value for property tax purposes.

Next, it will be important to note the effective age the appraisal district is using to value the newly retrofitted box. Appraisal districts often use the effective age of a building, based on its utility and physical wear and tear, rather than the actual number of years since the construction date. Was there a significant adjustment made to the effective age based on a remodel or tenant improvements? Has the retrofit enhanced the utility of the structure?

There is no doubt that transforming vacant big boxes requires great expense. Big boxes are generally considered to be mediocre-quality buildings. Many times, big boxes are cookie-cutter structures and not necessarily constructed to last more than 30 years without a major overhaul. Typical big boxes have a linear alignment of lighting and structural bays, and if the box is subdivided for multitenant use, there is a good chance that additional electrical work, plumbing and HVAC may be required.

Converting a box from single to multitenant use may also require additional exterior entryways. If the property is being valued using the income approach, keeping track of the expense required to convert the box into another use will be important so that an effective rental rate can be later calculated. On an income approach, if an appraisal district appraiser does not account for the cost of the retrofit in some way, the assessed value may be overstated.

Another challenge with big box retrofits is the depth of bays. Oftentimes, even after what can be considered a successful adaptive reuse, portions of the building may never be used again by the new user. The appraisal district should factor decommissioned square footage into the valuation model and make a distinction between gross building area and net rentable area. If there is square footage that is unusable or used for storage or warehouse purposes, it may warrant a different rental rate than the main portion of the converted space.

The fact that big boxes are generally build-to-suit properties should also be considered. Though costly, it may be easy to remove the previous user's brand from the interior of the building, but what about the exterior? Big box retailers purposefully built their boxes in a manner that would allow passersby to identify them instantly. The new owner is then left with the difficult task of getting rid of the very recognizable trade dress that the original owner required. Regardless of the new use, there is likely functional obsolescence created by the original user's specific branding and needs. Functional obsolescence can be due to size, ceiling height, ornamental fronts or various other factors.

An additional factor that may be relevant to the valuation of the retrofit for property tax purposes is the land. Big boxes typically require large parking lots and infrastructure that other users may not need. Analysis can determine whether the new user is left with surplus land. If the extra land cannot be sold separately and lacks a separate highest-and-best use, the appraisal district may be able to adjust the land value.

Ensuring that a big box is accurately valued for property tax purposes in the first year after a retrofit will have a long-term impact on the asset's tax liability. It is, therefore, worthwhile to invest the time it takes to review the assessment and the methodology used to arrive at the assessed value. 

Darlene Sullivan is a partner in Austin, Texas, law firm 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.
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  • Issues to address to ensure a big box retrofit doesn’t sustain an excessive tax assessment.
Nov
19

Beware of New Property Tax Legislation

Many states are attempting to change established law, causing commercial property taxes to skyrocket.

No one wants to be blindsided with additional tax liability. This is why many businesses belong to industry groups that closely monitor liability for income taxes. Unfortunately, these same companies rarely stay on top of legislation that may have a significant impact on their property tax liability.

It is often too late when a taxpayer learns that their tax liability for real estate has increased under a new statute or assessment practice. Property owners that fail to keep up with proposed rule changes are at risk of incurring unexpectedly high tax bills at a time when they may be least-prepared to pay them.

Property owners may take for granted that key precepts assessors use in determining taxable value are so widely held and accepted as to be immutable. Almost every state's tax law holds that a property owner pays property taxes on the asset's "real market value.," Real market value is the price a willing buyer and willing seller would agree upon in an open-market transaction

In a retail real estate sector that is still reeling from widespread store closures and mounting competition from e-commerce, the lease rate for a lease in place may not reflect market rent. Thus, it is the "fee simple" estate that is being valued for tax purposes: What rent does the market data support as of the tax assessment's date?

Valuing the fee simple estate at market rent is a significant taxpayer protection in the changing landscape of today's marketplace for retail spaces. Sales of brick-and-mortar stores have plummeted due to changing consumer spending habits, a decline in international tourism spending and a lack of investor demand for many big boxes. It is no secret that internet sales have battered the department store sector. The resulting closures of large department stores have further dampened investors' appetite for large-box spaces, and these effects have trickled down to impair the value of smaller retail spaces.

Assessors question assumptions

In the past several years, some assessing authorities have pushed to change the definition of real market value to disregard the perspective of a willing buyer in an open market, and to instead create a false value as if the property were fully leased at market rates as of the assessment date.

In Oregon, recent rules are being proposed (and the theory tested in court) with the assumption that a property can always receive a stabilized rent in the market place. Thus, an assessor would use a property's expected occupancy and market rent in using the income approach to determine the fee simple interest. The costs to get to a stabilized rent, according to the new rules, cannot be applied to discount the stabilized rent. Thus, a vacated department store, or a brand new vacant building, will be assessed as if it is receiving full market rent, without reflecting any of the costs associated to get there.

For example, the proposed rule states that it is implied in the cost approach that valuation reflect not only construction and materials but also all indirect costs, such as the cost of carrying the investment in the property after construction is complete but before stabilization is achieved, as well as all marketing costs, sales commission and any applicable holding costs to achieve a stabilized occupancy in a normal market. Thus, even though the taxpayer has not yet incurred all these expenses, they can be added to the taxable value and the taxpayer may not subtract them in arriving at market value for property tax assessment purposes.

The result is that not only will a new vacant space be valued as if it is fully rented, but a second-generation retail space may be assessed under the cost approach as if it is fully leased. The reality of lease-up costs, including holding costs and tenant improvement costs, are simply to be ignored.

The International Association of Assessing Officers (IAAO) recently published a paper titled Commercial Big-Box Retail: A Guide to Market-Based Valuation. This paper appeared to ignore generally accepted appraisal methods for valuing these types of properties and to advocate for the changes in accepted definitions of property rights that taxing entities in many states are now seeking. Importantly, when American Property Tax Counsel reviewed the IAAO's paper, its lawyers found that many of the propositions cited in the paper were based on cases or laws that had been overturned and were clearly inconsistent with established case law and law.

These attempts by the assessing authorities to change the definition of real market valuation for property taxation purposes should worry commercial property owners, and particularly owners of retail properties, given the continuing potential for prolonged vacancy. For these properties to remain viable, the owners need to mitigate all costs, including property taxes.

A reduction in property taxes can benefit a property owner significantly. Oregon has the benefit of a five-year statutory hold, with some exceptions, on a successful appeal to property taxes. Thus, a $100,000 reduction in property taxes through the appeal process could result in a $500,000 savings.

With the assessing authorities' proposed changes to the tax rules, however, market realities and real market value are compromised.

Cynthia M. Fraser is an attorney specializing in property tax and condemnation litigation at Foster Garvey, the Oregon and Washington member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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  • Many states are attempting to change established law, causing commercial property taxes to skyrocket
Nov
18

How to Reduce Multifamily Property Taxes

Take advantage of the following opportunities for tax savings in the booming multifamily market.

With healthy multifamily market fundamentals and increasing demand from investors, apartment property values are on the rise. For owners concerned about property tax liability, however, there are still opportunities to mitigate assessments and ensure multifamily assets are taxed fairly.

Here are key considerations for common scenarios.

Property Acquisition

Whether an investor is buying a single property or a portfolio, it is wise to understand how the transaction will affect property taxes going forward. In some taxing districts, the assessors will move the value to 80%-90% of the sale price in the assessment year following an acquisition. If the sale is an arm's length, open market transaction with no unusual investment drivers, there remain few arguments against increasing taxable value to equal the sale price, less personal property.

When running income and expense projections on a potential acquisition, look to how the sale will affect taxable value. To pencil in reasonable budgets, consult with local experts who can zero in on a likely tax rate. Those who know the market can forecast local rate increases with some accuracy.

When there are non-open-market factors in a sale – such as unusual financing, tax shelter exchange considerations or a portfolio value allocation based on forecasts – there is more room to make arguments for a value based on an income approach. In discussing this approach with assessors, the greatest source of disagreement is the capitalization or cap rate used to extrapolate value from the income stream.

For apartments in the Midwest, initial cap rates can range from 4.5% to 6.5%, and assessors will often choose rates from the lower end of the range or use an average. Taxpayers who can demonstrate or work with the assessor to derive the correct cap by using appropriate comparable sales will enjoy a more reasonable value discussion.

Opportunity Zones

An opportunity zone stimulates investment within its perimeter by enabling investors to reap tax benefits on deferred capital gains and spur growth. This vehicle has been of special interest to developers of student and low-income housing. To get the full benefit of the new program, investors must decide to invest in a qualified opportunity fund (QOF) by the end of 2019.

Investors in QOFs which were formed to meet a June deadline must invest these funds into qualified property by year end. Investors that miss the deadline will be subject to IRS penalties. After 10 years of investment, 100% of the gain will be free of capital gains. This can enhance returns considerably.

The race to the year-end finish line could lead investors to initiate apartment deals that fail to meet market development yields. When looking at the values for property tax purposes, the costs of such projects driven by tax advantages can be discounted in a valuation analysis.

Procedural Concerns

Property owners' increased sophistication in challenging assessed values has led many taxing jurisdictions to use procedural arguments to shut down a petitioner's case, citing failure to comply with minute details of technical rules such as income disclosure requirements.

• In some jurisdictions, petitioners must disclose certain information for an appeal to go forward. For example, in Minnesota a petitioner that contests the assessed value of income-producing property must provide a slew of information to the county assessor by Aug. 1 of the taxes-payable year. These include: year-end financial statements for both the year of the assessment date and the prior year;
• a rent roll on or near the assessment date listing tenant names, lease start and end dates, base rent, square footage leased and vacant space;
• identification of all lease agreements not disclosed on the above rent roll, listing the tenant name, lease start and end dates, base rent and square footage leased;
• net rentable square footage of the building or buildings; and
• anticipated income and expenses in the form of a proposed budget for the year subsequent to the year of the assessment date.

The duty to disclose is strictly enforced, even if there is no prejudice to the taxing authority. In the case of an appeal for an apartment project, it would be prudent for a petitioner to clarify with the assessor in advance what data is required. Particularly if there is a commercial component to the project, where license agreements can be considered leases, a prior agreement with the assessor on what is required will remove the risk of a case ending on procedural grounds.

Seniors Housing

Many seniors housing complexes include independent living sections; assisted living areas, usually with smaller unit sizes and limited or no kitchen facilities; and memory care areas with even more limited furnishings, locked access and egress and full-time staffing by case professionals.

No matter what type of living area is involved, the monthly rental payment covers services provided to residents over and above rental of an apartment unit. These services are most intensive and comprehensive for residents in memory care, who require the most direct staff attention and receive all meals and services through the facility.

Even assisted living and independent living residents enjoy significant non-realty services, including wellness classes and other programming, spiritual services, medication dispensing, field trips for shopping or other events, onsite dining facilities and operation, and access to full-time staffing at the facility. These services are part of what residents pay, and it's important when trying to determine the real estate value for tax purposes that the service income component is excluded from the valuation analysis.

Although the market is robust for both multifamily investment sales and construction, taxpayers who apply a data-based approach with knowledge of local market conditions, procedures and opportunities can achieve a reasonable property tax bill.

Margaret A. Ford is a partner at Smith, Gendler, Shiell, Sheff, Ford & Maher P.A., the Minnesota member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys​.
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  • Take advantage of the following opportunities for tax savings in the booming multifamily market.
Nov
11

How Value Transfers Reduce Tax Liability

Investment value is not market value for property tax purposes because the excess value transfers elsewhere, according to attorney Benjamin Blair. But where does the value go?

When a new building enters the market with a headline-grabbing development budget, the local tax assessor is often happy to use the value stated on the construction permit as a blueprint for a high initial tax burden. After all, would a property owner fight an assessment equal to construction cost? The answer is yes, and here is why the taxpayer should file a protest.

Consider this all-too-common scenario: A new building's publicized development cost is, say, $50 million. The first year after the completion of construction, the assessor assigns the property a market value of $50 million. The owner, now a taxpayer, protests the assessment, relying on an appraisal that shows the property's value to be only $40 million.

The initial reaction of virtually every assessor that faces this common pattern is skepticism—skepticism sometimes shared by the judges deciding the tax appeal. How can it be that the property "lost" $10 million in value so quickly? Why would the owner have even constructed the building if it was an economic loser?

An owner who can explain this value loss—or, more accurately, this value transfer—will be better prepared to ensure a property's tax assessments are based solely on the value of the real estate in question. And, when appropriate, that owner will be prepared to challenge inaccurate assessments.

COST IS NOT MARKET VALUE

Anyone who has ever purchased a new car or made-to-order clothing understands that cost may not equal value. Regardless of the price the buyer paid, those items are worth less to the market after the initial sale. The same factors that immediately depreciate a new car or custom suit affect some types of real estate.

A property can have an off-the-rack market value and then minutes later have a resale value that is different. This does not mean that the owner overpaid for the asset. Rather, the owner paid what the asset was worth to that owner, but a second buyer will not necessarily pay the same price at a later sale.

Real estate buyers will not pay for branding elements, design elements or items of personal preference. When a building is built to the specifications of a specific user, the design, layout and components make it unlikely that cost will equal market value. These buildings exist because they are worth the cost to the first user, not because they inherently have an increased market value.

Investment value is not market value for property tax purposes because the excess value transfers elsewhere. The key question is, where does the value go?

WHERE THE VALUE GOES

Circumstances vary and different properties will transfer value in different ways. Here are some common ways it can occur.

The examples of a custom suit or built-to-suit building illustrate how value can transfer to a person or organization, but value can also transfer to another property. For example, a golf course surrounded by homes is unlikely to have a market value equal to its development cost. The golf course's value is not in the golf course alone; much of its value is reflected in the increased sales prices garnered for the surrounding homes. Likewise, amenities in a subdivision or common spaces in a condominium tower have little value on their own because their value is transferred to the adjacent properties.

Value can also transfer within a property. For example, a parking garage or conference center in a suburban office development is unlikely to generate sufficient rent to make those assets independently feasible, but the increase in rents achievable to the adjoining tenant spaces can make those amenities valuable to the whole. Were the parking garage to sell in the open market, it would almost certainly garner a sale price below its development cost.

Finally, value can transfer to the community. A highway interchange will never have a market value equal to its multimillion-dollar price tag, and public transit systems and arenas would never be justified based on ticket sales alone. Communities deem these projects worthwhile, however. The value of such properties transfers to the community.

Similarly, in many markets the cost of "green" building features, such as a green roof or permeable parking surfaces, is rarely recovered upon the property's sale. Developers still incur those development expenses, even when they will not contribute to the property's profitability. The value of those features is transferred to the community, which receives air purification and water retention benefits.

FIGHT FOR TRANSFERRED VALUE

Understanding the concept of transferred value is important, both because it explains the motivations of those who build and own properties that are worth less than cost to the open market, and because it can help to avoid overvaluing the property. Property can be overvalued in many situations—for example, for insurance or financing purposes—but the pain of overvaluation is most acute in property taxation, since overvaluation generates a higher tax bill and corresponding lower profitability for the life of the asset.

Understanding transferred value can also assist enterprising owners in generating additional revenue streams. If part of the property's value transfers to another person, property or the community at large, then the owner may be able to build a case for monetizing the value transferred to others.

In times of stagnant growth and personnel cutbacks, assessors are eager to capitalize on published construction costs. But by explaining how cost relates to market value, and being able to show where the value went, 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 the international law firm Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, the Indiana and Iowa member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys​.
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  • Investment value is not market value for property tax purposes because the excess value transfers elsewhere, according to attorney Benjamin Blair. But where does the value go?
Nov
06

Retail Property Taxes Will Rise

​Unless assessors can recognize the challenges facing shopping centers, taxes will increase dramatically.

As retailers rise and fall in the age of Amazon, property taxes remain one of the retailer's largest operating expenses. That makes it critical to monitor assessments of retail properties and be ready to contest unfairly high taxable valuations.

Assessors – and property owners attempting to educate those assessors – must understand how the changes taking place in the retail sector affect property value. Assessors must adjust their models to reflect new market realities, and property owners or their representatives must be able to explain why previously held valuation assumptions could no longer be valid.

No going back

Changing consumer tastes have always required retailers to adapt in order to survive, but traditional retailers are facing a different kind of challenge today. The increasing role of e-commerce in overall sales reflects a fundamental change in consumer behavior that will not reverse course with the whims of fashion. The ability to shop online is resetting consumer expectations, and retailers are struggling to adapt and stay competitive.

This struggle is evident in store closings that in 2019 are outpacing closings from the prior year. In addition to the threat of e-commerce, some economists believe a recession is coming in 2020. Falling retail sales, rising assessed property values and changing consumer demographics could combine to accelerate store closings in the years to come.

With millennials and Generation Z mixing into the workforce and increasing the demand for online shopping, retailers and property owners are facing new challenges in catering to consumer expectations unique to these generations. Strategies range from adjusting store buildouts to completely changing the store footprint to fulfill online orders as retailers do what they can to compete with online sellers. In addition to these changes, many property owners are stepping away from traditional big box retailers and are instead looking to restaurants and entertainment venues to anchor shopping centers and drive customer traffic.

Restaurants and experiential retail

Across the nation, retail property owners are working to fill vacant spaces with tenants that will offer millennials and Generation Z an exciting and unique shopping experience. In doing so, these owners are attempting to "e-commerce proof" their centers by shifting from big box anchors to an experiential model. Some retailers catering to these two tech-savvy generations are using tenant improvement allowances to build out highly specialized spaces, while others focus on social media. Select retailers even offer discounts to shoppers who share photos of their store or products on platforms such as Instagram.

Retail developments that once contained 40% to 50% restaurants are now filling as much as 70% of their spaces with restaurant operators in an attempt to drive traffic. A rising threat to this strategy are food delivery services such as Grubhub, Uber Eats, and Door Dash, which are collaborating with major restaurants that have previously had no food delivery. Pizza chains and other food-delivery-based retailers losing market share must now re-think their strategy and even partner with these third parties to expand their customer base.

Home food delivery partnerships continue to evolve as well, with restaurant operators looking into cloud kitchen concepts. These allow restaurant operators to operate from industrial space, avoiding retail rents and the need to pay back above-market tenant improvement allowances. Once the cloud kitchen space is running, the operator can rely on third-party delivery services to get the product to the consumer. This is a growing risk to shopping centers that rely on a restaurant tenant base to draw customers.

Clicks and bricks

Physical retailers attempting to compete with Amazon's fast delivery have introduced buy online pick-up in store (BOPIS). Many sellers have found BOPIS difficult to implement due to expensive software that tracks live inventory and requires staff training. Essentially converting a retail-only property into a retail and warehouse hybrid, the method may require modifications to the real estate. This reclassification should be discussed with assessors, because retail space typically commands higher rental rates than warehouse space.

Grocery anchors have also begun to adopt the BOPIS model, and some are finding the logistics a challenge given their existing footprint. As a result, some stores are expanding into smaller, adjacent in-line suites to offer this service. Where this happens, a property owner that was once receiving all in-line rents may now collect reduced rents for these suites, given they are now part of the anchor space. In this scenario, it is important for the valuation to weigh the potential grocer expansion into these in-line suites and adjust as needed.

Assessors must understand the changes rapidly taking place for this product type and their implications for valuation metrics. Given millennials' and Gen Z's familiarly with the internet, e-commerce as a percentage of retail sales is expected to continue to rise.

As property owners increase tenant improvement allowances so retailers can keep up with changing consumer tastes, appraisal districts need to consider how above-market tenant improvement allowances affect the lease rate the tenant is responsible for paying. Assessors must analyze the rental rate to factor in these build out costs and, if needed, adjust rent over the least term to reflect the portion that is paying for more costly buildouts. Only then can the assessor conduct a proper rental analysis for the subject property.

Nuanced classification

In addition to thoroughly analyzing rental rates and vacancy risk, assessors must also consider retail classification. With restaurants stepping into the anchor role in many shopping centers, increased traction by cloud kitchens may pose a threat to these tenants' long-term strength. Struggling retailers attempting to implement BOPIS compound this uncertainty, particularly with a potential recession on the horizon. Assessors must consider these factors before selecting appropriate rental rates, capitalization rates and vacancy and collection loss inputs to calculate taxable value.
Kirk Garza is a Director and licensed Texas Property Tax Consultant with the Texas law firm 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. He was assisted by Sam Auvermann and Krishtian Bazan, summer interns with the firm.
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  • Unless assessors can recognize the challenges facing shopping centers, taxes will increase dramatically
Sep
17

Environmental Contamination Reduces Market Value

Protest any tax assessment that doesn't reflect the cost to remediate any existing environmental contamination.

Owners of properties with environmental contamination already carry the financial burden of removal or remediation costs, whether they cure the problem themselves or sell to a buyer who is sure to deduct anticipated remediation expenses from the sale price. Fortunately, New York law allows those property owners to reduce their property tax burden to reflect their asset's compromised value.

Tax types

Most local governments in the United States impose a property tax on real estate as a primary source of revenue, levied and calculated by either ad valorem or specific means. Latin for "according to value," ad valorem taxes are imposed proportionately based upon the market value of the property. Thus, the higher the market value, the higher the real estate tax.

Specific taxes, on the other hand, are fixed sums without regard to underlying real estate value. School, county and town governments nearly always compute real property taxes using the ad valorem method, whereas lighting, garbage or sewer districts typically apply specific taxes. Because school and county/town taxes account for the overwhelming majority of a property tax bill, property owners frequently use assessment litigation concerning the market value of the subject property to reduce assessments and, as a result, lower the real property tax burden.

The cardinal principle of property valuation for tax purposes is that assessments cannot exceed full market value. Many states including New York codify this in their constitutions. The concept of full value is regularly equated with market value, which is the highest price a willing buyer would pay and a willing seller accept, both being fully informed.

Disagreements often arise if the subject property is afflicted with environmental contamination. The treatment of environmental contamination and remediation costs is of particular concern to both owners and municipalities. Owners seeking to depress taxable values and thereby reduce their tax burden claim these expenses dollar-for-dollar off the market value under the principle of substitution. In other words, a proposed buyer would not pay more than $8,000 for a parcel worth $10,000 which needs $2,000 of remediation.

On the other hand, municipalities would prefer the adoption of a rule (either via legislation or court decision) barring any assessment reduction for environmental contamination. Otherwise, they claim, polluters would succeed in shifting the cost of environmental cleanup to the innocent taxpaying public, in contravention of the public policy of imposing remediation costs on polluting property owners and their successors in title.

Pivotal case

Fortunately for property owners, a seminal 1996 court decision guides the treatment of environmental costs to cure taxable value in New York. In Commerce Holding Corp. vs. Town of Babylon, the petitioner purchased 2.7 acres of land in the Town of Babylon, Suffolk County. A former tenant of the property had performed metal plating on the premises and discharged wastewater containing multiple heavy metals into on-site leaching pools, ultimately resulting in the severe contamination of the parcel. The owner filed tax appeals and argued the value of the property should be reduced by the considerable costs needed to clean up the parcel.

As expected, the town's position relied on a public policy approach and urged the court to reject any argument for a reduced assessment. Ultimately, the case traveled to New York's highest court, which summarily rejected the public policy arguments that polluters should not be rewarded with lower assessments.

Instead, the court applied the constitutional and statutory requirements of full market value assessments, holding that the full value requirement is a "constitutional" mandate which cannot be swept aside in favor of public policy. Thus, property must be valued as clean, with the value reduced by the costs to cure the remediation per year. Challenges seeking the limitation or outright reversal of the Commerce Holding case have been continually rejected.

A recent clarification

The New York State Court of Appeals did not address remediation again in a property tax litigation context for almost 20 years after Commerce Holding. In a 2013 case, Roth vs. City of Syracuse, a property owner sought to have the assessment on certain rented properties reduced because of the presence of lead-based paint.

The court declined to expand the application of Commerce Holding in this case for two significant reasons. First, the owner continued to rent the buildings and collect income. Second, the owner had not taken any steps to remove or remediate the lead paint and restore the properties. Thus, to successfully claim an assessment reduction, a property owner should not stand idle but take definitive actions to remediate the property. 

Jason M. Penighetti is an attorney at the Mineola, N.Y., law firm of Koeppel Martone & Leistman LLC, the New York State member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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  • Protest any tax assessment that doesn’t reflect the cost to remediate any existing environmental contamination.
Sep
05

Big Property Tax Savings Are Available

Millions of property tax dollars can be saved by understanding seven issues before buying real estate.

We asked property tax lawyers around the country for tax advice they wish their clients would request before an acquisition to avoid excessive taxation. Their responses, like tax laws, vary by state:

Ask Early. Transaction timing can help avoid having an assessment increased to equal the sale price, says Gilbert Davila, a Principal with property tax law firm Popp Hutcheson in Austin, Texas. Texas reassesses every Jan. 1, so a transfer in the third or fourth quarter is likely to receive an assessment increase the following January. Closing the transaction in the first or second quarter allows time to gather facts for an appeal.

In Chicago, real estate taxes following a purchase depend on location and where the county is in its three-year revaluation cycle, says Mary Anne "Molly" Phelan, a partner with Siegel Jennings Co. LPA. Local counsel can advise whether to expect an immediate increase or a couple years of stable property taxes.

Structure the Transaction. Purchasing an entity that owns real estate or combining the purchase of assets and real estate may offer advantages. For example, Pennsylvania authorities calculate transfer tax using current assessed value when a buyer acquires 100% of interests in a property's holding company. With an outright purchase of real estate, however, transfer tax applies to the purchase price.

If a property is under-assessed, purchasing the holding company can reduce the tax amount and avoid the need to appeal an assessment based on a purchase price well above the current assessed value. The buyer saves on transfer taxes upfront and will likely save on future real estate taxes with an unchanged assessment.

In cities like Pittsburgh, where transfer tax is 4.5% and soon to be 5%, the savings can be significant. Some savvy buyers have structured their purchases of Pittsburgh properties using the "89/11" provisions of the tax statute. This precluded transfer tax for buyers who acquired 89% or less of the owning entity, then purchased the remaining 11% after a three-year hold. The strategy drew a public outcry following some high-profile transfers, prompting a recent legal change that made this approach more difficult.

Chicago buyers of a business that owns real estate may avoid a property tax increase altogether, Phelan observes. A local attorney is critical in such cases to advise on not only the law, but also on nuances of its application and the local political climate.

Allocate Properly. Property sale prices often include going-concern value, business value and personal property. Phelan cautions buyers to carefully segregate the real from the non-real components exempt from property tax. Then, "document, document, document," she says. "Having documentation in the file to back up the buyer's allocation of the various components can make all the difference if an appeal is filed down the road."

Similarly, Robb Udell, an attorney with Rennert Vogel Mandler & Rodriguez PA in Miami, advises that Florida law imposes a documentary stamp tax on consideration paid for real estate. There is no documentary stamp tax due for personal property or intangible value, however, so ensure the recorded price excludes those values. Hotel transactions include significant tangible and intangible personal property value.

Details Matter. Details may strengthen arguments opposing an assessor's attempt to increase the assessment to equal the sale price. For example, 1031 exchanges, portfolio transactions or purchases by a REIT may not meet a jurisdiction's criteria for an arms-length, market value sale.

What Information Will Be Public? Ask a local attorney what information will become public in a sale. Texas buyers are not required to divulge their acquisition price on the deed, Davila says, so assessors go to great lengths to discover Texas sale prices. They may search for loan documentation or use subscription services documenting recent sales, for example, to estimate the price.

Budget Correctly. Buyers who fail to understand the law when budgeting for real estate taxes can overpay on acquisitions by millions of dollars. This is especially true in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, where taxing entities can appeal to increase a property's assessment.

School districts often appeal assessments to chase sale prices, then file "fishing expedition" discovery requests of the buyer's financial information to support the district's case. Out-of-state buyers have overpaid for property due to their budgeting on historical real estate taxes not accounting for the potential government-initiated increase appeal. This common practice in Pennsylvania has drawn increasing challenges from property owners outraged at being unfairly singled out for an increase.

In Georgia, it is the assessors who increase assessments on properties using recent sale prices. Lisa Stuckey, partner in the Atlanta law firm of Ragsdale Beals Seigler Patterson & Gray LLP, advises that – due to a recent change in Georgia law – assessors can value recently traded properties as high as the purchase price, but not higher. Since the statutory change, many assessors have adopted a policy of increasing assessments to full sale prices in the year following the sale.

Understand Assessment Caps. In Florida, there are two values related to property taxes: market value and assessed value. County property appraisers determine market value annually and cap increases in the assessed value of non-homestead properties at 10% from one year to the next. School districts tax uncapped market value, however, so that portion of a property owner's tax bill is sensitive to increases in market value.

Udell cautions that capped assessments reset to market value the tax year following a change of property ownership or control, so a purchase price consistent with the prior year's market value can still have a significant tax impact if the previous assessment was capped at a low value. Capped assessments also reset to market value the tax year following an improvement that increases market value by 25% or more, and other factors also can affect the cap's applicability. Thus, proper budgeting for tax consequences requires a clear understanding of Florida law.

Asking the right questions can save enormous tax dollars. 

Sharon DiPaolo 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. Tammy L. Ribar is a director of Pittsburgh law firm Houston Harbaugh PC and Chair of its Real Estate Department.
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  • Millions of property tax dollars can be saved by understanding seven issues before buying real estate.
Jun
18

Use Restrictions Can Actually Lower A Tax Bill

Savvy commercial owners are employing use restrictions as a means to reduce taxable property values.

Most property managers and owners can easily speak about their property's most productive use, in addition to speculating on a list of potential uses. Not all of them, however, are as keenly aware of their property's specific use restrictions; even fewer realize how those limitations affect the property's value for tax assessment purposes. 

Government-Imposed Restrictions

Local zoning laws impose the most common use restrictions. Their impact on property uses and potential values is commonly understood. A property zoned for development as a retail power center, for example, will generally have a higher market value than a property that is limited to uses, such as auto repair or animal kenneling. Market values are often used to set tax assessment values, so a use restriction that increases or reduces market value will also increase or reduce a property's tax assessment value. 

Less common restrictions that can impair a property's value include covenants or agreements entered into with a municipality. Whether this pertains to the future development of a parking structure, to meet open-space standards, or to fire department ingress and egress lanes these covenants typically limit the owner's ability to fully develop the property and, thereby, reduce its market value. Historical designations by local government also generally reduce a property's market value. This is because they limit the owner's ability to configure the property to produce maximum rental income. 

Even fire suppression requirements reduced market value for one commercial property. This multi-building campus was constructed to suit a technology company, with all fire suppression controls located in a single building. When the technology firm moved out, regulations enforced by the local fire department prohibited the new owner from leasing or selling individual buildings because all but one of the structures lacked onsite control of the existing sprinkler system, those being in another building. 

Semi-private Restrictions 

The complexities of government imposed restrictions pale in comparison with semi-private restrictions that are often created during a property's development. Consider the covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs) on use imposed when property is subdivided for development. 

CC&Rs are not typically classified as "government-imposed," as they are based on an agreement between the developer and property owners within a development. Yet, these covenants do limit how the property may be used. While CC&Rs often govern planned residential developments, they also regulate property usage in some industrial parks and retail centers. Because CC&Rs lack the uniformity of government-imposed zoning laws which, theoretically, would apply equally to competing commercial properties, the restrictions in CC&Rs usually impact property market values negatively by limiting potential uses. 

Another complex area involves easements between adjacent property owners or among multiple owners within a larger development. Like CC&Rs, easements limit property uses and can reduce market value.

Private Restrictions 

The most common private usage constraint is the deed restriction, which prevents the buyer of a property from using it for certain purposes. The treatment of deed restrictions and other limitations imposed by property owners varies by state. In some states like California, property tax assessors must ignore private use restrictions, while in other states, such restrictions are taken into consideration when assessing properties. 

Deed restrictions and other privately imposed usage limitations can significantly affect real estate values. A property restricted to residential use where neighboring properties are allowed retail or industrial uses will have a lower market value. However, if the local tax assessor is prohibited from considering such private restrictions, the property's assessed value may be much higher than the market would otherwise indicate. 

State, Local Laws Often Prevail 

Clearly, use restrictions — whether government-imposed or privately imposed — will usually impact a property's market value. From a property tax perspective, however, an assessor may or may not consider use restrictions in determining taxable value. 

Whether and how an assessor considers use restrictions in an assessment usually depends on state and local tax laws. In California, property tax regulations, court decisions and guidance documents issued by the State Board of Equalization assist property owners in understanding how use restrictions may or may not affect their property's taxable value. 

In some cases, the treatment of use restrictions is based on local tax assessment policies that are not set forth in any particular statute, regulation or court decision. Tax or legal advisers who interact regularly with local tax assessors can be invaluable resources in those jurisdictions. 

Use restrictions play a significant role in property tax assessments. Knowing a property's use restrictions and how those restrictions affect value is crucial to obtaining a fair property tax assessment. Armed with information about their particular use restrictions, savvy property managers and owners will find out how the local assessor uses those restrictions to determine taxable value. In most cases, that will involve collaborating with a professional experienced in handling local property taxes. 

Cris K. O'Neall is a shareholder with the law firm of Greenberg Traurig LLP in Irvine, California. The firm is the California member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

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  • Savvy commercial owners are employing use restrictions as a means to reduce taxable property values.
Jun
06

Nothing New About The Old ‘Dark Store Theory’

Statutory law continues to require that assessors value only the real estate, not the success or lack thereof, by the owner of the real estate.

Assessors and their minions frequently take the position that an occupied store is more valuable than an unoccupied store, a conclusion commonly referred to as the "Dark Store: theory. Owners of big-box retail properties and their tax advisers bristle at this erroneous contention, because real property taxes are just that– a tax on the value of the real estate.

It is the assessor's function to value the property's real estate components, which consist primarily of land, bricks and mortar; or in the cases of most big boxes, land, concrete, pop-up concrete or metal slabs. It is a common but mistaken practice of assessors to place a greater taxable value on a big box occupied by a major retailer than on a vacant building of equal design, construction and utility.

This errant valuation methodology has given rise to controversy played out through expert testimony and sophisticated argument before administrative agencies and the courts. It is in this context that the term "Dark Store theory" has come into play.

A call to action

Owners of big-box real estate need to deliver a consistent response in the face of this increasingly pervasive and costly misconception. And because informal meetings between the owner's representative and the assessor are limited in time and scope, providing little opportunity for sophisticated argument, these owners must take a position that can be expressed in laymen's terms and understood by the average taxpayer.

That message is that the dark store theory is not a theory at all. It is a reality. The real estate components of occupied buildings have the same value as the real estate components of vacant buildings.

Dark Store theory has become part of the dialogue when valuing commercial properties for taxation. It's vilified as though it were a new concept with dark connotations, like the revelation of a new and insidious scheme by Darth Vader. In fact, its underlying concept is as old as the exercise of determining value for any purpose.

Unless a particular property has actually sold on a particular date, any opinion of its market value is hypothetical. Any such opinion is subject to informed disagreement within the boundaries of accepted valuation methodology. The standards of that methodology, as expressed, for example, in the Uniform Standards of Appraisal Practices, require that the value of a property is based on the willing-buyer, willing-seller concept. The assumption is that a willing buyer wants to buy and use the property.

Logic, not to mention all standards of appraisal practice, dictates that the hypothetical buyer is buying the property for some purpose. Whatever that purpose, it precludes the seller's continuing to use the property. This discussion is independent of a sale-leaseback transaction, which is a financing strategy.

The reality is that the buyer wants to use the property, as is the case across the spectrum of property purchases.

A residential parallel

The same concept applies to the sale of a suburban bungalow. When the Smiths buy a home from the Joneses, they expect the Jones family to vacate the property by the closing date. The Smith family bought the property expecting it to be available for occupancy on the closing date. Nothing about the selling family's success or possible dysfunction affects the purchase price.

In valuing single-family homes, assessors do not discuss the resident families' success (all the children became neurosurgeons). Yet assessors effectively do so in valuing big boxes, which by all valuation standards must be deemed available for occupancy as of the date of closing.

One does not hear the expression "dark house theory," because the assumption of availability of the property for use by the buyer at closing is intrinsic to the transaction. In appraisal parlance, the concept has been and remains that the exchanged property is "free and clear of all encumbrances," ergo vacant, or in current usage, "dark."

Many big boxes, typically measuring in the neighborhood of 100,000 square feet, have come on the market in recent years due in part to changing consumer buying patterns and reduced store counts by retailers. There is a tendency among assessors to over-value properties occupied by the surviving big-box retailers, in effect imposing a form of income tax that they justify by citing retailers' over-all company sales, while turning a blind eye to the availability of big boxes standing dark in the same market.

The sales volume and profits produced by a big-box store are as unrelated to the real estate's value as apple pie is to a computer. Thus, two side-by-side buildings of the same size and specifications, with one housing a high-profit retailer and the other an empty or dark box, have the same real estate value.

Jerome Wallach is a partner at The Wallach Law Firm in St. Louis, the Missouri member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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  • Statutory law continues to require that assessors value only the real estate, not the success or lack thereof, by the owner of the real estate.
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.
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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.
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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​.
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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.
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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
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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

American Property Tax Counsel

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