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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.

Mar
08

Put a Lid on Tax Caps

"The tax cap is an old device that's found new life in these hard times..."

By Michael P. Guerriero, Esq., as published by Commercial Property Executive, March 2011.

The recession has left its mark on the budgets of state and local governments nationwide. Revenue shortfalls have forced states to slash their budgets and, oftentimes, withdraw state aid pledged to local governments.

Cities, towns and school districts are now forced to raise property taxes, their main (and sometimes only) revenue source. Struggling with escalating tax burdens, taxpayers cry out to their elected representatives to put a lid on the always rising local property tax and support property tax cap initiatives.

The tax cap is an old device that's found new life in these hard times. At the forefront of tax cap initiatives is newly elected Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, who proposes to limit the property tax dollars a school district can collect annually. The bill passed the New York State Senate and now must pass the State Assembly.

New York's bill caps tax growth at 4 percent or 120 percent of the inflation rate, whichever is less. School districts may exceed the cap with voter approval, but voters can impose an even stricter cap or bar increases entirely.

Roughly 40 states have some kind of property tax restriction. Arizona, Idaho, Kentucky, Massachusetts and West Virginia have a fixed cap of 5 percent or less. Colorado, Michigan and Montana limit growth to the inflation rate; while California, Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, South Dakota and Washington limit growth to the lesser of a fixed percentage or the inflation rate.

Tax cap advocates say a cap forces school districts to cut wasteful spending while causing little to no harm.

Critics note that a cap simply slows down the rate of tax increases and does little to change the main drivers behind high property taxes. For example, caps cannot slow increasing costs for health care or fuel, nor do caps lessen demand for essential public services.

History has shown that tax caps simply shift the burden of funding schools to other sources, such as income tax, sales tax, fees and state aid. The bottom line is, a tax cap simply places a lid on the problem and kicks the can down the road for others to deal with.

GuerrieroPhoto_resizedMichael Guerriero is an associate at the law firm Koeppel Martone & Leistman LLP in Mineola, N.Y., the New York State member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Feb
27

Why Inflated Tax Assessments Persist

"Under most states' property tax laws, your assessment should reflect the purchasing power of a typical buyer, not that of an extraordinarily well-capitalized investor..."

By Mark S. Hutcheson, Esq., as published by National Real Estate Investor, January/February 2011

With well-capitalized buyers driving transactions, assessors routinely overstate taxable property values. Real estate investment trusts (REITs) and insurance companies are big buyers of commercial real estate these days, and their advantage in the capital markets is driving up prices. In turn, assessors are using the price data generated from these sales to institutional buyers to produce inflated taxable values for commercial properties owned by less-capitalized investors.

Assessors typically value commercial real estate using a direct capitalization income approach by dividing the property's annual net operating income (NOI) by an overall capitalization rate. The NOI can be based on the trailing 12 months or projected over the next 12 months.

Determining a proper capitalization rate, however, is often more challenging. That's especially true in this economic environment. An overall cap rate reflects the relationship between a single year's net operating income expectancy and the total property price or value.

Crux of the problem
To determine cap rates, assessors usually look to sales of comparable commercial properties. Relatively weak transaction volume since the start of the recession, however, has forced assessors to extrapolate cap rates from the small number of transactions that have occurred.

These sales increasingly involve high-priced properties sold to well-capitalized institutions. Deal volume for assets priced at $25 million or more rose 126% for the first 11 months of 2010 compared with the same period in 2009, says Real Capital Analytics. From this data, assessors will likely derive cap rates that reflect the buying power of well-capitalized buyers and apply those rates to all investment-grade property.

REITs and insurers have access to particularly low-cost capital resources. Their strategy primarily has been to focus on acquisitions of large, core assets in major cities. Low-cost capital enables these investors to achieve greater returns on lower cap rates than average investors.

Insurers also have far lower default and delinquency rates on loans than other lender groups. The 60-day delinquency rate for commercial mortgages originated by life insurance companies was just 0.29% at mid-year 2010, reports the American Council of Life Insurers.

Compare that with loan delinquencies in commercial mortgage-backed securities at greater than 7%, according to credit rating agency Realpoint. Meanwhile, Real Capital Analytics pegs the commercial real estate loan delinquency rate for banks at 4.28%. Low delinquencies mean insurance fund managers are able to focus more on deploying capital and less on working out distressed assets.

Doing the math
Increasing acquisition volume by well-capitalized buyers gives assessors market data to support lower cap rates, as the following hypothetical example illustrates. LRG, a large insurance company, purchases an office building with a $650,000 NOI for $10 million, reflecting a 6.5% cap rate. SML, a small real estate investment firm, seeks to buy a comparable building across the street that also generates NOI of $650,000.

Due to SML's lack of capital and lower credit rating, the firm's debt structure on the deal is approximately 300 basis points higher than that of LRG. SML would need to purchase the property at an 8% cap rate to achieve the same return at 50% loan-to-value.

SML offers to purchase the building for a little more than $8 million. However, because this price is significantly lower than the LRG purchase price across the street, the seller backs out and the transaction never occurs.

Should the assessor use the 6.5% cap rate reflected by the LRG purchase, or adjust the rate to reflect what a more typical investor like SML might offer in the open market? This is the issue confronting assessors and those who represent property owners in ad valorem tax disputes.

Under most states' property tax laws, your assessment should reflect the purchasing power of a typical buyer, not that of an extraordinarily well-capitalized investor. A careful review of how the assessor arrived at both the value and the underlying cap rate is critical to ensure your property is fairly assessed.

MarkHutcheson140Mark S. Hutcheson is a partner with the Austin, Texas, law firm of Popp, Gray & Hutcheson LLP, the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Feb
25

Tax Relief for LIHTC Properties

"Because assessors cannot simply go out and look at properties and know that they carry LIHTC restrictions, the properties often sustain improperly high assessments..."

By J. Kieran Jennings, as published by Housing Finance - News Online - February 2010

Improperly assessed property taxes on a low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) property can destroy its economic viability. LIHTC property owners can protect themselves from destructive taxation by understanding several key issues that lead to improper tax assessments. Additionally, owners can take some practical steps to maintain proper assessments in the future.

Unlike other real estate, the values of LIHTC projects generally do not vary greatly from year to year. Restrictions placed on rents and administrative costs often leave LIHTC actual market values so low that a small incremental difference becomes immaterial. Thus, if a project is fairly assessed, it should be able to remain fairly assessed over its contract period.

Property taxes for conventional multifamily housing projects typically comprise one of the largest expenses for an owner. However, because rents are reduced and operating expenses are higher, LIHTC properties labor under significantly tighter margins than most conventional properties. As a result, taxes can mean the difference between making debt service and feeding a property.

LIHTC developments include single apartment buildings, townhomes, single-family developments, and scattered single-family home sites. Many states are coming to a consensus, assessing projects using reduced contract rents and the higher operating expenses associated with LIHTC properties. However, a problem arises because LIHTC properties can take various different forms, making it difficult for an assessor to know, without additional information, whether a property is conventional or a LIHTC property.

Because assessors cannot simply go out and look at properties and know that they carry LIHTC restrictions, the properties often sustain improperly high assessments. This forces LIHTC taxpayers to challenge assessments each and every time they go through a reassessment. Thus, a continuous battle ensues, causing additional expenses to the taxing jurisdiction and the taxpayer.

A solution for this problem is within reach. It calls for putting in place a system that helps the assessor produce a fair assessment year after year. Such a system incorporates meeting with the assessor to present information that indicates the LIHTC nature of the property. The presentation also needs to include the project's financial statements and the Land Use Restriction Agreement (LURA), all of which provide the necessary information to assist assessors in initially establishing a fair assessment. The taxpayer should work with the assessor to ensure that the property card, database, and tax bill are labeled as LIHTC.

Similar to property tax abatements, this labeling should be maintained throughout the LURA period. By employing the same mechanisms as used in abatements, an assessor can flag a property for the remaining years in the LURA period, allowing the tax authorities to identify and properly assess LIHTC properties across time.

Establishing a long-term workable solution for LIHTC assessments contemplates some compromises. In the case of property owners, this means sharing financial information with the assessors. Many property owners show some reluctance to provide assessors with income and expense information. They should not resist sharing financials because LIHTC properties' income potential is typically reduced due to the restrictions, and that income provides the basis for the tax authority to establish a fair assessment.

Taxing authorities also have to compromise. In order not to fight over assessments throughout the life of a LIHTC project, assessors need to accept the fact that LIHTC properties have a certain level of economic obsolescence.

The obsolescence can be quantified by examining the value of the property under the LURA and the value as if it were a conventional property. For example, if a LIHTC property is worth $600,000 under the LURA and $1 million as a conventional property, then it suffers from a 40 percent obsolescence factor. Therefore, the assessor can simply reduce the value of the property by 40 percent when reappraising it and continue to do this for the life of the LURA.

No system is perfect, but if parties can agree to a long-term assessment formula, budgets should be closer and disagreements fewer, allowing for economic sustainability for taxpayers and proper assessments by assessors.

KJennings90J. Kieran Jennings is a partner in the law firm of Siegel Siegel Johnson & Jennings, the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Feb
18

Tax Law Changes Threaten California Property Owners

"In recent years, state and local governments have become more aggressive in their efforts to identify ownership changes in entities holding real property..."

By Cris K. O'Neall, Esq., as published by National Real Estate Investor City Reviews, February 2011

As California struggles through its economic downturn, local tax authorities are looking for ways to increase tax revenues. And property owners may not be aware of the tough penalties they could face if they fail to quickly report changes in ownership.

Most California property owners know that changes in ownership result in property tax reassessment under Proposition 13, and such reassessments are typically triggered when a transfer deed is recorded.

What may surprise some taxpayers is that changing the ownership of a legal entity that holds the real property may also trigger a reassessment. This occurs even if the property-owning entity, such as a corporation, remains the recorded owner of the underlying real property.

Legal entity transfers have long been a concern for California tax authorities. Real property transfers caused by a change in an entity's ownership are not documented by a recorded deed, which is the normal manner in which tax assessors learn of property ownership changes. In this circumstance, tax authorities must look to state franchise tax returns and business property filings to discover ownership changes affecting real property.

In recent years, state and local governments have become more aggressive in their efforts to identify ownership changes in entities holding real property.

Previously, it was up to the tax authorities to identify those changes and provide taxpayers with the appropriate reporting forms. Last year, tax authorities upped the ante considerably — giving property owners the job of reporting legal entity transfers within strict deadlines and removing the tardy reporting "grace" period.

Delays in reporting can trigger consequences

Now owners who fail to report transfers quickly are subject to significant penalties on all of their California properties, even if only one property changed ownership as a result of a legal entity transfer.

Additionally, the revised law requires reporting of ownership changes even in cases where the transfer falls under a change of ownership exception. Those exceptions include transfers of less than a controlling interest in a legal entity, and transfers in which the type of entity changes, say from a corporation to a limited partnership, but the owners and their ownership percentages remain the same.

In effect, the revised law penalizes the failure to file the requisite reporting form, regardless of whether there has been a change in ownership of the underlying real property.

More tax liability?

If the above did not already cause enough headaches, local tax authorities have added to property owners' burdens by attempting to expand another California tax — the documentary transfer tax (DTT) — to include legal entity transfers.

Traditionally, the DTT has only been collected upon the recording of a deed or similar instrument transferring a property's ownership. In fact, the DTT is usually understood to be an excise tax on the right to transfer property and use county recorder services.

This view has recently changed as Los Angeles County and other local jurisdictions seek to bring legal entity transfers where no document is recorded within the purview of the transfer tax law. They have been aided in their discovery of such transfers by statutory changes which give county recorders access to the records of county assessors' offices.

As a result, county recorders' offices now have access to legal entity transfer information which was once only available to county assessors. Armed with this new information, counties and cities are seeking to charge transfer taxes on entity transfers where no deed has been recorded.

Fortunately, property owners can repel attempts by county recorders and city clerks to collect transfer tax. Most counties and cities have ordinances adopting California's statewide statute regulating the issue.

That statute, with one limited exception relating to dissolution of partnerships through a legal entity transfer, only permits collection of DTT when a deed or other instrument is recorded. Property owners confronted with a request for payment of the tax for a legal entity transfer need only point to the local ordinance in order to parry the unlawful attack.

So long as California remains in its economic downturn, the local tax authorities will continue to be vigilant in looking for ways to increase tax revenues. And real property owners would do well to report legal entity transfers promptly to avoid draconian penalties.

Fortunately, efforts are under way to eliminate the harsh effects brought about by the recent changes in legal entity transfer reporting. As for the documentary transfer tax, property owners should only pay that tax on transfers made by a recorded document. And, as with every transfer of real property in California, property owners should consider whether their transfer falls under one of the exceptions to a change in ownership in order to avoid reassessment.

 

CONeallCris K. O'Neall specializes in ad valorem property tax matters as a partner in the Los Angeles law firm of Cahill Davis & O'Neall LLP, the California member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Feb
07

Technology Advances - Property Taxes Retreat

"Businesses today have greater difficulty than ever before in predicting future space needs as business requirements and market conditions change rapidly. Federal, state and local laws and regulations, too, have become unpredictable..."

By Terry Gardner, Esq., and Stephen H. Paul, Esq., as published by The Leader, January/February 2011

Technological advances are rapidly altering the way corporations use commercial real estate, and recognizing these fundamental shifts can have a profound effect in efforts to reduce property taxes.

Our world changed at an incredible pace in the last 100 years, and those changes have accelerated in the 21st Century. As one technology enthusiast observed in 1999, "From 1946 until now, if the automobile had been improved as much as the computer has been improved, you'd have a car that would go a million miles an hour and cost a penny!"

There was little telecommuting 10 years ago, when the average cubical size ranged from 50 to 75 square feet and the BlackBerry was the latest fad in a mobile technology industry still in its infancy. Corporate campuses with sprawling Frank Lloyd Wright-style buildings were the norm. Today those edifices of expansive glass, with their inefficient angles and giant atriums, are considered too expensive to maintain and are becoming the exception rather than the rule.

Technology and the commercial real estate boom that ended in 2007 have combined to fuel a dramatic shift in the use of commercial space from the aesthetic to the practical. Companies realize that every dollar saved by a more efficient use of real estate not only makes them more environmentally responsible, but also goes directly to the bottom line.

The New Workplace

At Indianapolis-based health benefits provider WellPoint, more than 6,000 associates work from home, and as with many other businesses, that number is increasing daily. Most of these associates almost never need to come into the office. At least 1.4 million square feet of commercial office space would be required to house these 6,000 associates. Most of the space once occupied by these telecommuters has been or will soon be returned to the landlord.

Today, preferred venues for companies like WellPoint are square or rectangular in shape, utilize a central core and are easy to maintain. More efficient space design and better technology are changing the physical layout and proportions of the workspace itself, as well. Innovations such as flat screen monitors replacing the cumbersome CRT monitors of old have decreased cubicle sizes to as little as 35 square feet, but have driven up parking requirements to five or six spaces per 1,000 square feet of leased space.

In addition to work-at-home programs, other alternative workplace strategies including hoteling, desk sharing, and more have all come of age. Space once used to provide each individual with a large cubicle or enclosed office is rapidly becoming obsolete.

Businesses today have greater difficulty than ever before in predicting future space needs as business requirements and market conditions change rapidly. Federal, state and local laws and regulations, too, have become unpredictable. As a result, lease flexibility is now a fundamental requirement for many tenants. Lease terms are shorter and often come with enhanced termination and contraction options.

The need for less space, evolution of lease terms, and collapse of the capital markets have led to a substantial loss in value for commercial real estate. But for parties responsible for paying property taxes, this dark cloud has a silver lining in the form of a significant opportunity to reduce the assessed value of real estate in most markets.


Economic factors affecting value

A property's value is driven not merely by the inherent qualities of the asset itself, but also by market factors. The Appraisal Institute, the recognized leader worldwide in real estate appraisal education, has identified four predominant and interdependent influences on property values, rooted in fundamental economic principles of supply and demand. Those are utility, scarcity, desire, and effective purchasing power.

Utility and scarcity weigh in on the supply side of the equation as the ability of a property to satisfy users' needs and desires, in context with the anticipated supply of properties relative to demand. Desire and effective purchasing power are on the demand side, and take into account individual wants beyond essential needs, and the market's ability to pay for property. By looking at these four influential factors, it's easy to see how property values have suffered from evolving appetites for office space and from the recent trends in lease terms and the capital markets.

For example, properties with atriums and other large open spaces are expensive to heat, cool, and maintain. Such features provide little utility, and a surplus of these properties exists on the market. Pair that surplus with a decreasing desire in the market for large expanses of unusable space, and the value of these properties declines.

Or, take into account the increasingly strong position tenants command to negotiate favorable contraction and termination provisions in leases. Clearly, this trend is a reflection of both the surplus of space in the market and a general inability or unwillingness to pay a higher price for unusable property or be compelled to accept less favorable terms.


Translating market influences into assessment reductions

In order to understand how these market dynamics translate into reduced property tax assessments, economic factors influencing value should be viewed within the context of the accepted approaches to property value. The predominant methodologies are the cost approach, sales comparison, and income capitalization.

The first of these approaches to value generally focuses on the replacement cost of the improvements, assigning value upon examining the cost of developing similar structures. This value is adjusted to account for the property's age, condition, and usefulness. The latter point is where inefficient designs come into play as elements of functional or economic obsolescence.

Functional obsolescence refers to the loss in utility resulting from factors that would make it difficult to modify the property for a particular use. Building characteristics tending to contribute more to the aesthetic than to the practical enter into this calculation of functional obsolescence. Enormous atriums, indoor gardens, arboreta, and water features, as well as odd angles and unique architecture, often trace to the preferences of a one-time, build-to-suit tenant and detract from the building's usefulness to subsequent tenants.

Most cost approach values are based on replacement cost, or the cost to substitute an asset of similar size and use but with contemporary materials and design. Because an assessment on the basis of replacement cost doesn't contemplate reproduction of an exact replica, unusable space is excluded from the calculation and results in a lower value.

The public's appetite for sprawling improvements that are distinctively designed and aesthetically pleasing has yielded in the last decade to desires for efficiency and simplicity. To the extent that the property owner can show that tastes have changed in the market, these inefficient design characteristics can demonstrate economic obsolescence, which occurs because of factors outside of the property itself and also reduces the property's value.

The sales comparison approach entails an analysis of sales and listings of similar properties to arrive at an assessed value for a property. The comparable sales used in this analysis should be adjusted to account for variances between the comparables and the property being assessed, including (in some states) the terms of leases on the property. If the comparable sales selected involve inefficient designs that have become abundant on the market and for which the market's desire is dwindling, the comparable sale prices should indicate a reduced willingness to pay a high price for such property.

Sales comparison analysis should employ the most recent sales of similar properties. This way, the sales also reflect latest real estate market trends.

For income-producing property, the income capitalization approach will likely reflect the decreased utility of, and demand for, an inefficiently designed building. Under this approach, property value is assessed by capitalizing annual net operating income. Recent lease activity should reveal terms favoring tenants, as well as increased market vacancy, softening rental rates, and tenant preferences for smaller and simpler designs.

In the case of property encumbered by long-term leases, comparable properties with more recent leases may be reliable indicators of the property's current income-producing capability.

Each approach should reveal that technological and market shifts reducing the utility of oversized, inefficient space, as well as the market's desire to pay for such space, have reduced the taxable value of many commercial properties. Technology is changing ever more rapidly in the 21st Century, and taxing jurisdictions should be open to consider such evidence for its impact on reducing values.

PaulPhoto90_BW Stephen H. Paul is a partner in the Indianapolis law firm of Baker & Daniels LLP, the Indiana member of American Property Tax Counsel. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
The authors thank Fenton D. Strickland of Baker & Daniels for his contribution to this article.
TGardnerTerry Gardner is Corporate Real Estate Director for WellPoint Inc., an industry-leading healthcare benefits provider headquartered in Indianapolis, Ind.
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Jan
27

Start That Property Tax Review Today

"First compare your 2010 value to what you think the fair market value should be."

By Raymond Gray, Esq., as published by Commercial Property Executive Blog - January 2011

It may seem odd to be thinking about commercial property tax appeals in January. Yet now is the best time to begin, particularly in Texas, which has an annual reassessment cycle and where the system works quickly and rewards those who prepare early. No matter where you are, however, advance preparation will usually pay off.

First compare your 2010 value to what you think the fair market value should be. This will give you an idea of what to expect for 2011. Review appraisal district records and determine whether assessors are using the income, cost, or sales comparison approach to value.

Follow these key points to keep your review on target.

Seven Simple Steps:

  1. Know the deadlines for administrative appeals, litigation and payment of taxes.
  2. Verify that the taxing records for your property are correct (square footage, net rentable, classification, zoning, etc.)
  3. Diligently reconstruct the income and expense statement to remove non-realty income. This will insure that non-taxable intangible assets, such as business value, are not part of your taxable value.
  4. Do not assume that the purchase price is equal to property tax value, whether for a new acquisition, or when reviewing the assessor's comparable sales.
  5. Determine whether your property is being taxed fairly in comparison to the competition. Newly purchased or recently constructed properties often are taxed at a higher value than the competition.
  6. Consider whether your annual operating statement reflects the market as of the valuation date. Most states value property as of a certain date.
  7. Consistently review the performance of your property tax consultant.

The sooner this work is completed the more options you will have available. Start now and you have the time to hire the right tax counsel — and they'll have the time to do a great job.

RaymondGray154x231pxRGray Raymond Gray is a partner with the Austin, Texas, law firm of Popp, Gray & Hutcheson L.L.P., which focuses on property tax disputes and is the Texas member of the American Property Tax Counsel. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Jan
19

Finding Relief - How Co-Tenancy Clauses Can Be a Property Tax Benefit

"It is incumbent upon the taxpayer, tax counsel and appraisers to show local assessors how these clauses affect the real estate's valuation..."

By Linda Terrill, Esq., as published by Commercial Property Executive, January 2011

Co-tenancy clauses have become a two-edged sword for commercial property owners. Originally a tool that landlords used to obtain a multi-year lease commitment, co-tenancy clauses typically reduce a tenant's rent if a key tenant or tenants leave or if overall occupancy drops below a certain level. Some cotenancy clauses permit tenants to terminate a lease without penalty.

Today, a co-tenancy clause may detract from the property's value and even compound vacancy problems. Retail stores have been closing at unprecedented rates due to bankruptcies or underperformance. Many retailers have put new leases or construction on hold. In the office market, vacancy rates continue to set new highs and absorption rates are more frequently described as "negative."

For many of these properties, the terms of the lease, rather than the income stream, may define the property's value. Since co-tenancy clauses have the potential to shorten the lease term or otherwise reduce the income stream, co-tenancy should be central to a property tax appeal.

It is incumbent upon the taxpayer, tax counsel and appraisers to show local assessors how these clauses affect the real estate's valuation.

Tenets of Co-tenancy
Co-tenancy clauses are most common in retail properties but have become more prevalent in office buildings. Most fall into one of three timeframes: The first is during the letter of intent phase, during the lease-up phase of a retail project, when a potential tenant's plan to occupy a space is affirmed. The second period is after the lease has been signed but prior to move-in; the third spans the duration of the lease term. Most real estate tax appeals will involve fully developed properties and, therefore, co-tenancy agreements associated with the lease term. Landlords and tenants have negotiated co-tenancy clauses for a number of reasons, and the more clout the tenant has, the more likely the lease will have co-tenancy provisions.

Yet, it has also become more commonplace for smaller retail tenants to negotiate such provisions, particularly if they selected the leased space in order to be in the same center as another tenant that provides foot traffic and has the potential to drive up sales. Smaller office tenants, by contrast, may have a business relationship with the flagship tenant. In those cases, the smaller business may negotiate provisions to reduce rent or terminate the lease early if the flagship tenant quits doing business at the location.

Boost to Tax Appeals
How can a co-tenancy clause assist an owner in a tax appeal? Consider the following example: A significant national retailer occupies 40 percent of a lifestyle shopping center. The lease has one year left, with three five-year renewal options.

The center is fully leased, and all of the other tenants have co-tenancy lease clauses. Some enable the tenant to terminate the lease if the national retailer ceases to do business at that location; others give tenants the right to terminate the lease if vacancy exceeds 50 percent. Alternatively, the clauses adjust tenant rent from a fixed rate to a percentage of sales in the event that the national retailer closes or vacancy crosses the 50 percent mark.

In measuring the effect on value, the first step is to determine whether the national tenant is likely to renew. If the tenant does not want to disclose their business plan for the location, demographics may suggest what that plan entails. For example, are there rising unemployment, rising home foreclosures or declining incomes in the market area? How are the tenant's sales figures? If sales and foot traffic are down, research the national market to see if this retailer has any announced plans to shutter underperforming locations. This information is crucial to making a case based upon the continued viability of the lease.

In this example, if the national tenant were to leave, the effect of the co-tenancy clauses could domino and the center could go from 100 percent occupied to dark in short order. As each tenant leaves, more of the responsibility to cover operating expenses and property taxes shifts to the owner. In some cases, the income stream will not be sufficient to cover debt service.

The best way to demonstrate to the assessor what all this means is to have the property appraised by a competent, experienced appraiser. At a minimum, the taxpayer's counsel should provide the assessor with an extensive lease abstract for each tenant. That abstract should include not only the terms of the lease and the rents to be received but also whether or not there are any lease provisions that could shorten the lease terms, reduce the rental rate and/or otherwise shift previously reimbursed expenses to the property owner. Any of those eventualities will reduce the value of the property.

TerrillPhoto90Linda Terrill is a partner in the Leawood, Kan., law firm Neill, Terrill & Embree, the Kansas and Nebraska member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Jan
07

Tax Data Reveals Plunge in Atlanta Commercial Property Values

"As of November 2010, 99.1% of appeals from the 2008 tax year had been resolved. For the 2009 tax year, 79.1% of appeals had reached a resolution; while only 16.4% of the cases from the 2010 tax year had been resolved...."

By Lisa Stuckey, Esq., as published by National Real Estate Investor-Online/City Reviews, January 2011

As in many U.S. markets, most property owners in Atlanta believe that commercial real estate values in the local market have been declining, and that the declining trend will continue. What is less clear to taxpayers and taxing entities is the severity of value losses and whether property taxes have come down to a corresponding degree.

An analysis of Atlanta-area commercial property valuations and property tax appeals in years past was conducted to determine if, indeed, the perceived drop in property values has occurred, and if so, what effect that drop had on property taxes. Possible new trends can also be extrapolated from the data.

LStuckey_graph

Measuring loss: Which yardstick?
A review of commercial property sales tracked by CoStar Group confirms that asset values have declined since 2008. Yet the degree of decline varies depending on whether the data are broken down by the number of properties or by square foot.

On a per-unit basis, sale prices for multifamily, retail, office, industrial, healthcare, flex, hospitality and specialty properties in Atlanta-area zip codes fell 25% from the beginning of 2008 through the start of 2010. Looking at those same property types on a per square foot basis, it appears that values fell 15%. Taking those results together, we can say that commercial values have decreased by 15% to 25%, or about 20% on average, from Jan. 1, 2008 to Jan. 1, 2010.

The pool of commercial tax parcels in the city of Atlanta has remained fairly constant over the past three years. The number of commercial parcels in the city was 16,347 for tax year 2008, 16,280 for tax year 2009, and 16,184 for tax year 2010.

Appeals fluctuate
In 2008, 5,069 property owners in Atlanta filed tax appeals, representing approximately 31% of all commercial properties. For tax year 2009, the number of appeals filed by taxpayers fell to 2,087, or approximately 13% of all commercial properties; the number of appeals increased to 3,467 for tax year 2010, representing approximately 21% of the commercial properties.

One possible and likely explanation for the marked decrease in the number of appeals filed from tax year 2008 to tax year 2009 is that Fulton County mailed assessment notices for the revaluation of all commercial properties for tax year 2008. That gave city of Atlanta taxpayers the opportunity to file appeals from the notices. However, for tax year 2009, the County did not issue widespread assessment notices. Only taxpayers who received notices were informed enough to file returns of their opinion of value with the tax assessors and, thereby, were assured of receiving assessment notices from which to appeal.

As of November 2010, 99.1% of appeals from the 2008 tax year had been resolved. For the 2009 tax year, 79.1% of appeals had reached a resolution; while only 16.4% of the cases from the 2010 tax year had been resolved.

In cases from the 2008 tax year, resulting valuations averaged 30% less value than the original assessments. In the 2009 appeals, the average reduction in value was 25%. The few cases resolved from the 2010 tax year brought down the original assessments by an average of 29%.

Clearly then, Atlanta property values as well as Atlanta property taxes have dropped. On a weighted average basis across the three years, assessments reflect a reduction of approximately 30%.

In spite of the inherent limitations of analysis with many appeals still waiting for resolution, the available data from concluded appeals shows a clear trend: A significant number of commercial property owners in the Atlanta area have achieved substantial valuation reductions in the past three years.

New rules kick in
Under a change to state law effective in tax year 2011, which began on January 1, county taxing authorities will send notices of assessed property values to all Georgia taxpayers for each tax year. With this change to the law, property owners will no longer be required to file a return of their opinion of their property value with the county tax assessor in order to receive an assessment notice from which to appeal.

Based on an examination of the past years' data, it appears that approximately 16,000 assessment notices will be mailed to commercial property owners in Atlanta. Judging from recent trends, anywhere from 15% to 30% of those assessments will be appealed.

If the current trend of reductions in property values continues, then it is also to be expected that the filed appeals will result in valuation decreases for tax year 2011 as well.

LStuckey_web90Lisa Stuckey is a partner in the Atlanta, GA law firm of Ragsdale, Beals, Seigler, Patterson & Gray, the Georgia member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Dec
08

Assessors Seek New Ways to Tax Business Income

"Property owners can take steps to protect themselves from assessments that include business income by carefully reviewing the form of the income information they provide to the assessor..."

By Robert L. Gordon, Esq., as published by Commercial Property Executive, December 2010

A recurring challenge to prevent over-assessment of commercial property is to separate true real estate value from business value. True real estate value is assessable for property taxation, while business value is not.

Commercial property owners who conduct businesses on their property must be vigilant to ensure that the assessor is not capturing the value of their business operations in the guise of assessing their real estate. This can occur if the assessor assesses the property under an income approach and includes the owner's business income in his or her computations, claiming that this income is attributable to the real estate rather than to the owner's independent business operation.

The objective for property owners is to ensure that income solely attributable to the owner's business is excluded from real estate income. In general, courts are more likely to allow assessors to treat business income as real estate income where it can be demonstrated that the land itself, rather than the business skill of the owner, is primarily generating the income.

Property owners can take steps to protect themselves from assessments that include business income by carefully reviewing the form of the income information they provide to the assessor. Owners should structure their operating statements so that all income sources not directly pertaining to the real estate are reported and categorized separately.

Taking this step makes it easier to argue to the assessor that the separately reported income should not be included in the real estate assessment. By failing to categorize income properly, owners allow their real estate income and other income to be blurred together in a single entry in their operating statement. This needlessly gives the assessor an opportunity to point to the operating statement as proof that the other income is intertwined with the real estate income and is thus assessable.

Gordon_rRobert L. Gordon is a partner with Michael Best & Friedrich LLP in Milwaukee, where he specializes in federal, state and local tax litigation. Michael Best & Friedrich is the Wisconsin member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Nov
20

Why Las Vegas Property Tax Assessments Will Exceed Market Value

"Some analysts suggest the volume of troubled commercial loans could create a wave of foreclosures similar to those that swept through the residential market..."

By Paul D. Bancroft, Esq., National Real Estate Investor, November 2010

The odds are stacked against property owners in Las Vegas, where the commercial real estate market continues to suffer from a severe downturn. With nearly $17.2 billion in distressed assets across all commercial property types, Las Vegas ranks No. 1 among U.S. metros by proportion of distress to total inventory in the local market, according to New York-based Real Capital Analytics.

Some analysts suggest the volume of troubled commercial loans could create a wave of foreclosures similar to those that swept through the residential market, a specter that is eroding confidence in commercial real estate. Meanwhile, the pool of available buyers has shrunk and the return on investment they require has increased, depressing sale prices.

Why_LasVegas_graph2

Vacancy rates are another metric that illustrates the severity of the downturn. The vacancy rate for all classes of office space in Las Vegas has slowed its rate of increase, but is projected to top out at a staggering 24.8% by the end of this year, according to Encino, Calif.-based real estate services firm Marcus & Millichap. By contrast, the firm estimates that the current, national vacancy rate for all classes of office is 17.7%.

Applied Analysis, a research consulting firm based in Las Vegas, reports that vacancy rates have risen for the past four years in every subsector of commercial real estate, from retail to industrial to office. The average price per acre of developable commercial land in Clark County has fallen from a peak of $939,000 at the end of 2007 to $155,000 today, a drop of more than 83%, according to Applied Analysis.

Brian Gordon, a principal at the research company, draws a direct correlation between the weak demand for space and the depressed value of commercial properties.

The cumulative effect of these trends is clear: The market value of commercial property has dramatically declined. The question that remains for property owners is whether the taxable values assessors assign to Las Vegas real estate will reflect the decline in market value. Unfortunately for taxpayers, the short answer is no.

Data lag skews values

During any period of changing real estate values, Nevada's taxable property assessments tend to fall out of step with the current market. The tendency to reflect outdated property values doesn't mean the staff of the assessor's office isn't keeping up with the latest newspaper headlines. Rather, it's because assessors are required to follow a methodology that doesn't reflect recent shifts in market value.

In Nevada, the assessor is required to adhere to a valuation methodology that, in the current market, is biased toward a value that will exceed market value. To begin with, the sales data assessors use to establish pricing is simply outdated.

Nevada tax law requires assessors to value the land and improvement components of an improved parcel separately. The land component is valued by comparing it to the sale of vacant land. The comparable transactions are drawn from sales that occurred six months to three years prior to the valuation date, a point in time when real estate was selling for higher prices than is the case today.

In a market in which values are rising, the reliance on "old" sales data would tend to result in a taxable value that is below market value. In a declining market, however, the reliance on old sales will tend to result in a taxable land value that exceeds market value.

A different problem derives from assessors' methodology for valuing the improvement component of a property. In Nevada, improvements are valued according to replacement cost, or what it would cost to build a duplicate asset today, less depreciation.

Replacement cost is established from cost manuals published by Los Angeles-based Marshall & Swift, which monitors materials pricing for the commercial and residential real estate industries.

Reliance on replacement cost may be relevant in a market that is not overbuilt. But in a market with excess inventory, the replacement cost of a building will not reflect economic obsolescence that makes the space less marketable to tenants, and therefore less valuable.

The appraisers in the Clark County Assessor's office currently are valuing properties for the tax year that begins on July 1, 2011 and runs to June 30, 2012. More likely than not, the methodology they are required to follow will result in taxable values that exceed market value.

If that occurs, the assessor is required to reduce taxable value to market value. As a practical matter, however, it is unlikely the reduction to market value will be made because the assessor's office simply does not have the time or property-specific information on vacancy, rent and expenses to determine the market value of all commercial properties. That limitation puts the onus on the property owner. Taxpayers will receive a notice of the taxable value assigned to their property for tax year 2011-2012 in early December. Even if that taxable value is less than the value it was assigned in the preceding tax year, the bias in the methodology employed by the assessor is likely to have resulted in a taxable value that still exceeds market value.

Owners must ask themselves what a snapshot of their property's market value would be on Jan. 1, 2011. If the market trends previously described continue, any reasonable level of analysis is likely to support a market value for most commercial properties that is less than the taxable value determined by the assessor.

Consequently, owners of most commercial properties in Las Vegas will have good reason to appeal to the county board of equalization for an adjustment this year. The deadline for filing an appeal is Jan. 18, 2011.

PBancroft150Paul Bancroft is a managing partner in the Tucson, AZ law firm of Bancroft, Susa & Galloway, the Nevada and Arizona member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Oct
23

Lack of Data Complicates Property Valuation

"Consider market developments after the valuation date. Even though an appraiser or the assessor generally ignores after-occurring transactions, an equalization board or court may find the information useful..."

By Elliott B. Pollack, as published by Commercial Property Executive Blog - October 2010

As municipalities reassess real estate within their jurisdictions, those counties and cities which are required to rely upon market value, as opposed to formulaic or historic cost based approaches, have a major problem. The lack of transactions in the late 2007-late 2009 time frame means that appraisers' jobs will be far more complicated.

How to estimate market rent when there are a few tenants signing leases? Is there a way to determine market-based capitalization rates when there are few sales from which rates can be derived? How to calculate band of investment capitalization rates when mortgage financing is so difficult to come by?

When assessors ask themselves these sorts of questions, their reply usually sounds something like this: "I have a job to do. Even in the absence of data, I must determine market value as of my jurisdiction's assessment date. I will do the best job I can in the circumstances."

This means that the ad valorem tax valuation of your commercial property today is difficult to calculate and is likely to be too high.

Take the time to review the accuracy of your assessment with competent appraisal and property tax counsel. If you are fortunate enough to own a trophy asset or a property in a major market, go to internet data sources for a preliminary analysis.

Consider market developments after the valuation date. Even though an appraiser or the assessor generally ignores after-occurring transactions, an equalization board or court may find the information useful.

Look at the values of comparable properties with an eye to determining the equity of your assessment. Even if a valuation appeal isn't possible, an equalization attack may be an option. Most importantly, talk with brokers and lenders. They may hold valuable information about failed financing applications, busted transactions and lease negotiations which will be of great assistance in weighing the approximate accuracy of the assessor's value.

Pollack_Headshot150pxElliott B. Pollack is chair of the Property Valuation Department of the Connecticut law firm Pullman & Comley, LLC. The firm is the Connecticut member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

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Oct
15

Mistaken Reform

How Property Tax Caps Increase Your Tax Burden

"Attacks on the property tax continue. Yet as the table indicates, during the past five years, property taxes have risen no more rapidly than the average of the three tax areas.."

By Mark S. Hutcheson, Esq., as published by Commercial Property Executive, October 2010

Complaints about the burden of ever increasing property taxes are a common refrain. Many property tax reform efforts miss the mark, however, and set the stage for greater inequity from misguided attempts to cap valuations.

In New York state, which has seen strong debate over capping property tax growth, the Senate passed a provision to cap property taxes at 4 percent, while several gubernatorial candidates are touting a 2 percent limit. New Jersey recently passed a 2 percent cap on property tax increases. Voters in Colorado, Louisiana and Indiana will consider tax caps or rollbacks this November.

Attacks on the property tax continue. Yet as the table indicates, during the past five years, property taxes have risen no more rapidly than the average of the three tax areas. (Property tax represents 30 percent of all taxes, sales tax 33 percent and personal income tax 22 percent).

Mistaken_Reform_graph

While one of the most popular efforts is to limit or cap increases in taxable property values, this argument diverts attention from more meaningful budget and spending discussions. Texas, for example, has experienced several unsuccessful attempts to restrain value increases as a means of limiting property tax growth.

A report published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in 2008, titled "Property Tax Assessment Limits: Lessons from Thirty Years of Experience," concluded that, "assessment limits are often put forward as a means of combating two problems popularly associated with rapidly appreciating property values: increasing tax bills and the redistribution of tax burdens.

In fact, 30 years of experience suggests that these limits are among the least effective, least equitable and least efficient strategies available for providing tax relief."

Equality of taxation is one of the foundations of a tax system, and sound public policy recognizes that valuation caps are an ineffective limitation on property taxes. The reasons for this are numerous.

Like all artificial limits, a cap creates grossly unequal values within and among different classes of properties. An appraisal cap creates disparities between a property valued at market and another valued with a cap, so that two identical properties are treated unequally. A cap placed on residential shifts the tax burden from residential to commercial property. If both residential and commercial are capped, there will be a long-term shift from commercial to residential, because homes change hands more frequently.

Caps create unfair competitive advantages as well. Properties that lose a value cap—including newly built, purchased or remodeled assets—will be at an economic disadvantage. On the commercial front, where retail and office leasing is highly competitive, new owners that do not benefit from a cap will likely be forced to reduce their profit rather than quote a higher rental rate than competitors. And an investor may decide not to develop in a market where competing properties receive a cap, rather than compete directly with landlords that can charge less rent to make the same profit.

Moreover, caps increase taxes for owners of personal property, and here is why: Caps seldom apply to personal property at manufacturing plants, refineries, chemical plants or utilities, so a cap shifts the tax burden to these types of properties. Typically, local governments raise tax rates to balance the budget shortfall created by the cap on real property. That means personal property taxpayers will pay based on full market value, and at higher tax rates.

There is also a direct effect on land use that can work against personal property taxpayers in a different way. Communities that limit property value increases compete for retail properties that can generate sales tax income. New housing and non-retail properties become undesirable because they provide less tax growth and increase infrastructure demands.

If there is no limit on tax rates, the cap will simply shift the variable in the property tax equation from the property's value to the taxing unit's tax rate. At best, the property owner's tax bill will remain where it was. At worst, the bill will increase significantly if the taxpayer purchases or improves a property, because they will then lose the benefit of the cap and be required to pay at full market value and at a higher tax rate. In 2010, it is painfully clear that a cap impairs a local government's ability to pay for critical services when state and federal revenues wane and local mandates increase. This shifts governmental control from the local level to the state. Caps impair infrastructure development and result in the imposition of a wide number of local fees and charges to replace property tax revenue. Thus, artificial limits on appraised value have unintended negative consequences. Taxpayers and government alike are better served by pursuing more effective and fairer mechanisms for property tax relief.

MarkHutcheson140Mark S. Hutcheson is a partner with the Austin, Texas, law firm of Popp, Gray & Hutcheson L.L.P., which focuses on property tax disputes and is the Texas member of the American Property Tax Counsel. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Oct
08

Caught in 'The Twilight Zone'

"Property owners haunted by flawed approach to tax assessments..."

By Stewart L. Mandell, Esq., as published by National Real Estate Investor, October 2010

Flawed cost-based assessments are a common cause of unlawfully high property taxation. Year after year, inflated valuations by government assessors can impose excessive tax bills on a property, notwithstanding annual taxpayer efforts to correct them.

For property owners, persistently unfair assessments are like Talky Tina, the infamous talking doll in the television series The Twilight Zone. The evil toy ultimately prevails against homeowner Erich Streator, notwithstanding his repeated efforts to remove the doll from the Streator family home. The bad news for taxpayers is that assessors will continue to impose excessive, flawed assessments because they often employ error-prone appraisal methods in the interest of expediency. The following demonstrates a common route to a cost-based assessment.

Software can help assessors quickly calculate the cost of reproducing property improvements, an amount I'll call "cost to build today." To account for physical deterioration of improvements, assessors can use an age-life method.

Twilight_Zone_graph2

For example, let's say a five-year old structure's estimated life is 50 years and its cost to build today is $10 million. The assessor deducts 10% for physical deterioration and adds the resulting $9 million value to the land value for a quick — and often inflated — assessment. The good news for taxpayers is that, unlike the Twilight Zone's Streator family, they have the means to seek and obtain justice.

A compelling case

A recently litigated tax appeal regarding a big-box retail building offers a persuasive example. The taxpayer-submitted appraisal included not only income- and sales-comparison based valuations, but also a proper cost approach.

The cost-based analysis differed in several ways from the tax assessor's hasty valuation. First, the appraisal explained that in addition to physical deterioration, depreciation must reflect functional obsolescence or drawbacks to the property itself, as well as external obsolescence. The latter refers to factors outside the property, such as reduced demand for space due to a recession.

The taxpayer proved that the original assessment was flawed because only physical deterioration had been subtracted from the cost to build today. Additionally, the property owner's appraiser presented comparable sales of other big-box locations where a taxpayer had purchased a site, developed a building and sold the property within a few years. These comparable sales were properties in which the owners had a fee simple interest.

For each comparable sale, the appraiser established the total depreciation of the improvements by first subtracting the original land purchase amount from the recent sale price to arrive at a current depreciated value for the building. Then the appraiser compared that building value to the cost to build today, which showed how much the building had depreciated over time.

The total depreciation at these similar properties supported the case for a lower assessment. In the most extreme example from several comparable sales, the value of the building and improvements was 56% less than the cost to build today. Total depreciation of the improvements in the comparable examples ranged from 42% to 56%. Applying this analysis, even after adding back the property's $700,000 land cost, the property assessment should have been about $3 million instead of more than $5 million.

In this case, the appraiser had comparable sales data on similar properties where land acquisition, construction and a sale had taken place in a relatively short time. In cases where the available comparable sales are of older properties, land sales may be used to establish the land value, rather than using the actual original price. As the accompanying chart shows, the taxpayer demonstrated that the government's assessment was unlawfully inflated by over 40%. Clearly, comparable sales can help taxpayers fight the kind of excessive taxation that should only exist in the fictitious world of The Twilight Zone.

MandellPhoto90Stewart L. Mandell is a partner in the law firm of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, the Michigan member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC). He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Sep
23

Golf Course Owners Teed Off Over Taxes

"Taxpayers are left to rely on the courts to compel assessors to value golf courses by present use and condition only..."

By Michael Martone, Esq., and Michael P. Guerriero, Esq., National Real Estate Investor, September 2010

A battle is raging in New York and across the country between assessors and taxpayers at odds over the market value of golf courses and their associated membership clubs.

The front lines in this conflict are clearly demonstrated in Nassau County, N.Y., home to 400 overlapping tax districts and a population suffering the highest taxation burden in the state. The recession and nationwide decline in property values for golf courses have pushed many clubs into severe financial straits as thinning rosters force them to lower dues or scrap fees.

Golf_Courses_graph2One prominent Long Island club recently sold to a developer. Another declared bankruptcy, and surviving golf courses are fighting to avoid similar fates. Closures outpace new openings as demand for golf declines and revenue growth remains flat in the face of rising costs especially property taxes.

Exacerbating the tax problem are assessors who turn a blind eye to the economic forces threatening the survival of private clubs, and who instead pay undue attention to alternative land uses. Taxpayers are left to rely on the courts to compel assessors to value golf courses by present use and condition only.

In most all cases a golf course sells for a price that includes its business operation and personal property, but only the value of the real estate may be considered in setting the property tax assessment.

Development factor

Many courses are bought and sold for their development potential, grossly inflating values. Where developable land is at a premium, reliance on comparable sales could tax private golf courses from existence. The cost approach, too, is generally reserved for specialty property.

For these reasons, courts require the assessor to value the private golf course based on its value in use when employing the income capitalization approach. With this approach, a not-for-profit private club is valued as if it were a privately operated, for-profit, daily fee operation.

The courts tend to determine a golf course's income stream by capitalizing the amount a golf operator would pay a property owner as rent for the course. They use this methodology because golf course operators typically pay a percentage of gross revenues as rent. That amount can be capitalized to arrive at a value. The capitalization of golf rent to value is a hotly litigated issue and influences the percentage rent to be used.

 

Conflicting formula

Rents for golf course leases are influenced by differences in tax burdens from one location to the next. Similar golf courses operating under a similar operating basis, yet in differing locations with disparate tax burdens, must be equalized to arrive at a fair and uniform tax value. In a recent case, the court sought how best to keep the influence of high tax burdens from unfairly distorting value.

In that case, the assessor preached the application of an ad-hoc, subjective adjustment to the percentage rent to reflect a greater or lesser tax burden. This approach assumes the rental amounts would be triple-net. In a triple-net lease the tenant pays the real estate taxes, and the percentage rent is adjusted to reflect local taxes on a case-by-case basis.

The taxpayer offered another, more reliable method, the "assessor's formula". This formula lets the assessor follow the law, which calls for like-kind properties to be equally and uniformly assessed. The formula takes into account the income stream, the cap rate and the tax rate.

For example, consider two identical properties a city block apart, but in separate tax districts. One district has high tax rates, and the other a low tax rate. Because the assessor's formula weighs all three elements used to arrive at market value, it produces fair tax assessments as opposed to a subjective adjustment that is not computed on a scientific basis.

The accompanying chart shows the difference in assessments when the assessor's formula is used instead of an ad hoc, subjective tax adjustment. The assessor's formula provides a superior method that both assessor and taxpayer can rely on.

MMartone_ColorMichael Martone is the managing partner of law firm Koeppel Martone & Leistman LLP in Mineola, N.Y. Michael Guerriero is an associate at the firm, the New York member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. They can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Sep
23

The Tax Credit Conundrum

States moving to address proper valuations of LIHTC projects

"The cost approach calculates the expense of replacing a building with a similar one. That doesn't work in this context because without the tax credit subsidy, LIHTC projects could not be built in the first place..."

By Michael Martone, Esq., and Michael P. Guerriero, Esq., Affordable Housing Finance, September 2010.

An unfair property valuation by a local tax assessor can cripple the operation of a low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) operation. Unfortunately, the inconsistency and uncertainty of how assessors value completed developments is a common impediment to financing LIHTC projects.

Without guidance at the state level, local assessors may value projects without consideration of the regulations that encumber the property and limit its income producing potential. Tax assessments based upon the highest use, rather than the actual use, of the property can even prevent development altogether.

The majority of states base their property tax valuations on fair market value. Typically, assessors value real estate by one of three methods—the market approach, the cost approach, or the income approach—and each presents challenges in relation to LIHTC assets.

The market approach of analyzing comparable sales is difficult to apply because there exists no market of tax credit property transactions to rely upon.

The cost approach calculates the expense of replacing a building with a similar one. That doesn't work in this context because without the tax credit subsidy, LIHTC projects could not be built in the first place.

The income approach is generally favored when valuing income-producing property, such as an apartment building that generates a cash stream of paid rent. However, conflict exists over whether to value the property based upon estimated market rents or the actual restricted rents that are inherent in an LIHTC operation.

For example, in New York, just as in many states, there existed no clear statutory guidance or case law to provide a uniform method of assessment for affordable housing. Many times assessors took the position that these properties should be assessed on an income basis as though they operated at market rents. The result was inflated property tax bills based on market rents that LIHTC projects cannot charge due to rent restrictions.

State legislation has slowly matured in this area. In 2005, New York became the 14th state to address the proper valuation of LIHTC properties. Other states that have passed legislation adopting a uniform method of assessment include Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Wisconsin.

New York's Real Property Tax Law directs local assessors to use an income approach that excludes tax credits or subsidies as income when valuing LIHTC properties.

To qualify, a property must be subject to a regulatory agreement with the municipality, the state, or the federal government that limits occupancy of at least 20 percent of the units to an "income test." The law requires the income approach of valuation be applied only to the "actual net operating income" after deduction of any reserves required by federal programs.

The New York statute is representative of other states, such as California, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, and Nebraska.

Maryland's tax code states that tax credits may not be included as income attributable to the property and that the rent restrictions must be considered in the property valuation.

Likewise, California mandates that "the assessor shall exclude from income the benefit from federal and state low-income tax credits" when valuing property under the income approach.

However, there are still many states without legislation, leaving the valuation of these projects to the whims of a local assessor who may not understand the intricacies of an LIHTC project.

MMartone_ColorMichael Martone is the managing partner of law firm Koeppel Martone & Leistman LLP in Mineola, N.Y. Michael Guerriero is an associate at the firm, the New York member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Michael Martone can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Sep
16

Paid Rent - Not Lease Rates - Reveal Taxable Value

" Few U.S. markets are stable these days, however. In today's economic tumult, a property's leased fee position—its value based on contract lease rates—may not reflect current, dire market conditions that can bring down its taxable value..."

By Mark Maher, Esq., as published by Commercial Property Executive, September 2010

Many states assess commercial property on a fee-simple basis, using market rents and vacancy rates to calculate a property's potential income and value. That may work in a stable market, where multi-tenant properties have rent rolls that continually turn over and are consistent with market rents.

Few U.S. markets are stable these days, however. In today's economic tumult, a property's leased fee position—its value based on contract lease rates—may not reflect current, dire market conditions that can bring down its taxable value. It's more important than ever to educate the assessor to the realities of leasing in 2010.

In many cases, the data in the rent roll don't convey the full story of a property's performance. Tenants may be missing payments or be late in meeting their obligations. Some spaces might be rented but physically vacant as companies close sites and consolidate operations. This "shadow space" that is leased but unoccupied reduces the appeal of the rest of the property to potential new users. Worse yet, shadow space is often available for sublease and directly competes with the landlord for tenants, usually at attractively low rates.

Another common source of overvaluation by assessors is published asking rental rates, which many jurisdictions equate to market rates. Such information is easily available and busy assessors often revert to it as a starting point for valuing properties.

The property owner's leasing team is the best source of information to establish the new, lower market rents that will produce an assessment in line with true value. The taxpayer can build a case by providing examples of tenants signing leases for low rent, but that task may prove challenging because few tenants are currently taking new space.

As an alternative, property owners can marshal anecdotes of failed leasing efforts in order to counter asking-rent data. Lost and dead leasing deals need to be detailed so that assessors can place themselves in the property owner's shoes.

Remember that few assessors have experienced a precipitous downturn before. It's in the taxpayer's best interest to educate assessors on the realities of leasing in a down market.

MMaherMark Maher is a partner in the Minneapolis-based law firm of Smith Gendler Shiell Sheff Ford & Maher, the Minnesota member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Aug
23

Controversy Emerges Over Michigan Business Tax Credits for Industrial Owners

"The tax credits threaten to reduce tax revenue to the state. To minimize lost revenue, taxing entities are attempting to limit use of the tax credits for industrial personal property by seeking to reclassify many of those assets as commercial..."

By Michael Shapiro, Esq., as published by National Real Estate Investor - online, August 2010

Detroit, along with the rest of Michigan is wrestling with two major tax issues that frequently involve litigation and have costly implications for owners of commercial and industrial properties. The first issue relates to the fact that the applicable tax statute in Michigan treats industrial properties differently than office, retail, hotel and other commercial properties.

tax-char 08-20

Starting with the 2008 tax year, the Michigan legislature granted Michigan Business Tax credits to owners of industrial personal property. These credits are intended to offset property taxes and reduce the tax rate levied on industrial personal property.

As the accompanying chart indicates, for the 2009 tax year, Detroit's rate for commercial personal property was $70.92 per $1,000 taxable value (generally 50% of market value). Meanwhile, the personal industrial property rate was $59.14 per $1,000, effectively reduced to $38.44 per $1,000 by the Michigan Business Tax credits.

The tax credits threaten to reduce tax revenue to the state. To minimize lost revenue, taxing entities are attempting to limit use of the tax credits for industrial personal property by seeking to reclassify many of those assets as commercial.

The Michigan Department of Treasury recently announced that it filed almost 10,000 property tax classification cases affecting 2009 property taxes. In addition, state officials have encouraged local communities to file classification appeals in the State Tax Commission for 2010, all with the intent of changing property classifications from industrial personal property to commercial personal property.

Raw deal for industrial owners

Many of the actions have been initiated by the state or local jurisdiction based solely on the name of the owner, and without regard to the actual use of the property or the property's legal classification. If a company's name is Joe's Manufacturing, it will not have a classification action brought against it, whereas Joe's Warehouse will be the subject of such an action.

Because the law involved is relatively new, most taxpayers receiving notice of these appeals have little to no idea what the action involves.

At the heart of the issue is the definition of industrial personal property, and the statute is reasonably clear that personal property located on industrial real property is industrial personal property.

Notwithstanding the statute, the state and State Tax Commission claim that the use of personal property governs its classification and that personal property has to be used for manufacturing or processing in order to be deemed industrial. There is nothing in the applicable statute to support that position, however.

The classification appeals recently filed make it apparent that the state and State Tax Commission recognize their claims may not prevail. As a result, in more recent filings they are seeking to change the classification of the underlying real estate from industrial to commercial.

It appears that most actions by the State Tax Commission and the State have been taken without any property specifics other than the name of the owner. If those reclassifications succeed, then the personal property at the site would also be redefined as commercial and not industrial personal property.

Taxpayers affected by such actions should consult with competent property tax counsel for advice on whether to defend such claims and, if so, how to proceed. In some instances, the government may have missed a critical deadline, which will give taxpayers an additional basis for prevailing.

Backlog of appeals

The second source of property tax litigation in Detroit and other Michigan communities is shared by thousands of property owners across the country. Nearly everywhere in the United States, property values are depressed by as much as 40% or more from where they were before the onset of the recession in December 2007.

And just like local governments in other states, Michigan's taxing entities are strapped for cash and reluctant to voluntarily lower valuations to reflect current market conditions. It's no surprise that thousands of property owners have appealed assessments in hopes of lowering their property tax bills.

What may be surprising to property owners who haven't already filed an appeal is that an unprecedented deluge of valuation protests has slowed down the panel that reviews them. As of July 31, there were approximately 2,600 non-small-claims cases pending before the Michigan Tax Tribunal for the 2008 tax year, and another 5,600 cases for 2009. Approximately 3,900 such new cases have been filed in 2010.

The tax tribunal recently adopted new procedures and is laboring to reduce this backlog and expedite the time it takes cases to move from filing to resolution. Most property tax practitioners applaud the tribunal's recent efforts in this regard. Even so, for anyone considering an appeal, it makes sense to start the process sooner rather than later and get in line to have the case heard.

SHAPIRO_Michael2008Michael Shapiro chairs the tax appeals practice group at Michigan law firm Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP. The firm is the Michigan member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. HE can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Aug
23

Don't Forfeit Your Right to a Tax Appeal

"In many cases, taxing jurisdictions cannot support or defend the values that are placed on those properties under appeal..."

By Philip J. Giannuario, as published by Commercial Property Executive Blog, August 2010

With real estate values down in all sectors across the nation, tax appeals are climbing to record numbers. In many cases, taxing jurisdictions cannot support or defend the values that are placed on those properties under appeal.

As municipal revenues run thin and state governments cut programs to balance their budgets, those governments understandably want to avoid returning significant amounts of money as tax refunds.

As a result, many taxing authorities are exploiting technicalities in state laws to seek dismissals of valid appeals. That makes it critically important that property owners stay abreast of all state requirements that may bear on tax appeals, and rigorously follow required procedures.

New Jersey's Chapter 91 statute provides a clear example of the kinds of technicalities state's employ. The statute requires the assessor to send a request to the owner of income-producing properties and ask for financial data related to the asset. The owner then has 45 days to respond to the demand. If the owner fails to respond in that time, he or she forfeits the right to challenge that year's assessment.

In a recent New Jersey case, a municipality moved to dismiss an appeal for a failure to respond to the income and expense request. The property owner had designated an agent to receive property tax notices and correspondence. Although the agent received the request, the agent failed to file the form with the municipality.

The owner argued that the strict words of the statute required the assessor to serve the owner directly. The court held that the only address on file was that of the agent, however, and reasoned that the owner was bound by the statute. On those grounds, the court dismissed the case.

The simple lesson to learn from this example is that a number of procedural hurdles exist in each state's tax law. Taxpayers must become knowledgeable about all applicable procedural rules and create failsafe, redundant systems to guard against the needless loss of their tax appeal rights.

Philip J. Giannuario is a partner in the Montclair, New Jersey law firm Garippa Lotz & Giannuario, the New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Phil Giannuario can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Jul
24

New York Wrestles with 'Takings' Rulings

"In Kelo, the Court held that while government may not take one's property for the sole benefit of another private party..."

By Michael R. Martone, Esq., as published by Globest.com - July 2010

Constitutional limits on the government's power to take property for use by private entities for the public purpose of economic revitalization have been the subject of much debate in New York. The state has struggled to define itself in the wake of the Supreme Court's controversial 2005 ruling in Kelo v. City of New London, which sparked a national debate about the eminent domain power.

In Kelo, the Court held that while government may not take one's property for the sole benefit of another private party, it may do so for the public purpose of economic revitalization. The ruling deferred to the City's taking of private property for inclusion in its redevelopment plan, hoping to revitalize its depressed economy.

The Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment of the Federal Constitution mandates "nor shall private property be taken for public use, without compensation." Kelo says that where a legislature adopts a comprehensive economic plan it determines will create jobs, increase revenues and revitalize a depressed area, the project serves a public purpose and qualifies as a permissible public use under the Takings Clause.

An outraged public ridiculed Kelo as a gross violation of property rights for the benefit of large corporations at the expense of individual property owners. Since the ruling, 43 states have taken legislative action limiting the use of eminent domain. New York, however, has been criticized for failing to take similar action.

Condemnation in New York

Under New York's Eminent Domain Procedure Law, the State must first conduct a public hearing and determine that a taking would serve a public purpose so as to qualify as a public use. Next, the State must provide the property owner with just compensation for property taken. Each step is subject to judicial review.

Historically, it is extremely difficult for affected property owners to challenge a finding of public necessity to prevent a taking. Courts generally defer to a legislative prerogative, and vague definitions of public purpose can be used to justify most seizures. The courts have scrutinized economic revitalization as a justifiable cause for seizure, however, property owners have challenged the power of the Empire State Development Corp. (ESDC) to force the sale of private property.

The ESDC, the state's development arm, can force the sale of property either for a civic purpose or to eradicate urban blight - amorphously defined as substandard and insanitary. Two recent decisions closely examined the ESDC's involvement with private development projects in the name of economic revitalization.

Atlantic Yards Project

In Goldstein v. NYS Urban Development Corp., the Court of Appeals upheld the ESDC's taking of private properties in Brooklyn for inclusion in a 22-acre mixed-use development project known as the Atlantic Yards. The project includes a basketball arena for the New Jersey Nets and 16 commercial and residential high-rise towers.

The ESDC relied upon studies finding that the area was blighted and warranted condemnation for development. The Court noted that the removal of blight is a sanctioned predicate for the exercise of eminent domain and rejected the challenge to the blight findings, accepting as reliable the comprehensive studies supporting the ESDC's determinations.

The Court said it must defer to what is the legislature's prerogative and may intervene only where no reasonable basis exists, which was not the case in Goldstein. The dissent invited close scrutiny of blight findings, arguing that the courts give too much deference to the self-serving determinations of the ESDC.

Columbia University Expansion

Meanwhile, in Kaur v. NYS Urban Development Corp., the Appellate Division rejected as unconstitutional the ESDC's takings to assist Columbia University in building a satellite campus in the Manhattenville area of West Harlem. The court denounced the ESDC's blight determination as mere sophistry that was concocted years after Columbia developed its plans. Citing a conflict of interest, the Court chastised the ESDC for hiring Columbia's own planning consultant to conduct the blight study.

The Court declared that as a private, elite institution, Columbia could not claim a civic purpose to its expansion sufficient to meet the public use standards. That the University was the sole beneficiary of the project is reason alone to invalidate the taking, the Court wrote, especially because the alleged public benefit is incrementally incidental to the private benefits of the project.

The State appealed and it remains to be seen how the Court of Appeals harmonizes the Appellate Division's aggressive Kaur approach with its own deferential Goldstein holding. The rights of property owners throughout the state hang in the balance.

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Michael R. Martone is the Managing Partner in the Mineola law firm of Koeppel Martone & Leistman, L.L.P., the New York State member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Michael Martone can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Michael Guerriero contributed to this column. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Jul
24

Is the Current Use the Highest & Best Use?

"Appraisers seem conditioned to accept the property's current status, and it is almost politically incorrect to challenge it..."

By Elliott B. Pollack, Esq., as published by Hotel News Resource - July 2010

The first step a real estate appraiser must take before valuing a property is to identify its highest and best use (HBU). Indeed, it is a truism that everything in an appraisal flows from this determination.

HBU is "the reasonable, probable and legal use of vacant land or improved property, which is physically possible, appropriately supported, financially feasible and that results in the highest value." That being said, appraisers rarely conclude that the HBU of a property is different from the current use. Why? Appraisers seem conditioned to accept the property's current status, and it is almost politically incorrect to challenge it. Moreover, the fee structure under which many appraisers function discourages them from taking on this often expansive mission.

Nevertheless, the horrible economic conditions of the last two-plus years have severely undermined the viability of many hospitality properties. As more operations become marginal, appraisers should question whether the profitable years of a particular hotel may be in its past. This is true even if it wouldn't make sense to immediately demolish and construct some other use, or to simply turn the property into a parking lot.

Take the case of a tired, decades-old, un-flagged property that suffers from deferred maintenance. Is it reasonable to conclude that a buyer, or even the current owner, would make the necessary investment to prolong its life much longer? If not, then the appraiser should consider whether the amount of physical, functional and economic obsolescence inherent in the property has numbered its days. Even though operations may continue for another few years, given the lack of alternative uses presently, the effect on appraised value is the same.

With properties struggling to remain viable, the appraiser should research whether or not current hospitality HBU will likely come to an end in the foreseeable future. If that outcome is likely, the appraiser should consider developing a discounted cash flow that incorporates demolition costs and future revenues as a surface parking lot or some other improved use. If similar properties in the area have been demolished or converted to alternate uses, such as housing for senior citizens, then support for a new HBU becomes even stronger.

The appraiser who fails to grapple with the sort of fact pattern set forth above will be doing his client a disservice, and may generate an excessive valuation and an unduly heavy ad valorem tax burden for her client.

Pollack_Headshot150pxElliott B. Pollack is chair of the Property Valuation Department of the Connecticut law firm Pullman & Comley, LLC. The firm is the Connecticut member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Jun
24

Get Real About Tax Assessments

Get Real About Tax Assessments

"A property's chain affiliation may affect its assessed value for property-tax purposes..."

By Stephen H. Paul, Esq., as published by Scotsman Guide, June 2010

Imagine this scenario: Two hotels in the same city are of similar age, size and construction quality. Both are located in popular areas with convenient access to sites attractive to overnight travelers. They're nearly indistinguishable — hotel guests would enjoy comparably satisfying overnight stays. But one hotel's assessed value for property-tax purposes is materially greater than the other. Why the difference?

There is a good chance that the hotel with the higher assessment operates under the flag of a recognized hotel chain and the other does not.

Should the flagged property's owner face the penalty of a higher tax bill because of the flag? Uniform appraisal standards and various state-tax authorities say that it should not. After all, tangible real property is assessed, not intangible personal property.

Moreover, in the past 10 to 12 years, several courts have handed down opinions that intangible value, such as that springing from a flagged hotel's identity, must be excluded from the real property's value. But including intangible value in the real-property assessment of properties such as flagged hotels remains an important and ongoing local property-tax issue across the country.

Other property types — such as restaurants, shopping malls, theaters, racetracks and casinos — also are affected by this issue. Property-owners and others concerned about their taxable values — e.g., potential buyers, their mortgage brokers, real estate agents and lenders — must be aware of this. Owners and buyers should be prepared to challenge assessments, and brokers should understand how to assure that these properties' tax valuations are performed correctly.

Property assessors and appraisers refer to the intangible value in varying fashions. They may talk about "business enterprise value," "going concern value" or "capitalized economic profit." But the basic concept is the same: It refers to including the intangible assets and rights that make the taxable property usable in the value. It is the value associated with the business operation, rather than the property itself.

There are three generally accepted approaches to valuing real property: the cost approach, the sales-comparison approach and the income-capitalization approach.

Regardless of the method used, assessors should be identifying and excluding all value outside of the real estate itself from the real property's value. How an assessment limits the property's valuation to the real estate's taxable value varies by approach.

The cost approach

Because this approach focuses on costs of land and improvements, it might appear unlikely that added value associated with the property's economic activity could embellish the assessment. Assessors must pay close attention to functional and economic obsolescence that may reduce the property's cost value, however. Functional obsolescence is the loss in a property's utility resulting from distinctive floor plans, site designs, or difficulty of upgrading or modifying property for a particular use, among other things.

Flagged or chain properties often are constructed according to designs specific to the chain. They also often have logos and other items that can hurt the real property's value because of the costs of modifying the property for other uses.

Economic obsolescence occurs because of external factors. For chain hotels, restaurants and other businesses, property-value reductions often come from market-demand changes because of a recession, changes in the public's tastes and market saturation with similar chain businesses.

Owners of chain-business properties more frequently cannot sell or lease property for as much as the tax-assessed value based on cost. Functional and economic obsolescence can factor into this.

An appraiser should identify and quantify the obsolescence and exclude it from the property's value. Failing to reduce the assessment for obsolescence may result in assessing the property too high because of characteristics attributable to the chain venture.

Sales-comparison approach

With this approach, appraisers analyze recent sales of comparable properties to determine the subject property's value. They adjust the comparable sales to quantify differences between the sold properties and the subject property. An appraisal used for real estate tax purposes should identify the intangible values reflected in the comparable properties' sales prices and eliminate them from the sales.

If sales of vacant properties, properties of non-chain-business enterprises, or sales of chain or flagged properties to non-chain operators who drop the chain affiliation are available, the sales approach should be used to avoid overstatement of value that otherwise might result.

Essentially, appraisers should use sales of comparable properties, sans the flagged or chain business, to arrive at a value.

The income approach

This approach aims to determine the property value by capitalizing the annual net operating income. For real estate assessment purposes, the income considered must come from the real estate only and not from the business interest occupying the property.

Thus, the income attributable to the property's intangible component — as well as to the tangible personal property — must be identified and extracted to arrive at a value. This can be difficult, but it is necessary if an appraisal relies on the income approach.

An appraiser might identify and analyze the comparable properties' incomes to develop a market value. As with the sales approach, in developing a model to determine market value based on income, the appraiser should select non-chain properties to avoid contaminating the data with associated intangible value and should reconcile income and expense items to account for property differences.

Regardless of the approach, a flagged property's value must be scrutinized to eliminate intangible value. The cost approach must account for functional and economic obsolescence. The sales approach must avoid inclusion of going-concern value in comparable sales. And the income approach should not entail simply a capitalization of the net operating income of the business occupying the property without isolating and eliminating business-enterprise value.

Owners of flagged or chain properties must be aware of how intangible value can disrupt property values and must be prepared to challenge assessments. Potential buyers should scrutinize appraisals for overvaluation arising out of the inclusion of intangible value. Brokers and lenders should approach appraisals with equal scrutiny in evaluating the security for mortgages. If intangible value is included in a flagged hotel's assessment and the hotel later loses its chain affiliation, the loan's security would be compromised. Lenders can mitigate this risk by being aware of the issue and assuring that any intangible value is identified and eliminated in the property's initial valuation.

Appraisers of flagged properties have the difficult task of identifying and quantifying intangible value attributable to a business enterprise and distinguishing it from the real property value. With diligent prodding from parties interested in the property's appraisal, an incorrectly large assessment is avoidable.

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Stephen H. Paul is a partner in the Indianapolis law firm of Baker & Daniels LLP, the Indiana member of the American Property Tax Counsel. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
Mr. Paul thanks his colleague Fenton D. Strickland for his contributions to this article.

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Jun
24

New Appeal

Seeking Reassessment? Act Now, Tax Attorneys Warn

By Suzann D. Silverman as published by Commercial Property Executive, June 2010

With the Federal Reserve repeatedly calling attention to commercial real estate assets' decline in market value and reduced access to financing, taxing jurisdictions have shown greater openness of late to appeals for reduced property taxes. That trend has offered many owners some badly needed breathing room. But as municipalities themselves become more strapped for cash, winning tax appeals looks likely to become much more challenging.

The commercial property sector is a natural place for municipalities to look for revenue, noted Elliott B. Pollack, chairman of the property valuation department of Pullman & Comley L.L.C. and a director of the American Property Tax Counsel. After all, commercial properties already make up a large proportion of communities' tax bases, and most legislators would much rather hike taxes on a local office building than on their constituents.

Some states have enacted tax caps, according to Stephen Paul, a partner at Baker & Daniels L.L.P. and vice president of the Tax Counsel.

But those limits can be deceiving. In Indiana, where he practices, residents' taxes are limited to 1 percent of value, while apartments are capped at 2 percent and commercial property at 3 percent. The risk, Paul said, is that the greatest pressure to raise assessments will be on commercial properties, which have the highest ceiling by percentage.

And when property values do inevitably begin to climb, the raw tax liability will naturally rise with them.

Paul expects a surge in tax litigation to result, with local appeals becoming harder to win and a greater number reaching the state level.

Eventually, these cases will get a fair hearing, he believes, but that outcome may require a time-consuming, expensive effort by owners.

The steady erosion of municipal finances across the country presents an additional reason for concern, according to John E. Garippa, senior partner of Garippa Lotz & Giannuario and president of the Tax Counsel.

While bonding capacity should yield enough cash for municipalities to cover refunds, at least in theory, Garippa foresees potential for reductions in many municipalities' ability to bond. Legislation may also cause delays by extending the deadlines for municipalities to distribute tax refunds.

The predicted rise in interest rates is also likely to have an impact, he noted, driving cap rates up and asset values down. "That's why it's important for clients to be on top of this," he cautioned.

When it comes to property tax disputes, being on top of it means preparing in advance to appeal to ensure that deadlines are met, and then gathering the details necessary to persuade the court. While many property owners file appeals every year (most settle rather than try their luck in the backlogged courts), there are still a good number that do not, Garippa said. But with assessments based on the previous year's data, current assessments may not fully reflect the market downturn. That offers an opportunity to argue for an assessment decrease.

In New York City, for instance, the Real Property Income & Expense filings that the finance department required in 2009 were based on 2008 data, which did not reflect the full extent of the commercial real estate market crash that occurred at year-end 2008, explained Joseph Giminaro, special counselor & co-manager of the tax certiorari department for Stroock & Stroock & Lavan L.L.P. It is too soon to evaluate how the tax commission will view updated data, but Glenn Newman, president of the commission, has indicated that he wants to see all data that shows the difficulties property owners are enduring. "I think it's very favorable that the tax commission is openly saying it wants to hear these stories," Giminaro observed.

That positive attitude seems common nationally. Tax certiorari attorneys, who specialize in tax appeals, are achieving some significant reductions.

In the hospitality arena, for example, "it is not unusual to see total assessments drop by more than a third," said Garippa, who represents some of the nation's largest hotel operators. Big-box stores saw a similar drop in the past year, he noted. Pollack, too, has seen significant decreases; he reports that appeals for hotel properties are typically garnering tax reductions of 20 to 40 percent. And while hotel and retail properties have been subject to the largest overassessments, owners of other property types can also mount successful appeals. Older industrial properties are another big area.

Taxing jurisdictions typically have based value largely on income capitalization and replacement value, not comparable sales, but one area that offers growing potential to strengthen appeals is brand value, since so-called intangible benefits are not taxable. Retail and hospitality properties are the categories whose brand value is most readily recognized by tax courts, according to Paul. Part of hotels' income is derived from the flag, and shopping centers typically count on big-name stores to attract customers.

Mall owners have brought branding to a new level in recent years with efforts for company name recognition among consumers. Office property owners are newer to this strategy and have had less success. However, that will come with time, Paul predicted.

In the meantime, with data now available on the softer market and municipal difficulties looming, "now's the time to take a tax appeal," Paul said.

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Stephen H. Paul is a partner in the Indianapolis law firm of Baker & Daniels LLP, the Indiana member of the American Property Tax Counsel. He can be reached at stephen.paul@bakerd. com

PollackElliottHeadshot
Elliott B. Pollack is chair of the Property Valuation Department of the Connecticut law firm Pullman & Comley, LLC. The firm is the Connecticut member of the American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Garippa
John E. Garippa is senior partner of the law firm of Garippa, Lotz & Giannuario with offices in Montclair and Philadelphia. Mr. Garippa is also president of the American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys, and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Jun
24

When Rent is Not Rent?

"Paying attention to what rent includes can result in lower tax bills..."

By Cris K. O'Neall , as published by Commercial Property Executive Blog - June 2010

Rental income has always been the touchstone for calculating real property values and is a key element in determining taxable value for ad valorem property taxes. Because it plays such a crucial role in the property tax valuation, paying attention to what rent includes can result in lower tax bills.

Rental income for properties such as multi-family residential is closely associated with real estate usage and is easily capitalized into an indication of taxable value. That is not the case, however, for properties used by service-oriented businesses, such as full-service hotels or stores in high-end retail malls. In those situations, the stream of income generated by the facility may represent both a return to the real property as well as to franchises, branding, or a trained and assembled workforce.

In most states, these non-realty rights and assets are not subject to property tax. If local tax assessors calculate assessments using income that includes a return on non-realty elements, the property owner will overpay property taxes.

Similarly, in those situations where landlords participate in their tenants' revenues through percentage rent, taxpayers should determine whether those rents represent a return solely to real property or if they also allow the landlord to share in profits that the tenant generates from customer services and branding. This situation frequently arises when private companies operate in government-owned facilities, such as public airports with privately run concessions.

So, what should investment property owners do? First, determine whether service-oriented businesses are operating in the property or whether percentage-rent arrangements are in effect. If either is the case, contact the local tax assessor and learn the basis for the property's tax valuation. If the assessed value is based on property income, the property tax may be based in part on non-taxable income. In that case, the property should receive a reduction in taxes.

CONeallCris K. O'Neall specializes in ad valorem property tax matters as a partner in the Los Angeles law firm of Cahill, Davis & O'Neall, LLP. His firm is the California member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Mr. O'Neall can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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May
24

Valuation Dispute Strategies - 4 Easy Pieces

"These steps enhance your chances for a successful appeal"

By Howard Donovan, as published by Commercial Property Executive Blog, May 2010

When it's tax appeal time, taking the right steps can be critical for winning an assessment dispute. Follow these four steps to make the best case.

  1. 1. Provide current and accurate property information. Review the assessor's property card at least annually and correct any errors. This is also an opportunity to determine if there is reason to dispute the valuation. Consider public records, appraiser credentials, and national cost or capitalization guides. Look for inaccurate information regarding land size or improvements, as well as inaccurate depreciation of improvements.
  2. 2. Make sure the proper party files the administrative protest. In most jurisdictions, only the owner or owner's agent can file a protest or appeal a decision of the administrative board. An agent's authorization by the current owner must be legal or dismissal may result. If there has been an ownership change during the year, determine whether the party filing the appeal is the owner as of the lien date, or as of the payment date. In some states, parties other than the owner can protest, such as tenants or mortgage holders.
  3. Make sure that submitted lease information supports the taxpayer's position as to fair market value. Almost every state requires the assessment of property at fair market value. Not every lease represents the market, however, or results in a proper value calculation.
  4. Make sure that all encumbrances, deed covenants and restrictions, environmental contamination or other impairments are considered in the fair market value determination. Any factor may be considered in determining fair market value, so consider the impact of the state of the property's title, such as easements, conditions and restrictions. Did the assessor compare the asset to similar properties, or to real estate with more profitable uses than those allowed on the taxpayer's property?

These steps enhance your chances for a successful appeal.

hdonovanHoward Donovan is a partner in the Birmingham, AL, law firm of Donovan Fingar, the Alabama member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Apr
24

The Appeal of Tax Appeals

"If there is one saving grace to this downturn, it's that hotel owners can reap big savings by combating their property taxes."

Interview with APTC Members, by Maria Wood - as published by Hotels Interactive - April 2010

The April 15 deadline for filing tax returns has passed. But for savvy hotel owners, an in-depth review—or possibly an appeal—of their property taxes could net a big refund.

As the lodging sector continues to bleed cash, more and more owners are pursuing property tax appeals to lessen what is typically one of a hotel's largest expense items. Yet while the reward in terms of a reduction can be great, the process is not easy, especially with many jurisdictions fighting to hang onto every last dollar of tax revenue during a lingering recession.

Hotel Interactive spoke to a trio of members of the American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), a national affiliation of attorneys that specialize in property tax appeals. All agree they are seeing more hotel owners fighting their property tax assessments.

"You are seeing significant drops in RevPAR, ADR and all the metrics that hoteliers look at," relates Mark S. Hutcheson, a partner at Popp, Gray & Hutcheson L.L.P. in Austin, TX. "That, combined with assessing communities seeking to maintain their tax base, means you are necessarily going to come to a head."

No income-producing property sector has escaped unscathed from the economic maelstrom. But hotels may have been hit hardest and therefore, owners are battling more aggressively now.

"What we are finding is that more hotel properties are actually litigating their values now than in the past," Hutcheson says. "The reason why is because hotels—of all the different property types—have probably experienced the greatest decline in value, which is directly related to their drops in revenue."

In fact, Fitch Ratings predicts that hotel property values may recede as much as 50% from their peak in 2007.

But just how do you value a hotel in a flat or declining market? The historical measurement of comparable property sales, which gives a snapshot of current cap rates, is of little value when few hotels are being sold these days. And to look back at sales completed at the height of the market distorts the present value of a lodging asset.

According to the APTC attorneys, there are myriad methods to value a hotel in a stagnant market, and they typically revolve around the all-important issue of what is an appropriate cap rate for a specific hotel in today's marketplace.

Stewart L. Mandell, a partner at Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn, L.L.P. in Detroit, says that he has used what is known as the income approach with great success in resolving valuation disputes between a taxpayer and a taxing authority.

According to Mandell, among the tools that use income and cash flows to determine a property's value are the direct capitalization and discounted cash flow methods.

In the direct capitalization method, a hotel's value is calculated by dividing the property's net operating income by an appropriate capitalization rate. In a discounted cash flow model, the net cash flow for each year during a given period is determined. Then, Mandell explains, the present value of each year's cash flow is added along with the current value of the property at the end of the period.

One point of contention between taxpayer and taxing jurisdiction is what revenue stream to use when valuing a property. According to Hutcheson, tax assessors may argue that 2009's poor showing was an aberration and that a property's stabilized income should be greater, more in the range of 2000-08 levels.

Conversely, taxpayers maintain that market conditions have changed dramatically for hotels and 2009 may end up being more of the norm than the peaks experienced in 2007 and 2008, Hutcheson says.

Due to the lack of meaningful sale transactions, Hutcheson's firm has recently applied the band of investment approach for determining cap rate. This formula usually yields hotel cap rates in the 10 to 12 percent range.

In that methodology, several factors are considered, such as the cost of debt and equity as well as what current loan-to-value ratios look like. However, Hutcheson points out that one of the disadvantages to the band of investment approach is the lack of market data for the equity dividend rate, or the return an investor would require on a down payment after debt services.

At the heart of that equation is whether a buyer thinks there is upside potential in a prospective acquisition.

"If, for example, the investor looks at a trailing 12-month income stream and thinks the property is going to do significantly better, then you'll end having a lower cap rate," Hutcheson says. "The same is true if the assessor for 2009 were looking at a trailing 12-month income stream over the last 12 months of 2008. There would probably be downside potential in that cap rate, because going forward there was an expected decline.

"What most taxpayers are having struggles with now is how to develop a cap rate when there aren't any transactions, when the surveys [of cap rates] have very large spreads between buyers and sellers and where it's very difficult to relate that cap rate to whether there is upside or downside potential in the income stream," Hutcheson continues.

As if that weren't enough to make valuing a hotel in today's environment more of a hair-pulling exercise, there is also the question of how to separate the worth of the tangible and intangible personal property from the actual value of the bricks and mortar.

Tangible and intangible personal property includes everything from a liquor license and the furnishings in a hotel to the estimated value of a management contract and brand affiliation.

"In some states, such as Michigan, personal property is taxed, so there is a calculation that the assessor comes up with in terms of valuing the personal property," Mandell says. "That one, at least in Michigan, can be pretty easily agreed upon by the parties. But sometimes in those valuation issues, the analysis needs to be pretty sophisticated to give you some confidence that it's given you a number in the ballpark."

In a down market, the issue of how to assess the business value of those tangible and intangible assets becomes particularly thorny, Hutchenson says. "The taxing jurisdictions will seek to allocate as much of the overall value as possible to the taxable value," he says. "Of course, the taxpayers or the hoteliers will seek to allocate [out] as much as possible to mitigate their tax liability."

In many instances, assessors use a cost approach to valuation by calculating the cost to build new and deducting physical depreciation, according to Mandell. A proper cost approach, however, requires also deducting any functional obsolescence (room types that are no longer desirable) and external obsolescence caused by the current economic downturn.

"Especially in a recessionary period, it's the economic obsolescence that causes so much of the loss in value," Mandell explains. "If you look across the board at all sorts of properties, it's the economy that has driven the property values lower. Here in Michigan, we have such properties under appeal, virtually brand new hotels. They are built exactly to be what the market wants today, yet they're performing poorly because of the economy. So if an assessor values that property based on what it costs, less a little bit of physical depreciation, that property is going to be egregiously overvalued."

So what can an owner do if he feels his property, as Mandell states, is egregiously overvalued? What can he expect to recoup if he decides to pursue an appeal? And how much of a pushback will he encounter from a taxing authority?

Much depends on the particular jurisdiction. Some will battle tooth and nail for every last dollar of tax revenue; others may be more open to negotiation.

"You are finding more taxing authorities challenging the appraisals to their assessments," Hutcheson says. "But by and large, most jurisdictions recognize that hotels have been hit hard. The issue is not that there is a decline, the issue is what the magnitude of that decline is. Most assessors and taxing units are obviously trying to hedge as much as possible to maintain their tax base. The issue boils down to negotiation."

For example, Hutcheson can present a cap rate of 11.5 percent using the band of investment approach based on a trailing 12-month income stream for a particular property. Meanwhile, the assessor might counter with a 9.5 percent cap rate, but based on a forecast.

Ultimately, settling on an agreeable value is more important than whatever method is used, Hutcheson finds.

Likewise, Kiernan Jennings, a partner with Siegel Siegel Johnson & Jennings Co. L.P.A. in Cleveland, says that a less adversarial stance may work best and get the taxpayer a resolution sooner. It's not uncommon for tax appeals to drag on for several years.

"When the taxing authorities are looking to hold onto their money longer because of their own circumstances, you need to find win/win solutions to the real estate tax problem," he says. "We've found that by working with the taxing jurisdiction we can come to a settlement that helps both the district and the taxpayer. You need to be creative and understand where [the taxing agencies] are coming from and vice versa. That speeds up the process."

In some instances, the taxing district may be willing to accept a lower assessment for tax purposes in future years in exchange for no break in payments due to a tax dispute. "By reducing the assessment for future years and possibly taking a credit on the reduction for the past year, you can help the tax district even out their budgetary constraints due to overall falling assessments," Jennings says. "If there is a wave of tax reductions coming, and you are able to get to a resolution sooner, you are actually helping the tax district."

Jennings estimates that a successful tax appeal can cut an owner's tax liability by at third of what it was several years earlier.

"If values have fallen by 30 percent and you were properly assessed previously, then you could expect you could reduce your taxes by about 30 percent," he maintains.

Mandell agrees owners can reap a hefty savings on their tax bills, but the exact percentage is hard to pin down.

"The vast majority of hotels that we are seeing need to be appealed because they are excessively taxed," he says. "But whether [the reduction] is 10, 20, 30 or even 50 percent, which we sometimes do see, it varies depending upon the profile of the property and in particular, the income."

Many hotel owners routinely review their property assessments. But all can benefit from hiring an appraiser or property tax attorney, even if the upfront cost is great. "In many jurisdictions, once you establish a value that value carries forward for future years," Hutcheson says. "So it could be the investment that keeps on giving if properly made now. And this is probably the best time to have a thorough, detailed analysis done simply because values are likely to be as low now as they have ever been, or at least over the past five or six years."

Since property tax laws vary from state to state, Mandell advises hiring an attorney that practices in the state where the hotel is located. Moreover, that attorney should be a skilled and experienced trial lawyer.

Equally as important as a skilled lawyer, an owner should find an appraiser who truly understands lodging real estate, Hutcheson adds.

But whatever assessment method is used or whomever the hotel owner hires as his attorney, undertaking, or at least considering, a tax appeal is simply good business.

"Especially these days, when everybody is very focused on the bottom line, it's imperative that people look at their property taxes," Mandell says. "To not appeal excessive property taxation is to throw money away. There is no difference. If you have a property that is excessively valued and excessively taxed, if a property owner doesn't appeal that, it's the same as throwing money away."

 

Hut_Man_Jenn

Stewart L. Mandell is a partner with the Detroit law firm of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, Michigan member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC). He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

J. Kieran Jennings is a partner with the Clevland law firm of Siegel Siegel Johnson & Jennings, Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Mark S. Hutcheson is a partner with the Austin law firm of Popp, Gray & Hutcheson, Texas member of the American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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