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Property Tax Resources

Nov
14

How Operators Can Reduce Hotel Property Tax Bills

When the early pandemic sent hotel occupancies plummeting and uncertainty soaring, it also created clear opportunities for many hotel operators to reduce property tax bills by appealing their assessments.

Today, however, it can be difficult to know whether appealing an assessment still makes sense. Record selling prices are being reported on a macro level despite increasing interest rates, rapid inflation and ongoing unpredictability in many markets. This gives taxpayers a potentially confusing array of mixed messages affecting valuation.

Hotel operators should heed the real estate adage that "all properties are unique," a saying that certainly rings true in the current hospitality market. To really understand hotel values, it has become essential to delve into what drives demand at each property.

Value Judgments

I recently heard an appraiser sum up the hotel market recovery as follows: "At the beginning of the pandemic, we thought it was going to take five years [for hotels to recover], but it turned out it was more like two to three," he said. "And if a property isn't recovering by now, then it's probably not going to."

This was, admittedly, an oversimplification, but it seems to reflect the reality in many places.

Laurel Keller, an EVP at of Newmark Valuation & Advisory's gaming and leisure division, observed that the recovery has been uneven across different markets and hotel types. "I've seen a range of recoveries, from midscale hotels that recorded their best top-line revenue and profit margins ever last year, to full-service hotels still performing at levels below pre-pandemic," Keller said. "In most instances, average rate growth has been substantial over the past 18-plus months, though occupancy recovery has been slower."

So, how can an owner or operator know if their hotel is fairly assessed?

For property tax purposes, most states recognize that hospitality properties are operating businesses (also called going concerns) of which real estate is only one value component. The other components are the furniture, fixtures and equipment, and the intangible business value.

To reduce property taxes, an owner must challenge the assessor's property value assessment, and that value pertains only to the real estate component. Failing to prove the proper allocation of overall value among the going concern components can result in an owner paying taxes on non-taxable property.

Two Approaches

There is widespread agreement that a lodging operation carries a business value that must be separated from the real estate to determine taxable property value. However, for the past two decades there has been debate about how to tease out those separate values. This ongoing discussion is dominated by two generally accepted valuation methods. The more conservative of the two assumes that the removal of management and franchise fees from the income stream offsets the hotel's business value. That approach gained favor in many jurisdictions in the early 2000s for its straightforward and simplistic nature.

Several prominent court decisions in recent years have endorsed a more robust analysis, however, to ensure that all non-taxable assets are removed from the real estate assessment. This more detailed approach considers the values associated with intangible items such as a trained workforce, reservation systems and brand goodwill.

One expert witness recently described post-pandemic hotel analysis as "granular," and noted that seemingly minor differences between properties have become more important than ever. As an example, he pointed to two properties in his market with the same flag which would have been considered comparable three years ago, but subtle differences in their locations relative to office submarkets, sporting facilities, and hospitals could now make a big difference in performance and valuation. Despite appearing similar on the surface, each property has unique demand factors.

In a similar vein, an owner of hotels throughout the United States used the term "hyperlocal" to describe property performance in 2022. As an example, the owner cited two upscale hotels about a mile apart from each other in the same submarket, just outside of a large metropolitan area. Pre-pandemic performance at both properties was similar and relatively predictable. Today, the property slightly closer to the airport is thriving while the other struggles to get back to 2019 performance levels.

It also can be difficult to make sense of the news around recent acquisitions. Even as billions of dollars are pouring into the extended-stay sector nationwide, owners in some markets are looking to convert their extended-stay properties to apartments. Similarly, 2022 has seen significant investment in hotels along interstate highways despite indications that occupancy may be starting to decline in that subsector.

"Pandemic recovery has varied widely from property to property and market to market and been far more protracted for some hotel assets," Keller said. "More surprisingly, we are now seeing performance decreases at some hotels that experienced a surge in leisure-oriented travel last year. So, the recovery is ongoing, and perceived rapid recovery at some hotels may have been slightly misleading."

Perhaps the key takeaway from all this is that the reported "recovery" in the industry doesn't equate to a recovery for every hotel.

Just as all properties are unique, all taxing jurisdictions have their own rules and idiosyncrasies. Understanding the intersection between accepted appraisal practices and a jurisdiction's particular laws around the assessment of going concern properties is essential to ascertaining whether a particular hotel is fairly assessed.

Operators seeking assistance in evaluating their property tax assessments should lean toward qualified appraisers and tax counsel with local knowledge, which can help identify opportunities to right-size taxes and articulate the narrative behind each property in question.

Brendan Kelly is a partner in the Pittsburgh office of law firm Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, the Ohio, Illinois and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Nov
16

Tax Pitfalls, Opportunities in Pittsburgh

Here's what investors should know before buying or developing in the Steel City.

Over the past decade, Pittsburgh has been named the most livable city in the continental U.S., a hipster haven, a tech hub and other trendy titles. Publications laud the city's affordable housing stock in a stable real estate market, access to the arts in an established cultural community, and world-class healthcare and higher education that place the Steel City at the forefront of medicine and robotics.

This attention has drawn real estate investors to submarkets well beyond downtown Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle. Even in the midst of the pandemic and the economic uncertainty that has come with it, a surprising amount of new development has continued in the region.As investors from outside the region consider investing in this real estate market, they should be aware of idiosyncrasies and pitfalls lurking in Pennsylvania tax law.

Welcome, Stranger

As in most states, assessors in Pennsylvania cannot independently change a property's assessment upon its transfer. However, Pennsylvania lets local taxing districts appeal assessments and request value increases, which they often do following a sale. Locals call this the "welcome stranger" tax.

"One of the most common reactions I hear from our out-of-state clients who are new to this market is disbelief that school districts can appeal assessments," says Sharon F. DiPaolo, Esq., the managing partner of Siegel Jennings' Pennsylvania property tax practice. "Of course, in most states that's called a spot assessment, but in Pennsylvania it's just another appeal."

In fact, local school districts (which take the largest piece of the property tax pie) filed more assessment appeals than property owners in 2017-2019, according to The Allegheny Institute for Public Policy data. "The most difficult part for buyers is accurately estimating what is obviously a large part of a property's value equation," DiPaolo explains. "Buyers can budget for the legal costs of defending against an appeal by the government, but it's much harder to underwrite the real estate taxes when they can't know where the assessment will eventually be set. We have seen many investors choose not to enter this market because of the uncertainty."

Allegheny County in particular is unusual in that it has a March 31 assessment appeal deadline, and Pennsylvania uses the filing date as the effective date of value for assessment appeals.This means that properties already under appeal for 2020 should be valued as affected by the early fallout from COVID-19, and 2021 appeals will have to consider the pandemic's continuing impacts on property values.

Understanding the local legal landscape can help investors budget for potential risks, and thoughtfully structuring a deal can sometimes help reduce that risk. For instance, when appropriate, transferring a property's holding company rather than the property itself can avoid triggering an increase appeal.

Further, properly allocating a purchase price—either among multiple properties in a portfolio or among the different components of a going concern—can avoid misinterpretation of deeds and transfer tax statements by local taxing authorities. This also ensures Pittsburgh's 5% transfer tax is applied to the real estate only.

Net lease investors should also be aware that, while many states can be described as "fee simple" or "leased fee" jurisdictions, Pennsylvania is unique in that, in practice, its courts will usually tax a leased property according to whichever of those values yields greater taxes. Through a series of cases over 15 years, Pennsylvania's appellate courts have struggled to base a property's taxation on its "economic reality."

Currently, a property achieving above-market rent is assessed according to its leased fee value (which will be greater than the fee simple value), while a property with below-market rent will be taxed at its fee simple value (which will be greater than its leased fee value). Under this system, two physically identical properties within the same taxing district can be assessed at wildly different values.

Neighborhood Discrepancies

Anthony Barna, senior managing director of Integra Realty Resources Pittsburgh, cautions investors to vet property specifics. "People keep saying,'Pittsburgh's hot,' but it's not the whole region," he says. "It's not even the whole city."

While office vacancy in the CBD had reached a 10-year high even before the onset of the pandemic, some nearby neighborhoods including Oakland and the Strip District can barely satisfy demand. Similarly, new apartments in popular neighborhoods like Lawrenceville are stabilizing quickly at record rental rates, yet rents and occupancies in other neighborhoods remain flat.

"The lack of a significant population increase in the city, coupled with the large number of new residential units coming online, threatens the economic balance and risks an oversupply," Barna observes.

Even more fundamentally, Barna says "a lot of our neighborhoods don't yet have the infrastructure to actually support what someone might want to build." In fact, Amazon cited infrastructure concerns as a major factor in its decision to drop Pittsburgh as a final contender in its HQ2 search.

Similarly, developers should investigate available tax breaks, which vary by location. Frequently these come in the form of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) or Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance (LERTA). In 2019, Pittsburgh opened all neighborhoods to potential tax benefits for new developments that meet certain employment or affordability requirements.

Tammy Ribar, Esq., Director at Houston Harbaugh who concentrates her law practice in commercial real estate transactions, advises that additional opportunities are available through various government bodies and can entail program-specific deadlines. "I think the best advice I can give to buyers is to research and understand in advance what programs are available and be informed about applicable deadlines, so that a relatively easy opportunity for savings is not missed," says Ribar.

Based on the recent pace of construction throughout the city, many investors have clearly decided that Pittsburgh's anticipated rewards outweigh its risks. And as many have learned, working with knowledgeable locals during planning can help to avoid headaches – and create significant savings later.

Brendan Kelly is an attorney in the Pittsburgh office of Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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