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Property Tax Resources

Mar
16

COVID-19's Heavy Toll on Property Values

Georgia taxpayers should start preparing arguments to lower their property tax assessments.

Few commercial properties emerged with unscathed values from the harsh economic climate of 2020. Yet Georgia and many jurisdictions like it valued commercial real estate for property taxation that year with a valuation date of Jan. 1, 2020 – nearly three months before COVID-19 thrust the U.S. economy into turmoil.

This means governments taxed commercial properties for all of 2020 on values that ignored the severe economic consequences those properties endured for more than 75% of the calendar year. When property owners begin to receive notices of 2021 assessments, which Georgia assessors typically mail out in April through June each year, property owners can at last seek to lighten their tax burden by arguing for reduced assessments.

The pandemic hurt some real estate types more than others, however, and with both short-term effects and some that may continue to depress asset values for years. For taxpayers contesting their assessments, the challenge will be to show the combination of COVID-19 consequences affecting their property, and the extent of resulting value losses.

The experiences of 2020 can serve as a roadmap for valuations in the current year and, in certain settings, in future years.

A three-pronged attack

COVID-19 can inflict a three-pronged assault on a commercial property's value, and taxpayers should explore each of these areas for evidence of loss as they build a case for a lower assessment.

Widespread losses. The first prong of the trident may be a drop in value stemming from an overall decline in the market. Like the Great Recession of 2008, the pandemic has reduced many property values by impeding economic performance in general.

Reduced income and cash flow, for example, can indicate reduced property value. Valuing the property with a market and income analysis approach can reveal this type of loss.

Reduced functionality. Is the property's layout or format less functional than models that occupiers came to prefer during the pandemic? In Georgia, functional impairments may have curable and incurable components beyond normal obsolescence. In other words, when changing occupier demand has rendered a property obsolete, there may be some features the owner can address to restore utility and increase value.

Adverse economic trends. Economic factors occurring outside the property can suppress property value. Georgia tax law recognizes that economic trends can reshape market demand and render some property models obsolete. This economic obsolescence can be short term while the economy is down or a permanent change.

Subsector considerations

Retail. Big-box stores, malls and inline shopping centers had already experienced a functional decline and an economic downturn, both of which accelerated as shopping habits changed during the pandemic. Big box properties were already becoming functionally obsolete as retailers reduced instore inventory requirements and shrank showrooms, which left little demand for the large-format buildings.

Moreover, outside economic factors such as declining instore sales, competition with ecommerce retailers, and high carrying costs have also undercut the value of these properties. The pandemic accelerated this decline, and it is unlikely there will be much, if any, recovery.

Hospitality. The pandemic has severely diminished travel and vacations, and hotel vacancies have skyrocketed. The income yield per room is declining. Operating costs have increased per visitor as amenities have been shut, curtailed or reconfigured. Many hotels have eliminated in-house dining and offer only room service.

The cost to maintain kitchen services is disproportionate to the number served. This decline is solely a product of COVID-19 and, over time, will revert to near normal. Some increased costs may remain elevated, such as extra cleaning supplies and labor to disinfect the property.

Office. COVID-19's effect on office buildings, especially high-rises, may be long-lasting. Fully leased buildings have seen less of a direct affect, but properties with significant unleased space are already hurting. Demand will diminish as more employees work remotely and companies consolidate with shared workspaces, motivated to reduce occupancy cost. This trend will produce both functional and economic effects on the value of office buildings.

Industrial. To a lesser extent, some manufacturing plants can suffer industry-specific economic consequences of COVID-19. Reduced travel has compelled airlines to reduce flights and sideline aircraft, reducing the demand for new and replacement aircraft. Less aircraft being built reduces the value of aircraft manufacturing plants, including the buildings that house them. Likewise, oil production, storage and consumption is down, due to reductions in leisure and business travel and commuting as more people work remotely. Excess capacity for drilling, storage and processing petroleum makes those facilities temporarily obsolete.

Multifamily residential. COVID-19 may have had little negative effect on multifamily complexes. During the pandemic, the supply of available housing on the market has contracted, driving up rents. As a result, apartments remain in high demand from renters and investors, although some areas may be overbuilt.

Despite high occupancy rates, properties may have non-paying or late-paying tenants. It would seem that yields per square foot may be higher, which would suggest increased property values for apartment complexes now. This is not always the case, however, and multifamily values must be considered individually.

Expect resistance

COVID-19 has also affected the mindset of taxing authorities, whose operating costs have remained the same or increased during the crisis. Taxing authorities will be reluctant to decrease tax revenue and will push back against property owners' arguments for reducing taxable values.

Just as individuals have taken personal health precautions against COVID-19, property owners must take precautions to protect the financial health of their properties from the virus' detrimental effects. All commercial property owners in Georgia should carefully examine assessment notices. Wise owners should strongly consider consulting with property tax experts to determine whether to file an appeal.

Lisa Stuckey
Brian Morrissey
Brian J. Morrissey and Lisa Stuckey are partners in the Atlanta law firm of Ragsdale Beals Seigler Patterson & Gray LLP, the Georgia member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Feb
12

Atlanta: Undue Assessments May Be Coming

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

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

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

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

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

Know the assessment process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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