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Property Tax Resources

Jul
23

Head: Ohio’s Misguided Tax Fix

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

By Cecilia Hyun, Esq.

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

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

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

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

What's the problem?

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

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

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

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

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

A multilayered dilemma

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

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

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

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

The solution exists

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

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

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

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

Cecilia Hyun is a partner at the law firm Siegel Jennings Co. L.P.A., which has offices in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. The firm is the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
Dec
30

Time for your Annual Property Tax Check

Question: What do the following have in common? A developer of a new mixed-use power center. The owner-operator of nursing homes or assisted living facilities. A national retailer with a large distribution center. A 100+ unit multifamily owner or manager. The owner of hotel chain. A high-tech manufacturer with a research and development facility. Answer: They all pay property taxes.

Whether you are a real estate investor or need real estate to house and facilitate your business operation, your real estate taxes will be one of your highest expenses, and one that you must pay even if your property is vacant or underperforming. Now is the time for your yearly check-up on your Ohio properties to determine whether the values that form the basis of your property taxes are fair.

Review your assessment

Start by reviewing the assessment on your tax bills. In Ohio, your tax valuation should reflect a reasonable sale price under typical market circumstances for the land and improvements as of the tax lien date of January 1, 2017. Verify that the information in the county records is accurate. For many Ohio counties, including Cuyahoga, much of this information will be online. Double-check building size, land size, year built, number of stories, etc.

Grounds for a change in value

The following are the most common types of evidence considered by boards of revision, which is the initial reviewing body:

Sale

One way to demonstrate value is with a recent, arm's length sale price. Generally, if a sale occurred within two years of tax lien date, did not include any non-real estate items, and was typically motivated, the price will be good evidence of the real estate value for tax purposes.

Appraisal

An appraisal can also be used to justify a change in value. Appraisal done for tax appeals must value the property as of the tax lien date. The appraiser should also be ready to testify at the hearing. Appraisals for tax appeals may have requirements that are not necessarily present for appraisals for other purposes, such as financing, so it is helpful to talk to someone familiar with the process.

Property Conditions

If there are unusual conditions, severe deferred maintenance, sudden changes in occupancy, or ongoing vacancy issues that affect the value of your real estate, that information should be brought to the attention of the board. Recent sales of properties similar to yours that support a lower value for your property may also help demonstrate that your valuation is incorrect.

Filing Deadline

The deadline to contest your assessment for properties in all Ohio counties is March 31. Because it falls on a Saturday in 2018, the deadline will be extended to April 2. The complaint form can be obtained from the county in which the property is located. The form is only one page; however, there are restrictions on who can file a complaint (i.e. what relationship they have to the property) as well as some technical requirements that may be missed by those unfamiliar with them. Generally, only one complaint can be filed per triennial period, although there are some exceptions.Once the deadline has passed for a particular tax year, the chance to contest that assessment is lost.

Procedure

After your complaint is filed, the local school district where the property is located has the opportunity to file a counter-complaint. After the period to file both complaints and counter-complaints has expired, the county board of revision will schedule a hearing. Each county board has its own rules regarding the submittal of evidence, requests for continuances, etc. At the board of revision hearing you will have the opportunity to explain why the assessment of your property is inaccurate. Boards of revision are not generally bound by the Ohio Rules of Evidence; boards are also empowered to conduct their own research. The board of revision may adopt the value you are seeking; it may make no change, or grant you are partial decrease. It may even increase the value, so it is important to consider carefully before filing a complaint.

Appealing the BOR decision

If you do not agree with the decision of the board of revision (BOR), you can appeal it to the county court of common pleas, or the Board of Tax Appeals (BTA) in Columbus. The BTA is an administrative tribunal that only hears tax related cases. Proceedings at this level are more formal than at the board of revision. Prior to September 29 of this year, a decision of the BTA could be directly appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court. Now any appeals from the Board of Tax Appeals and courts of appeals to the Ohio Supreme Court are discretionary and not as of right. The Supreme Court can decide not to hear your case. It is unclear yet the consequences of this recent legislative change, but there may be an increase in disparate treatment across the state as a result.

School district increase complaints

All Ohio taxpayers should be aware that Ohio is one of the few states (Pennsylvania is another) where school districts are enabled to file an action to get your tax valuation increased. Usually, this occurs when a recent purchase price is higher than the most recent tax assessment. Be aware of how the taxes will be prorated when you are working on a sale transaction. Depending on the timing of the sale, you may end up owing additional taxes for a period during which you did not actually own the property.

No one enjoys paying taxes, but with some research and preparation, you can make sure that your share of the real estate tax burden is fair.

Dec
13

Cecilia J. Hyun, Promoted To Partner Of Siegel Jennings

Siegel Jennings is pleased to announce that Cecilia J. Hyun has been promoted to Partner. Ms. Hyun has been an associate at the firm for the past ten years and represents taxpayers in all aspects of the property tax challenge process from local review boards through the Ohio Supreme Court, reviews and monitors property tax assessments, and counsels investors on tax implications of acquisition and disposition.

Ms. Hyun is the 2017 President of CREW Cleveland, a chapter of CREW Network, an organization of approximately 10,000 commercial real estate professionals of all disciplines located in 70+ major markets in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. She previously served as CREW Cleveland's Director of Communications and as the chapter's CREW Network Liaison. In the last 5 years, she has been recognized as CREW Cleveland's Member of the Year, received the chapter's Leadership Award, named after founding member Deborah Rocker Klausner, as well as the Member to Member Business Award.

Her articles on property tax issues have been published in the Heartland Real Estate Business, Properties Magazine, Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association Bar Journal, and the IPT Insider. Her article, "Big-box retail offers property tax lessons for industrial owners" published in the National Real Estate Investor is referenced in the IAAO Library Big-Box Retail Store Valuation Subject Guide.

Ms. Hyun, based in the firm's Cleveland office, received her B.A. from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and her J.D., magna cum laude, from the Cleveland Marshall College of Law. 

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Sep
11

Misnaming, Misusing The Dark Store Theory

What's in a name? Discussing valuation principles with concise language avoids misunderstanding.

Dark store theory is being used incorrectly to name what is standard, accepted, and proper appraisal practice. It is most often employed by news media to mistakenly suggest that big-box storeowners are taking advantage of a property tax loophole and arguing that a property should be valued as if it were vacant even when the store is open and operating.

While the words "dark store" evoke images of villainous or nefarious activity, assessors and taxpayers should see through this provocative language.

The phrase often confuses the fee simple (absolute ownership of the real estate subject only to governmental powers) market value of the real es­tate with other types of quantifiable value, such as investment or insurable value.

Investment value reflects value to a specific investor based on his own in­vestment requirements, while insur­able value reflects improvements or the portion of the property that may be destroyed.

Typically, property taxes should only be assessed on the real estate value. That's why it's important to differentiate property value for real estate tax assessment from other types of value.

What local law deems real estate value often is different from the property's value to a lender or investor. For example, an owner may include large manufacturing equipment as part of collateral for a mortgage.

This equipment may be valued along with the real estate in determin­ing a loan amount, and may even be included in a financing appraisal; yet the value of that equipment should not be taxed as real estate.

Although this careless and unsys­tematic misapplication of dark store theory concerns commercial real es­tate, we will use examples of single­family homes to illustrate its con­cepts.

Comparable sales valuation

In many jurisdictions, assessors value the land, building and improve­ments for real estate tax purposes. If using sales of comparable proper­ties to determine value, the assessor should examine exactly how much was paid, by whom, for what.

If the sale price of the compara­ble property includes value for an above-market lease, for unusually favorable financing terms, or for an above-average credit rated tenant, the assessor must adjust the sale price to reflect market conditions. The flip side is also true: a sales price based on below-market rent should also be adjusted.

Users of the "dark store theory" label often argue that a busy store deserves a higher real estate tax as­sessment because a large and sophis­ticated company is running a suc­cessful business there. But excluding business value from the real estate as­sessment doesn't mean that the prop­erty owner made ill-advised business decisions.

The adjustments recognize that the sale included additional sources of value or achieved valuable business objectives in addition to the exchange of real estate. The value of these items is separate, and must be excluded from the real estate value for tax pur­poses.

Consider this residential example: a buyer pays 20 percent more than the high end of the market range to buy the house next door to the buyer's brother. The two families have chil­dren of similar ages and expect to save money by carpooling and shar­ing child care and other expenses.

The buyer is acting in his own self­interest and values the proximity to the brother's household, and the ob­jectives the buyer will meet by living next door. That does not mean that the additional money the buyer paid for those considerations increases the value of the house itself to the typical buyer.

lf an appraiser uses this purchase price as a comparable sale to value a similar house across the street, the purchase price should be adjusted to reflect a more typical market partici­pant.

Similarly, any sales of comparable properties used to value big-box retail stores must be adjusted to exclude any value paid for items that are not real estate, whether they are an above­market-quality tenant, atypically long lease duration or other intangible property.

Income approach valuation

Two distinct and important issues get muddied by dark store adherents in valuations based on potential in­come generation.

The first is whether the properties are valued as if vacant, or as if occu­pied at market terms. Valuation as if occupied at market terms by a typi­cal market tenant does not include a landlord's lease-up time and costs, which are factors in the value of a va­cant property.

Secondly, there will generally be a correlation between better retail properties in better locations and the financial strength of the tenants in those properties and areas. Howev­er, the business success or failure of a specific tenant cannot be the basis of a real estate tax assessment if that tenant is not representative of the market.

Returning to the single-family world, houses in desirable areas with good schools, municipal servic­es and low crime rates are generally occupied by people with higher in­comes than homes in less-desirable areas.

However, that does not mean that the income of a specific resident deter­mines the value of the house that he or she occupies. If a brain surgeon and a retail cashier are next-door neighbors in similar houses, the values of the homes do not change.

If two similar retail stores are located in a similar area, but one is gener­ating extremely high store sales while the other is vacant because of a business decision to exit the local market, the value of the properties for real es­tate tax purposes should be the same.

Valuing property is always fact intensive, and the array of specifics dif­fers from situation to situation. There are no shortcuts to an accurate and fair tax assessment value. If the data used is bad and valuation process sloppy, the value conclusion will also be wrong. Consistent and rigorous analysis is vital.

Don't be fooled by labels

Proper appraisal methodology does not become nefarious just because it is erroneously called a "dark store loop­hole." A rose by another name would smell as sweet. Taxpayers need to pay attention when the term "dark store" is bandied about - it is often used to confuse important appraisal concepts and practices.

To be fair and uniform, property taxes must be assessed only against the real estate, and be based on accurate data reflecting typical market participants. Value related to the success of the retailer's business is captured by other taxes levied on income, sales or commercial activity.

To include those items as part of the property tax assessment is not closing a tax loophole; it amounts to double taxation.

Ignore incendiary language and apply appraisal methodology consistently and diligently to arrive at a fair value for real estate taxes.

Cecilia Hyun is an attorney at the law firm Siegel Jennings Co, L.P.A., which has offices in Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The firm is the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
Oct
18

Why Taxing Authorities are Suing Taxpayers

Municipalities and school districts increasingly file lawsuits to increase property tax assessments.

As property owners increasingly participate in transactions across multiple states and countries, they could be shocked to find themselves defending against a lawsuit filed to increase their real estate taxes.

A minority of states allow the local real estate tax assessing body or school district to appeal a tax assessment, arguing that the property's value and resulting taxes should be higher.  States where these types of appeals are allowed include Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  Property owners in those states should  be aware that someone may be filing a lawsuit to increase their property taxes.

Method to the madness

Taxpayers cannot prevent a school district or assessing body from appealing a property tax assessment in states that allow them to do so.  Property owners should be especially watchful in the following situations where it is more likely to occur:

Sales – In Ohio, if a recorded sales price is higher than the current assessment, it is almost guaranteed that the local school district will file a complaint to increase an assessment, particularly in large markets around urban areas.

School district attorneys routinely review recorded sales for comparison to the current assessment.  Although recent legislative changes have increased assessors' ability to consider all relevant facts of a sale, a recorded sales price is still a formidable challenge to overcome.

In Pennsylvania, and particularly in Western Pennsylvania, sales are the most common trigger for an appeal to increase a tax assessment.  In states where chasing sales price may run afoul of constitutional protections, the local taxing authority may wait until a few years after the sale closes before filing the appeal.

Mortgages – In response to lower sales prices and increased sales volume resulting from foreclosure or bankruptcy during the Great Recession, taxing bodies also file appeals to increase taxes based on recorded mortgages.

Similar to the tracking of recorded sales, attorneys for the taxing authority will review the amounts of recorded mortgages and compare them to the current assessment.

When the mortgages are secured by collateral that includes other assets in addition to the real estate, this practice can lead to inaccurate and inflated real estate tax assessments.

Other available filings – A recent case in Ohio shows the spread of this practice from recorded mortgages and deeds to Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings.

The local school district filed an appeal to increase the assessment of an apartment in Athens from approximately $12.6 million to $48.98 million, based on an SEC filing by a mortgage lender.

The property owner's attorney has stated that the SEC filing includes the total value of the business purchased, which includes other assets in addition to the real estate.

The local county board of revision granted the revision at the first level of review and the case is currently on appeal.

Outside consultants – In Pennsylvania, taxing authorities filing complaints to increase assessments are on the rise, particularly in counties that have riot undergone a reassessment in some time, based on the recommendations of outside consultants.

These consultants contract with a particular taxing body, typically the school district, to review assessments and recommend appeals on properties they identify as under assessed.

Although this consultant activity seems most prevalent in the eastern part of the state, the regular practice of school districts filing appeals is spreading across Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, in Ohio certain school districts have even begun to file complaints to increase values in cases that have previously been tried in court.

Practical pointers

Because sales trigger so many of these cases, it is important to get pre-closing advice on the property tax consequences affecting your specific property.  There may be measures the taxpayer can take in structuring the transaction to avoid or minimize an increase in taxes.

Be aware of the tax consequences of recorded and publicly available documents, including SEC filings, particularly with portfolio asset purchases across multiple states.

Filially, attorneys for the taxing body may use procedural tactics to fish for non-public documents that could help them argue that a property is under assessed.  For example, school districts in Ohio have used the discovery process to subpoena financing appraisals from lenders.

Local expertise is key

Because real estate taxing schemes vary greatly, owners should consult local tax professionals to determine the best strategy to defend against an appeal that seeks to increase the property owner's taxes, or to minimize the potential that such an appeal will be filed in the first place.

Procedural, jurisdictional and evidentiary traps abound for those not well-versed in the local law.

For example, in Ohio, property taxes are levied and paid one year behind, meaning that taxes for the 2016 tax year are paid in calendar year 2017.  Similarly, appeals to reduce or increase the tax assessment are filed one year behind.

If a taxpayer purchases a property and the sale closes on Dec. 31, 2016, for a recorded price that is higher than the current tax assessment, the school district will be aware of that sales price and can contest the 2016 assessment any time from Jan. 1 through March 2017.

If the school district appeals the assessment based on the sales price and is successful, the assessment will be increased to the sales price, effective at the beginning of the 2016 tax year.

That means the buyer could be on the hook for increased taxes for a period of time when he did not own the property.

Local taxing bodies have been filing appeals now more frequently to increase property tax assessments, attempting to generate revenue after property values and sales prices dropped during the economic downturn.

Even though the market has improved, these taxing authorities are unlikely to now abandon the practice.

Consult with professionals who have local experience to defend against these suits in order to maintain fair real estate assessments and taxes.

Cecilia Hyun 2015

Cecilia Hyun is an attorney at the law firm Siegel Jennings Co, L.P.A., which has offices in Cleveland and Pittsburgh.  The firm is the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Jun
26

Big-Box Retail Offers Property Tax Lessons for Industrial Owners

Taxing jurisdictions have struggled to properly value big-box retail buildings for many years, and the potential for improperly assessing the real estate value of these buildings remains high. Yet the ongoing dance between big-box owners and assessors provide useful insights for property owners in other commercial property types, particularly industrial.

A big box of confusion

Assessing the taxable value of a big-box retail property touches on many of the hot-button issues in property tax law. Some of the circumstances that often lead to incorrect tax assessments include development of big-box retail under build-to-suit arrangements, in which the tenant’s rent is a contractual repayment of the developer’s costs, rather than a market-rate rent. Big-box tenants are often creditworthy national companies under absolute net leases, valuable to a potential investor as a guaranteed income stream, but irrelevant to taxable value of the real estate.

The sale/leaseback transactions that big-box retailers often enter to free up capital for business operations, and the strong investor demand to buy buildings leased on a net basis to a single user that handles all property expenses, can all lead to incorrect tax assessments. Many assessors value the wrong interest, confused over whether to reflect investment value, leased-fee interest, fee simple interest, or value in use versus value in exchange.

The potential for improperly capturing non-taxable items in the property tax assessment is high. Often assessors and appraisers lack sufficient education about the nuances of valuing these types of properties. Depending on whether a tax assessor adopts the correct methodology, the difference in both value and tax liability can be significant. And for cash-strapped governmental entities, there is a strong inclination to try to capture as much taxable value as possible.

Implications beyond retail

Owners of non-retail property types shouldn’t dismiss these valuation issues as pertaining only to big-box retailers. Consider the potential for similar valuation errors with other single-tenant properties developed and exchanged in a similar way. A corporate headquarters building with “superadequacies” - or features only valuable to that particular tenant - is particularly vulnerable to overvaluation, for example.

In Ohio, the state tax appeal board recently dealt with that scenario, related to a large industrial building. The property was constructed to a national bank tenant’s unique specifications for its use as a data center, with gated entrances, impact-resistant windows, raised floors with subfloor cooling, battery backup rooms, and fire-suppression systems. The tenant had specific security needs based on its use, and had the building constructed to protect servers from weather events.

The two expert appraisers involved in the case concluded to drastically different overall values. One appraiser viewed the building as used for general office or warehouse space, and did not perform a cost -approach analysis because of the large degree of economic obsolescence related to a single-tenant industrial building used as an operations center.

The other appraiser posited that the building was unique, rather than tailored to the use of that particular tenant. That conclusion led the appraiser to use out-of-state sales for comparison in his analysis and to develop a cost approach. The resulting difference in the conclusions of value was $8.38 million, and the appeals board adopted the higher value.

According to the current appeal pending at the Ohio Supreme Court, more than half of the property was basic office and warehouse space; and the tenant only used a small portion of the remaining space for its specific purpose: a data center.

A recent Pennsylvania case involved a large, industrial, single-occupant, mixed-use property that consisted of an office building, a conference center, and a third building used for offices, research and development, and manufacturing, all constructed at different times. Again, the value conclusions and appraisal methodologies of the experts differed significantly.

Similar to the Ohio case, one appraiser viewed the property as a special-purpose facility with a limited market. Both appraisers developed cost and sales comparable approaches to value, but the appraiser who viewed the property as special-purpose put more weight into a cost-based conclusion, while the other put more weight on his sales-comparison approach.

Unlike the Ohio case, however, neither appraiser included the replacement costs of specific features that an entity replacing the facility would consider unnecessary, such as acoustic rooms, vibration floor slabs, special piping and chilling equipment.

As in assessments of big-box properties, this divergence in appraisal methodology and the definitions of the interest to be valued led to significant gulfs in the final tax assessments. Assessors are more likely to value properties deemed to be special-purpose with primary reliance on the cost approach, with its inherent difficulties in accurately measuring all forms of depreciation and obsolescence, both functional and economic.

Traditionally, appraisers applied this special-purpose classification to properties that did not readily transfer in the open market-houses of worship, sports arenas, schools. Additionally, primary reliance on the cost approach lacks the built-in market “check” that is present when using data from actual sales and rent transactions that have occurred in the marketplace. Even if not considered as special use, improvements only valuable to the current user can be improperly included in the assessment. Rather, the assessor should measure the value-in-exchange, and avoid cherry picking data for comparables.

Avoid complacency in industrial

The U.S. industrial real estate market is booming, with Los Angeles and the Inland Empire standing out as particularly hot markets, according to Diana Golob, managing director at Hanna Commercial Real Estate in Cleveland, Ohio, who represents both U.S. and European multinational firms. Speculative development has even started to reappear in multiple markets.

Do not let the good news of a thriving market create a blind spot when it comes to reviewing property tax assessments.

In the retail context, jurisdictions are still identifying the correct interest to be valued for real estate tax purposes, and the best appraisal methods to do so. Courts, legislatures, tax assessors and independent appraisers are all grappling with these nuanced issues.

It appears that owners of single-tenant, net-leased or owner-occupied industrial properties will be dealing with similar assessment issues. The applicable assessment law is in flux and sometimes is the polar opposite from one jurisdiction to the next.

It is vital to consult with professionals, familiar with both the legal and appraisal complexities of the jurisdiction, to determine whether a property tax assessment is fair. With a few changes, an expression from psychologist Abraham Maslow is appropriate here: Do not view every assessment challenge as a nail because you only have a hammer in your belt; make sure you have the right tool - for the right assessment approach - for the job.

Cecilia Hyun 2015

Cecilia Hyun is an associate attorney at the law firm Siegel Jennings  Co, L.P.A., which has offices in Cleveland and Pittsburgh.  The firm is the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Mar
06

Tax Equation: Know When Your Property Tax Assessment Is Excessive

Restaurant owners and operators manage a long list of expenses, but one cost item that may offer significant savings– real estate taxes – often goes overlooked.  Even if the restaurant leases its space, it may have the right under the lease to protest tax assessments.

Restaurateurs often look at property tax as a fixed expense, one that warrants little attention unless there is a drastic change from one year to the next.  But failure to examine a property tax assessment may mean the taxpayer is leaving money on the table.

For example, the owner of a free-standing restaurant assessed at $1 million files a protest and convinces tax authorities to lower the assessment to $800,000.  Using a local tax rate of 2.5%, the lower assessed value would equal $5,000 per year in savings.  In some areas the tax rate may be significantly higher, meaning greater savings.  Depending on the jurisdiction, that savings could continue for years.

HOW TO REVIEW ASSESSMENTS
What is an assessor attempting to measure in an assessment, and what constitutes a bad assessment?  Procedures vary from state to state, but in most places property taxes are based on the fair market value of the property as determined by the local assessor.  The market value is typically considered to be the price that the property would sell for in an open-market, arm's length sale as of the assessment date.

There are a number of reasons why some assessments miss the mark in attempting to establish a fair taxable value.  Many initial assessments are done by mass appraisal firms on a city- or county-wide scale, without much consideration for the individual situation of a particular property.  Assessors also may have inaccurate data on a given restaurant building, such as incorrect square footage or age, or amenities that do not actually exist.

An assessment may be unfairly high because it is based on a sale that occurred in a better market, or because it reflects costs to construct the building but lacks appropriate deductions for depreciation.  An assessment may also reflect a lease with an above-market rental rate negotiated in different market conditions, or negotiated many years prior to the assessment date.

Given so many opportunities for error, it's a good idea to review each assessment.  The first thing to check is the factual data the assessor used in the determination of value, including building area, acreage, year built, type of building and finish and amenities.  Experienced legal counsel can help with these points and proceed with a more technical review of the assessment to determine whether or not to protest the assessed value.

HOW TO PROTEST
Appeal deadlines vary from state to state.  Some states have an annual filing deadline, such as Ohio, where the deadline is March 31.  Other states allow a certain amount of time – for example, 30 days –from the mailing of the assessment notice or tax bill.

Some jurisdictions have informal procedures prior to filing the formal appeal, where it is possible to meet with the assessor and share information.  In some cases, providing the assessor or reviewing body with income and expense information or comparable sales data will be enough to get the assessment corrected.  Other cases will require a formal appraisal prepared by an independent appraiser.  Appraisals done for tax purposes are unique and in most instances will require testimony from the appraiser.

In many jurisdictions, there is no filing fee for the initial appeal, while others may charge a modest filing fee in the neighborhood of $100.  If the state requires a formal appraisal, that can cost $2,500 or more, de-pending on the property type and complexities of the case.  Legal fees also vary, but property tax attorneys often work on a contingency basis where there is no charge for the initial review of the assessment.

Because valuation methods and appeal procedures differ greatly, not just from state to state but even within states, it is helpful to have an experienced tax professional assist in reviewing the assessment and in taking any necessary steps to correct it.  Knowledge of the local law, appeal procedures, personalities, and appraisers are invaluable in successfully lowering tax liability.

Real estate taxes needn't be a fixed expense that is entirely out of the taxpayer's control.  Review property tax assessments carefully for possible tax savings that could even increase the bottom line.

Cecilia Hyun 2015

Cecilia Hyun is an associate attorney at the law firm Siegel Jennings  Co, L.P.A., which has offices in Cleveland and Pittsburgh.  The firm is the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Oct
31

Low Income Housing Valuation

Valuation of Low Income Housing Tax Credit Properties for Real Estate Tax Purposes — an update from the Ohio Supreme Court

By Cecilia Hyun, Esq., as published by CMBA Journal, October 2009

There is a joke that made the rounds by email and on various real estate blogs awhile ago showing a house through the eyes of five different people: yourself, your buyer, your lender, your appraiser, and your tax assessor. (You can see a version of it here). The first image is of a nice, well kept, single family house with flowers, a nicely landscaped front yard and path. This is how you see your house. The next image shows what your potential buyer sees when looking at the same property: a smaller, more modest home resembling a modern log cabin. The next two images show how your lender and appraiser view the property. The lender sees an even smaller structure, with no lot to speak of, that looks like it was constructed piecemeal. Tarp covers part of the roof; the only thing that looks like it may be a window is boarded up, and there is laundry hanging from a clothesline out back. The appraiser sees a property that looks like it has been in the middle of a severe storm at the very least, if not a hurricane, parts of the walls are missing, there is flooding, and trees have been uprooted. The final picture depicts what your tax assessor sees when he looks at your house: a palatial, walled estate, with acres of land, surrounded by professionally landscaped gardens and trees, multiple wings, and at least one carriage or recreation house.

Like all good jokes, it contains a kernel of truth: property can be and is viewed through different prisms and within different frameworks. Different methods of valuing your property can lead to significant differences in value conclusions, and accordingly, your real estate tax bill.

The Ohio Supreme Court recently clarified how to value property constructed pursuant to federal low income housing tax credits ("LIHTC")1. The property in Woda consisted of sixty separate parcels of land improved with sixty detached, single family, homes containing two, three, or four bedrooms. The houses were built in 2002 pursuant to Section 42, Title 26 of the United States Code2 ("IRC 42"). As the court explains, under this program, federal tax credits are given to passive investors in low income housing developments. In return for these credits, rent restrictions are imposed on the property for a minimum of thirty years. These rent restrictions are binding on successive owners and must be recorded in the chain of title. Violations of these restrictions can lead to the recapture of the tax credits with penalties and interest.3 The Supreme Court held the use and rent restrictions are encumbrances that must be considered when valuing these types of properties for real estate tax purposes.

The owner-taxpayer of the low income housing property in Woda filed a complaint contesting the value the Fayette County Auditor placed on the property for tax year 2004. After a hearing at the local county board of revision ("BOR"), the Auditor's value was retained. The taxpayer then filed an appeal of the BOR decision to the Ohio Board of Tax Appeals ("BTA") located in Columbus.4 The BTA held that the taxpayer's evidence was unpersuasive and determined that the Auditor's value was correct.5 After reconsideration by the BTA, but no change in its decision, the taxpayer appealed the BTA decision to the Ohio Supreme Court.

At the BTA hearing, the taxpayer had offered the report and testimony of a state certified general real estate appraiser. The appraiser did not develop a cost approach or sales comparison approach to value, using only the income approach to determine value. (The Ohio Adm. Code Section 5703-25-07 outlines the three recognized approaches to value: 1) the market data or sales comparison approach, 2) the income approach, and 3) the cost approach). In the income approach, the appraiser developed a net operating income for the property, then directly capitalized that income to arrive at an overall value. He also developed a discounted cash flow analysis as if the units could be subdivided and sold to individual buyers (similar to an apartment conversion to condominium units) to serve as a check on the direct capitalization method.

The BTA rejected the appraiser's evidence based on the two main reasons: 1) the Board thought that the highest and best use of the property was for sale as individual units, rather than for continued use as rentals operated as one economic unit; and, 2) the cost approach was not utilized even though the subject property was relatively new, only having been constructed two years before tax lien date.

The Supreme Court reverses and remands the case to the BTA, holding that the effect of the LIHTC use restrictions must be considered when valuing the subject property. In past cases involving subsidized housing, the court had generally held that the properties were to be valued as if unencumbered by lesser estates, deed restrictions, or restrictive contracts with the government.6 Similar to the Woda property, the Alliance Court noted that without the federal loan guarantees, favorable mortgage terms, rent subsidies, and tax advantages associated with these properties, the properties would not have been built because the market rents would prohibitively low. The Alliance Court also notes that the tax shelter advantages associated with such properties are intangible items that do not add any value to the real estate.The Woda Court makes a similar point with respect to the tax credits, explicitly stating that the value of the low income tax credits should not be valued as part of the real estate. The court reasons that the credits are transferable apart from the underlying real estate and the value of the credit is determined by the tax situation of the purchaser, rather than any anticipated value from the real estate itself (or the "bricks and sticks").

On the other hand, the Supreme Court holds that the federal use restrictions in Woda must be taken into account when valuing a low income housing tax credit property , even if the value of the credits themselves are separate from the value of the real estate. In so holding, the Woda Court distinguishes between private e and involuntary government limitations to the estate such as eminent domain, escheat, police power, and taxation.7 The court finds that the LIHTC use restrictions are imposed by the government for the general welfare, qualifying as "police power" restrictions which express the judgment of Congress concerning public policy.8 Therefore, such use restrictions must be taken into account when valuing the property. The case is remanded by the Supreme Court bank to the BTA to receive additional evidence if necessary.

After the Woda decision was announced, the Ohio Department of Taxation issued a memorandum to all county auditors summarizing the holding and indicating that the Department read Woda as requiring the consideration of the use and rent restrictions that run with the land and prohibiting the inclusion of the value of the intangible tax credits when valuing LIHTC property for real estate tax purposes.

It clearly makes a material difference to value if the sixty parcels are valued as sixty individual homes, rather than as one economic unit consisting of rental units, or if the construction cost is used to determine value in a case like Woda. It will also matter in many cases whether contract rent, which could be higher or lower than market rent, is used to determine the income produced by a property. Intangible items unrelated to the value of the real estate, such as the value of the tax credits also must be separated out from the real property value to be taxed. As the joke demonstrates, appraising a property is not an exact science. A property is going to be valued differently by someone who is currently using the property, compared to someone who is considering buying the property, compared to someone who is going to lend you money for its purchase. Similarly, the value conclusion for your property and your resulting tax liability will be different based on what appraisal approach is used and which data is considered.

References:

  1. Woda Ivy Glen Ltd. Partnership v. Fayette Cty. Bd. of Revision (2009), 121 Ohio St.3d 175, 2009-Ohio-762.
  2. 26 USCA §42.
  3. Woda at 179.
  4. Woda Ivy Glen Ltd. Partnership v. Fayette Cty. Bd. of Revision (Sept. 21, 2007), BTA Case No. 2005-A-749, unreported.
  5. Woda Ivy Glen Ltd. Partnership v. Fayette Cty. Bd. of Revision (Jan. 11, 2008), BTA Case No. 2005-A-749, unreported.
  6. Alliance Towers, Ltd. v. Stark Cty. Bd. of Revision (1988), 37 Ohio St.3d 16, 523 N.E.2d 826.
  7. Woda at 181 (citing Appraisal Institute, The Appraisal of Real Estate (12 th ed. 2001).
  8. Woda at 181.

cecilia_hyun90Cecilia Hyun is an associate attorney with Siegel Siegel Johnson & Jennings Co, LPA, the Ohio member of American Property Tax Counsel. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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