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Property Tax Resources

Apr
20

Value Erosion

Lease Terms Can Impact Property Valuation' "But Tax Assessors May Not Realize It

"The loss of tenant reimbursements ... can have a significant impact on the property's net operating income."

By Douglas S. John, Esq., as published by Commercial Property Executive, April 2012

In the past 24 months, published lease rates have continued to decline or remained flat in most markets and for almost all property types.

But published lease rates tell only part of the story. In an effort to keep and attract tenants, landlords have been forced to offer lease terms that can erode a property's value.

In states where tax assessors rely on leased fee valuations (valuing property based on its actual performance), the rates listed in rent rolls may omit these changes to leases. Similarly, where state law requires tax assessors to use fee-simple assumptions of market rent, published lease data typically reflects either asking rates or reported rates that also ignore the effect of these changing terms. Unfortunately for taxpayers, assessors rely on these sources, which are often unreliable indicators of true market lease rates and can result in inflated tax bills.

Taxpayers and their attorneys must dig deep into the terms of lease transactions and explain to assessors how changing terms impact their property's valuation. Following are some key changes in the leasing market and how they are affecting property values.

Transition from Triple Net to Modified Gross Leases: Tenants with sufficient leverage are no longer inclined to fully reimburse landlords for real estate taxes, insurance or common-area maintenance charges. As a result, when leases are renegotiated, the structure may transition from a triple-net lease to some form of a modified gross or even a full-service lease. A cursory review of the rent roll by the tax assessor may suggest that the rate is unchanged upon renewal. But the loss of tenant reimbursements for expenses can have a significant impact on the property's net operating income, resulting in a significant loss of value.

Free Rent: Free rent is a common inducement landlords use to keep or attract tenants. This can take many forms, with landlords offering from a few months to a year or more. In some distressed retail centers, landlords have been known to give anchor tenants free rent for extended periods as a means of retaining other tenants.

To obtain longer lease terms' "and in some instances in lieu of providing tenant improvement allowances they cannot afford' "landlords are also offering free rent on the back end of a lease rather than the front end, with tenants taking it at month 24, 36 or 48. A rent roll reflecting a 72-month lease may only provide 60 months of rent payments, with the final year rent free. In addition, landlords are offering furniture, equipment, free parking and moving allowances.

These rent concessions typically are omitted from rent rolls or published lease data, masking the extent of a property's economic vacancy, reducing its net operating income and contributing to a loss of value.

Tenant Improvements: Some space users want allowances for tenant improvements. But how a landlord accounts for their cost can significantly affect a property's value. For instance, say a tenant renews its lease at the same base rate as before but the landlord also provides $20 per square foot to rehab the property. If the landlord amortizes the improvements into the renewal lease rate, the rate reflected in the rent roll will overstate the effective lease rate. It is critical to explain to assessing authorities that using lease rates that amortize tenant improvements will result in overvaluation of the property.

Co-Tenancy Clauses: Tenants are also using their leverage to include co-tenancy clauses in leases or renewals that allow them to either reduce their lease rate or terminate the lease if the property's occupancy rate falls below a specific level or if a key anchor tenant moves out of the property. When an anchor tenant goes dark, the impact on the property's value is compounded by the potential loss in rent and expense reimbursements from smaller tenants that may decide to exercise their rights under the co-tenancy clause. The existence of a cotenancy clause may have a ruinous impact on the value of a property and should always be brought to the assessor's attention.

These and many other changes to leases that may be seen in the coming years—such as marginal or nonexistent escalator clauses and FASB rule changes—will continue to weigh down property values. It is critical that taxpayers and their attorneys develop presentations that clearly demonstrate to tax assessors, administrative tribunals and courts how a wide variety of lease changes can affect a property's valuation.

dough johnsmallDouglas S. John is an attorney in the Tucson, Arizona, law firm of Bancroft & John P.C., the Arizona and Nevada member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affi liation 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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Jan
15

Inflated Taxes Threaten Phoenix Property Owners

The "new normal" for Phoenix is likely a prolonged era of deleveraging as the market absorbs these distressed assets. For Arizona property owners, the decline in real estate values has not always translated into a commensurate drop in taxes, however. This has occurred for three reasons..."

By Douglas S. John, Esq., as published by National Real Estate Investor Online, January 2012

As 2012 begins, the real estate collapse ravaging Phoenix continues. Phoenix real estate prices have fallen from their height in early 2008 by 28 percent for retail, 52 percent for industrial and 71 percent for office, according to Navigant Capital Advisors, a Chicago-based investment bank. Phoenix ranks No. 7 on Real Capital Markets' list of the most distressed U.S. markets for commercial real estate.

The city's delinquency rate for commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS) loans is the third-highest in the nation, accounting for 3.6 percent of total U.S. CMBS delinquencies. And Phoenix's delinquency count is expected to increase next year.

The "new normal" for Phoenix is likely a prolonged era of deleveraging as the market absorbs these distressed assets. For Arizona property owners, the decline in real estate values has not always translated into a commensurate drop in taxes, however. This has occurred for three reasons.

First, the general decline in assessed property values has not kept pace with the actual decline in asset prices. Second, even though taxable property values have dropped, Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located, has increased its property tax rates: for fiscal 2011, tax rates increased by 18 percent from the previous year.

The third and final reason stems from Arizona's unique system of calculating property tax liability from two statutory values — a full cash value and a limited property value. A property's full cash value can decline while its limited property value, determined statutorily, increases, causing an escalation in tax liability.

Taxpayers must be diligent to ensure they are paying no more than their fair share of taxes. Consider the following points before deciding whether an appeal may be beneficial.

Start early

Arizona's property tax system is complex, difficult to navigate, and requires perseverance. Tax year 2013 property tax notices will be mailed in February 2012. The system entails multiple forms and filing deadlines which, if missed, will result in a taxpayer losing appeal rights.

The process will conclude in October 2012 with State Board of Equalization hearings. Owners should start planning now to challenge their 2013 tax assessments. To do so, they should pay close attention to how their properties are assessed.

Mass appraisal?

To determine if a property has been overvalued, it is important to understand that assessors use computer-based statistical models to derive value. These models have several limitations that can result in a property being over-valued.

phoenix graph2First, the assessor's valuation of an individual property is only as accurate as the data and assumptions used in the statistical model to generate a value for a given submarket. The value created by a mass appraisal system may not account for the specific characteristics of a property, which may make it less valuable than predicted by the mass appraisal model.

Second, the mass appraisal system is dependent on correct, complete, and current property data. Oftentimes, the data that assessors use is not only incorrect but outdated by as much as six to eight months, which can inflate assessments. Part of the reason for outdated data is the existence of statutory cut-off dates for collecting data.

Valuation approach

While appraisers use three generally accepted approaches to value - the cost approach, the sales comparison approach, and the income capitalization approach - the appropriate valuation method depends on the property type. In Maricopa County, assessors value 70 percent of commercial properties using the cost approach, which measures the current replacement cost of the improvements minus depreciation, plus the value of the site. But the application of the cost approach in real estate transactions is limited and is rarely used by investors to determine market value.

 

In a depressed real estate market, the use of the cost approach typically results in an assessment that exceeds market value unless all forms of depreciation, especially obsolescence, are deducted.

Market value vs. property tax value

Even if an owner believes the assessor's valuation is reasonable based on his/her understanding of market value in the business world, the property may still be overvalued. Market value as commonly understood differs from property tax value in two key respects. First, Arizona law requires assessors to determine full cash value based on a property's current use, rather than its highest and best use. In many instances these two value concepts produce radically different values.

Second, market value for property tax purposes is limited to the value of the real estate. Arizona law prohibits the inclusion of personal and intangible property in the assessor's valuation.

Limiting assessments to real property is crucial to lowering the taxes of businesses such as hotels, assisted living facilities, and shopping centers and malls, which derive significant income from personal property and intangibles.

Because of the many deadlines, procedures, and valuation methods used, owners should begin reviewing their property tax values now to maximize their chances for success.

dough johnsmall Douglas S. John is an attorney in the Tucson, Ariz. law firm of Bancroft & John, P.C., the Arizona and Nevada 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 Owners Should Challenge Their Tax Assessments

"Business leaders' confidence in the Las Vegas economy has turned pessimistic and continued its downward slide throughout 2011. The Southern Nevada Business Confidence Index, which measures companies' outlook, fell to 99.91 for the fourth quarter, down from 99.96 in the third quarter..."

By Douglas S. John, Esq., as published by National Real Estate Investor Online, November 2011

While the tourism, gaming and hospitality industries are stabilizing, the near-term outlook for the Las Vegas economy remains bleak. Economic factors that affect real estate value, such as demographics, employment, income and housing, portend minimal growth in the next 12 to 24 months.

Business leaders' confidence in the Las Vegas economy has turned pessimistic and continued its downward slide throughout 2011. The Southern Nevada Business Confidence Index, which measures companies' outlook, fell to 99.91 for the fourth quarter, down from 99.96 in the third quarter. Adding to commercial property owners' woes, real estate values for all asset classes are at historic lows. Property owners want to know if the steep decline in market values since the peak in 2008 will be reflected in the 2012-13 property tax assessments.

Taxpayers will soon find out: Clark County's issuance of property tax assessments takes place in early December. When assessments arrive, property owners will need to evaluate the benefit of filing a property tax appeal.

Tragically, few owners will file an appeal, even though, on average, property taxes account for 33 percent of real estate operating expenses. They will simply pay their tax bills based on the belief that their assessment is reasonable and that challenging an assessment is too expensive, complicated and time-consuming.

However, rather than taking an immediate pass on contesting an assessment, Las Vegas property owners should consider the following points and then decide whether an appeal may be beneficial.

Long-term Benefits

For savvy taxpayers, the next few years represent a unique opportunity to reduce long-term tax liability. Because of Nevada's partial abatement law or tax cap, a successful appeal this year will yield tax savings now and in the future. When property values begin to appreciate, the tax cap will limit the annual increase in tax liability to no more than 8 percent over the prior year.

Recapture Tax

Taxpayers must be careful to sidestep Nevada's recapture tax. Even if a property's taxable value declined last year, Nevada's recapture provision applies if a property's taxable value decreased by more than 15 percent between tax years 2010-11 and 2011-12, but increases by 15 percent or more in the upcoming 2012-13 tax year. If the recapture applies, the amount of tax that would have been collected without the tax cap will be levied on the property.

The Law on Value

It is important to understand how assessors value property in Nevada to evaluate if a property is overvalued. Owners may believe the taxable value appears reasonable based on their understanding of market value in the business world. But market value in the business world is different from market value for property tax purposes. Nevada law requires assessors to determine taxable value based on value in use rather than highest and best use. In many key instances, these two value concepts produce radically different values.

DJohn_NREINov2011

The Cost Approach

Nevada law requires assessors to determine the initial value of all property using the cost approach, which measures the current replacement cost of the improvements minus depreciation, plus the value of the site. The cost approach is limited in its application and is rarely used by investors to determine market value. In a depressed real estate market, the cost approach generally yields a result that exceeds market value unless all forms of accrued depreciation are deducted.

Value the Sticks and Bricks

Market value for property tax purposes is restricted to the valuation of the real estate alone, or the "sticks and bricks." Nevada law prohibits the inclusion of personal property or intangible property in the assessor's valuation. This applies particularly to businesses such as hotels and motels, assisted living and nursing facilities, and shopping centers and malls, which derive significant income from personal property and intangibles such as trade names, expertise and business skills.

Deadlines and Procedures

Owners should start planning an appeal before tax notices are mailed. The property tax appeal timeline is highly compressed in Nevada. Tax notices are mailed in early December, and this year taxpayers have until Jan. 17 to file an appeal. This leaves taxpayers with only about 30 days after receiving the tax notice to determine whether an appeal is warranted.

Where to Begin

Owners unfamiliar with the deadlines, procedures, and valuation methods used to arrive at their assessment can easily miss an opportunity to reduce their tax bill. To maximize the chances for success, an owner should consult with a tax professional or property tax lawyer with a sound knowledge of Nevada property tax law, valuation theory and tax assessment practices to identify potential avenues for reducing tax liability.

dough_johnsmall Douglas S. John is an attorney in the Tucson, Ariz. 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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Nov
20

Is a Consensus Emerging on LIHTC Property Valuations?

"Rental rates and asset values have fallen to staggering lows, while snowballing vacancy has sapped income from commercial projects across property types and markets. And with local governments determined to maximize revenue from shrinking tax bases, it is more important than ever that property owners know the best recipes to minimize tax bills..."

By Douglas S. John, Esq., as published by Affordable Housing Finance, November 2011

For two decades, owners and managers of low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) projects have labored to control property taxes that for many are their single largest expense. It has been a hard fight, as local assessing authorities, state legislatures, and courts have struggled to develop clear policies on the many complicated valuation issues that LIHTC properties create.

The last 10 years have brought significant clarification in many jurisdictions. At least 32 states have established some statewide guidance to taxpayers on LIHTC valuation, with 17 states passing legislation and nine state courts issuing decisions clarifying some aspect of the law related to the methodology used to value these assets.

There is still a significant number of jurisdictions without a clear policy, but a consensus may be emerging. Here is a rundown on progress­ and remaining challenges ­in those states that have addressed the valuation of LIHTC properties.

Differing valuation methods

Few jurisdictions prescribe a valuation methodology for LIHTC projects, but the vast majority of assessing authorities use the income capitalization approach rather than sales comparison or cost method.

Almost all jurisdictions and appraisal literature agree that the sales comparison method is inapplicable to LIHTC properties because these assets rarely, if ever, are sold. When LIHTC transactions occur, finding similarly situated properties is difficult because land-use restrictions can vary greatly from project to project.

Similarly, the cost approach is a poor indicator of LIHTC property values for several reasons. First, the actual development costs for these assets typically exceed those for an otherwise comparable, market-rent property. Most LIHTC projects include additional amenities to serve the elderly and disabled, and comply with federal regulations for subsidized housing.

Second, tax credit projects preclude the principle of substitution that is an underlying assumption of the cost approach. Substitution holds that a knowledgeable buyer would pay no more for a property than the cost to acquire a similar site and to construct similar improvements. But without federal tax credits, most low-income housing would be financially unfeasible, and thus never constructed.

Finally, taxpayers and assessing authorities continue to argue over the question of how to estimate depreciation or economic obsolescence due to the restrictive covenants and federal regulations imposed on LIHTC operations.

By default, then, the income capitalization approach is the most common method used to assess LIHTC properties. Even with the income capitalization method, however, significant disagreement persists among jurisdictions regarding its application, primarily because of the rental restrictions and tax credits associated with LIHTC properties.

An assessor valuing a LIHTC complex using the income capitalization method must choose between market rent and the property's restricted rent to derive gross potential income. A clear consensus among jurisdictions has emerged that the property's restricted rents should be used.

Currently, 30 jurisdictions mandate the use of restricted rent amounts in valuing LIHTC properties. Remaining jurisdictions provide no clear guidelines.

Credit for tax credits

There is less clarity, however, on the valuation of the federal tax credits given to owners of LIHTC properties.

Nine jurisdictions include the value of the LIHTC allocation as part of a property's net operating income. Those authorities contend that the tax credit enhances a project's value and becomes something a prospective buyer would take into account when estimating the project's value.

By contrast, 21 jurisdictions exclude tax credits from property income. The proponents of excluding tax credits point out that excessive tax assessments make low-income housing less economically feasible, and thereby undermine the credit program's goal of encouraging the development of such projects.

The courts also have emphasized that a buyer would receive only the remainder of the tax credits, if any, and a seller might be subject to a recapture of the tax credits. Thus, if the project is sold near or at the end of the 10-year period when the tax credits expire, the tax credits would not add to the value of the project.

In many jurisdictions, the decision to include or exclude tax credits from income hinges on the tax credits being categorized as intangible property under state law. The courts in Arizona, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Washington have ruled that the tax credits are intangible and should not be considered part of income for purposes of valuation. By contrast, the courts in Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and Tennessee have reached the opposite conclusion.

Of these jurisdictions, the legislatures of Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota have since acted to overturn those court decisions. And in a few places including Connecticut and Michigan, tax credits were found to be intangible, but the courts nevertheless found that the value of the intangible tax credits must be taken into account for purposes of assessing an LIHTC project.

Consensus and dissent

There is certainly a greater consistency and clarity today than there was 10 years ago on the complex legal and valuation issues affecting LIHTC projects. Yet significant disagreements remain in the ways jurisdictions handle these assets.

Each state has a complex property tax system. For LIHTC project owners and managers, working with local counsel is the most effective way to understand how a jurisdiction's policy toward LIHTC valuation will affect their property tax assessment.

dough_johnsmall Douglas S. John is an attorney in the Tucson, Ariz. 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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Apr
18

Taxes Target Green Pastures

"Property owners must stay vigilant to maintain agricultural-use status on farmland and avoid financial penalties..."

By Douglas S. John, Esq., as published by National Real Estate Investor, April 2011

Local governments are under the greatest financial stress since the Great Depression, and assessing authorities are aggressively pursuing revenue to combat these financial woes. One target in assessors' crosshairs is the preferential tax treatment of land with agricultural status.

Developers who are considering the purchase of agricultural land or holding acreage for eventual development need to be aware of the potential tax consequences. Depending on the way assessors categorize the land, the owner could face an unexpected rise in tax costs.

All states offer some tax relief for qualified agricultural property, but each jurisdiction has specific and often complex legal requirements for agricultural status. Investors in land held for future development must know the laws governing agricultural status if they hope to maintain this preferred tax position.

Most real estate is assessed at market value, which typically reflects the most probable price a buyer would pay in a competitive market. The most common benefit of an agricultural designation is that the land is assessed at use value instead of market value. Use value reflects how the property is currently used, i.e., for agriculture, rather than its highest and best use, which may be for residential or commercial development.

Eligibility for agricultural status varies by jurisdiction. The following are the major eligibility requirements.

  • Use: Typically, states require that land be actively engaged in agricultural use and used exclusively or primarily for commercial agriculture. That can include growing crops, dairying, raising and breeding livestock, or horticulture.
  • Acreage: A majority of states impose an acreage requirement to qualify for agricultural use, meaning a minimum number of acres. Qualifying acreage is typically low relative to average farm size. Some states have no minimum acreage requirement, while others allow local authorities to establish size criteria.
  • Productivity: Most states impose minimum productivity requirements. These laws vary by jurisdiction, but most require property to generate a minimum amount of annual income from farming or raising livestock. Some states average the measure of income over a period of years. Other states require that a minimum percentage of the owner's or lessee's annual income is earned from agricultural activity on the land.
  • Prior Usage: About half the states require property to be used for agricultural purposes for a period of years before it qualifies for preferential tax treatment. These laws are meant to discourage owners from changing a tract's use to take advantage of the tax benefits. Two or three years immediately preceding approval is typical.

Check for penalties

Many states impose a penalty when farmland is converted to non-agricultural use. In some states the penalty takes the form of a recapture or rollback tax, which is the difference between the taxes that would have been paid and the taxes actually paid while the land qualified as agricultural. This recapture period varies between three and 10 years.

In other states, if farmland is converted from agricultural use within a certain period after qualifying for preferential treatment, penalties are calculated based on the property's fair market value when its use changes or it is sold.

Most states require owners to periodically submit extensive information to demonstrate that the land continues to be used agriculturally. This may include IRS Form 1040F, leases, invoices and receipts, among other documents.

Each state's eligibility requirements, application process and potential penalties play a part in determining whether properties qualify for agricultural status. But a property's agricultural status can translate into significant tax savings. Local counsel may be required to navigate the complexity of obtaining or maintaining the agricultural status.

Douglas S. John is with the Tucson, Arziona law firm of Bancroft Susa & Galloway, the Nevada and Arizona 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..

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