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Property Tax Resources

Jun
29

Drew Raines: How to Reduce Student Housing Property Tax Assessments Post-Pandemic

Not long ago, assessors' student housing properties valuations generally struggled keeping pace with the rising market.College enrollment was high, rent growth outpaced expenses and student expectations lined up with most newer facility amenities. However, the COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout changed the game.

Property taxes are often the single highest expense on a property's profit and loss statement. When market changes make student housing less profitable, the tax burden should not be allowed to remain high. When this occurs, the assessor's property valuation needs to be challenged and reduced.

Projecting Income:Look Forward, Not Back

Many jurisdictions assess student housing properties' value using a cost approach.A computer system estimates the cost to build the property new, then deducts physical depreciation based on the property's age. Due to skyrocketing construction costs, those depreciation deductions are outpaced by base cost increases. It is common to see cost-based values increase despite struggles facing the real estate market. Owners can combat increases by appealing the assessor's value.

When a student housing property owner files an assessment appeal, the appeal review board often evaluates the three prior years' operating income. This allows the appeal board to develop an income model intended to represent stabilized operations. Then the net income is capitalized, producing an estimated market value. When the market rises and rent increases, looking at the past three year's performance is probably a favorable method for taxpayers. However, in a flat or falling market, determining value based on past success proves unfair. Property values' steady upward trajectory, by and large, has stalled out given the gut-punch of 2022 interest rate hikes. Capitalization rates have risen along with the interest rates, though it becomes difficult to see clearly because sales transaction volume slowed to a trickle. Sellers would rather sit on their property than swallow the loss the current market forced on them.

For student housing specifically, it is not uncommon for brokers to cite 15% to 20% market value declines from early 2022 to early 2023. In addition to general market woes, some developers expect college enrollment to drop in the near future due, in part, to fewer students graduating from high school.This will make leasing more difficult and put downward pressure on rents and occupancy. Falling rental income should be taken into consideration by the board or tribunal hearing a property tax appeal.

Projecting Expenses: The Compounding Costs of COVID

Waves of new development during the late 1990's and mid-2010's saw student housing units grow exponentially.At the time, they were state-of-the-art facilities with all the amenities a student could desire. For some, common areas evolved from utilitarian waiting rooms to shared workspaces or workout gyms.For others, bathrooms were no longer shared with a full suite, but only a single roommate.

When the property's design fails to meet changing tenant expectations, that produces functional obsolescence. Many boom-time properties now suffer functional obsolescence.Worrisome trends that predated COVID-19 have been fast-tracked by the pandemic, becoming major problems.

Most people, including future college students, were quarantined for months and developed new tastes and behaviors. Student tenants are not as tolerant of sharing a bathroom with a roommate. One-to-one bathrooms are no longer a luxury in most markets, but trying to retro-fit a property to achieve the best bed-to-bath ratio often fails the cost-benefit analysis. When a design deficiency can't feasibly be corrected, it is known as incurable functional obsolescence.

Online shopping became a near-necessity during quarantine, reshaping our consumer habits long-term. When a building full of button-clicking students receives more Amazon boxes than envelopes, there better be package lockers or another delivery management system to handle the volume. Maybe some unutilized common area space presents an easy opportunity to convert, making this type of obsolescence curable. Even so, the cure does not come without landlord expense.

Not all new expenses involve obsolete building design. New cleaning protocols originated during the pandemic but have not receded with the COVID case count. The "janitorial" line item has swollen, further narrowing landlord margins.

Even if the building is clean, it may not be tidy. Kids who were forced to stay home for meals tend not to go out as frequently. They order-in, and they party-in, too. That creates a lot of trash. Kids do not appreciate having to haul trash down a flight of stairs or ride with it down an elevator. Trash chutes appease them, but not if the building doesn't have one.

Rising operating costs are not all associated with COVID. For example, HVAC systems that use a coolant being phased out by new regulations will have to be upgraded to comply. Also, insurance, payroll, and other outside service costs have increased with general inflation.

Increasing operating expenses drive down a property's net income and should be accounted for by tax appeal decision-makers.

Question the Assessor's Valuation

When property owners appeal their assessment based on a drop in income, "bad management" becomes the common refrain heard from assessors. This implies the property is worth more than the income indicates, because it has been poorly operated. Sometimes this is true, but if a property suffers lackluster performance caused by unavoidable market changes, the assessment should account for that. Taxpayers would be wise to seek seasoned property tax counsel for advice as to what relief may be available.

Drew Raines is a shareholder in the Memphis law firm of Evans Petree, PC, the Arkansas and Tennessee member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Jun
07

Challenge Office Building Tax Assessments

Owners can use the hurting office market to their benefit.

It's no secret that the real estate market suffered in the COVID-19 pandemic, and no property type was hurt more than office buildings. While hospitality and entertainment properties nearly suffocated, their post-quarantine rebound has been impressive. Real estate professionals who projected multiyear recoveries for hotels and movie theaters back in 2020 and 2021 have been proven wrong. Offices, however, have not been so lucky.

The pandemic hastened a work-remote trend that was already leading office tenants to downsize their spaces, and the shift soon stifled any countervailing influx of tenants that landlords could have relied upon to stabilize their properties. Tenants have also realized that if they are using remote workers anyway, they can employ overseas workers for significantly less pay and with zero office requirements. As a result, many landlords have seen their occupancy and rents drop. Some have been able to maintain rent levels by giving away major concessions or tenant improvements. Some have not.

Falling rents and occupancy deflate property values. A trending loss in property value means it's time to review the tax assessor's value of an organization's property, and to challenge the assessment if appropriate.

Why care about the office market?

Perhaps your company owns or leases a building that it fully occupies. The difficulties of the post-COVID office market are unfortunate, but they don't impact you. Your building is full.

Wrong.

Most jurisdictions value the fee-simple property rights of an income-producing property. Basically, that means valuation is based on capitalization of the income stream that the property would produce if leased at market levels.

This is true for owner-occupied offices, too. If the property is leased after a build-to-suit or sale-leaseback transaction, those typically above-market rents or extended terms are irrelevant to a fee-simple analysis.

If the assessor values a property for property tax purposes based on fee-simple property rights determined using a market-derived income stream, and if current market rent levels and occupancy rates are dropping, then the property's tax assessment should be dropping, too – even if the building is full.

Inflation and interest rates

The problems specific to office buildings are not the only ones for the taxpayer to consider. Inflation has made it more expensive to do just about everything, and that includes operating an office building. Payroll, utilities, insurance: All of these costs are steadily rising, even for owner-occupied buildings.

Local governments are feeling the squeeze, too. Their budgets often depend largely on property tax revenue. When inflation reduces a budget's effectiveness, there will be pressure on the assessor to find ways to dig deep and expand the tax base.

The Federal Reserve's solution for inflation was an aggressive program of interest rate hikes over the course of 2022. The rising cost of money has a significant impact on capitalization rates, which investors and appraisers use to value a property's income stream. The higher interest rates go, the higher cap rates go. The higher cap rates go, the lower property values go.

Where are the sales?

The problem with attempting to demonstrate the impact of rising interest rates on cap rates is the sheer lack of sale transactions. Banks aren't bullish on office lending right now, and sellers would rather hang on to a struggling property than sell it for less than it would be worth if stabilized. How can a taxpayer know what kind of price an office building's income stream will bring if office buildings aren't selling?

This is where the assessors will use sales of office properties to support high values. In many markets, an office property that sold in 2021 is worth significantly less today. But today, there often aren't enough comparable office sales occurring to prove declining value. Assessors can point to the most recent office sales, albeit a few years old, and justify their value on a comparative basis.

What those older sales do not reflect is the more recent plague of dropping rents and rising vacancy. The taxpayer needs a way to discount those old sales and prove what the value is today, not three years ago.

Is it time to appeal?

Consider your office property. Could it sell today for the price it sold for two or three years ago? Probably not. Maybe the organization recently bought it, or even built it, for more than it could sell for today. This is not an uncommon problem anymore.

In many jurisdictions, the best way to challenge an office property's assessed value is by using the income approach. If the building were leased at market rent, what would that look like? If the building were occupied at current market occupancy levels, how much vacancy would there be? The taxpayer may need to talk to a broker or two to answer these questions.

The taxpayer may need help to turn market data into a viable appeal strategy. A property tax professional can prepare a fee-simple income approach and help estimate the current market value of the property. In the present situation, there is a good chance property tax relief is available, even if the office building is fully occupied.

Drew Raines is a shareholder in the Memphis law firm of Evans Petree PC, the Arkansas and Tennessee member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Apr
06

Tax Strategies for Net Lease Properties

A guide to effectively challenge and reduce bloated tax valuations.

Nobody enjoys paying property taxes, especially when a property is over-valued. Single-tenant, net-leased properties seem especially prone to inconsistent and unfair assessments.

But challenging those valuations can be exhausting in a time when assessors are fearful and obsessed with the dreaded "Dark Store Theory." They vehemently oppose using sales of vacant properties to value their jurisdiction's store, the one with the full parking lot.

How can the taxpayer shut down the hype and bring the assessor back to the table for a reasonable negotiation? Well, that depends. Here are essential points to consider in forming a protest strategy.

Know Your State's Value Standard

Common sense tells us an appraiser must know what they are valuing before they value it. Yet, the failure to identify the property rights being valued often causes disagreement and confusion in tax appeals. These misunderstandings commonly hinge on the difference between fee-simple and leased-fee value.

The fee-simple estate of an income-producing property is essentially the value of the net income stream based on market-level rents, expenses and other variables. If the property benefits from a long-term, above-market lease, that revenue is irrelevant to the fee-simple value.

Before I finished that last paragraph, my phone rang. The caller was outraged because an assessor revalued his property at its recent purchase price. The property was clearly not worth what the taxpayer paid for it, he said, because the price was based on a net lease.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Before the caller purchased his property, it was exposed to the open market for willing buyers to make offers to the willing seller. The competitive process culminated in an arm's-length sale reflecting market value. How is that not what the property is worth?

That brings us to the second value standard, the leased-fee estate, which is essentially the value of the income stream from the actual lease in place. The caller's purchase price was exactly what the property's leased fee was worth.

So, before getting angry with assessors for relying on leased-fee sales, taxpayers should learn which property rights their state is valuing for taxation. If the state values the leased-fee rather than fee-simple estate, the taxpayer may not have a basis to complain.

Sales Won't Sell It

The "Dark Store Theory" is the term assessors apply to the use of vacant property sales in valuing occupied properties. From an appraisal theory standpoint, only vacant sales are appropriate for valuing the fee-simple interest in a leased property, because sales of leased properties exclude the right of occupancy, an essential right within the fee-simple estate.

This appraisal standard should be a boon to taxpayers challenging inflated assessments on leased properties. It's great to be right, but there's a problem. Using vacant buildings to value occupied buildings is a very tough sell to a tax panel, appeals court or other arbiter. The decision-maker's gut will turn.

Huge tax reductions have been achieved using vacant sales, so it can be done. It is spectacular in the moment, but legislatures and higher judicial bodies are likely to respond negatively. Legal victories that inflame assessors and politicians are not stable long-term solutions.

What About The Cost Approach?

Cost doesn't equal value, but sometimes estimating a newer property's replacement cost less depreciation is a good test of whether an assessment is reasonable. A cost calculation may support a value reduction, so it is worth considering in a protest strategy.

A common problem with the cost approach in net-lease tax appeals is the conspicuous difference between cost-based value conclusions and those based on income or comparable sales. If the property can't be leased or sold at a rate of return that supports its depreciated cost to build, the numbers will not line up, because there is obsolescence to account for. The decision-makers that hear tax cases dislike big obsolescence deductions, especially if the taxpayer quantifies those deductions using vacant property sales.

Many assessors use cost systems for mass appraisal, so understanding how the local system was developed is helpful. Sometimes assessors use base cost data purchased from third-party services and then tweak that information before entering it in their own systems. Tweaks can involve stretching out the useful life of properties in the source data to unreasonable lengths, or bumping default grades used for certain building types from, say, "average" to "good." Little modifications add up and may be solely to increase tax revenue.

Market Rent Is King

In a fee-simple system, a good way to approach a net-lease tax appeal is with the income approach. All net-lease properties are leased, meaning they produce income. It isn't hard for an assessor to convince a decision-maker in a tax case that the property should be valued by capitalizing its income.

The most crucial element of a fee-simple income approach is the market rent. To win a net-lease tax appeal based on income, the taxpayer must prove this one thing.

"But there is no market rent for my property type," the taxpayer says. "What am I supposed to use for rent?"

That's a real issue, because net leases almost always seem to be the product of a build-to-suit or sale-leaseback transaction, with no regard for the local market. So, how can the taxpayer prove market rent?

Go for Broker

Consider this: Commercial real estate brokers are opinionated about their markets. They know rent because it's how they feed their families. They can speak with credibility about the rent a building would command on the open market. Nobody knows market rent better, and they make powerful rebuttal witnesses who keep any off-base testimony by the assessor in check.

A broker can also be a helpful resource for the taxpayer's appraiser. They can point to meaningful, sometimes hidden information.

The combination of an appraiser's formal analysis with a broker's testimony about realistic market rent is potent and convincing evidence in a tax appeal.

Let's Be Reasonable

As the taxpayer's protest strategy takes shape, subject it to the old "reasonable man" standard.

Would a reasonable decision-maker look at the taxpayer's long list of vacant properties, compare it with the subject property that is open and thriving, and feel good about reducing the value?

Would a reasonable decision-maker look at an income approach based on a reasonable expectation of market rent for the subject building and feel good about reducing the value?

Pushing for the former may be zealous advocacy, but appearing unreasonable to both assessor and decision-maker is unhelpful. And even a victory, if it smells like overreaching, risks a legislative response. Resolving a net-lease tax appeal using a reasonable income approach is a superior long-term strategy.

Drew Raines is a shareholder in the Memphis law firm of Evans Petree PC, the Arkansas and Tennessee member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Mar
02

Property Tax Pitfalls in 'Crane City USA'

Tennessee's appeal process allows Nashville taxpayers to challenge the complicated assessment of new construction.

Over the past decade, Nashville has enjoyed a baffling explosion of growth that sent cranes shooting up all over the city, festooned with developer names like Bell, Clark and Giarratana. Highrise towers of glass and steel rose out of the old rail yards like the emerging monolith in the opening scene of "2001: A Space Odyssey" multiplied in a funhouse mirror.

The Metropolitan Government is eager to add new projects to its tax rolls, and its Assessor of Property decides when and how that happens. The assumptions made by the Assessor's office about a project's cost and timing dictate how quickly and how much a new building is taxed. So, as always, taxpayers need to keep an eye on what the assessor is doing.

The assessor's difficult job has become even more complicated in the post-COVID quagmire of supply chain failures. Twelve-month projects have stretched into 24-month projects, and the assessor's assumptions about completion times have been thrown out of whack. To make matters worse, Tennessee's property tax statutes were not designed to give relief for construction delays or lengthy projects, and the clock is ticking.

New Construction Assessed at Material Cost

The last Davidson County reappraisal was in 2021, and the next will be in 2025. Normally, the assessor's values remain unchanged over the four-year cycle, but new construction is an exception to that rule.

Under the statute for assessing projects under construction, if a new improvement is partially complete on Jan. 1, the assessor is to value the property for that year at land value plus the cost of materials used in the improvement as of that date. This materials-only value favors taxpayers because it excludes labor costs.

The construction documents that are generally accepted as evidence of project costs do not typically segregate labor versus material costs, however. Those costs are most often listed as combined totals, making the exact material costs difficult to determine.

One example from a recently reviewed document described work that included a $279,000 line item for "caulking." Unless labor and materials are both included in that number, that's a heck of a lot of white goop! Rather than demand proof of exact material costs, assessors will sometimes allocate material costs based on a pre-established rule of thumb.

Substantially Complete?

Now for the tricky part. The new construction statute allows assessors to pick up new improvements after Jan. 1, so long as the structure is "substantially complete" prior to Sept. 1 that same year. So, for example, if a building is 50 percent complete at Jan. 1 and 100 percent complete at Sept. 1, the assessor will prorate at the 50 percent value for eight months of the year, and at the 100 percent value for four months of the year. If the improvements are not "substantially complete" by Sept. 1, the assessor must wait to pick up the as-complete value in the following year.

Tennessee has no statutory definition of "substantially complete" for purposes of adding the full value to the tax rolls, but cases make it clear that tenant finish-out and certificates of occupancy are not required. In the absence of simple, objective standards for completion, assessors make subjective judgments about completion that may not favor the taxpayer. Taxpayers can challenge those judgments through an administrative appeal.

Adding Insult to Injury

Under Tennessee law, new improvements may not be valued as incomplete for more than one year after construction began. Now, your immediate reaction might be, "That's ridiculous! How can you value an incomplete property as complete just because it took longer than 12 months to construct!?"

The assessor in Davidson County has taken the position that the statute prevents them from using the taxpayer-favorable, materials-only value in the second year a property is incomplete. They will likely still use the cost approach to determine the appraised value but add back the cost of labor that was taken out in the first year, greatly increasing the tax burden before the property is generating income. The legislature has not acted to provide relief from this further insult to developers already injured by increasingly protracted construction timelines.

The Good News

Tennessee assessors are only authorized to reassess a property at specific times, but taxpayers can appeal the assessor's Jan. 1 value of Nashville property to the Metropolitan Board of Equalization every year. If the assessor issues a prorated assessment for a new construction project later in the year, the taxpayer can appeal that value directly to the State Board of Equalization.

In light of the complexity of Tennessee's law on the assessment of new construction, owners of new projects in Nashville should seek counsel as to whether their assessments are fair and legal and avail themselves of the right to appeal if appropriate.

Drew Raines is a shareholder in the Memphis law firm of Evans Petree PC, the Arkansas and Tennessee member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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