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Property Tax Resources

Jun
06

Nothing New About The Old ‘Dark Store Theory’

Statutory law continues to require that assessors value only the real estate, not the success or lack thereof, by the owner of the real estate.

Assessors and their minions frequently take the position that an occupied store is more valuable than an unoccupied store, a conclusion commonly referred to as the "Dark Store: theory. Owners of big-box retail properties and their tax advisers bristle at this erroneous contention, because real property taxes are just that– a tax on the value of the real estate.

It is the assessor's function to value the property's real estate components, which consist primarily of land, bricks and mortar; or in the cases of most big boxes, land, concrete, pop-up concrete or metal slabs. It is a common but mistaken practice of assessors to place a greater taxable value on a big box occupied by a major retailer than on a vacant building of equal design, construction and utility.

This errant valuation methodology has given rise to controversy played out through expert testimony and sophisticated argument before administrative agencies and the courts. It is in this context that the term "Dark Store theory" has come into play.

A call to action

Owners of big-box real estate need to deliver a consistent response in the face of this increasingly pervasive and costly misconception. And because informal meetings between the owner's representative and the assessor are limited in time and scope, providing little opportunity for sophisticated argument, these owners must take a position that can be expressed in laymen's terms and understood by the average taxpayer.

That message is that the dark store theory is not a theory at all. It is a reality. The real estate components of occupied buildings have the same value as the real estate components of vacant buildings.

Dark Store theory has become part of the dialogue when valuing commercial properties for taxation. It's vilified as though it were a new concept with dark connotations, like the revelation of a new and insidious scheme by Darth Vader. In fact, its underlying concept is as old as the exercise of determining value for any purpose.

Unless a particular property has actually sold on a particular date, any opinion of its market value is hypothetical. Any such opinion is subject to informed disagreement within the boundaries of accepted valuation methodology. The standards of that methodology, as expressed, for example, in the Uniform Standards of Appraisal Practices, require that the value of a property is based on the willing-buyer, willing-seller concept. The assumption is that a willing buyer wants to buy and use the property.

Logic, not to mention all standards of appraisal practice, dictates that the hypothetical buyer is buying the property for some purpose. Whatever that purpose, it precludes the seller's continuing to use the property. This discussion is independent of a sale-leaseback transaction, which is a financing strategy.

The reality is that the buyer wants to use the property, as is the case across the spectrum of property purchases.

A residential parallel

The same concept applies to the sale of a suburban bungalow. When the Smiths buy a home from the Joneses, they expect the Jones family to vacate the property by the closing date. The Smith family bought the property expecting it to be available for occupancy on the closing date. Nothing about the selling family's success or possible dysfunction affects the purchase price.

In valuing single-family homes, assessors do not discuss the resident families' success (all the children became neurosurgeons). Yet assessors effectively do so in valuing big boxes, which by all valuation standards must be deemed available for occupancy as of the date of closing.

One does not hear the expression "dark house theory," because the assumption of availability of the property for use by the buyer at closing is intrinsic to the transaction. In appraisal parlance, the concept has been and remains that the exchanged property is "free and clear of all encumbrances," ergo vacant, or in current usage, "dark."

Many big boxes, typically measuring in the neighborhood of 100,000 square feet, have come on the market in recent years due in part to changing consumer buying patterns and reduced store counts by retailers. There is a tendency among assessors to over-value properties occupied by the surviving big-box retailers, in effect imposing a form of income tax that they justify by citing retailers' over-all company sales, while turning a blind eye to the availability of big boxes standing dark in the same market.

The sales volume and profits produced by a big-box store are as unrelated to the real estate's value as apple pie is to a computer. Thus, two side-by-side buildings of the same size and specifications, with one housing a high-profit retailer and the other an empty or dark box, have the same real estate value.

Jerome Wallach is a partner at The Wallach Law Firm in St. Louis, the Missouri member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Aug
08

How to Challenge Your Property Tax Assessments

A step-by-step guide from a veteran attorney to navigating the process of disputing real estate valuations by local government.

In most jurisdictions, taxpayers may meet with the assessor or assessor's representative to deliberate and possibly resolve issues concerning taxable real estate valuation.

First, contact the assessor's office to request a meeting. Getting past recorded messages may be a challenge in some instances, but talking to a human being is necessary.

During that initial phone call, be prepared to describe the problem and point of the discussion, then ask for a date and time to meet. Be sure to request the meeting in sufficient advance of filing deadlines for any appeal process.

Before the meeting, identify an objective (typically a lower assessment) and a plan to achieve that outcome. Be optimistic, but recognize that the assessor's office may reject the taxpayer's position. During the discussion, be reasonably flexible; passion and anger are seldom persuasive and will detract from an otherwise sound argument.

Fix the facts

There are a number of valid concerns other than overvaluation which, if properly addressed and corrected, can result in significant savings.

The most obvious reason to discuss the property with the assessor is the need to correct a simple mistake on the part of the assessor's office. Computer-generated assessed values are now widely used and accepted. The resulting values are no better than the data fed into the database, so review assessments with an eye on the broad picture.

Pay particular attention to the address and all measurements, which are common sources of error. Be sure the property hasn't been confused with some other property of greater value. If the property is improved, review the records available on the assessor's website to see if the improvements are accurately described and that the land is properly measured. Call any mistake of fact to the assessor's attention.

Most jurisdictions recognize varying degrees of assessment value depending on property classification. Typical classifications are commercial, residential and agricultural. Each class is assessed at a different percentage of its market value.

Usage is the primary classification determinant. For instance, undeveloped property zoned commercial may be a productive farm, in which case its classification would be agricultural. Point out to the assessor that the property is being farmed and was so used on the tax valuation day. Bring photos and records to establish that farming was the use on value day, and continues to be so.

Make a similar argument in any situation where the assessor classified the property higher than its actual use. Along the lines of classification, some properties are exempt from taxation if used regularly for charitable, religious and educational purposes.

Unless the use is easily recognized and accepted, it is unlikely the assessor's office will alter its opinion in an informal meeting. The meeting is an effort to convince the assessor that the property is overvalued for tax purposes.

Study the concepts

Unless the taxpayer is a valuation expert, it's probable he or she is meeting with someone who knows more about property values than the owner does, or at least believes that to be the case. A fundamental understanding of valuation methods is critical to a meaningful dialogue.

Volumes are written on the subject and the law books are full of cases dealing with value concepts. The following provides a thumbnail sketch of these concepts.

The three approaches accepted by all valuation experts are cost, income, and market or sales comparison. Assessors use these approaches daily, and look at property through these lenses.

Cost. If the property was purchased and improved with a new structure or structures within the last five years, the total cost of acquisition and improvement is a good indicator of what the property is worth and how it should be valued for tax purposes.

In the absence of a recent transaction, a credible opinion of the cost to replace the improvements on the property may be useful. There are manuals recognized by value experts that may assist in obtaining and presenting such an opinion as evidence.

Market. If the house next door, built just like the subject home, sold yesterday, then that sale price is a good indicator of the value of the subject house. On its face, the method of seeing what similar properties sell for seems the simplest and most direct way to determine a property's value.

If only it were so. The more variances there are between the properties, the greater the comparison challenge. Differences can include location, date of sale, condition of the property—the list goes on.

In dealing with the assessor, present listings and recent sales of properties similar to the subject property, if possible.

Income. In short, this is the present value of future benefits, and is the price a knowledgeable person would pay to acquire the future income stream of a given property.

Under this approach, value is typically determined by dividing the net income by the capitalization rate, or the buyer's initial annual rate of return. The capitalization rate, or cap rate, provides a formula for value calculation, and the higher the cap rate, the lower the value conclusion. The assessor will have a firm opinion of the cap rate and is unlikely to be swayed, but it's worth a try.

In many instances, arguing the general market cap rate with the assessor is futile. A better approach may be to show why the assessor's cap rate should be adjusted because of conditions unique to the property. Look for conditions that are beyond the owner's control and constitute risk to future income.

Arguments challenging the assessor's cap rate could include the greater risk of lost income due to external factors, such as a highway change or a major demographic shift.

Assessors and their staff consider themselves professionals meriting respect as public servants. To achieve any result from conversing with them, they should be dealt with accordingly.

At the conclusion of the meeting, be sure to document any agreement reached.



Jerome Wallach is a partner at The Wallach Law Firm in St. Louis, the Missouri State 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
04

Value the Dirt or the Dollars?

Property taxes should reflect the value of the real estate being taxed, not the needs of governmental entities that share in the tax. However, assessors are under increasing pressure to maintain or enhance property tax revenue. The result is a growing and improper tendency by assessors to use the success of the enterprise occurring in the real estate as an indicator of taxable property value.

Value is the amount a willing and knowledgeable buyer would pay a willing and knowledgeable seller to acquire a property as of a certain date. This simple concept has engendered volumes of appraisal books, hours of testimony and endless discussion of how to segregate the real estate component from the whole of an enterprise.

The willing buyer, willing seller standard mandates the property is available for a buyer's use on the date of sale. For value purposes, any enterprise carried on within the property is absent on the date of sale. The buyer is not buying the business or any part of the business, only the place where the business operates.

The success of the business is independent from the property in which it operates; to approach valuation otherwise leads to invalid and inequitable results. An example would be a building designed and used as a single-screen cinema. One week it features a popular and highly promoted movie, and during that week the ticket sales are great. The theater is full and ticket lines extend outside for each showing. The following week the movie house runs a bad film, and ticket sales are low or non-existent.

To include enterprise value as a component of the value of the real property is to say the theater building is worth more the week it shows a popular movie than when it screens a flop. Meanwhile, a retail building is no more than a structure in which goods enter from the loading dock and exit the front in customers' hands, leaving money or credit behind. Effectively, the building is a conduit for an activity which could occur anywhere in that submarket.

There is little doubt that successful operations will garner higher property taxes than weaker businesses, which is unfair. To some extent, the assessor punishes the taxpayer for a successful enterprise, all too frequently raising the concept of sales per square foot as justification. This rationale also applies to big box national retailers as well as your local mom-and-pop barbeque joint.

Some businesses require government licenses, which may be site-specific and limited to certain people or entities. They do business in properties of specific design that are not easily modified to other uses. Bank charters and licenses for liquor sales or casino gambling are limited to specific facilities at a specific location. What value do these properties hold after the business leaves? Pull the license off the walls, now determine the value of a building that once was one of these enterprises. So, when the old home-town bank building no longer houses a bank, what is it worth?

By law, the former bank building is worth no more or no less than when a bank operated there.

To value it in use is to value the banking activity that occurred there. Taxing business activity isn't an element of property tax at all; it is an enterprise tax, impermissible and unauthorized by law.

Brick-and- mortar retailers are under attack from ecommerce, and the public is subjected daily to photos of dying malls and struggling shopping centers. It is widely accepted that the value of a shopping center drops when the anchor tenant vacates. But the taxable value should be unchanged, because the hypothetical buyer is purchasing a property ready for occupancy.

The prosperous business should not be punished for its success by the improper valuation of the place where the success happens. Dealing with the assessor, the owner must argue that taxable valuation is based on the property being vacant. That means the current occupant is presumed gone on the date of sale.

Any other approach values the enterprise occurring there.

Jerome Wallach is a partner at the Wallach Law Firm, the Missouri 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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May
25

Property Tax Tip: Beware of Misleading Comp Sales

Are you challenging an assessment?  

A veteran tax attorney urges a close look at sales comps used by the assessor, which may not reflect your asset's true market value.

To estimate a property’s value for taxation, assessors customarily draw on in-house databases.  Sales chosen for comparison are selected on the basis of general characteristics, such as location, use and zoning.

However, those characteristics do not tell the entire story. To begin with, databases are neither designed nor maintained to record crucial details. Although buyer motivation is assumed to be implicit within the transaction that information is rarely included, if ever.

In practice, no two property sales are identical. In order for the assessor to draw value conclusions, comparisons must reflect adjustments for the unique characteristics affecting the price. A real property transaction may meet one standard of a market sale: the arm’s-length test, which establishes that the buyer and seller are independent and acting in their own interest.

FINDING THE MOTIVE

Nevertheless, the taxpayer must examine the buyer’s motivation, which may very well turn out to disqualify the transaction as a comparable market sale. If the buyer’s needs are unique to that transaction, reflecting a motive that other investors are unlikely to share or value, that disqualifies the exchange as a valid transaction for comparison.

The assessor’s records should include such basic information as the buyer and seller, the property’s size and location and the closing date. This provides a starting point for further inquiry.

In many instances, the needs of the seller or buyer create an exchange value unique to the parties and do not reflect market value. They may include one or more of the following situations.

Strategic premium. The buyer under this scenario is protecting its own enterprise by eliminating opportunities for competitors to move into its trade area. An owner of convenience stores that sell gasoline, for example, may acquire sites likely to attract other operators, impose deed restrictions that preclude competition, and resell the restricted property. To that convenience-store owner, the value of the deal is to enhance sales volume by eliminating competition. Other categories of retail chains may employ the strategy. One big-box retailer typically imposes deed restrictions on sites it vacates, thus thwarting competitors from moving into its former space.

Part of a larger deal. The assignment of value within a portfolio transaction is always subject to question. When investors buy multiple properties in a single deal, they may be compelled to take on some under-performing assets along with the most desirable ones. For that reason, values assigned to individual assets in the transaction may be arbitrary, or at best driven by other priorities, not the least of which may be depreciation schedules for federal tax purposes.

Unique buyer needs. A business that must expand its footprint to keep growing has two choices: Buy the property next door, or move to a larger location. The value of the neighboring property to that buyer does not necessarily reflect how the market would typically value the property, but indicates only the buyer’s need at that time.

Sale-leasebacks. The transfer of a property with a leaseback agreement is more a financing arrangement than a conventional sale. It generates cash for the seller and returns to the buyer through lease payments that may bear little or no relation to actual market lease rates. The value in exchange lies in the entirety of the arrangement, which is essentially equivalent to a loan secured by a deed of trust that includes outside collateral.

Assemblage. In order to create a parcel large enough to meet its needs, a buyer may acquire several tracts to create a single property. The individual parcels cease to exist separately and become an undefined part of the new, larger assemblage. Sometimes the owner of the key tract—perhaps the final one required to complete the assemblage—is able to extract a higher price than the property would otherwise command. To the buyer, it is a must-have piece without which the project cannot be completed. Since the buyer pays more than the market value, the excessive price is an unreliable barometer.

These examples demonstrate that the values an assessor references as comparable purchase prices may well be misleading. Indeed, the prices paid for those assets regularly stem from strategic priorities, rather than from actual market. By carefully examining the assessor’s database of comparable sales, taxpayers can reduce property assessments that do not reflect the fair market value of a property.

 

Wallach90Jerome Wallach is the senior partner in The Wallach Law Firm based in St. Louis, Missouri. The firm is the Missouri member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Jerry Wallach can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Feb
29

Beware of Excessive Property Taxes After Government Condemnations

Easements negatively affect a property's utility and desirability, reducing its fair market value.

Property valuation for tax purposes shares a common basis with condemnation law when it comes to the impact on property owner rights.

In practical terms, imposing an easement or taking a portion of a property devalues that real estate.

Property owners have a clear legal remedy for compensation when the government takes any of the bundle of rights inherent to property ownership. There is no prescribed procedure, however, that automatically adjusts taxable property value when the government burdens the property through some form of taking.

The property owner must step up and declare that the property is being subjected to a double hit: (1) the loss of some property rights for which compensation presumably was paid; (2) the continued excessive tax burden resulting from the assessor's failure to recognize the value loss commensurate with the taking of some right or rights that contributed to the property's prior value.

The Other Shoe Drops

How do properties burdened by government easements and partial takings suffer a double value loss?

First, the use of the property for some public purpose limits its usefulness to the owner, and therefore reduces its marketability. Second, the property owner incurs an ongoing cost in unfair taxation when the assessor fails to adjust to the diminished value and reduce the value for assessment purposes.

A typical example is a taking for a utility easement across a property. The owner and government will either negotiate a price paid for the easement, or a condemnation proceeding will determine just compensation.

The government acquires the easement legally, typically paying money to do so. Yet the acquisition imposes a value loss on the remainder of the property, a loss that goes unnoted and unacknowledged by the taxing authority.

There are small differences between the loss in value resulting from the imposition of an ·easement or the taking of the fee interest in the affected property, but all takings for a public purpose result in value loss to the remainder of the real estate.

Encumbrances All Around

Some examples of loss resulting from the imposition of an easement, be it a power line, sewer line, green space or pipeline, are the interference with or elimination of future development or use of the property. There is a loss of peaceful enjoyment and use of the property during the construction and development stage, as well as the continued inhibition of full use of the property in perpetuity.

The holder of the easement rights will also have the power forever to re-enter the property to maintain, repair, alter and expand its use within the easement. That right of access usually includes a right of ingress or egress over the whole property as required to get equipment and personnel to the easement.

For instance, agricultural properties subservient to easements, such as for power lines, are subjected to maintenance and repair crews corning to repair the lines and crossing through cultivated fields. Since the lines are most often damaged during storms, the fields will be at their most vulnerable to damage and resultant crop loss.

The crop-loss scenario is equally adaptable to urban commercial property. A sewer line running under the parking lot of a big-box store, a power line across a convenience store entrance, a water line in front of a fast food restaurant, are all subject to failure or modification that could interfere with the enterprise operating on the property.

The point is that the encumbered property, if offered for sale, will not obtain the same price as a competing property that is unencumbered by such a burden.

Calculate the loss

The basic measure of compensation to acquire an easement is the fair market value of the property before the taking versus the fair market value after the taking. The difference between those values represents the compensable loss to the owner.

Assessors ignore this statutory standard, failing to recognize that a property burdened by public easements does not command the same value as unburdened or less burdened properties of similar use.

Properties that have lost size as a result of a taking for public use suffer an even greater value loss to the remainder of the asset. Assessors will typically use some database to justify their value assessment, confronting the taxpayer with statistics. The assessor will rely on market data such as asserting that hotels sell for $X per room, Class A office space for $Y per square foot, convenience stores on one-acre lots for $Z and so on.

But a commercial property diminished in size is invariably diminished in desirability, if not in outright utility.

A very small strip of land taken in front of a fast food restaurant may result in an inferior access. A taking from an office building parking lot may result in a lack of adequate parking that is usually required. The taking may render the entire property nonconforming because setback requirements and building-to-land ratios no longer meet local ordinances.

Assessors rarely, if ever, re-value properties after a taking through eminent domain or a threat of it, and lower the assessed value to reflect the property's lost competitiveness in the marketplace.

The fast food store owner knows that hamburger sales suffer after a street widening or change of access. A shopping center manager knows how diminished parking affects business. Hotel management knows the negative result of lost visibility due to a highway project. The list could go on.

The point is that easements and other takings inflict observable damage on a commercial property's utility and desirability. They all result in lost fair market value, with no acknowledgement by assessors.

Property owners appealing their tax assessments should quantify this value loss and present this data to property tax decision makers. Anything less than a fair adjustment would be an unfair, further burden to the property owner already encumbered by the public use.

Wallach90Jerome Wallach is the senior partner in The Wallach Law Firm based in St. Louis, Missouri. The firm is the Missouri member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Jerry Wallach can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Apr
30

Fallacious Cap Rates Unfairly Increase Tax Burden

Commercial property owners must challenge burdensome and unfair property taxes, and more often than not that task requires challenging the assessor’s assumption of a market cap rate.

The process may begin as informal meetings with assessing authorities, followed by administrative appeals and ultimately, if needed, court proceedings. The parties to these dialogues all recognize that the preferred method to determine the value of commercial properties is the income approach, and will usually agree on the factual elements related to the value calculation.

The most critical element in the income approach is the cap rate, however, and that point is also the most likely source of disagreement.

Cap rates by nature are subject to opinion and manipulation, because cap rates reflect judgments of multiple factors. In defending their value opinion, assessors frequently cite a “market-derived cap rate.” While there is some validity to determining a cap rate from sales of similar properties in the same market, the method as widely used by assessors yields errant results.

Sometimes the assessor’s market-derived cap rate is supported by sales, but the assessor rarely provides an analysis of those sales, showing some performance history of the sold properties. The assessor simply matches market income against the sale price, magically determining a cap rate. The assessor then applies the rate thus determined to case after case, in a one-size-fits-all analysis. It’s all pretty impressive and takes on an air of finality, as if carried down from the mountain on stone tablets.

The fallacy is that a cap rate derived as described bears no relevance to the value of the commercial real estate under appeal.

The assessor, by law, is limited to valuing real property. But the sales used as the basis for the assessor’s market-derived cap rate are the sales of entire enterprises, and consequently indicate value for the entire enterprise. It fails to achieve the goal of finding a value indicator of the real property that houses the enterprise.

The cap rate derived from sales of going concerns is different from one derived from sales of the properties that the enterprises occupy.

Taxpayers must challenge the assessor’s market-derived cap rate to achieve equitable taxation. The flawed methodology is as inappropriate as using the sales comparison approach of going concerns to determine real property value.

The enterprise value cap rate is based on the return on the investment, in the form of property value appreciation and rental income, plus the return of the investment in the form of business revenue. In addition to tangible components, enterprise value entails tax-exempt intangibles such as advertising, a trained work force, market niches or dominance, furniture, fixtures, affiliation such as franchise rights, all of which must be separated from the real property component in a property tax assessment.

Real property value is just one component of enterprise value, so an assessor’s market-derived cap rate that fails to segregate non-real-estate components is useless in valuing the property.

Plan of attack

Prepare to challenge an assessment by analyzing the assessor’s data base used in the valuation. What sold, and at what sale price? Investors buy and sell commercial properties as going concerns, which may generate returns that are more or less than the return from the property alone.

Consider the design and function of the properties used in the assessor’s data base as compared to the subject property. For instance, an assessor in the Midwest recently valued a large corporate headquarters building using a market-derived cap rate. Its data base consisted of regional office building sales, including gross income at the time of sale, sales price, size and location. It used market rents to determine property income.

The assessors study used sales of fully occupied, multitenant buildings, then applied that information to a single-tenant structure which had been designed as a national corporate headquarters and was roughly 33 percent occupied. Typical of such studies, the data was inapplicable to the single-tenant, largely vacant subject building.

To say that the going concern cap rate for hotels is X, or that the rate for golf courses is Y, fails to shed light on the cap rate for the real property component of a property.

Market-derived cap rate studies invariably end up being used as indicators—at best—of the value of going concerns, of which one component may be real property. They may look impressive, even somewhat persuasive, but they must be carefully reviewed to determine just what they represent, otherwise the taxpayer may be saddled with a grossly excessive property tax assessment.

Wallach90Jerome Wallach is the senior partner in The Wallach Law Firm based in St. Louis, Missouri. The firm is the Missouri member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Jerry Wallach can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Nov
18

How Government Machinations Can Slash Property Tax Liability

Taxpayers and tax professionals researching market conditions to determine fair market value should consider any impending government actions. Even a rumor of a government project that would require acquisition of a property through eminent domain, or would impose restrictions on future use, can reduce the property's market value and taxable value.

Property values begin to suffer even before community leaders approve the final plans or begin work on such a project. That's because the belief that the project will occur places a cloud on the property owner's ability to sell and on the price attainable in a sale.

A potential buyer would be reluctant to acquire a property that will be involved in future condemnation litigation, with its inherent costs and delays, nor would a buyer welcome the uncertainty that those plans place on the property's future use.

The government taking may not involve acquisition of the property as a whole. Rather, it may remove some rights of use through restricting zoning, creation of conservation corridors or the diversion or rerouting of traffic, for example.

The property value declines because the wheels are turning to take away some of the rights of ownership, perhaps as much as 100 percent of those rights. The property owner carries the burden of convincing the taxing authority of diminished value resulting from rumored or pending acts of government.

Fair market value determinations must match reality. A title search would not reveal the threat of a government taking, but the valuation process cannot assume clear title in the face of the cloud imposed by the contemplated taking of some of the owner's bundle of rights.

An array of public improvements has the potential to affect property values, with an equally wide range of implications for taxable value. "They sky is falling because a highway is coming through here someday" is at the extreme, but other property owners may learn of the future imposition of a conservation easement on coastal properties, or a restriction on land use, allowable sign dimensions, or other rights. Any of these limitations would have a direct and immediate effect on value.

Calculate the damage

When the reality of a government action hits, it may take up to 100 percent of the property's fair market value. The taxpayer should weigh the seriousness of the threat and the probability and timing of it actually occurring. Then the taxpayer should measure the weighted estimate against the value of the property without the threat.

If the property is in "the path of progress," questions to consider in determining its value are: Who will buy it? What is its anticipated economic life? And what purpose will it serve?

First, determine the seriousness of the threat. What is the likelihood of it occurring? Next, calculate the remaining life of the present use of the property in the face of the impending government action. If it is going to happen, when will that be?

In the case of projected highway takings, the probability is high. Once announced, the highway's completion is almost assured. The present use has a limited and uncertain life.

Market observations show that buyers avoid properties in the path of progress. The development of a highway project is a time-consuming process that can hang over a property for years, suppressing value.

Another diminishing value aspect of an impending road taking is that the property/s neighbors may defer, or altogether cease, to maintain their properties, a condition sometimes called "condemnation blight." Broken windows won't be replaced, leaking roofs won't get patched and buyers won't buy. Buyers will purchase, however, a competing property unthreatened by condemnation.

Regulatory threats

Anticipated or threatened taking for regulatory reasons likewise diminishes market value. Suppressed industrial expansion is one example, such as when a local authority announces it doesn't want noise or the use of industrial-use pollutants in proximity to a new residential development.

The force of regulation frequently drives industrial uses away from new residential development or expanding metropolitan uses. Community leaders may deem junkyards or outdoor storage undesirable and force those uses away. Forcing such uses away from the metropolitan area threatens future use of local properties, and therefore limits property value.

Taxpayers need to help taxing authorities understand that the portion of the government that weakens property values by taking away property rights should suffer the resulting loss of property taxes.

Wallach90Jerome Wallach is the senior partner in The Wallach Law Firm based in St. Louis, Missouri. The firm is the Missouri member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Jerry Wallach can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Oct
19

Use Quality Data to Fight Unfair Tax Assessments

Owners appealing unfair tax assessments must aggressively and specifically examine the general economic climate.

"While area bankers express high hopes for the coming year, that optimism is not reflected in actual lending practices for the past year. According to the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, commercial and industrial loan volume in the United States totaled $16.4 billion in 2012, up slightly from $14 billion in 2011."

By accident or design, assessors tend to punish commercial property owners by increasing the assessed value of properties that outperform the market, thereby generating more taxes for the local government. The problem arises from real property valuations based upon a cash flow analysis, which fails to take into account intangible qualities that boost cash flow but are unconnected to intrinsic real estate value.

Intangible qualities that can increase a commercial property's cash flow include the skills of the management and general business reputation of the owners. Assessors have a tendency to value the business rather than the real property. Consequently, assessors punish owners for efficient and successful management. In order to guard against such an outcome, owners appealing unfair tax assessments must aggressively and specifically examine the general economic climate. In analyzing commercial property, appraisers dedicate pages within each appraisal report to the local economy. Time after time, appellate reviewers in their rush to focus on the cash flow of the specific property simply skip over the plethora of general economic data that fills appraisal reports.

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Two measures of local market performance are particularly important in appealing an assessment, however. One metric is retail sales, which provide a clear barometer of general economic conditions. Sales reflect the health of the consumer base and, most notably, employment. With diminished employment, sales fall in the marketplace. The other dataset to examine is the availability of credit for commercial property acquisition and/or development. While valuation authorities rarely acknowledge the relationship, retail sales and credit are inextricably linked.

Follow Sales Tax Receipts

A look at retail sales and availability of credit in the St. Louis marketplace provides a far better foundation for value analysis than do the population counts and various economic facts tacked onto assessors' reports.

In the city of St. Louis, total sales tax receipts increased every year from 2008 through 2012, with just a slight decline in 2010 (see chart). In 2013, however, the trend's trajectory has changed. The city of St. Louis has collected $30.7 million in sales tax receipts year-to-date through May, down 4.9 percent from $32.3 million during the same period a year ago.

Annual sales tax receipts for 2013 in St. Louis based were previously projected to reach just over $120 million based on the actual receipts for the first five months of 2013 and previous years' receipts during the last seven months of the year. However, the closing of a Macy's store in downtown St. Louis in May will dim this picture even further. Banks are feeling regulatory pressure to lower the concentration of commercial real estate loans in their portfolios. Lending to acquire or develop commercial buildings or residential subdivisions tanked during the Great Recession. Today, lenders give more scrutiny to a potential borrower's creditworthiness than before the downturn. The credit quality of borrowers or developers has in many respects become an important factor in the intrinsic value of the project or the real estate itself.

While area bankers express high hopes for the coming year, that optimism is not reflected in actual lending practices for the past year. According to the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, commercial and industrial loan volume in the United States totaled $16.4 billion in 2012, up slightly from $14 billion in 2011. Compared to the market's peak loan volume of $26 billion originated in 2008, credit availability in the sector is clearly constrained.

Focus On Fair Market Value

Property owners should keep in mind that the determination of fair market value is based upon not only a willing seller, but also a willing buyer. A willing buyer must obtain financing, and the St. Louis market has tightened up considerably in that regard. A tax appeal based on the scrutiny of credit availability and retail sales will go a long way toward ensuring that careful, prudent entrepreneurship and management will go unpunished by an excessive tax burden.

Wallach90 Jerome Wallach is a partner at The Wallach Law Firm, the Missouri 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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Sep
29

Combatting the Road Less Traveled

When an altered traffic route handicaps your retail center, it's time for an assessment appeal.

"Owners should appeal their property tax assessment immediately after a public announcement of a highway or road change that will divert traffic away from their property..."

By Jerome Wallach, Esq., as published by National Real Estate Investor, September 2011

Once motorists lose sight of the property or can no longer access it conveniently, customers stop coming. At the very least, an owner facing such a loss is entitled to a fair property tax bill that reflects the asset's diminished commercial value.

Owners should appeal their property tax assessment immediately after a public announcement of a highway or road change that will divert traffic away from their property. Don't wait for evidence of changing traffic counts. The damage to property value occurs when the public announcement of the traffic diversion is made.

Effect on value

Assessed values are based upon market value, and market value in turn is predicated on a willing buyer and a willing seller. A public announcement that traffic will be rerouted for a period of time is an external event that appraisers refer to as external obsolescence, or something beyond the perimeter of the property that has an impact upon the property's value. Altered traffic routes are something a prudent buyer would consider in determining what to pay for an asset.

The announcement of an impending traffic shift will affect properties in varying time sequences and severity. For instance, the economic lifespan of a highway commercial property such as a convenience store will be limited to the opening date of the new roadway. A prudent buyer will base the purchase price upon the net operating income for that economic life.

There could very well be some residual value after the opening of the new road, but certainly not for convenience-store purposes. The carcasses of functionally obsolete convenience stores can be viewed from any recently moved.

JWallach-graph

Calculating the loss

Determining the property value after a road realignment plan is announced requires the stabilization of the declining income over the predictable remaining life of the property.

Consider, for example, a strip retail center. After the announcement but before construction, there may be no observable effect on retail sales at the center. From the time that the yellow barrels go up and the construction starts, and through the opening of the new road, however, sales and tenancy will decline.

Assuming the center is functioning at 95% of its gross potential at the time of the announcement, there may be a slight drop-off in the first and second year. But assuming a three-year building period for the roadway, leases that expire are not likely to be renewed. Leases in place also are in danger because patronage is expected to decline subsequent to the road opening.

The tenant will lack the ability to make the rental payments and may walk away. As spaces within the center go Notesdark, the property will lose its synergy of crossover customers. At the end of a 10-year period after the announcement, the center will be either dark or attract only an inferior class of tenant, and will at best be a marginal performer.

The property owner must analyze this declining income stream to determine a stabilized income over the remaining economic life of the property. The capitalization rate is then applied to the stabilized income over the property's remaining life as opposed to using the historic data, which becomes meaningless in the face of the changing traffic pattern.

It is critical to remember that the property owner's loss of value occurs at the time the road relocation project is made public, not at some future date. Thus, delaying a tax assessment appeal will only add to the property owner's losses.

Wallach90Jerome Wallach is a partner in the law firm of The Wallach Law Firm, the Missouri 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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May
13

Direct Impact

Highway 40 reconstruction will reduce property values

"Local authorities appear to believe the interference with the traffic pattern will cause a short-term loss and a very positive long-term potential gain. However, the Federal Highway Administration concluded in a recent study that such projects result in "noise, loss of access, loss of parking, diversion of traffic, odors and emissions, loss of business profits and good will, interim construction loss, loss of use and loss of visibility."

By Jerome Wallach, Esq., as published by Midwest Real Estate News, May 2007

Owners of real property in the east-west corridor leading into the core city of St. Louis and the core city itself face a double "whammy" in 2007. First, on January 1, the two-year assessment tax cycle begins in Missouri. Then, in the spring of this year massive $535 millions rebuilding starts on the primary artery into the core city from the west. This reconstruction project on Highway 40 (also known as Interstate 64) is scheduled to close 10-and-a-half miles of this major artery into the city for at least three years. Past experience with highway projects has shown that forecasted completion dates are most often way too optimistic.

With assessors already in the process of reevaluating property for tax purposes and a major reconstruction project beginning in spring, assessors face the task projecting the impact this reconstruction project will have on property values along the Highway 40 corridor and in the core city. Office buildings, service businesses, light manufacturing and residences will suffer from dramatically decreased access, traffic jams, indirect routes extending commuting time and loss of traffic for retail and service outlets.

And all this happens just as the core area of St. Louis is beginning to feel the impact of the dramatic revitalization that has been ongoing over the last several years. One need only look at the new baseball stadium, the approved Ballpark Village with its shops and residences, the dynamic loft developments of shell buildings in the near downtown area and the expansion of Barnes Hospital in the West portion of the city. The revitalization has resulted in rising property values, representing good news for owners and investors. The good news turns bad for property values as the area contemplates the long reconstruction process.

Local authorities appear to believe the interference with the traffic pattern will cause a short-term loss and a very positive long-term potential gain. However, the Federal Highway Administration concluded in a recent study that such projects result in "noise, loss of access, loss of parking, diversion of traffic, odors and emissions, loss of business profits and good will, interim construction loss, loss of use and loss of visibility."

The negative aspects brought about by the reconstruction may well force owners of residential and commercial properties to offer rent abatements in order to hold onto tenants along the Highway 40 corridor and in the core city. Many commercial and residential tenants may just move out because of traffic snarls, noise and the mess of construction. Then, too, commercial tenants may just not be able to tolerate the diminished traffic and attendant loss of revenue and profit. All of this disruption means lower market values, which must result in lower property taxes if taxpayers are to be fairly taxed during the reconstruction period.

Owners should be alert and prepared to react to the new 2007 assessments with an appropriate tax appeal challenging the assessed valuation of a property that may be affected by the reconstruction project. The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission itself has recognized the decline in business and in occupancy that will result from the project. Comments by public officials demonstrate that various other government agencies know the project will prove bad for business on a short-term basis. Just how bad is an open question. Therefore, taxpayers with property in the Highway 40 area and in the core city must carefully review their assessments to ensure that the assessors have taken into account in their 2007-2008 valuations the negative impact of the reconstruction.

The due date for filling appeals from the assessments is the third Monday in June for St. Louis County and the second Monday in May for St. Louis. Two separate jurisdictions assess properties in the 40 corridor and the core city —- St. Louis County and the city of St. Louis. Taxpayers may find both take the position that the long term effect of a new highway will be beneficial to property values, thus, no interim dip in assessed values are appropriate. The contrary argument, and the one that makes the most sense, holds that in the next two years the market value of most properties in the reconstruction area and the core city will decline. To state it another way, the income stream of commercial properties will not grow until the highway projects is completed.

Since reassessment comes in the odd numbered year of the two-year cycle, the assessors have another shot at determining value as of January 1, 2009. The market at that time will tell the world whether property values have held constant, grown or declined during the reconstruction, which will still be in progress at the end of 2008. Until that time, taxpayers should be on guard and proactive in seeking proper reduction of their tax burden.

Wallach90Jerome Wallach is the senior partner in The Wallach Law Firm based in St. Louis, Missouri. The firm is the Missouri member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Jerry Wallach can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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