Menu

Property Tax Resources

Mar
28

Unfair Taxation? Governments Need to Fix the Right Problem

​Investors should be wary when taxing authorities single out properties to be assessed in a method that is inconsistent with the treatment of other taxpayers in the same class, says attorney Kieran Jennings.

Recently, The New York Times published an article on property taxes imposed on retailers under the headline "As Big Retailers Seek to Cut Their Tax Bills, Towns Bear the Brunt." This and similar articles question the fairness of how retailers have reduced their tax bills by using sales of unoccupied stores as comparable transactions to establish the assessed value for an occupied store.

The local government has cried foul, and the article concentrates on the perceived end result―lost revenue for government coffers.

What is missing from the article is basic tax law, which holds that all taxpayers in a given class must be taxed uniformly. Thus, the series of bad decisions that led local government to overtax retailers made communities dependent on inflated revenue. The initial mistake many assessors made was to seize upon sales prices associated with leased retail stores without critically examining the transactions.

Investors, and taxpayers in general, should be wary when taxing authorities single out properties to be assessed in a method that is inconsistent with the treatment of other taxpayers in the same class.

FUNDAMENTALS OF FAIRNESS

Most state constitutions specify that taxes must be uniformly assessed, which requires assessors to follow the same rules for all taxpayers within a class. At the most simplistic level, the rules of the game must be consistently applied to all and not changed to affect the outcome.

To understand how equally applied rules achieve fair taxation of property, bear in mind this fundamental truth: The assessor's goal is to measure the value of real estate only. Taxing entities then use that value to determine the tax. A lack of well-thought-out rules and procedures created the problem of non-uniform assessment.

Many states don't even have a clear definition of what they are trying to measure. States use terms such as "true value" or "true market value" without any further defining language. For most people, fair value simply means what a home would sell for in an open-market transaction. But commercial real estate is not that simple and requires clear definitions applied uniformly to all taxpayers.

Commercial property values are influenced by many factors unrelated to real estate. Consider how, under various circumstances, the same property might sell for wildly different values: An owner-occupied property will sell based on what the market will pay for the building once it is vacant, either for the new owner to occupy or as an investment for the buyer to lease-out at market terms.

The same property, were it leased at an above-market rental rate or to a highly credit-worthy tenant, functions much like a bond and will sell based on a market capitalization rate and for a greater price than the owner-occupied property.

Finally, the same property leased with long-term, below-market lease terms or a less credit-worthy tenant might sell for less than the owner-occupied price or the above-market-leased example. In each scenario, the same property sells for different amounts. Without a clear set of guidelines, establishing value based on sales price would be inconsistent even for a single property, much less an entire class.

Of the three scenarios, the only method that can be replicated consistently and applied to owners of both leased and owner-occupied real estate alike is that of the owner-occupied property. Owner-occupied interest is the unencumbered, fee-simple interest, which makes it the measuring stick common to all taxpayers. All other interests are influenced by non-real-estate factors such as lease terms or business value.

MORE CONFUSION

Adding to the confusion is the ever-changing commercial real estate sector, where market data is full of sales that include non-real-estate influences. The single-tenant market, for example, has evolved from almost exclusively retailer occupancy to include specialty uses and even nursing homes and hospitals.

The assessment goal should be to measure the real estate value alone, ensuring that all taxpayers are taxed with the same measuring stick, but confusion comes in when the sales alone don't indicate real estate value. Leased sales indicate the value of the real estate along with the tenant's credit-worthiness, the life of the lease and a host of other factors that can include enterprise zones and outside influences.

The court cases that are clarifying the methodology and the measuring stick appear to reduce assessments, when they are actually correcting the assessments and requiring assessors to value the same interests for all taxpayers. Defining terms and ensuring rule uniformity protects all taxpayers. There is no foul to be called and the losses affecting some local governments are the result of their own mistakes.

The cure is simple, but the short-term pain for community coffers is significant. States must establish clear definitions and guidelines around property rights so that assessors can value all real estate without encumbrances. Local governments cannot rely on a single taxpayer subset to carry the tax burden.

J. Kieran Jennings is a partner in the law firm of Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
Continue reading
Sep
01

Don't Let Taxing Authorities Kill Your Deal

Tips from a veteran attorney on handling the assessments that can spell the difference between a successful closing and coming up short.

Almost every week, I get calls from brokers or investors who want to know how property taxes could impact a potential purchase. With property taxes forming the largest variable expense in most real estate acquisitions, investors should question the tax implications of every deal.

In some jurisdictions, the effective property tax can reach 5 percent of market value, so an unexpected increase can cause a deal to go under. With planning and an understanding of the local environment, however, investors can fully appreciate the risks and expenses, and may be able to come in with a winning bid in a tight market.

Most of the inquiries I receive relate to properties in Ohio or Pennsylvania, where school districts can, and do, file appeals to raise taxes on real estate. In those states, the aggressor is often a school board that seeks to value an asset based on its recent sale price. In other states, it may be the county assessor. Some states have deemed it unconstitutional to "chase" sales in setting taxable value.

Know your district

Knowing which states have aggressive taxing authorities can reveal potential problems, but familiarity with those agencies and their personnel is the key to deciding whether to walk away from a deal or to stay and find a creative solution, resulting in a deal that is favorable to everyone.

An examination of any real estate purchase, whether office, retail, hotel, etc., in the context of various taxing districts' behavior illustrates the importance of thoroughly knowing your taxing authority. In all the following examples, assume that the property is uniformly assessed and that the current assessment is consistent with the value of competing properties.

Also assume that the property is assessed for less than the proposed sale price, and that increasing taxable value to the amount of the purchase price would ruin the deal.The first example takes the case of a taxing district with an aggressive, unyielding district attorney. The tax district's counsel is unwilling or unable to see that the tax increase will end up lowering the property's value below the purchase price.

In this scenario, the assessment is raised to the purchase price, which becomes part of the tax budget. Since taxing entities typically establish tax rates based on the overall assessment of the community, the tax district only gets a single year's increase in tax revenue. In subsequent years, the newly increased tax burden weighs down the property's market value, ending in an eventual refund of taxes. The net effect is a loss for the district and a loss for the taxpayer, though the taxpayer eventually recovers some of those losses. It is altogether a lose-lose situation.

Big gambles

The relatively passive school district occasionally files an increase appeal and generally isn't driven to get the last penny from the taxpayer. At first this seems like a good situation. Although a passive district may be less difficult to deal with than a more aggressive counterpart, it still leaves the buyer with a great deal of uncertainty. Risking large sums of money on chance is gambling, not investing.

The advice to the investor in a passive district rests greatly upon the taxpayer's risk tolerance, and upon local counsel's experience with how cases are typically settled. In some instances, the investor could assume that the case would be settled similarly to past cases. This requires counsel that has enough experience with the district to gauge the risk as well as the possible outcome. It also requires that the buyer fully understand the nature of the risk.

Finally, there are districts with counsel that is both reasonable and creative. In that situation, attorneys have been able to resolve tax questions with the district in advance of closing. This allows for the obvious decrease in risk. As in the previous example, it takes a great deal of experience with the opposing attorney.

Of note, approaching a district early can produce a better result. Taxing authorities have become more likely to pursue appeals of assessments, and the chances that a sale will go unnoticed—and that an assessment will go unchanged—are becoming slimmer.

Due diligence means more than determining what might happen; it requires arranging the deal to whatever extent is possible to bring about the desired outcome. Paper the file with an appraisal that satisfies any allocations, and make notations in the purchase agreement that support the tax strategy.

Being able to explain the nature of the purchase later in a tax hearing is important, but having facts and documents that support those assertions is much more valuable. With the right opportunity and preparation, an investor may be able to enter into an acquisition while eliminating risk that has driven away the competition.

J. Kieran Jennings is a Partner at the law firm Siegel Jennings Co, L.P.A., which has offices in Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The firm is the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel. Kieran can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
Continue reading
Jul
07

Lifting the Veil on Chicago and Cook County Real Estate Taxes

It seems like politics watchers and the news media like to establish a veil of mystery around Cook County tax assessments. And although it sells papers and conjures an atmosphere of the unknown, the most important thing to know about tax relief in Cook County is the role of market value in assessments and how taxes are  calculated.

On June 13, taxing entities announced that tax rates in the City of Chicago would be going up approximately 10 percent. The second installment 2016 tax bills were scheduled to be published around July 1 with a very short payment deadline of Aug. 1, 2017. Those bills will reflect all changes to assessments, as well as the new tax  rates.

Tax increases make good headlines, but the increases were not a real surprise. The large anticipated property tax increases arise from a local ordinance designed to recapture a portion of the City of Chicago's and Chicago Public Schools' large budget deficits and pension plan deficits. This local real estate tax increase resulted from the absence any current resolution of the continuing budgetary stalemate between the general assembly and the governor's office in Springfield, Illinois.

The table below illustrates the potential real estate tax increase that could result from the projected 9.3 percent 2016 tax increase from the previous year's tax bills. It addresses a commercial property in Chicago which had a $10 million assessor's fair market value in 2015, considering the projected 2016 property tax increase of about 10  percent.

Projected Tax Bill
$10 million commercial property

 

2015

2016

Market value

10 million

10 million

x 25 percent assessment ratio

  

Assessed value

2.5 million

2.5 million

Equalization factor

2.6685

2.8032

Equalized assessment

$6,671,250

$7,008,000

Tax rate

6.867 percent

7.145 percent

Tax bill (increase 9.3 percent)

$458,114.74

$500,721.60

News outlets made a splash over the approximate 10 percent increase in the tax rate. However, to satisfy the needs associated with funding police, fire and schools, it is likely that there will be future tax increases over and above that initial 10 percent.

What to do? First, understand that a tax challenge is not surrounded by intrigue. Individuals can very easily appeal their assessments to the assessor. Taxpayers that present good facts and arguments following sound appraisal theory will often find some tax relief. Property owners can take a further appeal to the board of review and beyond. However, at the board level, corporate taxpayers require an attorney.

There are a number of practical arguments to consider. One is to pursue an argument based solely on the assessment as compared to the actual market value of the property, considering the contract rents in  place.

Another is taking what appears to be the opposite approach. When arguing about uniformity, taxpayers look toward the general market. In short, assessments should reflect current market rents and not necessarily the actual contract rent at the subject property.

Taxpayers should also consider market occupancy with an eye toward the limitations of the subject property. These arguments  work best when submitted to the board along with reliable appraisal evidence as supporting material.

From a practical standpoint, a uniformity argument hits close to the response that most taxpayers want, which is to be taxed in a similar manner as their neighbors or competitors in similarly situated  properties.

Most assessments are sub-arguments to the income, sales and cost approaches to determining value. The assessors and boards heavily favor the income approach for commercial properties.

Thus by understanding the limitations of the subject property, the taxpayer can argue his own case or be better able to assist tax professionals in establishing the most accurate assessment for the property. There are no smoke and mirrors required, just sound judgment.

 

jbrown kieran jennings

J. Kieran Jennings is a Partner at the law firm Siegel Jennings Co, L.P.A., which has offices in Cleveland and Pittsburgh.  The firm is the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel. Kieran can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..   Jeffrey Brown is an attorney at the law firm of Fisk Kart Katz and Regan LTD.  The firm is the Illinois member of American Property Tax Counsel.  Jeffrey can be reached at jbrown@proptax.

Continue reading
Jul
01

Is Your Hotel Paying Too Much Property Tax?

The value of a hotel for purposes of tax assessment is not the same number as its value as a going concern.  Understanding the difference between the two will save the hotel owner from an excessive property tax bill.

For assessors, the challenge is to correctly distinguish taxable assets from the non-taxable, and therein lies both a problem and an opportunity. By fully separating the assets, the property owner may reduce its taxes. But failing to properly prove the allocation results in the owner paying real estate taxes on non-real estate—and likely non-taxable property.

Let’s step back for a moment and note that hotel operation comprises four closely related asset components: land; the building or buildings; furniture, fixtures and equipment; and the business itself.

The main distinction here is that land and buildings are taxable as real estate, whereas the business components and fixtures, furniture and equipment are not. Nevertheless, each asset component is tightly linked to the others in making up the value of the going concern.

Reckoning Value

Because these assets are investments, each must generate income to justify its cost. Calculating the return of and on these investments can serve to separate the asset’s value from the going concern and isolate the real estate value.

Clearly, room revenue in a hotel operation is based on more than nightly room charges; it also includes income attributable to the furnishings and services. Separating the value of furniture, fixtures and equipment is the obvious first step to allocating the assets. Assuming that the taxpayer can make a supportable estimate of the market value of the fixtures, furniture and equipment, the taxpayer can then subtract the value attributable to the use of, and profit from,  those items. In other words, the value calculation should recognize both a return of—and a return on—furniture, fixtures and equipment.

To be sure, furnishings are hardly the only investment in hotel operations. Services such as marketing and reservation systems, food and beverage, recreational amenities, and quality of the flag or brand, among other components, all contribute to the property’s value.

These cost centers are business assets that are part of the going concern, but they are not taxable as real estate. Still, many assessors mistakenly accept only the removal of the depreciated cost of the furniture, fixtures and equipment, and erroneously attribute the full net operating income to the real estate. Crucially, that includes the non-taxable business income associated with the hotel operation.

In order to pay tax only on the real estate, property owners should allocate value to the non-taxable business assets. That step allows the owner to more accurately segregate the value of the real estate from the going concern.

Robust Debate

Within the valuation community, there is robust debate over the extent of items related to business value that should be removed from the going concern. Some appraisers go so far as to assign a value to the initial investment in personnel and training, while others may just remove the food and beverage component and apply a rent to the restaurant or meeting space.

Make no mistake: Appraisers and courts agree that a business value component exists. When that value is clearly demonstrated and the valuation is properly supported, courts and appraisers will also agree that it should be removed from the going concern in order to isolate the real estate. Until persuaded otherwise, however, taxing authorities usually take the position that expenses associated with hotel cost centers offset the income, and the management and franchise fees cover all of the business and intangible values associated with a hotel.

Blending the contributory value of the furnishings and business with the real estate is a disservice to the taxpayer and unjustifiably burdens the property with an excessive fixed cost. A well-developed real estate appraisal for a lodging property will go beyond addressing the value of the going concern, and will also analyze each asset category to correctly identify the taxable real estate component. By drilling down into the operation of the property and segregating the asset components, a capable valuation expert may be able to offer some relief to the taxpayer.

The final key to minimize taxes is local knowledge. This requires an understanding of the jurisdiction and the methodologies that local tax assessors find acceptable, and knowing the personalities of opposing counsel and appraisers. Many ideas surround asset allocation, and knowing which ones to employ may keep hotel owners from overpaying real estate taxes.

KJennings90

Anthony Barna jpeg

J. Kieran Jennings is a partner in the law firm of Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania 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..

Anthony C. Barna, MAI, SRA, is a principal of Pittsburgh appraisal firm Kelly\Rielly\Nell\Barna Associates.   He specializes in appraisal and consulting for litigatgion support.  He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..                                                         


     

 

 

 

Continue reading
Apr
15

Valuation Education

How to spot - and challenge - unfair tax bills
Even if there is life left in this market cycle, commercial property owners should maximize returns now in preparation for the next buyer’s market, whenever it may begin. Property tax is one of the largest expenses for most owners, so protecting the property, investment and tenants requires a thorough understanding of the tax system. With that understanding, the taxpayer will be better equipped to spot an inflated assessment and contest unfair tax bills.

Keep it (fee) simple
Merely knowing for how much a property would sell is insufficient to ensure proper taxation. Specifically, taxpayers need to know fair taxation starts with a fair measurement of value.

The assessment is the measurement to which taxing entities apply the tax rate. In order to treat all taxpayers uniformly, assessors must measure the fee simple value of the property, or the value without any encumbrance other than police power.

Why is that important? The principle is that a leased property and an identical owner occupied property, valued on the same date and under the same market conditions, would be taxed the same. By contrast, leased fee value or value affected by encumbrances can vary greatly, even between identical properties. The concept is simple; the application, not so simple.

Assessors and courts alike struggle to determine an asset’s fundamental real estate value because their primary source of data is leased-fee sales, or sales priced to reflect cash flow from existing leases. Several courts across the country have understood the necessity to assess properties uniformly and have mandated that assessors adjust sales data to reflect the unencumbered value of the real estate.

In Ohio, the state Supreme Court ruled that an appraiser who was valuing an unencumbered property had to adjust the sale prices of comparable properties to reflect the fact that the subject property was unencumbered (by leases, for example) and would therefore likely sell for less. The decision recognized that an encumbered sale is affected by factors besides the fundamental value of the real estate.

Courts across the country have been wrestling with the fee simple issue. For real estate professionals, the idea that tenancy, lease rates, credit worthiness and other contractual issues affect value is commonplace. In order to tax in a uniform manner, however, assessors must strip non-market and non-property factors from the asset to value the property’s bare bricks, sticks and dirt.

Doing the math
Although part of the purchase price, contractual obligations and other valuable tenant-related attributes are not components of real estate. What is part of the real estate is the value attributable to what the property might command in rent as of a specific date. This may appear to be splitting hairs, but the difference between values based on these calculations can be significant.

In the first instance, the landlord and tenant have a contractual obligation. For example, suppose the rent a tenant pays under a 20-year-old lease were $30 per square foot. If the tenant were to vacate, however, that space might only rent for $10 per square foot today. The additional $20 per square foot premium is in the value of the contract, not the value of the real estate. Moreover, the contract only holds that value if the market believes the tenant is creditworthy and will continue to pay an above-market price.

When the tenant vacates, it’s the real estate itself that determines the current market-rate lease of $10.

Good data, good results
Identifying an inflated assessment brings the taxpayer halfway to a solution. Step two is finding the best way to challenge the inappropriate assessment. Each state has its own tax laws and history of court decisions, but a few key principles will help taxpayers achieve a fee simple value.

First, sales and rents must have been exposed to the open market. A lease based on construction and acquisition costs reflects only the cost of financing the acquisition and construction of a building, not market prices.

Another principle assessors often fail to apply is that the data they use must be proximate to the date of the tax assessment. Therefore, a lease established years before the assessment is not proximate, even if the lease itself is still current.

What does make for good data is a lease that has been exposed to the open market, where the property was already built when the landlord and tenant agreed to terms free of compulsion. Equally reliable is the sale of a vacant and available property, or where the lease in place reflects market terms proximate to the assessment date.

Taxpayers who challenge assessments that are not based on fee simple values help themselves maintain market occupancy costs, which will in turn lead to better leasing opportunities and retention of tenants.

KJennings90J. Kieran Jennings is a partner in the law firm of Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania 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..

Continue reading
Jul
22

Use Vigilance To Lower Tax Assessments

A firm understanding of how assessors apply market data locally comes in handy for savvy owners.

The real estate market is flourishing, as articles in Heartland Real Estate Business seem to confirm. Recent headlines such as “General Contractors are off to a Running Start,” and “Speculative Industrial Construction is Making a Come Back in St. Louis Market,” certainly are encouraging to readers.

But investors must remain diligent in keeping their assessed property values in check, or risk paying for their complacency later.

By monitoring assessments and challenging them when necessary, taxpayers can maximize profit and stay competitive when the cycle inevitably reaches its peak and the market begins to slide.

To minimize taxes, every taxpayer should understand the property tax system. That requires a grasp of local market dynamics and how assessors apply market data in establishing assessments.

Real estate taxes are merely a function of the tax rate multiplied by the assessment. The assessment is the measure that, if applied equally, and based solely upon bare real estate, that measure will yield uniform taxation for you.

Assessments tend to follow Newton’s law of inertia. Sales often set assessments in motion, but that doesn’t mean that sale prices always lead to assessments.

Price Versus Value

Too often, assessors confuse price with taxable value. Assessed or taxable value should be based on real estate alone. Sale prices, on the other hand, often reflect other factors that greatly affect the sale.

For instance, the business acumen of tenants and property managers often influence commercial property prices.

The lodging industry has an abundance of business and personal property value that is often difficult to distinguish from real estate value.

Hotel buyers are often purchasing in-place contracts, a workforce, personal property, reservation systems, the reputation of food and beverage providers, and other intangible items. As a result, the business value of a hotel tends to fluctuate more rapidly than the actual value of the “bricks and sticks.”

Because these intangible elements are factored into the sale, an assessment that is later based on the sale price will reflect more than the real estate value, unless the taxpayer takes the right steps to prevent that from happening.

What to look for

It is possible to strip away non-taxable components and turn a sale into a useful indicator of market value. An assessor can rely on a properly adjusted sale in the assessment of the subject property, and when valuing comparable properties. But what is the proper method of adjustment?

Excluding intangibles from taxable value can be an elusive goal. Investors often place tremendous value on the credit-worthiness of tenants, length of lease terms and other non-real-estate items. Those components depend on the occupant’s business rather than upon the location or condition of property improvements.

For assessment purposes, sales must be adjusted to reflect what the price would be if the tenant were a typical market tenant, paying market rent under current market lease terms.

State nuances

Taxpayers should consider not only the sale itself when evaluating for assessment, but also the particular state’s laws concerning assessments. For instance, Ohio recently amended its statutes to preserve it in assessments. Prior to the amendment, an assessor “must” have considered a recent sale price to be the new assessment of the property, regardless of any non-real-estate factors that might have affected the sale price.

Under the amended statute, assessors “may” use the sale, assuming that the sale reflects the “fee simple as if unencumbered value.” Thus, Ohio now takes a more nuanced approach, assessing properties based on market rents rather than in-place contract rents, along with the intention that assessors use market occupancy and market creditworthiness in assessments.

Taxpayers in other states have challenged assessment statutes to achieve more equal and taxation. Courts in Michigan addressed the concept of build-to-suit leases and contract rents, which the initial tenant pays in part to repay the developer’s costs, making contract rents incomparable with market rents.

Michigan now requires assessors to utilize market rents and other market indices to determine market value. Likewise, courts in Kansas and Wisconsin have established case law recently that requires more equal and assessment practices.

While there may be similarities between some states regarding their assessment laws, and a general trend of states moving toward more assessment, all states apply their laws differently.

Taxpayers must give due care to their state’s distinct approach.

KJennings90J. Kieran Jennings is a partner in the law firm of Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania 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..

Continue reading
Sep
30

How To Discover Whether Your Tax Assessment Is Fair

Many taxpayers pay more than their fair share of property taxes. Yet in a tax arena fraught with nuance, it can be difficult for a taxpayer to recognize an inflated assessment. The key to spotting a bad assessment lies in knowing precisely what the assessor is measuring and the requirements of the state's property tax law.

What, then, is being assessed? The simplistic answer is that real estate is being assessed, but that response doesn't fully address commercial real estate, where values often hinge on contracts, encumbrances and regional legal definitions.

That said, all states attempt to tax at similar levels properties that are similar to one another.

The challenge to meeting that goal is that commercial real estate is subject to a variety of contracts and encumbrances, creating situations where nearly identical properties are taxed at significantly different assessments. Causing more trouble is assessors' tendency to rely on recent sales to determine values, resulting in tremendous differences in assessments among similar properties.

In a Pennsylvania case, an owner filed to reduce his property's taxable value based on a long-term lease in place at below-market rent. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that assessors must weigh all the interests associated with a parcel, specifically the impact of leased-fee interests and leasehold interests on value. However, the typical commercial property sale only reflects the leased-fee portion of the sale, because the buyer is essentially buying a rental income stream.

Kentucky has yet to fully address the uniformity problem. The Kentucky constitution states that "all property, not exempted from taxation by this Constitution, shall he assessed for taxation at its fair cash value, estimated at the price it would bring at a fair voluntary sale." As a result, nearly identical buildings could be taxed at significantly different amounts.

Ohio legislators recently passed a statute to achieve uniform taxation. Ohio simply stated that the assessor must assess all real property at the fee-simple value as if it were unencumbered. In this way the state is requiring the assessor to use market terms regardless of above-market or below-market rents in place at the property.

The remedy to unfair taxation based on recent sales is to tax all property using market terms and market rates applied to the conditions specific to the property. Without knowing what the assessor is measuring, however, a taxpayer may consider a sales price to be a fair assessment value. As demonstrated by these examples, understanding how the states assess properties goes a long way to knowing whether a taxpayer is paying a fair share in that particular state.

KJennings90J. Kieran Jennings is a partner in the law firm of Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania 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..

Continue reading
Jul
16

Ohio Property Owners Face "Adversarial Culture" Over Taxes

Schools, board of revision routinely thwart efforts aimed at "fair taxation."

When is the best time to submit an appraisal and other evidence in a tax appeal? That depends largely on tax policy and government culture, which dictate how taxpayers manage tax appeals.

In a perfect world, taxing entities would embrace fairness and equality, remembering that their mission is ultimately to serve the taxpayers. The reality is that government tax policy - and more importantly, governmental practice - is subject to the culture that permeates a department.

In Ohio, state lawmakers have been trying to make the state more taxpayer-friendly. For instance, legislators created a more equitable measure of tax by clarifying that property tax is based on the fee-simple, unencumbered market value of the real estate. So from a policy standpoint, Ohio appears to be becoming more taxpayer-friendly. At the local government level, however, taxpayers can face a different and often adversarial culture.

In a perfect world, taxing entities would embrace fairness and equality. The reality is that government tax policy is subject to the culture that permeates a department.

Schools, Counties Have Clout

Ohio taxpayers face two principal antagonists that seem equally determined to thwart the state legislature's pursuit of fair taxation. One opponent is the schools. In Cleveland as well as in other local tax districts, taxpayers encounter resistance and aggression from the schools. School districts routinely file complaints and tie up taxpayers in litigation lasting years.

The Ohio taxpayer's second foe is the county board of revision, which is effectively the judge and jury for tax cases at the local county level and becomes a party to subsequent appeals at the state level.

Recently, Cleveland's Cuyahoga County began posting on its website the evidence that taxpayers submitted in contesting tax assessments. That evidence often includes sensitive information about income and expenses, as well as rent rolls.

And although evidence submitted to a public body becomes a public document and is subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, there is a significant difference between burying evidence in a file and posting taxpayers' private information on the Internet.

The Catch-22 is that the taxpayer must provide sufficient evidence in order to prevail in a tax appeal, and typically that evidence is private income, expenses and rent rolls. Taxpayers understandably want that data to be closely protected, but under the new rules in Cuyahoga County, that personal information will be posted online.

Transparency Versus Privacy

A major hurdle taxpayers have to contend with is that Ohio law requires a complainant to provide the board of revision with all relevant information or evidence within the knowledge or possession of the complainant.

The law further states that if complainants don't provide the information in their initial appeal, they will be precluded from doing so later (unless good cause is shown). The challenge is, how can a taxpayer protect private information and yet still receive due process?

The requirement of private information, combined with the inevitability of it being posted online, can have a dramatic chilling effect. And for certain taxpayers, that prospect of prominent public disclosure becomes an Achilles' heel that prompts them to withdraw their cases, or simply let their assessments go uncontested. The county will have thus won the war without ever having gone to battle.

Tactical Maneuver

Although the facts will dictate how an attorney protects the taxpayer, in certain instances a taxpayer can refrain from hiring an appraiser and submitting sensitive data until after the board of revision hearing. By delaying the production of the appraisal, the taxpayer can still get the data into evidence at the state level via the appraisal even though it did not produce the data earlier.

Thus, the taxpayer can protect the data from Internet exposure and still use it on appeal. The down side of this tactic is the taxpayer does not present its best evidence at the county level.

There is no easy answer to the county board of revision's Catch 22. Each case presents its own set of facts that determine how to protect the taxpayer's privacy and yet prevail. As with all litigation, knowing the opposition, addressing the taxpayer's own weaknesses and understanding the rules and culture surrounding the case goes a long way toward achieving success.

KJennings90J. Kieran Jennings is a partner in the law firm of Siegel Jennings Co., LPA, with offices in Cleveland, Columbus and Pittsburgh. The firm is the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of the 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..

Continue reading
Jul
12

A Taxing Situation in Cleveland

Owners at risk of unfairly high assessments pending Ohio Supreme Court guidance

"Recent history shows that districts are using sale prices to impose unreasonable tax burdens on taxpayers..."

Like much of the nation, Cleveland is experiencing sluggish but discernible improvements in its real estate market, and buyers are beginning to purchase real estate at prices that exceed the property's tax assessment value. The resulting real estate price volatility puts many Ohio property owners — and recent buyers in particular — at greater risk of receiving an unexpected and potentially unfair increase in their property tax bill. When property values are fragile, unexpected increases in expenses can be disastrous, and that includes an unexpected rise in real estate taxes. Ohio is one of the few states where school districts and other taxing entities have the legal authority to protest the assessed values of properties in their districts and to seek increases in taxable value. In fact it is customary for school districts in Ohio to seek an increased valuation and consequent rise in taxes on properties that have recently sold.

While the practice is customary, it is neither predictable nor uniform. The assessment on a property that recently sold can be significantly higher than the assessments on neighboring properties based on its sale price. Moreover, different taxing districts have different policies as to the extent and manner in which they pursue this remedy. For instance, some taxing districts may not aggressively chase sales. Others may seek not only to raise future assessments, but also to retroactively increase the assessment for the past year.

Taxing Sales

In many cases, a recent sale of real property is the best indication of its value, but there are exceptions. Modern real estate transactions frequently include the simultaneous transfer of non-real estate items, or the amount of consideration paid may reflect factors other than the fair market value of the real property. If these non-real estate items are not specifically identified and distinguished from the real estate value, they can be included in the value assigned to the property for files an increase complaint.

Recent history shows that with increasing frequency districts are using sale prices to impose unreasonable tax burdens on taxpayers. In an effort to correct this trend, on June 11, 2012, the state of Ohio enacted a statute that clearly states that real estate assessments must be based on fee simple estate, as if unencumbered. Moreover, the new statute further provides that where there is a recent arm's length sale, the auditor may consider the sale to be true value.

Read together, in order for the assessor to consider the sale price to be true value, that sale would have to reflect the fee simple estate, as if unencumbered. To understand why and how that is so important, it is useful to look back over developments in Ohio law over the past decade.

The Changing Law

Ohio law always provided that assessments shall be made based on true value and that "the auditor shall consider the sale price of such tract, lot, or parcel ... to be the true value for taxation." In 2005, the Ohio Supreme Court interpreted that statutory language to mean that there is no further evidence necessary to prove true value. Later, the Supreme Court expanded the ruling by stating that leased fee sales were also acceptable. (Leased fee value is based on a landlord's expected rental income from a leased property.) Even worse, later cases expanded the law to include leased fee transactions as comparable sales even when appraising fee simple, owner-occupied properties. And finally, other cases set precedents that precluded the county auditor, the state Board of Tax Appeals, or Common Pleas Courts from taking into consideration circumstances which indicated that the sale was not representative of market value. Despite the state's recent efforts to stop counties and school boards (which can file suits) from preying on investors buying property in Ohio, the trend has continued.

KJenningsGraph2013

Real estate buyers in Cleveland must be even more careful to take appropriate steps to ensure fair treatment. As recently as March 2013, an assessor used the sale price of the ongoing business of a 127-bed nursing home, which was part of a sale that included 72 other nursing home operations in a multi-state transaction, to determine its assessed value. The sale price of the nursing home was $10.6 million, and the assessor valued the property at that price. The taxpayer's appraisal valued only the real estate, which came to $3.5 million (see chart). In short, the county is now taxing the value of the personal property and business operation at the nursing home when it only has authority to tax the real estate.

State lawmakers have attempted to make the law more uniform and equal by establishing a standard of fee simple, as if unencumbered, while providing flexibility to use a sale where it is warranted. What is still needed is guidance from the Supreme Court to enforce that standard.
Until the court has an appropriate case to provide that needed guidance, investors need to structure transactions with taxation in mind. To be recently purchased must be treated like those that have not been sold. Unfortunately, the burden falls on the parties in the transaction to make sure that all documents involved in the sale, particularly those that are recorded publicly, reflect only the real estate value.

Countermeasures Emerge

As an alternative, many investors have taken to purchasing the entity that owns the property rather than the real estate. Purchasing the entity eliminates the need to record a new deed, which is often the triggering event for school districts to file complaints seeking additional property taxes. As a result, the county may unknowingly be forced to treat all taxpayers alike. Moreover, state law prevents the schools from using the purchase of an entity to treat new buyers differently than existing owners. In 2000 and in 1998, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the sale price of all the shares of a company's stock does not establish the value of the company's real property. This is true even where the only asset of the company is its real estate. By purchasing an entity rather than the bare real estate, a taxpayer has at least a fighting chance to have equal treatment under the law. Given the complexities of such a transaction, however, buyers should seek local counsel when using this acquisition strategy.


kjennings Kieran Jennings is a partner in the law firm of Siegel Jennings Co., L.P.A., the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania 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.

Continue reading
Nov
02

Guest Column: Tax Relief for Obsolete Retail Space

"A critical question for the taxpayer is when, if ever, to share that documentation. Appraisal evidence properly prepared with an attorney in advance of litigation will often protect that document from individuals with whom the owner does not wish to share it, and should allow the owner's team the opportunity to present the evidence at the time and place that is most advantageous to the owner..."

By J. Kieran Jennings, Esq., as published by Commercial Property Executive, November 2012

Since 2001, major retailers have closed about 5,000 stores per year. Certainly there are more closings in challenging times, and in other years there are more store openings than closings. There is one constant, however: Real estate owners and operators must determine what to do with vacated space. Assessors also should weigh the impact on the property, and taxpayers should decide how to reduce taxes based on inevitable tenant turnover.

For many years, the assessing community refused to fully recognize the devaluation of a shopping center due to vacancies. Assessors argued that vacant space has worth, and that an income approach to valuation ignores the income-producing potential intrinsic to empty space. In certain instances, the assessor's argument is true, and including an estimate of potential income for vacant space is an integral part of a shopping center assessment. But what should be done when the space no longer has value or becomes a detriment to the property?

Assessors are often reluctant to acknowledge the nominal or negative value of space that no longer adds to a property's value. When that occurs, a financial study of highest and best use can prove that the space simply cannot be reused economically. Specifically, the property owner can show that build-out and other costs required to prepare the space for the highest and best use outweigh the potential rent the space would earn.

Take for instance a small cinema complex that must update to digital projectors or go out of business. An article in the Sept. 30 edition of USA Today described the owner of a four-screen theater who lamented that he lacked the profit margin to support the $250,000 conversion. The cinema operator's plight should raise a question for the real estate assessor. Is the current usage designation of the space, in its current condition, financially feasible? If the answer is no, then the highest and best use study takes a look at the financial viability of either upgrading — in this example, to digital projection — or renovating the space for a different use and user.

When looking at potentially renovating and changing the use of the property, the appraiser or assessor must determine whether the conversion is physically possible. There may be demand for rentable space, but can the existing structure be adapted for that use? Other considerations include whether the use is legally permissible. A bar, hotel or casino may be a great idea, but do zoning and other laws permit the use? The proposed use should also be reasonable and probable. A conversion to a use that harms the rest of the shopping center is not appropriate.

In many secondary markets in particular, the cost of renovation may exceed the amount of rent that would be collected at market rates over the life of the potential lease. Repurposing a cinema, for example, incurs costs that competing retail properties don't have to bear, such as the expense of leveling sloped floors, adjusting ceiling heights and removing lobbies. If the costs do not justify the change, then the appraiser as well as the owner will need to determine if the building is a detriment to the center. In some cases, the only avenue available is demolition of the property, after which the land can be held for future development.

The days of just discussing the issues of obsolete spaces with the assessor are long since over. Chinese Gen. Sun Tzu's famous admonition, "Know your enemy and know yourself, in a hundred battles you will never be in peril," is apropos in tax contests. A successful appeal requires knowing how the opponent ticks and what proof is necessary.

Owners are often best served in preparing for a hearing or meeting by obtaining an appraisal from a reputable third party. A critical question for the taxpayer is when, if ever, to share that documentation. Appraisal evidence properly prepared with an attorney in advance of litigation will often protect that document from individuals with whom the owner does not wish to share it, and should allow the owner's team the opportunity to present the evidence at the time and place that is most advantageous to the owner.

The final question is, when should the taxpayer raise these arguments? Experience suggests that the taxpayer should attack the issue of obsolete space as soon as the market begins to question the existing use. Tax contests can be lengthy, and profitability — or even survival — may depend upon minimizing non-productive expenses such as taxes.

kjenningsKieran Jennings is a partner with the law firm of Siegel & Jennings, which focuses its practice on property tax disputes and is the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania 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..

Continue reading

American Property Tax Counsel

Recent Published Property Tax Articles

Use Restrictions Can Actually Lower A Tax Bill

​Savvy commercial owners are employing use restrictions as a means to reduce taxable property values.

Most property managers and owners can easily speak about their property's most productive use, in addition to speculating on a list of potential uses. Not all of them, however, are as keenly aware of their property's...

Read more

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...

Read more

Benjamin Blair: Creative Deal Structures Can Yield Tax Benefits

​Managing expenses is one of the best ways to ensure the long-term profitability of investment properties, and prudent developers know the importance of carefully monitoring and challenging property tax assessments. But student housing, as a subsector populated largely by tax-exempt educational institutions, presents unique opportunities to minimize taxes for some...

Read more

Member Spotlight

Members

Forgot your password? / Forgot your username?