Assessors' incorrect use of the data inflates property taxes.
Tax assessors across the country are drawing battle lines to pit new valuation theories against accepted appraisal methodologies.
This fierce ideological assault threatens the sustainability of retail businesses weighed down by ever-increasing property taxes.
Retail landlords who desire to have their real estate valued on a fee simple basis routinely face assessors who claim that these owners want their property valued as a “dark store.” This prickly issue originally focused on how to value big-box stores for property tax purposes, but its scope has widened to affect a range of retail property types.
Dispute’s Roots Run Deep
Woolworth’s opened the first big-box store in 1962, the same year that McDonald’s introduced the golden arches and ushered in the concept of branding stores with identical interiors and exteriors.
Over the following decades, Walmart, Kmart, Target and other retailers married the big-box format with McDonald’s-style branding. Replicating the same store in many locations increased consumers’ brand recognition and reduced the owner’s cost to develop, stock open and operate new locations.
Much of today’s controversy over assessments stems from alternative financing methods that caught on with these major retailers. The two most common strategies are build-to-suit and sale-leaseback arrangements, both of which generate rent payments that exceed market rates.
A build-to-suit is a financial arrangement where the tenant’s rent is a repayment of the developer’s cost to acquire the land and build a tenant specific building. These transactions can include a variety of other non-real estate costs, such as financed inventory, personal property and/or cashback incentives.
A retailer uses sale-leaseback transactions to free up capital by selling its building and then renting it back under a long-term lease. The rent is purely a function of the amount of capital to be financed and the number of years to pay it back.
In either scenario, a landlord with one of these above-market leases in place to a high-credit tenant will often sell the lease and property to an investor. The resulting sales price is a function of the length of the lease in place and the strength of the tenant, and has nothing to do with the real estate’s fair market value. In other words, the value is no longer what the real estate is worth, but what the investor would pay to receive the income from that user.
Bad Data Proliferates
Property valuations for tax purposes are not done as single-property appraisals. In single-property appraisals, the appraiser uses data specific to a property to develop an opinion of its value. Tax assessors, on the other hand, use mass appraisals. The latter method values a universe of properties using common data.
The problem arises when non-market data taints the assessor’s common data. For instance, if the above-market rents from build-to-suits are included in the common data, the assessor will overstate the market rental rate and subsequently overstate property value under the income approach.
Concurrently, when common data includes investor acquisitions of properties with leases in place under these alternative financing methods, the sales comparison approach to value suffers from the same flawed methodology as the income approach.
The problem doesn’t stop there, as the defective data spills over into depreciation calculations used in the cost approach to valuation, and in developing capitalization rate percentages. Using bad common data will taint every commonly used valuation method and lead to an overvaluation.
Implications Outside the Box
This issue is worth watching for shopping center owners, investors and developers for two reasons. First, big-box tenants traditionally are high-credit national retailers committed to a financing-based lease on an absolute net basis. That makes them a valuable addition to a shopping center as a draw for customers, and to the investor as a guaranteed income stream.
The second reason to closely follow the assessment issue is often overlooked, but has more serious implications. What began as an anomaly in the method assessors used to value and tax big-box stores is now spreading to all retail. Assessors increasingly use incorrect, inflated, non-market data to value anchor stores, discount and department stores and strip centers, overstating valuations for tax purposes.
Most states require assessors to value commercial real estate uniformly and equally. That means that two identical buildings should have the same value.
The taxable value should not be higher if one is leased to a high-credit tenant and the other to an independent local retailer. The value of the business may be greater for one over the other, but the value of the real estate must be the same.
Uniformity and equality dissolve when real estate values fluctuate based on nothing more than the identity of the tenant. And uniformity and equality can exist only when assessors value bricks and mortar alone. That is not valuing a dark store; that is valuing the fee simple.