If you have taken an accounting class, your professor likely explained that property taxes are one of the fixed expenses on real estate financial statements. While your professor was technically correct that property taxes are considered a fixed expense in accounting, many property owners, asset managers and investors are finding out that "fixed" certainly doesn't mean always consistent or predictable.
In a recent third quarter earnings call of a large, publicly traded hotel REIT, the discussion contained all the typical metrics on financial performance and forward-looking guidance. The call was overall very positive; however, one particular comment from the chief financial officer raised a critical issue. The REIT had significantly missed its pro forma expenses on property taxes, which had negatively impacted actual earnings. The REIT's miscue on projecting property taxes and the sizable impact on its financial results indicated that planning for this expense item can be particularly difficult, especially during an upswing in the current real estate cycle.
Hotel performance has bounced back from a cyclical low in late 2008, and many U.S. markets are approaching the peak performance levels last reached in 2006. Additionally, investment capital in-flows into the hotel sector are at record highs for public and private REITs, private equity funds and other investors. All these factors have led to record investment volume and investors chasing after a limited number of deals (especially in top-tier markets) and subsequently are driving up hotel asset pricing.
While all this is good news for existing hotel owners and investors, it often creates a budgeting challenge for changes in property taxes. With strong market fundamentals, improving performance metrics and sales volume on the rise, assessors have been quick to increase tax valuations on hotels. Many assessors are recouping much of the value lost during the downturn and have typically been more aggressive than in past cycles.
For example, in late 2013, a mid-sized hotel investor had just acquired its first Texas hotel. The investor had done its own due diligence and projected property taxes to increase by 3 percent ever year of ownership — sound familiar? In early 2014, after closing on the acquisition, the investor reached out for help when the hotel's tax valuation notice had increased 100 percent, almost whiping out projected cash flow. Had the investor called for help prior to closing he could have been warned about the possibility of an increase and properly budgeted for the future tax years.
So, what can owners and investors do to help identify pitfalls in underwriting for property taxes? Here are a few budgeting points that will help to avoid surprises:
Understand the assessment laws and practices in the jurisdiction. All states and many assessors within the same state operate differently, so get the facts straight on local practices. For example, some assessors reappraise at the time of transaction and others only revalue on a set cycle that could vary dramatically from every year to multiple years between a revaluation.
Is there a disclosure requirement? And to what degree will it be used to establish future tax valuations? In Texas, sales disclosure is not required by law. Therefore, a deal with non-disclosure agreements between the parties can be an important aid to budgeting.
Get to know the local political landscape and legislative undercurrents. Any proposed law changes or political pressures on a specific property classes can be a major influence on a prudent budget. Recently, there has been a push in a few areas around the country to increase taxes on commercial properties to try to reduce the escalating tax burden on residential properties.
Find out what is taxable. Hotels are a truly unique asset class and present a major appraisal challenge that could significantly impact property tax projection. Hotels contain real estate, business personal property and intangible value. Some states don't tax personal property (furniture, fixtures and equipment) and others don't tax business intangibles, value associated with a business operation and related to the brand affiliation, contracts, trained workforce, loyalty programs, etc.
Make reasonable assumptions. Using a standard 3 percent growth rate or some other unsupported assumption "just to push the deal through" almost always comes back to haunt budgets later.
Enlist help from a local and knowledgeable expert. If you are budgeting for an acquisition then make sure to consult the experts prior to going under contract on a deal. Make sure the expert understands hotel taxation and valuation. Ask about the specific valuation models and techniques employed by local assessors. If your expert doesn't know those answers, then find an expert who does. Taxpayers managing an existing hotel should seek expert tax advice every budget season.
While no list is exhaustive for every situation, these points will make sure you are on the right path to proper and more accurate budgeting for property taxes.