Menu

Property Tax Resources

Feb
27

Tax Trap: Don't Overlook Occupancy in Property Assessments

Assessors too often value newly constructed apartments as fully occupied, producing excessive assessments.

Developers frequently ask how to estimate property taxes on newly constructed multifamily properties, and tax assessors often provide an easy answer by adding up the value of building permits or by projecting the project's value when fully rented. However, this seemingly simple question grows complex when the assessor's valuation date precedes full occupancy and the ramifications of a wrong answer can linger for years.

Consider these points to value a new multifamily project more accurately.

Valuation Methods

Charged with valuing hundreds or thousands of parcels, assessors often seek a quick way to value a new multifamily project.

The cost approach offers the quickest and easiest route for the assessor, who estimates the current expense to construct an identical structure. One way to do this on a new project is to add the value of the building permits to the land value.

While building costs are clearly a factor in the decision to build, the cost approach ignores the market preference to value income-producing projects based primarily on income.

The assessor's second-easiest option is to rely on an appraisal's stabilization value and ignore the time and cost required to achieve stabilization. In valuing a not-yet-built multifamily project using an income approach, appraisers preparing a financing appraisal should, but don't always, calculate two different values: the "at completion" value and the "stabilized" value.

"At completion" is the project's value when construction is complete but prior to being fully leased. The prospective market value, or "as stabilized," reflects the property's projected market worth when, and if, it achieves stabilized occupancy.

The Dictionary of Real Estate defines stabilized value in terms of the expected occupancy of a property in its particular market, considering current and forecast supply and demand, and assuming it is priced at market rent. To determine a property's fair market value prior to stabilization, one must account for the monetary loss the owner will incur prior to stabilization.

Development Issues

Improvements generally trigger reassessment. The assessor's statutorily mandated valuation date generally ignores the development calendar's key milestones, most importantly the construction commencement, completion and revenue stabilization dates.

The developer makes assumptions during the development process, calculating the cost of building and operating the improvements as well as the rents that can be achieved. This calculation serves as the basis for a pro forma of an income and expense analysis of the project when fully leased.

Construction loans reflect building costs and subsequent time and money needed to achieve full lease-out or stabilization. Banking regulations require the lender to obtain an appraisal. The completed, but not yet stabilized, project incurs costs in the form of income not received during initial leasing, until it reaches stabilization.

Permanent financing depends on the stabilized value, which, in turn, depends on the project's income. Appraisals for permanent loan commitments obtained prior to the project's completion use a prospective valuation date and must contain various assumptions as to the property's financial condition on that prospective date.

The FDIC's Interagency Appraisal and Evaluation Guidelines authorize using a prospective market value in valuing a property interest for a credit decision. The Uniform System of Professional Appraisal Practices requires disclosure of assumptions in an appraisal with a prospective market value, as of an effective date subsequent to the appraisal report's date.

Assumptions regarding the anticipated rent at stabilization and the time required to lease the property are key to calculating stabilized value. Also critical are incentives the owner may offer prospective tenants during lease-up, and the project's projected income once fully leased. The appraisal should clearly disclose these assumptions, but they can still prove incorrect.

Clear disclosure of assumptions is critical. Unfortunately, many appraisers fail to adequately disclose their assumptions, and shortcut to the project's stabilized value.

Valuation Dates

Most state statutes prohibit taxation of improvements while under construction. The project usually comes on line for tax purposes after completion but prior to stabilization.

Being mandated by statute, the valuation date often does not account for where the multifamily project is on the spectrum between completion and stabilization. Unsophisticated assessors charged with valuing these projects often employ mass-appraisal techniques and may value the asset similarly to the market's stabilized properties.

Statutory Caps

Some states cap potential increases in tax value, which may magnify impact of the initial tax valuation. Caps limit increases that would otherwise bring values up to the market. For example, South Carolina properties undergo countywide reassessment every five years, but property values ordinarily cannot increase by more than 15 percent from the previously determined value.

Assessors know that a project's value at completion will nearly always be lower than its stabilized value because stabilization takes time and costs money. Competition may lower the project's achievable income, too. This knowledge can spur assessors to reach for stabilized values regardless of whether the project is yet stabilized. This taxes the unrealized, additional value between completion and stabilized levels.

A Matter of Time

All of the above considerations involve a timing disconnect between the property's actual condition on the statutorily mandated valuation date and its estimated future value based on fallible projections by the lender, developer or assessor. Axiomatically, assumptions don't always hold true. Lease-up may take longer than expected and may require concessions that increase cost. In over-built markets, the stabilized income may be lower than originally anticipated.

Charged with calculating true or fair market value as of a statutorily mandated valuation date, the assessor should examine how the market would value the property as of that date. If the asset has not achieved stabilization, the assessor should discount appropriately for time and financial costs required to achieve stabilization.  That is what the market would do, and is what the assessor is statutorily obligated to do.

And that should be the answer to the seemingly simple question of how to value newly constructed multifamily projects for tax purposes.

Morris Ellison is a partner in the Charleston, S.C., office of the law firm Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP. The firm is the South Carolina member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
Continue reading
Oct
23

How to Avoid Excessive Property Taxes

Knowing what to look for in monitoring your assessments can help avoid over taxation.

As robust occupancies and escalating investor demand in many markets drive up property tax bills for multifamily housing, apartment owners must continue to monitor their assessments to avoid overtaxation. Knowing what to look for can ease this task, and the place to start is with a firm grasp of the assessor's methodology.

Many taxpayers are unaware that assessors typically use a mass appraisal technique to derive assessments without referencing or even collecting details about a property's unique characteristics or performance. Property owners who understand the mass appraisal procedure have a distinct advantage in identifying assessment errors, and this knowledge can inform the apartment owner's arguments when they choose to fight excessive valuations.

Rooted in Generalities
The burden on appraisers to generate thousands of property values, often annually, is colossal. For this reason, assessors determine most market values for assessment purposes through mass appraisal, which is the process of valuing a group of properties as of a given date using common data, standardized methods, and statistical testing. Assessors using mass appraisal rely upon valuation equations, tables, and schedules developed through mathematical analysis of market data.

Mass appraisal analysis begins with assigning properties to classes or strata based on highest and best use. Valuation models are created for defined property groups, such as industrial or office, and are then calibrated to reflect the market factors for that specific market or submarket.

The International Association of Assessing Officers (IAAO) sets mass appraisal standards for assessors, by which an assessor can appraise the fee simple interest in property at market value. These standards set the preferred methods for mass application of the three traditional approaches to value (cost, sales comparison, and income). Armed with this information, apartment owners can attack mass appraisal procedures that result in values that don't reflect a property's true market value.

Property Data Errors
IAAO standards dictate that valuation models should be consistently applied to property data that are correct, complete, and up-to-date. However, assessor records commonly contain errors relating to a property's age, total square footage, net leasable area, number of apartments, unit mix, and facility amenities. An error in one of these fundamental property characteristics can significantly increase a property's overall assessment.

When arguing errors in specific property data, apartment owners should be prepared to share a current rent roll with their assessor in order to document the property's square footage, net leasable area, number of units, and unit mix. It may also be helpful to provide the assessor with copies of the property's most recent marketing materials, which show the project's various floor plans and amenities. Finally, pointing out land-size discrepancies or external nuisances such as traffic or airport noise can be helpful in arguing for lower values.

Income Approach
Assessors typically use the income approach in valuing apartments. Mass appraisal application of the income approach begins with collecting and processing income and expense data gathered from the marketplace. Appraisers then compute normal or typical gross incomes, vacancy rates, and expense ratios to arrive at a net income that is capitalized using a market-driven cap rate. This approach is often problematic because it fails to take into account a property's unique economic performance in a dynamic market.

Perhaps the best defense against excessive appraisals is to attack an assessor's mass appraisal income pro forma. Apartment owners should distinguish their property's rental rates and expense ratios from market data by providing current and prior-year operating statements if the numbers support a value reduction. Assessors often overestimate rent and underestimate expenses.

Owners should also provide occupancy reports to portray the property's occupancy trends, compare the property's occupancy level with market comparables, and outline any concessions and allowances the owner provides renters to maintain occupancy. The standardized vacancy and collection loss factor used in a mass appraisal income approach rarely captures the true physical and economic occupancy of a project.

Finally, owners should refute cap rates derived from sales of properties that aren't comparable to the subject.

Mass appraisal is a necessary evil that apartment owners should guard against. Knowing how assessors apply the procedure will help taxpayers in their continued fight to reduce property taxes.


Gilbert Davila is a partner in the law firm of Popp Hutcheson PLLC , the Texas 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
Apr
11

Look Beyond Price to Cut Property Taxes

The Purchase amount isn't necessarily a valid proxy for taxable value.

Multifamily Property owners and Appraisers are often creatures of habit. They generally calculate a property's value for tax purposes the same way they do for an investment. If an apartment complex recently traded for 10 million, the buyer's appraiser may reason that the property would be assessed at $10 million for taxation purposes.

This line of thinking is particularly common in states that use market value as the standard and where the purchase price was based on an appraisal. While this approach might be reasonable for budgeting worst-case tax accruals, such thinking could result in missed opportunities to reduce the actual tax burden on the property.

PERMISSIBLE APPROACHES TO VALUATION VARY

There are several reasons a property's investment value, or even its market value, might differ from its value for tax purposes. Such considerations include whether the acquisition or investment value includes non-real estate items such as personal property, or intangibles such as long-term leases. Taxpayers should closely examine all of those issues to ensure that only taxable property is being assessed (and, then, at the correct value).

There's another,often-overlooked dimension of savings available to many taxpayers, in the form of seemingly hidden tax benefits conferred by statute. Indiana, for example, has a number of assessment statutes that dictate specific approaches to determining taxable value, depending on the type of property at issue. One property type receiving this unusual valuation treatment is apartment or multifamily rental properties.

Even as investors continue to bid up asking prices in the marketplace, Indiana law requires apartments to be assessed at the lowest valuation determined by applying the three standard approaches to valuation: cost, sales comparison, and income. This means owners and appraisers would miss the mark in estimating the taxable value of apartments or multifamily rental proper­ties if they applied only the typical approaches used to evaluate a property's investment value or market value.

The Indiana Board of Tax Review has issued several decisions confirming this mandate. One such case, Merrillville Lakes DE LLC v. Lake County Assessor, involved a taxpayer challenging his 2010-2014 assessments for an apartment complex in Merrillville, Ind. Both the assessor and the taxpayer presented appraisals at the administrative hearing, but only the taxpayer relied on the specific apartment-valuation statute to develop his opinion of taxable value. The board rejected the assessor's appraisal.

Based on the statutory code and the appraisal in the Merrillville Lakes case, the Indiana Board of Tax Review ultimately lowered the assessed value of the apartment complex for each contested year based on the taxpayer's cost analyses. Because the statute dictates that the lowest of three approaches determines the tax value, even if the owner had purchased the property for far more than the cost-approach indication of value, the board couldn't have increased the value to the higher sales price.

DUE DILIGENCE CAN YIELD SAVINGS

While it may seem like common sense to assume that a property's purchase price is a valid proxy for its taxable value, as the Indiana ruling shows, that's not always the case. A little due diligence could result in a lower valuation and, with that, significant savings.

David A. Suess is a partner in the Indianapolis office of the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels, the Indiana 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?