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Property Tax Resources

Feb
12

Pittsburgh Taxpayers Face Double Jeopardy on Assessments

Pittsburgh-area commercial property owners who received dramatic increases in their 2013 real estate assessments may see those taxable values go even higher. This wave reflects the growing nationwide issue of changes in property values and how they are assessed.

In the case of the Steel City, Allegheny County's first revaluation in 10 years dramatically increased assessments, which had remained static even during market highs in the mid-2000s and the crash in 2008 and 2009. While the overall increase in county assessments was 35 percent, commercial owners bore the brunt of the increase, seeing their assessments rise 54 percent overall.

More recently, however, local legislators enacted an unusual deadline extension that has effectively put property owners — especially commercial owners — at risk for even higher assessments.

Note that, rather than rely upon a central tax authority, each of Pennsylvania's 67 counties sets its own assessment. Because the state lacks a mandate for periodic revaluation, counties normally only undertake revaluation when a taxpayer files suit but will occasionally do so on the county's own initiative. Historically, reassessments are so infrequent in Pennsylvania (sometimes a decade or more passes between reassessments) that property values spike when a county eventually does reassess, which leads to public outcry and confusion.

Following publication of the new 2013 assessments for Pittsburgh-area properties, property owners filed 100,000 appeals before the original deadline on April 1, 2012. Then, in early 2013, Allegheny County's chief executive asked the county council to reopen the filing of 2013 appeals until April 1, 2013, ostensibly to help property owners.

At the time, the chief executive told local reporters that the deadline extension would give taxpayers another opportunity to appeal. What he didn't say, however, is that extending the deadline also opened the door for school districts to file appeals.

Increases in Store for Property Owners
Reopening the appeals process hurt more property owners than it helped. Most taxpayers who needed to appeal had already filed, but Pennsylvania law gives school districts a right of appeal as well. When the county council voted to reopen the deadline and allow new appeals, thousands of school appeals followed. School districts filed most of the 7,000 new appeals in 2013.

What's more, Pittsburgh's office market was hot in the latter part of 2012. The districts tracked sale prices in the last three quarters of 2012 and subsequently appealed to increase the property owners' new assessments based on these sale amounts. Most of these appeals to increase valuations target commercial owners.

Of the new appeals filed by property owners, the vast majority are attempts to re-hear appeals that were previously filed. Those are likely to be thrown out by the courts. That will leave mostly school-initiated appeals.

As of this writing, administrative hearings are complete for the original 100,000 appeals, and administrative decisions that caused the taxpayer or school district to be unhappy with the outcome are already pending in court. Hearings on the 7,000 new appeals are underway.

What to Do
When a taxing district files an appeal, state law requires it to send notice of the appeal to the address listed in county records as the property's Change Notice Mailing Address, which is published on the county's website (alleghenycounty.us). Some of the county records are outdated as to owners' addresses and, in those instances, some new owners are unaware of appeals on their properties.

New owners should check the address the county has on record for their properties and watch for notices sent to this address in the coming months. If a school district does appeal, the property owner would be wise to seek counsel, appear at hearings and defend his property's taxable value, otherwise risk having his assessment increased even more.

dipaolo web Sharon F. DiPaolo is a partner in the law firm of Siegel Siegel Johnson & Jennings Co., LPA, the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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May
15

What's the Property Tax Impact of Lifestyle Centers on Enclosed Malls

"The replacement cost approach has enabled property owners to obtain reduced assessments for steel mills, hospitals and other property types. The same theory can apply to an enclosed mall..."

By Brent A. Auberry, Esq., as published by REBusinessOnline.com, May 2013

This is not your mother's shopping experience. In the never-ceasing cycle of trying to stay hip and cool (or perhaps just relevant), mall owners in recent years have shifted away from the traditional, inward-facing enclosed mall to today's outward-facing lifestyle center. This change in design for new shopping centers brings with it a potential change in valuation techniques for older malls.

Assessors often apply a modified reproduction cost to malls, basing value on the cost of recreating the property's identical shape, size, design and layout. A more relevant value is replacement cost, or the cost to replace the asset with a modern shopping center with the same utility. In other words, in certain circumstances assessors should assess large enclosed malls as if they were the less costly, more efficient lifestyle centers that could be developed on the same site. The difference might result in property tax savings for the owner.

Lifestyle centers typically range between 150,000 and 500,000 square feet of leasable retail area and include at least 50,000 square feet devoted to upscale national chain stores, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. Many rely on multiplex theaters or other entertainment components rather than traditional anchor stores.

Most importantly, lifestyle centers are open, with streets or outdoor pedestrian walkways rather than enclosed corridors, and are easily accessible from the parking area. There is no common entrance, no massive food court, no inline space or mezzanines — and none of the costs that go with those expensive construction items.

According to Sara Coers, managing director at Valbridge Property Advisors in Indianapolis, lifestyle centers reflect a pedestrian-centric, Main Street idea where customers can park near and access their favorite retail properties from the exterior. Shoppers avoid the extra time needed to find and enter a common entrance, traverse a long stretch of the mall's interior to find a particular store, and then reverse the process after making a purchase. For these reasons and others, lifestyle centers are the new, trendy kid on the shopping block.

Costs Are Key Consideration

Large interior spaces make enclosed malls bigger and more expensive to build and operate. That interior space must be heated and cooled, lit, cleaned, secured and insured. Those higher costs can translate into a lower property tax assessment, and here is how. Under the cost approach, the assessor should value the enclosed mall as a modern property of the same utility as the existing property, and the mall's modern equivalent may very well be a smaller and more efficient lifestyle center.

A penalty for the property's excess construction cost is only part of the equation. The assessor should also consider reducing the enclosed mall's assessment based on its excess operating costs, which penalize the existing mall's value. An assessment for property tax purposes should be adjusted downward to reflect that penalty.

However, not every enclosed mall should be replaced with a lifestyle center for assessment purposes. The demographics of the market served must support the case. Lifestyle centers will be sustained by a higher-income customer base. Consider the competition as well. Would customers flock to a lifestyle center, if another regional mall were nearby?

Is the climate compatible? A developer might replace an enclosed mall with a lifestyle center in Florida but not necessarily in Minnesota, where indoor shopping is a significant customer draw during severe winter weather.

The replacement property must have the same utility as the existing, assessed property. How utility is measured is open for discussion, and might be leasable square footage, the number of customers served, or something else. A utility measuring stick of some kind is a necessity, however.

How To Bolster Your Case

Sometimes property owners need to speak the language of the local assessor. That language is often cost, and applying cost means looking at replacement value. Enclosed mall owners must ask themselves, "What would a modern replacement for this property be?" If the answer is "a lifestyle center," then there may be an opportunity to negotiate a property tax reduction.

The replacement cost approach has enabled property owners to obtain reduced assessments for steel mills, hospitals and other property types. The same theory can apply to an enclosed mall. Even if the mall would not be "replaced" with a lifestyle center, a reduction is likely justified if the property is overbuilt or inefficiently configured and a smaller enclosed mall design would support the same utility.

Property owners shouldn't be afraid to ask themselves if a lifestyle choice might reduce their property tax assessment.

auberryBrent A. Auberry is a partner in the Indianapolis office of the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, the Indiana member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC). Brent A. Auberry can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Jan
01

Buying Property? Beware Of Inflated Assessments

"The first step toward making a tax-informed decision on a real estate purchase is to consult with a property tax professional knowledgeable in the market..."

By Sharon DiPaolo, Esq., as published by rebusinessonline.com, January 2013

Someone buys a commercial property after months of research and negotiation, and soon afterward the property's real estate taxes skyrocket. The pattern — or at least the degree of the tax increase — often catches even sophisticated buyers unaware because rules that govern real estate assessments vary from state to state and town to town.

Investors who blindly assume that real estate taxes will remain flat after a sale risk disastrous consequences. Tax increases of 50 percent or more are not uncommon following a sale. A clear understanding of how the taxes could change can significantly influence what a buyer is willing to pay for real estate.

"It happens every day," says J. Kieran Jennings, managing partner of Cleveland-based law firm Siegel Jennings, which specializes in commercial property tax. "The phone rings and it's the new owner of a property who has just been hit with a huge tax increase, wanting to know what happened. Sometimes we can fight the tax increase after the fact, but it's always better to know what to expect before you buy. We prefer to get the phone call before the purchase, when we can help plan."

Know the market

Real estate taxes are based on a property's assessment, but tax rules vary widely by location. Some states ban the assessor from changing a property's assessment to match the sale price. Other states automatically raise the assessment to the sale price. Some states have a hybrid system in which a taxing district can file an appeal to increase the assessment after a sale. Knowing the rules of the particular jurisdiction is critical to proper tax planning.

Pennsylvania, for example, has a hybrid system. Pennsylvania law prohibits the county assessor from spot assessing, or independently changing the assessment of only one property. Under another Pennsylvania statute, however, taxing districts can file appeals to increase specific assessments, and many districts use sales to cherry-pick which properties to appeal.

Within Pennsylvania, and even within a particular county, school districts diverge in their practices of filing appeals. In Pittsburgh alone, one district might file appeals on all properties with sales greater than a certain percentage of the assessment, while another district might not file any appeals where the sale price is less than $1 million. A few districts have decided not to file any appeals.

Across the state line, in Ohio, the situation is a little different. Ohio has 88 counties and county auditors set assessments. "It boils down to knowing the county," says Jennings. Ohio has a six-year reappraisal cycle when every property gets a new assessment, and a three-year update cycle when the assessment can be modified.

Owners should expect the sale to be taken into account in a reappraisal year. Mid-cycle, the county auditor also can change an assessment to reflect a sale price. Just as in Pennsylvania, districts can file increase appeals, and many do. Generally, Pennsylvania and Ohio see more increase appeals by taxing districts than do other nearby states.

In New Jersey, the law is similar to Pennsylvania's, but the practical effect is different. "It's a trap for the unwary," says Philip J. Giannuario, a property tax lawyer with Garippa Lotz & Giannuario in New Jersey.

Giannuario cautions property owners to investigate the tax climate carefully before buying. Under New Jersey law, assessments are set by towns. A town's assessor cannot use a recent sale as a reason to change a property's assessment.

Just as in Pennsylvania, such spot assessments are banned. The towns can, however, opt to file assessment appeals to increase the assessments of properties that sell. With more than 650 towns in the state, Giannuario says that whether a particular town actually files increase assessment appeals depends on the town. The key is to know each town's practice.

Budget for worst-case scenario

The first step toward making a tax-informed decision on a real estate purchase is to consult with a property tax professional knowledgeable in the market. Based on the nuances of the particular jurisdiction, if an increase in an assessment is a possibility the tax professional can help the buyer to project a budget as if the assessment were raised to the potential sale price. That analysis could reduce the sum that the potential buyer is willing to offer for the property.

Knowing the worst-case scenario also can help the buyer notify tenants about potential outcomes so that they, in turn, can budget or even escrow funds. A little preparation goes a long way and is an easy step to avoid surprises down the road.

sdipaolo150Sharon F. DiPaolo 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, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Mar
08

Why "Build-to-Suits" Are Over Assessed

Rather than simply redevelop existing buildings to suit their needs, the build-to-suit model calls for the development and construction of new buildings that match the trade dress of other stores in a national chain. Think CVS pharmacy, Walgreens and the like...

By Michael P. Guerriero, Esq., as published by Rebusinessonline.com, March 2012

The build-to-suit transaction is a modern phenomenon, birthed by national retailers unconcerned with the resale value of their properties. Rather than simply redevelop existing buildings to suit their needs, the build-to-suit model calls for the development and construction of new buildings that match the trade dress of other stores in a national chain. Think CVS pharmacy, Walgreens and the like. National retailers are willing to pay a premium above market value to establish stores at the precise locations they target.

In a typical build-to-suit, a developer assembles land to acquire the desired site, demolishes existing structures and constructs a building that conforms to the national prototype store design of the ultimate lessee, such as a CVS. In exchange, the lessee signs a long-term lease with a rental rate structured to reimburse the developer for his land and construction costs, plus a profit.

In these cases, the long-term lease is like a mortgage. The developer is like a lender whose risk is based upon the retailer's ability to meet its lease obligations. Such cookie-cutter transactions are the preferred financing arrangement in the national retail market.

So, how exactly does an assessor value a national build-to-suit property for tax purposes? Is a specialized lease transaction based upon a niche of national retailers' comparable evidence of value? Should such national data be ignored in favor of comparable evidence drawn from local retail properties in closer proximity?

How should a sale be treated? The long-term leases in place heavily influence build-to-suit sales. Investors essentially purchase the lease for the anticipated future cash flow, buying at a premium in exchange for guaranteed rent. Are these sales indicators of property value, or should the assessor ignore the leased fee for tax purposes, instead focusing on the fee simple?

The simple answer is that the goal of all parties involved should always be to determine fair market value.

Establishing Market Value

Assessors' eyes light up when they see a sale price of a build-to-suit property. What better evidence of value than a sale, right?

Wrong. The premium paid in many circumstances can be anywhere from 25 percent to 50 percent more than the open market would usually bear.

Real estate is to be taxed at its market value — no more, no less. That refers to the price a willing buyer and seller under no compulsion to sell would agree to on the open market. It is a simple definition, but for purposes of taxation, market value is a fluid concept and difficult to pin down.

The most reliable method of determining value is comparing the property to recent arm's length sales, or to a sale of the property itself. It is necessary to pop the hood on each deal, however, to see what exactly is driving the price and what can be explained away if a sale is abnormal.

Alternatively, the income approach can be used to capitalize an estimated income stream. That income stream is constructed upon rents and data from comparable properties that exist in the open market.

For property tax purposes, only the real estate, the fee simple interest, is to be valued and all other intangible personal property ignored. A leasehold interest in the real estate is considered "chattel real," or personal property, and is not subject to taxation. Existing mortgage financing or partnership agreements are also ignored because the reasons behind the terms and amount of the loan may be uncertain or unrelated to the property's value.

Build-to-suit transactions are essentially construction financing transactions. As such, the private arrangement among the parties involved should not be seized upon as a penalty against the property's tax exposure.

Don't Trust Transaction Data

In a recent build-to-suit assessment appeal, the data on sales of national chain stores was rejected for the purposes of a sales comparison approach. The leases in place at the time of sale at the various properties were the driving factors in determining the price paid.

The leases were all well above market rates, with rent that was pre-determined based upon a formula that amortizes construction costs, including land acquisition, demolition and developer profit.

For similar reasons, the income data of most build-to-suit properties is skewed by the leased fee interest, which is intertwined with the fee interest. Costs of purchases, assemblage, demolition, construction and profit to the developer are packed into, and financed by, the long-term lease to the national retailer.

By consequence, rents are inflated to reflect recovery of these costs. Rents are not derived from open market conditions, but typically are calculated on a percentage basis of project costs.

In other words, investors are willing to accept a lesser return at a higher buy-in price in exchange for the security of a long-term lease with a quality national tenant like CVS.

This is illustrated by the markedly reduced sales and rents for second-generation owners and tenants of national chains' retail buildings. Generally, national retail stores are subleased at a fraction of their original contract rent, reflecting pricing that falls in line with open market standards.

A property that is net leased to a national retailer on a long-term basis is a valuable security for which investors are willing to pay a premium. However, for taxation purposes the assessment must differentiate between the real property and the non-taxable leasehold interest that influences the national market.

The appropriate way to value these properties is by turning to the sales and leases of similar retail properties in the local market. Using that approach will enable the assessor to determine fair market value.

GuerrieroPhoto resized Michael Guerriero is an associate at law firm Koeppel Martone & Leistman LLP in Mineola, N.Y., the New York state member of the American Property Tax Counsel. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Jan
30

Obsolescence Creates Tax-Saving Opportunities For Shopping Center Owners

"External obsolescence may be market-wide or industry-specific, international, national, or local in origin. It can be temporary or permanent, but in most cases, the property owner is unable to fix the problem..."

By Benjamin A. Blair, Esq., as published by rebusinessonline.com, December 2012

Shopping center owners often find that factors beyond their control detract from the marketability and profitability of their investments, particularly in the current depressed market. Economic change and evolving technology, for example, have altered the way retailers and property owners transact business. While lenders keep a tight grip on potential financing, brick-and-mortar retailers must compete against an increasingly global, virtual marketplace.

Despite — and indeed because of — this bleak picture, property owners have reason for optimism. Several states and localities, including Chicago and Indiana, are in the midst of systematic property reassessments. Because this cycle of reassessments falls during a time when retailers are still struggling under the effects of the recession, property owners have an opportunity to reap tax savings from this market turbulence and increase the property's bottom line.

The goal of a property tax assessment is to apply the tax rate to an accurate property value. This value is generally set at either market value or at the property's value-in-use. A property's value, however it is set, can be affected by any number of factors, the most important of which for retail properties is the property's ability to earn rental income.

Real-life scenario

Imagine a neighborhood shopping center with leaking roofs and peeling paint. Perhaps the tenant spaces are awkwardly shaped or poorly constructed. An investor would value this property less than an otherwise comparable property in better condition. This depreciation, called physical and functional obsolescence, is due to the physical condition or flaws in the construction of the property.

But just as a property can suffer from physical and functional obsolescence, a property can suffer depreciation from sources external to the property itself. This depreciation, termed economic or external obsolescence, is a usually incurable loss in value caused by negative influences outside the property. External obsolescence may be market-wide or industry-specific, international, national, or local in origin. It can be temporary or permanent, but in most cases, the property owner is unable to fix the problem.

In order to use external obsolescence to reduce a property's tax assessment, the owner must first identify whether external obsolescence is present. Then the owner must quantify the effect of the obsolescence on the property. Unsupported claims of obsolescence are unlikely to impress an assessor and encourage a reduction in the property's assessment.

To quantify the obsolescence, the owner must know its source. Shopping centers in today's market are subject to external obsolescence from a variety of sources. General economic conditions have reduced the demand for leases and have resulted in fewer tenants. Existing tenants, feeling pressure from lower-overhead competitors, are seeking lower rents to reduce strain on their business. Many retail lease rents are based on a percentage of sales, and as sales fall, so does rental income.

As a result of the real estate boom in the middle of the last decade, many markets are oversupplied with competitive properties, and some uncertainty exists as to the future of brick-and-mortar retail. Further, buyers and sellers are still cautious while engaging in sales, and lenders continue to restrict available capital. Changes in interest rates, inflation, capitalization rates, and elected officials can all have an effect on property value.

Proving cause and effect

After identifying the source of the property's obsolescence, the owner must be able to show the impact of the obsolescence on the property. For example, if the owner has lowered rents in order to keep or attract tenants, the valuation of the property should reflect that lowered income earning potential. Decreased demand from investors, whether because of financing restrictions or lower income potential, should reduce the assessment to reflect the smaller market for investment properties.

And when determining value by comparing the sale of similar properties, owners should emphasize the differences in market conditions, which reduce the value of the property.

For most properties, the largest expense after debt service is the property tax bill, so any reduction in that tax burden can drastically improve the property's profitability. Thus, while the economic climate may be turbulent for some time, prepared and informed property owners can use the nuances of external obsolescence to help weather the storm.

Blair Ben small Benjamin A. Blair is a tax associate in the national law firm of 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.

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