The retail real estate sector has been slow to recover from the Great Recession, and vacancy levels remain elevated for neighborhood shopping centers. As retail property owners search for ways to reduce carrying costs, many are scrutinizing one of the largest expenses their properties incur: real estate taxes.
Fortunately, the laws of each state provide a vehicle for landlords to reduce unfairly high property tax burdens by filing a commercial property tax appeal. At these appeal hearings, the property owner must prove that the property is worth less than its current taxable market value, and seek a fair value either through negotiation or a valuation trial in the local court.
Building a strong case to reduce an assessed taxable value requires technical expertise at any time, and it’s an even more complicated proposition for retail properties in a period of economic recovery.
The three traditional approaches used to value a shopping center are the cost approach, sales comparison approach and the income capitalization approach. Unless the shopping center was recently constructed, the cost approach is seldom used. The sales comparison approach is only used when comparable sales data is available, which is rare. Therefore, appraisal professionals and the courts agree that the income capitalization approach is generally the most reliable analysis.
The income approach requires the capitalization of a net income stream into a present value. Prior to filing a property tax challenge, the shopping center owner or their tax professional should gather copies of leases, rent rolls, and income and expense data for the prior and current year. Each is required in order to estimate the property’s market value.
Prior to the economic crash of 2008, a review of the property’s leases, vacancy rates and expenses helped paint a picture of the center’s ability to produce income. After applying a proper capitalization rate — the rate of return reflecting the risk of investment — to the center’s net income, an owner’s tax professional would be able to estimate the center’s market value for property tax purposes.
Following the crash of 2008, however, an increasing number of shopping center landlords have been forced to make rental concessions in order to keep tenants. As a result, the mere analysis of the center’s occupancy, lease rates and expenses is no longer enough.
A better strategy is to conduct a comprehensive inquiry with the owner’s leasing representative or property manager to identify any concessions such as reductions in rent, recalculations of base tax years for property tax reimbursement, or a reduced reimbursement of common area maintenance charges.
Much of the data in the typical yearend income and expense report for a shopping center may be misleading or inconclusive, requiring detailed discussion with the landlord or the landlord’s accountant. For example, some owners report tenants’ payments to the landlord for reimbursement of property tax or for common area maintenance as rental income. Yet if this data were capitalized along with rental income in a valuation, it would inflate the center’s taxable value and reduce the owner’s chance of securing a property tax reduction at a valuation hearing or trial.
After determining rental income, the taxpayer or tax professional will review the shopping center’s vacancy history in order to determine the property’s effective gross income, or gross income less vacancy and collection losses.
The economic health of any shopping center depends upon the percentage of the total space rented. Therefore, the taxpayer must consider an appropriate vacancy and collection loss factor when refining gross income into economic gross income. Shopping centers are rarely fully occupied today, and this factor must be considered in the analysis. Vacancy rate estimations should reflect a review of the subject’s vacancy rate together with local and regional market statistics.
Next, analyze expense data to estimate the subject’s net income, subtracting expenses typically incurred by the landlord from the property’s effective gross income. To ascertain typical expenses, study a number of shopping centers and compare those findings with the subject’s actual expense data. Generally, shopping center expenses include management, insurance, leasing fees and commissions, un-reimbursed common area maintenance charges, and utilities not paid by tenants.
Depending on the region, these expenses can total 15 percent to 30 percent of gross income.
The income capitalization approach to market value requires the application of a capitalization rate to the shopping center’s net income in order to estimate fair market value. The capitalization rate is a percentage that expresses risk, return, equity and property tax rates.
Considerations in estimating these rates include the degree of risk, market expectations, prospective rates of return for alternative investments, rates of return for comparable properties in the past and the availability of debt financing. It’s always helpful to determine caps rates utilized in the jurisdiction.
Many things to consider
Clearly, there are many factors to consider when evaluating a shopping center’s taxable value today. In addition to the factors mentioned above, the property owner must consider the subject’s size, location, access, competition, parking, tenants and other traits to form a value opinion.
Prior to presenting a case to the assessor or judge for a property tax reduction, the taxpayer must thoroughly analyze the individual economics of the shopping center and employ a valuation approach that produces a logical and well supported estimate of taxable market value.
Given that most shopping centers have experienced economic hardship since 2008, owners of these properties should seek professional advice to evaluate their property tax bill. A skilled property tax attorney will know how to conduct the necessary analyses and effectively argue on the taxpayer’s behalf for a property tax reduction.