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Nov
26

The Silver Tsunami Portends Excessive Tax Assessments

What You Need to Know to Successfully Appeal Your Inordinate Property Taxes

By Stewart Mandell, Esq.

For some time, owners and operators of seniors housing properties have been aware of the staggering demographic statistics, such as the Census Bureau's projection that the baby boomer population will exceed 61 million when the youngest boomers reach 65 in 2029. This is truly the Silver Tsunami. Yet, even seniors housing professionals may be surprised by excessive property tax assessments that break otherwise carefully constructed budgets.

Before discussing what seniors housing owners can do to combat an excessive property tax assessment, it will help to review why some taxpayers will receive such unwelcome notifications. Factors include the large and increasing number and variety of seniors housing projects, coupled with the mass-appraisal methods that assessors typically employ.

With tens of thousands of units constructed each year, the country now has over 3 million seniors housing units ranging from independent living to assisted living, memory care and/or nursing care. Appropriate assessment methods depend on whether a property is an all-encompassing, continuing care retirement community; freestanding with only one component (such as independent living only); or comprising several (but not all) of these subtypes.

Unfortunately, assessors with limited resources usually use a cost-based methodology that is cost-effective for valuing a large number of properties. That may work for residential assessments in areas with similar homes, but given the significant differences between seniors housing properties, this approach can create an enormous tax problem for taxpayers who own seniors housing.

An outrageous assessment

In one recent case, the owner of a newly constructed property was shocked to receive an assessment valuing the property about 30 percent above its actual cost.The resulting taxes would have exceeded the owner's budget by over $250,000, not only ruining cash flow, but also destroying more than $2 million of market value.

Fortunately, there are measures taxpayers can take to counter excessive assessments. A critical initial step is to confirm any appeal deadline. Not only do rules differ across the country, but in many states the appeal deadline depends on when the notice is sent.

Further complicating this point is that more than one formal appeal may need to be filed, and taxpayers often have a narrow window within which to file. Generally, if a taxpayer receives a notice and misses a required appeal deadline, there are no second chances for that tax year.

Other important steps are to determine the applicable value standard and the assessment's basis. Usually (but not always) the standard will be market value, or the probable cash-equivalent price the property would fetch if buyer and seller are knowledgeable and acting freely. To determine that value, the assessor usually will have used an incomplete and improper cost approach that only adjusted for physical depreciation.

For these typical cases where the assessor has estimated market value using a flawed cost approach, drilling down deep into the assessor's cost methodology may produce a gusher of tax savings. In the aforementioned case, the assessor had used the costs for constructing a very expensive skilled nursing facility. Correctly using the assessor's cost estimator service for the subject property, which was mostly comprised of independent living units, reduced the cost by about $10 million.

Additionally, an assessor's cost-based valuation often will only account for depreciation from the property's physical condition. A proper cost approach must also account for any functional or external obsolescence.

Functional obsolescence can be substantial, especially for older properties, because consumer preferences change over time. What consumers may have desired years ago may now constitute a poor offering.

External obsolescence, which is often due to adverse economic conditions, can impact a property regardless of its age. For example, there will be external obsolescence if new properties overwhelm market demand in an area, or if the inevitable next economic downturn lowers market values.

Other scenarios

While atypical, sometimes assessors will use an income approach or sales comparison approach to value seniors housing properties. As with the cost approach, those approaches introduce many ways for assessors to reach erroneous and excessive value conclusions. One potentially large error is valuing the entire business and failing to remove the value attributable to services, intangibles or personal property.

In the previously mentioned case, the taxpayer's appraiser used the income approach and concluded that the seniors housing property had a total business value of approximately $22 million. The appraiser then determined that about $1 million of that value was attributable to services and intangibles and about $800,000 was attributable to tangible personal property as shown in the table below.

Market Value of Total Business Assets ---- $22M
Less Tangible Personal Property ---- ($800,000)
Less Services and Intangibles ---- ($1M)
Market Value of real property ---- $20.2M

In a similar vein, the Ohio Supreme Court recently reversed the Ohio Board of Tax Appeals in the case of a nursing home property where a taxpayer's appraiser had determined that only about sixty-two percent of the total paid for all assets was for the real property. The Board of Tax Appeals had summarily rejected the appraiser's analysis as a matter of principle. The Ohio Supreme Court reversed and ordered the Board to reconsider the appraiser's analysis, and determine what amount, if any, should be allocated to items other than real estate.

These cases underscore that an assessor who uses the income or sales comparison approach and mistakenly values the entire business, rather than the real property alone, can improperly inflate a real property assessment by a material amount.

Another step taxpayers can take to achieve tax justice is to involve experienced tax professionals and appraisers. As the above analysis shows, property tax valuation appeals have many procedural nuances as well as legal and factual issues that must be addressed. In addition, in some jurisdictions there may be a basis to obtain relief based on the assessments of comparable properties.

As the inevitable Silver Tsunami inundates markets, there will be more seniors housing properties and more instances of excessive tax assessments. To the extent that the surge in the elderly population depletes local government finances, whether due to government pension plan shortfalls or otherwise, there should be no surprise if property tax bills increase.

The owners and operators of seniors housing properties will need to carefully monitor their property tax assessments and remain vigilant to avoid painful and excessive taxation.
Stewart Mandell is a partner and leader of the Tax Appeals Practice Group at law firm Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, the Michigan member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
May
01

IPT's 2017 Property Tax Article of the Year

The Institute for Professionals in Taxation has awarded Brent A. Auberry, Esq., Stewart L. Mandell, Esq., and Daniel L. Stanley, Esq. with the 2017 Property Tax Article of the Year Award for their article entitled, “Invalid “Dark Box” Property Tax Claims Misinform Indiana and Michigan Legislatures,” which was published in the July 2016 issue of IPT’s monthly publication, IPT Insider.

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May
01

Invalid "Dark Box" Property Tax Claims Misinform Indiana and Michigan Legislatures

Some have recently called this the dark box theory. However, what some are now calling the dark box theory is simply traditional accepted valuation methodology. Indeed, among appraisal professionals, it is the use of comparable sales of occupied stores that generates controversy and is often inappropriate to value an owner-occupied store.

If the criticisms of valid appraisal methodology are not legitimate, why has this issue received so much attention? One cause is the financial pressure on localities due to lower property values from the Great Recession. Not only did property values fall after 2008, but many businesses closed altogether. Communities have faced not only a loss in jobs but also decreasing property values. In both Michigan and Indiana, that pressure was compounded by the application of property tax caps. Public coffers to support local services have been squeezed, and state governments have not provided additional funding.

Another root cause was self-inflicted: the unjustified, over-assessment of new big box stores. Assessors used construction costs and land cost as the “market value” of the property, despite the fact that, like a new car or a newly tailored suit, the market value of these properties is always less than the cost of construction.

The purported problem is also one of public perception. If a retail store is operating, with inventory on the shelves and customers in the aisles, it may be difficult for the general public and local officials to understand why it is appropriate to value the property by using a transaction of a similar store that was vacant at the time of sale.

Trained assessors, however, should know better. They are legally required to only value the property itself, i.e., its “sticks and bricks” as well as the land. The occupants and content of the property have no relevance to the market value of an owner-occupied real property. Most states separately tax the business activity conducted on a property through income and sales taxes. Assigning value to property based on a taxpayer’s business operations will unlawfully tax properties based on both intangible assets and intangible factors, and result in nonuniform taxation of similar properties.

Indiana Board of Tax Review Decisions
In December of 2014, the Indiana Board of Tax Review (IBTR) issued two opinions, which in most respects were no different than hundreds of rulings that preceded them.In both cases, taxpayers prevailed after the IBTR concluded their USPAP-compliant appraisals represented the best evidence of value. In the first case, involving a freestanding 237,000 square foot big box store in Indianapolis, the taxpayer’s appraiser developed and relied upon the sales comparison and income approaches to value (assigning more weight to the sales approach) to reach value conclusions for multiple tax years. In the second case, involving an 88,000 square foot big box store attached to a shopping center, the taxpayer’s appraiser developed all three approaches to value but relied on and assigned equal weight to the sales comparison and income approaches to value.

In both cases, the taxpayers’ appraisers used sales of vacant stores. Each appraiser adjusted those sales to reflect the differences between the appraised store and the comparable stores. Neither appraiser relied exclusively on the sales comparison approach to value. Consequently, the IBTR’s rulings in both appeals were not based solely on the supposed “dark box” sales, and the sales that were relied upon were adjusted to reflect differences between the subject and the comparable properties, with respect to physical condition, location and other factors.

That nuance was lost on the assessing community as a whole and the subsequent statewide media reporting. The public was told that the IBTR incorrectly compared an active store with a defunct one. Yet, a sale of a vacant store represents the transfer of the real property alone, without the value of the business operations, which is exactly what should be valued under the law. The flawed and overly simple criticisms of the IBTR’s decisions were repeated often, and loudly. Unfortunately, the Indiana General Assembly listened.

The Indiana Legislative Reaction and its Subsequent Fallout 2015 Legislation
After much heated discussion, the Indiana legislature, in the waning hours of its 2015 session, passed two provisions addressing “dark box” assessments in Senate Bill 436. The first provision (Section 43) was directed at big box stores. Assessors were directed to assess newer stores (those with an effective age of ten years or less) using a modified cost approach, accounting for physical depreciation and obsolescence.

The second provision (Section 44) impacted all “commercial non-income producing real property, including a saleleaseback property.” In determining the true tax value of qualifying properties with improvements with an effective age of ten years or less, a “comparable real property sale” could not be used if the comparable, among other restrictions, had been vacant for more than one year as of the assessment date.

Sections 43 and 44 were not well received. The IBTR issued a memo noting the new law contained “provisions that run counter to generally accepted appraisal practices.”

2016 Legislation
Indiana’s 2016 legislation session saw a complete repeal of Sections 43 and 44, effective January 1, 2016. House Bill 1290, Section 13, added Ind. Code § 6-1.1- 31-6(d) to provide: “With respect to the assessment of an improved property, a valuation does not reflect the true tax value of the improved property if the purportedly comparable sale properties supporting the valuation have a different market or submarket than the current use of the improved property, based on a market segmentation analysis.” Any such analysis “must be conducted in conformity with generally accepted appraisal principles.” And the analysis “is not limited to the categories of markets and submarkets enumerated in the rules or guidance materials adopted” by Indiana’s property tax rulemaking agency, the Department of Local Government Finance (DLGF), which is the agency that was directed to develop rules classifying improvements in part based on market segmentation.

What does this mean? That remains to be seen. Subsection 6(d) will undoubtedly be litigated before the IBTR and Indiana Tax Court, and the DLGF is in the process of developing its market segmentation rules. We do know two things: (i) the party challenging use of comparable sales must provide the market segmentation analysis; and (ii) the analysis must be based on generally accepted appraisal principles. No presumption exists under the statute that a sale is excluded. Exclusion must be proven with expert analysis.

Subsection 6(d) will lead to more costly appeals, with additional expert testimony and reports on market segmentation being required. As appeal expenses increase, litigants are likely to adopt tougher settlement positions, which will cause fewer cases to settle. As litigation takes longer to resolve, local officials’ uncertainty regarding the tax base will also increase. Section 13 also added Ind. Code § 6-1.1- 31-6(e), which cemented a long-standing principle of Indiana assessment law, i.e., that true tax value “does not mean the value of the property to the user.” To illustrate, the assessed value of a big box store owned and operated by Wal-Mart cannot be based on the specific value that the store has to Wal-Mart due to, for example, how Wal-Mart uses its unique marketing and employee training standards to sell its distinctive product mix.

Proposed Michigan Legislation – HB 5578
As in Indiana, Michigan government representatives have been waging a public relations campaign that has misled the public, including policy makers. The legislation drafts originally circulated were influenced by Indiana’s legislation. Ultimately, on June 8, 2016, the Michigan House passed House Bill 5578 (“HB 5578”). Among its many significant flaws, HB 5578 prevents use of the sales comparison approach in cases where its use would be appropriate, and forces reliance on the cost approach, without accounting for all forms of obsolescence. It is not yet known what will happen to the bill in the Michigan Senate.

HB 5578’s Required Findings of Fact
HB 5578 requires many specific findings of fact by the Michigan Tax Tribunal in a tax assessment appeal. Among others, HB 5578 requires specific findings of fact regarding: the market in which the subject property competes, the highest and best use of the property under appeal, the reproduction or replacement cost, and comparable properties in the market that have the same highest and best use.

While the listed factors are appropriate to consider in a valuation appeal, requiring specific findings of fact will be extremely burdensome and, in some cases, is ambiguous or unworkable. For example, an automotive assembly plant in Michigan might compete with automotive plants in the Midwest, Canada and Mexico and the automobiles produced at the plant could be shipped worldwide. HB 5578 provides no ascertainable standards on how one determines “the market in which the property subject to assessment competes.”

HB 5578 requires calculation of a “replacement or reproduction cost for property that has the same . . . age as the property subject to assessment.” It is nonsensical to calculate the construction cost to reproduce or replace property that has the same “age” as the property under consideration because, as an example, one cannot construct a 40-year old building. Presumably, what was intended was that cost new would be calculated, with a deduction for the depreciation of the subject property due to age. However, that is not what the plain language of HB 5578 requires.

HB 5578’s Exclusion of Comparable Properties
HB 5578 requires that a comparable property be excluded if its “use” is different than the highest and best use of the property subject to assessment. It is unclear what the term “use” means as applied in this subsection and whether it means “actual use when sold,” “subsequent use after sale,” or “highest and best use when sold.”

The proposed legislation also allows a comparable property to be considered “if the sale or rental of the property occurred under economic conditions that were not substantially different from the highest and best use of the property subject to assessment unless there is substantial evidence that the economic conditions are common at the location of the property subject to assessment.” This provision is absurd. It is impossible to compare “economic conditions” with “highest and best use” and, even if it were possible, it would not make any sense to do so.

For the sale of a comparable property that was vacant at the time of sale, HB 5578 requires consideration of whether “the cause of the vacancy is typical for marketing properties of the same class.” How is a “cause of vacancy” ever “typical for marketing”? HB 5578 further requires consideration of whether “the vacancy does not reflect a use different from the highest and best use of the property. . . .” Conspicuously missing from HB 5578 are any instructions as to the determination of how a vacancy reflects a use.

HB 5578 requires exclusion of a comparable sale property if the comparable property was subject to a deed restriction or covenant, “if that restriction or covenant does not assist in the economic development of the property, does not provide a continuing benefit of the property, or materially increases the likelihood of vacancy. . . .” What is missing from this analysis is any consideration as to whether such a deed or covenant would impact the price at which the property sold. For example, a reciprocal easement on the comparable property that did not “assist in the economic development of the property” but did not impact its sale price likely would be enough to exclude the comparable sale. Such reciprocal easements are commonplace and generally do not affect the price at which property sells.

Conclusion
Few would challenge the fundamental principles that property tax assessments should be uniform and should reflect the value of the fee simple interests of the properties – not the values of the business operations conducted thereon. Yet, the “dark box” bogeyman threatens these cornerstone valuation principles. In both Indiana and Michigan, new legislation gives taxpayers good reason to fear that in future years they may be faced with inflated property tax bills based on non-uniform and inequitable assessments.

 

Brent 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), the natonal affiliation of property tax attorneys. Mr. Auberry can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Mandell StewartStewart Mandell is a Partner of the Tax Appeals Practice Group Leader, in the law firm of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, the Michigan member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC). He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

Daniel L. StanleyDaniel Stanley is a Partner in the law firm of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, the Michigan member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC). He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Dec
15

Market-Value Tax Assessments Under Attack

Governments increasingly seek tax increases through value-in-use property taxation.f the compelling evidence is on your side, the record shows you have a fighting chance.

An unprecedented national debate is raging as vocal proponents of additional government revenue seek significant property tax changes that will be costly to taxpayers.

A recent Michigan Court of Appeals decision in Menard Inc. v. Escanaba (the “Menard decision”), which involved a Menards hardware store in the Michigan Upper Peninsula City of Escanaba, confirms that proponents of greater taxation are masking their true goals with claims that they merely seek equitable taxation. Consequently, it is important for property owners to understand the issues involved.

Typically, property taxes reflect market value rather than a property’s value-in-use, which is the value to the owner. The market value standard bases taxes on the amount the property probably would fetch, after reasonable market exposure, in a sale between two knowledgeable, unrelated parties.

With the exception of the right to appeal under due process, no property tax component is more essential to taxpayers than basing taxation on market value, and not on value-in-use. The market value standard provides a framework for equitable and uniform property taxation.

Market value bases taxes on what is achievable in a market sale, determined through objective information such as comparable sales, rental income, operating expenses, capitalization rates and other market information.

Important distinctions

With market value taxation, a property’s value is unaffected by who owns the property, or whether the owner is able to use the property to operate a successful business. For example, a retailer, manufacturer, or cloud data storage provider may use intangible and tangible property, including real estate, in a way that achieves extraordinary income from business operations. This does not change the market value of the real property used.

In contrast, value-in-use taxation is inequitable and non-uniform. Consider two identical, neighboring residential properties that have the same market value. Their value-in-use would most likely differ, and the differences could be dramatic. The disparity could be because one house has more occupants, or because one property is used only part of the year.

Alternatively, one house could have greater value-in-use because a resident generates significant income from work done while in the home, such as in a home office or studio. Also, when one of these identical properties sells, the property’s value-in-use could substantially increase or decrease.

Those who seek value-in-use taxation might argue that such taxation is equitable because owners who obtain more value from using their properties should pay higher property taxes. But consider some of this position’s enormous failings:

  • Most people would readily agree that the most equitable system is one in which all properties are uniformly valued based on their usual selling price, rather than their differing values in use.
  • Value-in-use taxation is highly subjective and inherently inequitable. Imagine the problems and disputes if properties were valued based on the value each owner experienced.
  • Value-in-use assessment would result in duplicative taxation. If a property is used in conjunction with a business, whether the property is a residence or otherwise, value-in-use property taxation will reflect the business’s income and success. Yet, there will be duplicative taxation where other taxes are imposed on the business, such as income taxes, gross receipts taxes and value-added taxes.

Given the enormous problems with value-in-use taxation, taxpayers could understandably think there is little risk that such taxation would be adopted.

Unfortunately, those seeking value-in-use taxation have shrewdly focused on the taxation of large big-box retail properties, which they claim have been unfairly valued based on sales of vacant properties that allegedly had value-depressing deed restrictions.

The proponents of greater taxation have even tried to divide taxpayers by suggesting that some taxpayers will pay higher taxes because big-box taxpayers are not paying their fair share.

Keys to the truth

Developers build big-box retail properties to the owner’s specific needs, typically with a layout matching the owner’s other stores. Buyers of such properties invariably pay far less than the cost to construct such properties. They do so because they will spend large sums for renovations the new owner desires, in particular to fit a business image.

Also, there is reduced demand for these properties. It’s what appraisers call external obsolescence – especially with growing industry disruption from Internet sales. There are numerous sales of big-box properties without deed restrictions that confirm the selling prices for these properties are low compared with their construction costs.

Notwithstanding these irrefutable truths, the Menard decision held that an assessor could value the property under a cost approach, as if the property had no functional obsolescence. According to the Michigan Court of Appeals decision, a buyer would consider a property suitable for its own needs, merely because the property satisfied the needs of its original owner.

Such reasoning obviously values the property based on its value to the original owner – i.e., value-in-use, not its market value. These principles are the same whether dealing with a non-residential property or a home that has been custom built to an owner’s unusual tastes.

Significantly, the Menard decision specified that value-in-use taxation also could apply to a large industrial property. And a prior Michigan Court of Appeals decision endorsed value-in-use for the headquarters of a financial institution. Once the value–in-use genie is out of the bottle, it can cause above-market valuations and increased taxes for virtually any type of property.

Notably, the pro-government briefs that oppose Menards appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court deny that the decision endorses value-in-use taxation. These denials, like those in the press made by advocates of greater taxation, disregard that the Menard decision itself uses the very words “value-in-use" in endorsing such taxation. It remains to be seen if the Michigan Supreme Court will review the Menard decision, and it could be a year or more before the case’s ultimate outcome is known.

High stakes game

Some in the business community are responding to today’s property tax debate as they would to any intense effort to broadly raise property taxes. Such groups understand what is at stake and are defending market value-based property taxation for all properties.

Yet those who seek higher taxes appear to be strongly united. Whether they succeed in imposing value-in-use taxation may well depend on whether the business community itself will unite to oppose what eventually could become an enormous tax increase.

To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, a business community divided against itself will inevitably succumb to the united forces that seek greater taxation.

Mandell Stewart jpg

Stewart Mandell is a Partner of the Tax Appeals Practice Group Leader, in the law firm of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, the Michigan member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC). He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Dec
31

How Do I Win My Property Tax Appeal?

If the compelling evidence is on your side, the record shows you have a fighting chance.

The best time to consider how an appellate court might view a property tax appeal is not after a trial court delivers an unwelcome decision.  Rather, as the taxpayer carefully plans the evidence to be submitted at trial, it is worthwhile to consider how the evidence will look to appellate judges.

The handling of tax cases in appellate courts receives comparatively little attention.  Yet an appellate court may well make the final decision in a property tax appeal.  That appellate court may even be a state’s highest court, typically (though not always) the state’s supreme court.

Based on the attention given to appellate court strategies in tax literature, the handling of appeals is a neglected orphan in the property tax process.  Innumerable property tax articles address how assessors mass appraisal methods can overstate a property’s market value.

Writers cover pitfalls of the typical cost and sales comparisons and income approaches to value, or detail valuation peculiarities by property type.  Little is written about the key issue that can help tax-payers prevail in the appellate courts.

The Record Rules

Everyone has heard that the three points of consequence for real property are location, location, location.  For a property tax appeal in an appellate court, those three points of consequence are the record, the record and the record.

Whether the taxpayer is the appellant or is responding to an appeal, the best chance of prevailing derives from a record filled with compelling evidence that covers the big-picture points, as well as all of the finer ones.

Some recent decisions confirm these points and show some of the opportunities and challenges that property tax appeals in appellate courts can entail.  In each case the appellate court found that the record showed the tribunal had adopted a wrong principle or made a decision not supported by competent and substantial evidence.

In one Midwestern case, the question at issue was whether the taxpayer had mistakenly reported personal property as taxable in a particular jurisdiction, even though the personal property was not only in other cities, but also in a different state.

At trial, counsel had the taxpayer testify in painstaking detail about the property and its location, including unusual costs the taxpayer incurred to maintain the property.  Notwithstanding this evidence, the tribunal held that the taxpayer had failed to satisfy its burden of proof.

At oral argument in the court of appeals, however, the taxpayer’s counsel was able to read compelling portions of the transcript to show that the trial judge had erred badly.

Sometimes judges cannot be swayed, no matter what is said at oral argument, but in this case the passages quoted grabbed the attention of all three appellate court judges, who seemed to fully understand the injustice that had occurred.  The resulting decision gave the taxpayer a complete victory.

Great Valuation Records

A second case involved a retail property in the Midwest that was almost 80 percent vacant on each of two valuation dates.  The initial tax tribunal decision adopted the appropriate methodology by using the income approach to first value the property at a stabilized occupancy of 85 percent, which the judge determined was the stabilized rate.  The judge then deducted the lost rent and costs involved over the time needed for the property to reach stabilized occupancy level.

Unfortunately, the tribunal’s decision included three technical flaws:

It deducted only a portion of the stabilization costs; it understated the area needed to be leased in order to achieve stabilization; and it included market rent that was inappropriately increased in the second tax year calculation because a gross lease was misconstrued as a net lease.

The record, including both the testimony of the taxpayer’s witnesses as well as a carefully documented appraisal, enabled the appellate court to see that the initial decision erred on all three points.  The taxpayer was fortunate that the three-judge panel deciding the appeal was willing to carefully analyze such technical valuation issues, rather than defer to a tax tribunal judge.  Yet this successful outcome hinged on compelling recorded evidence.

In a third and similar Midwestern case, the appraiser had initially valued a retail property as stabilized and then deducted stabilization costs.  Most of those costs were to cure the property’s extreme deferred maintenance, with a small amount relating to the leasing of vacant space to achieve stabilized occupancy.

The tribunal decision erroneously adopted the interim value before applying the stabilization deductions, With a record very much like the first case, the appeals court recognized that the cost of curing the deferred maintenance had to be accounted for, yet inexplicably failed to order the deduction of the modest costs related to the property achieving stabilized occupancy.

The taxpayer’s counsel made excellent lemonade from this decision by pointing out to the government’s counsel that, undeniably, the decision was logically inconsistent, because if the costs to cure deferred maintenance had to be deducted, then the same was true of the costs to cure the excessive vacancy.

Additionally, the taxpayer’s counsel argued that given the costs of further appeals and the likelihood that the taxpayer would ultimately prevail, a sensible solution would be for the government to agree to the value with the deferred maintenance costs de-ducted.  In fact, the government ultimately did agree and settled with the taxpayer on that basis.

While this case provided the taxpayer with an excellent result, it shows that a compelling record is a necessary – but not always sufficient – condition to prevail.

MandellPhoto90

Stewart Mandell is a Partner and Tax Appeals Practice Group Leader, in the law firm of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, the Michigan member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC). He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Jan
12

Michigan Provides Property Tax Lessons for Big Box Retail

"Probably the most important concept affirmed in these Michigan decisions is that assessors must value big box properties based on their value-in-exchange and not their value-in-use."

Owners of big box retail buildings can take lessons from Michigan on the proper way to value these large, free-standing stores for property tax purposes. The state’s well-developed tax law offers a clear model that is applicable in any state that bases its property tax valuation assessments on the fee simple, value-in-exchange standard.

Many states, including Michigan, base real estate taxation on the market value of a property’s fee simple interest using value-in-exchange principles. In other words, a property’s taxable value is its market value, and market value is commonly considered the property’s probable selling price in a cash-equivalent, arms-length transaction involving willing, knowledgeable parties, neither of whom is under duress.

In recent years, the Michigan Tax Tribunal has decided with remarkable consistency a dozen cases involving big box stores. In 2014, the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed two of these Tax Tribunal decisions, recognizing that the Tribunal’s key rulings in this area rested on established law.

Probably the most important concept affirmed in these Michigan decisions is that assessors must value big box properties based on their value-in-exchange and not their value-in-use. Assessors and appraisers hired by local Michigan governments repeatedly — and improperly — reached value conclusions based on value-in-use rather than value-in-exchange principles.

The violation of this fundamental point was not obvious from a cursory review of the valuation evidence. For example, the assessor’s evidence included both big box property sales with nigh per-square-foot prices and big box properties with high rental rates. Consequently, for the Michigan Tribunal to decide these cases correctly, taxpayers needed to present evidence, including from expert witnesses, which convincingly established the following:

  1. Each big box retailer either builds or remodels its stores to be consistent with the retailer’s marketing, branding and merchandising operations (built-to-suit);
  2. When a big box property sells, the buyer will spend substantial dollars reimaging the property so that it conforms to the new owner’s appearance, layout and other specifications;
  3. Given that big box properties can be costly to build because of their built-to-suit nature, and that the subsequent purchasers will make substantial modifications at significant cost, these properties sell for far less than their construction cost; and
  4. Actual sales confirmed that these properties sell for far less than construction cost.

With evidence establishing each of these points, the Michigan Tribunal has repeatedly recognized that taxable value for a big box property must reflect its value-in-exchange.

For example, the Tribunal could grasp that a sale would not reflect market value if the property had a rental rate designed to compensate the developer for construction to the retailer’s specifications, rather than a rent negotiated between a landlord and tenant for an existing building.

Similarly, with such evidence the Michigan Tribunal could discern that a sale would not reflect market value if the original owner/user of the property sold and leased back the space. A sale-leaseback is typically a financing transaction between two parties with multiple relationships (landlord/buyer and seller/tenant) that are different from an arms-length transaction. That means the rent in a sale-leaseback does not reflect the property’s market rent, which would be used in an income approach to determine value. Similarly, the sale price in such a transaction is not evidence of market value.

Likewise, the Michigan Tribunal recognized that if the assessor used leases with above-market rents to value these properties, it would impermissibly be valuing something other than the property’s fee-simple interest. This is important because it applies anytime a property with above-market rent is used as either a comparable sale or a rent comparable.

Finally, the Michigan Tribunal rejected the claim that each property’s highest and best use as improved was the continued use by the specific retailer that occupied the property. Generally, highest and best use is that which is legally permissible, financially feasible, maximally productive, and physically possible.

To define that use as the continued use by the retailer occupying the property would improperly make the value depend on the identity of the property’s owner. Additionally, it would lead to a value conclusion that reflected the value of the property to that owner, or its value in-use. Thus, the Michigan Tribunal concluded that the highest and best use was simply retail use.

Michigan’s many recent big box property tax decisions spotlight issues applicable to many types of properties, wherever the law requires assessors to value properties based on the market value of a property’s fee simple interest. Perhaps the most important takeaway is that in such cases, taxpayers need to provide evidence from appraisers and other experts to carefully document a property’s market value, and where that value is significantly less than construction cost, explain why this is true.

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Stewart Mandell is a Partner and Tax Appeals Practice Group Leader, in the law firm of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, the Michigan member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC). He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Jul
16

Some Justice for Taxpayers

How a Compelling, Well-Prepared Property Tax Appeal Can Defeat An Unlawfully Excessive Assessment

" A compelling case that is well presented gives the taxpayer the best chance at success."

It's no secret to taxpayers that appealing property tax assessments can be challenging. Typically, taxpayers bear both the burden of proof and the risk of a decision that not only protects government revenue but also ignores the facts and applicable law. Nevertheless, sometimes a compelling and well-prepared property tax appeal can result in tax justice.

A 2013 Michigan Tax Tribunal decision exemplifies the potential for achieving a fair outcome. In this case, the tribunal determined the market value of an apartment complex with 779 units. The analysis was substantially the same for both tax years involved, so just the first valuation date is discussed here.

The taxpayer claimed that the property was worth less than $13,400 per unit. Based on sales of apartments in the area, on an absolute and relative basis, this is a low value for an apartment property in the subject market. To prevail, the taxpayer had to carefully present its case using three essential components:

  • A convincing explanation of why the subject property's per-unit value was so low;
  • A well-reasoned appraisal based upon both the income approach and sales comparison approach, which demonstrated that the property was worth what the taxpayer contended and refuted the contentions and analysis of the government's assessor and appraiser; and
  • Legal authorities whose testimony supported the taxpayer's position.
  • The taxpayer needed each of these three ingredients to achieve total victory. It would have been insufficient for the taxpayer to have simply presented an appraisal that reached value conclusions supporting their contentions. In recent years, there have been numerous cases where the tribunal found taxpayer-filed appraisals to be flawed and unpersuasive.

Winning the Case

The taxpayer gave a compelling explanation for the property's low value. In this case, the property's one- and two-bedroom units averaged a mere 581 square feet. The onebedroom units, which comprised more than 70 percent of the apartments, were only 550 square feet. Those measurements were far smaller than those of the area's other apartment complexes, which averaged 750 and 850 square feet for one- and two-bedroom units, respectively.

As the owner explained to the tribunal, the original developer had built the units decades before to serve relatively unskilled young adults working in area factories. The small unit sizes made the apartments affordable for these first-time renters.

The Great Recession reduced demand for all types of apartments, which hurt occupancy and rental rates for the entire apartment market. This economic obsolescence adversely impacted the subject property's value. Further, the recession negatively impacted the subject property far more than other apartment properties because the huge downturn eliminated so many factory jobs for relatively young and unskilled workers. As those jobs disappeared, so did single renters who wanted small units, saddling the property with enormous functional obsolescence.

Given these explanations of the property's deficiencies, the judge could readily accept that even when occupancy improved and became stabilized, the complex would have above-market vacancy and would be limited in the rents it could charge, while forcing the owner to bear most of the utility costs.
These facts were an integral part of the direct capitalization income approach in the taxpayer's appraisal. In this income approach, the appraiser first determined the property's net operating income with occupancy that had reached a stabilized level. This required providing and analyzing the income and expenses of comparable properties as well as the subject property's financial results in recent calendar years. The appraiser applied an appropriate capitalization rate to the stabilized net operating income to determine the property's value as stabilized. The appraiser then subtracted the costs of rent concessions and lost rents the property would experience as it increased occupancy to a higher stabilized level.

In the sales comparison approach, the appraiser presented sales of six comparable properties, and where applicable, made adjustments for numerous elements of comparison, including location and age. Significantly, the appraiser's analysis included not only the commonly used per-apartment unit basis but also a per-square-foot analysis.

The appraiser gave some weight to this sales comparison approach but relied primarily on the income approach. Their testimony, supported by testimony of one of the taxpayer's senior managers, not only satisfied the taxpayer's burden of proof but presented a compelling case.

Having heard this powerful evidence, during the cross-examination of the government's witnesses, it was easier for the judge to see the flaws in the assessor's income and sales comparison approaches. Also, the taxpayer's counsel was able to cite a legal precedent to refute the government's cost approach, which ignored functional and economic obsolescence.

Ultimately, the tribunal rejected the government's value contention, which was 50 percent higher than the taxpayer's, and adopted the taxpayer's claimed value.
For taxpayers who are inexperienced in handling property tax appeals, these cases can be fraught with pitfalls that result in excessive taxation and exasperating endings. A compelling case that is well presented, however, gives the taxpayer the best chance at success. And as this case shows, there are times when tax justice is indeed attainable.

MANDELL Stewart

Stewart L. Mandell is a partner in the law firm of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn L.L.P., the Michigan member of the 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..

Nov
08

Recipes to Reduce Property Taxes Can Ease the Pain of Challenging Economic Times

"Rental rates and asset values have fallen to staggering lows, while snowballing vacancy has sapped income from commercial projects across property types and markets. And with local governments determined to maximize revenue from shrinking tax bases, it is more important than ever that property owners know the best recipes to minimize tax bills..."

By Stewart L. Mandell as published by National Real Estate Investor Online, November 2011

In his 1948 book, "How to Stop Worrying and Start Living," Dale Carnegie titled one chapter, If You Have a Lemon, Make A Lemonade. That advice has been passed down through the years to anyone facing a tough situation. How do you take something that's bad and turn it into a positive? The metaphor is apt for commercial real estate owners today, many of whom are stuck with piles of lemons.

Rental rates and asset values have fallen to staggering lows, while snowballing vacancy has sapped income from commercial projects across property types and markets. And with local governments determined to maximize revenue from shrinking tax bases, it is more important than ever that property owners know the best recipes to minimize tax bills. Imagine an intersection with four 150,000-sq.-ft. office buildings, one on each corner. The four buildings are physically identical, but have economic incongruities that could result in significantly different property taxation. These differences include vacancy rates, current rents, lengths of leases, creditworthiness of tenants and recent financing transactions.

Building A's rents average $25 per sq. ft., which is $5 more than the market average of $20 per sq. ft. But its leases with above-market rents will be ending sooner than the average lease in the other buildings at the intersection. Building A is 90 percent occupied, versus the market average of 80 percent.

If a tax assessor values the property using the actual contract rents, current occupancy and a capitalization rate obtained from a national survey, the property owner might well suffer excessive taxation. Arguing for a few adjustments to that calculation might substantially reduce Building A's taxes. The law of the jurisdiction might authorize a valuation that uses market rent, rather than above-market contract rents. Furthermore, leases that will be ending soon could justify a capitalization rate that is much higher than that reported in a national survey; rates from national surveys often are derived from fully leased, stabilized properties and not ones that soon could have significant vacancy.

If Building A's value is assessed according to its superior attributes and taxed at 2.5 percent of market value, its taxes would be more than $520,000 (see chart). If, however, its valuation is similar to a building with market attributes, its taxes would be around $360,000, almost 30 percent less.

Building B has the market's average vacancy rate of 80 percent and the same, above-market rents as Building A. The property recently sold in a sale-leaseback transaction that priced the building above its assessment.

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As with Building A, the applicable law might provide for using market rents in the assessment. Additionally, the sale-leaseback transaction price doesn't preclude a lower assessed value. Some state supreme courts have recognized that sale-leasebacks are simply financing transactions and should not be used to value properties for taxation.

Buildings C and D both have below-market average rents of id="mce_marker"5 per sq. ft. Building C has accepted tenants with greater credit risk to achieve 90 percent occupancy. Building D is in the worst shape, with below-market rents and a below-market 70 percent occupancy rate.

Certainly any tax appeal for Building D would rely on the property's below-market rents and occupancy. Additionally, the taxpayer may be able to show that these problems warrant a higher capitalization rate, which also would reduce the property's indicated value and taxes.

To the extent that Building C, like Building D, has below-market rents, the same holds true. With the above-market occupancy, the owner of Building C will need to determine whether the jurisdiction would accept a valuation that uses market vacancy, and if not, seek an adjustment based on the greater likelihood of defaults.

Dale Carnegie also wrote, "We all have possibilities we don't know about." Well-advised property owners, too, may learn of possibilities for property tax reductions they didn't know about.

MandellPhoto90Stewart L. Mandell is a partner in the law firm of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, the Michigan member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC). He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Jul
06

The Adventures of Valuation

The unique characteristics of a low-income housing tax credit project make it difficult for assessors to apply standard market value definitions and approaches in making a fair assessment.

By Stewart L. Mandell, Esq., as published by Commercial Property Executive, July 2011

Can you visualize how your tax appeal attorney would address an assessor's sales-comparison based property valuation? What if your attorney were Sherlock Holmes? Holmes sits at his desk as Watson enters. "Holmes, old boy, look at the assessor's valuation report on the Franklin Office Center, a multi-tenant office building. The assessor's fl awed cost approach is no surprise, but who would have expected a comparable-sales analysis with five sales to justify a sky-high value as of Jan. 1, 2010?"

Holmes chuckles as he quickly digests the report. "There is nothing here that should trouble you, my dear friend. Our evidence and my cross examination of the assessor will result in a compelling closing argument and a sizable assessment reduction."

"You already know how you'll address these sales?" asks Watson with astonishment.

"Why, of course," says Holmes, rising. "Here's how I'll summarize this in my closing statement: Your Honor, Sale No. 1 obviously is not a valid comparable, given the October 2007 date of sale. As our appraiser testified, from the market's peak in October of 2007 until January 2010, office building values in the area declined more than 40 percent. "You could make a market condition or time adjustment for that reason, and it would be something in excess of 40 percent. But the sale should be rejected because 2007 market conditions were so extremely different from what existed on Jan. 1, 2010. This sale is no more useful than one where the seller exercises an option to buy that was part of a lease agreement negotiated five years earlier."

Selecting his favorite meerschaum from the mantelpiece, Holmes continues: "Sale No. 2 must be rejected on the same grounds as Sale

1. Initially, the assessor made much of the fact that this sale closed on Sept. 16, 2008, which was after the start of the Great Recession, the Bear Stearns collapse and Lehman Brothers' bankruptcy filing.

"On cross examination, however, the assessor admitted that the parties executed the purchase agreement on March 7, 2008. That was well before both the valuation date and the point when the values of offi ce buildings plunged like Professor Moriarty descending the falls at Reichenbach." Having filled his pipe, Holmes turns toward the window.

"Sale No. 3 is irrelevant," he resumes. "Oh, it closed during the last quarter of 2009, near our valuation date, but there is one detail the assessor overlooked: This property was 100 percent leased to one of the 10 largest companies in the country, with 10 years remaining on the lease term. The assessor valued the landlord's interest, also known as the leased fee, and not the fee simple interest. The rent that produced this sizable sale price is well above Jan. 1, 2010, market rents. And in our state, valuation using a leased fee interest and above-market rents is unlawful." The strike of a match punctuates this last revelation.

"Sale No. 4 not only shares the fatal fl aw of Sale 3, but is even less defensible because it is a sale of a leased, built-to-suit property. Here, one of the country's most successful companies had arranged for construction of a facility to its exact specifications, and ultimately an investor acquired not just the property but also the tenant's 35-year lease.

"Of course, the rent is based on the contractor's cost and is unrelated to current market conditions. Not only was the transaction purely financial but as our appraiser's empirical data showed, built-to-suit properties such as this include significant costs that will not increase the property's sale price when subsequently sold." The atmosphere in the room begins to resemble the fog outside the window.

"Sale No. 5 is a sale-leaseback transaction. Town of Cunningham v. Property Tax Appeal Board, a 1992 Appellate Court of Illinois decision, is one of a number of decisions that confirm why this sale is irrelevant. "In the Cunningham case, the property owner initially listed the property with a sale price of $6 million, as well as a leaseback provision that would pay annual rent ranging from $200,000 to $250,000 for a term of 10 to 15 years. Ultimately, the property sold for $9.3 million plus a 15-year leaseback, with annual rent at $615,000. Obviously, the sale price and lease terms were directly related, with a higher rental stream producing a higher sale price. As the court concluded, this was a financing transaction, and the purchase price was unrelated to the property's market value."

Holmes bends to address his companion, seated beneath the swirling cloud. "In short, Your Honor, the assessor's sales-comparison approach is not worth the paper on which it is written."

Clearly, if owners are to achieve fair property tax valuations, they and their attorneys must dig deeply into comparables used by assessors. And that is elementary.

MandellPhoto90Stewart L. Mandell is a partner in the Michigan law firm Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn L.L.P., the Michigan member of the 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.

Oct
08

Caught in 'The Twilight Zone'

"Property owners haunted by flawed approach to tax assessments..."

By Stewart L. Mandell, Esq., as published by National Real Estate Investor, October 2010

Flawed cost-based assessments are a common cause of unlawfully high property taxation. Year after year, inflated valuations by government assessors can impose excessive tax bills on a property, notwithstanding annual taxpayer efforts to correct them.

For property owners, persistently unfair assessments are like Talky Tina, the infamous talking doll in the television series The Twilight Zone. The evil toy ultimately prevails against homeowner Erich Streator, notwithstanding his repeated efforts to remove the doll from the Streator family home. The bad news for taxpayers is that assessors will continue to impose excessive, flawed assessments because they often employ error-prone appraisal methods in the interest of expediency. The following demonstrates a common route to a cost-based assessment.

Software can help assessors quickly calculate the cost of reproducing property improvements, an amount I'll call "cost to build today." To account for physical deterioration of improvements, assessors can use an age-life method.

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For example, let's say a five-year old structure's estimated life is 50 years and its cost to build today is $10 million. The assessor deducts 10% for physical deterioration and adds the resulting $9 million value to the land value for a quick — and often inflated — assessment. The good news for taxpayers is that, unlike the Twilight Zone's Streator family, they have the means to seek and obtain justice.

A compelling case

A recently litigated tax appeal regarding a big-box retail building offers a persuasive example. The taxpayer-submitted appraisal included not only income- and sales-comparison based valuations, but also a proper cost approach.

The cost-based analysis differed in several ways from the tax assessor's hasty valuation. First, the appraisal explained that in addition to physical deterioration, depreciation must reflect functional obsolescence or drawbacks to the property itself, as well as external obsolescence. The latter refers to factors outside the property, such as reduced demand for space due to a recession.

The taxpayer proved that the original assessment was flawed because only physical deterioration had been subtracted from the cost to build today. Additionally, the property owner's appraiser presented comparable sales of other big-box locations where a taxpayer had purchased a site, developed a building and sold the property within a few years. These comparable sales were properties in which the owners had a fee simple interest.

For each comparable sale, the appraiser established the total depreciation of the improvements by first subtracting the original land purchase amount from the recent sale price to arrive at a current depreciated value for the building. Then the appraiser compared that building value to the cost to build today, which showed how much the building had depreciated over time.

The total depreciation at these similar properties supported the case for a lower assessment. In the most extreme example from several comparable sales, the value of the building and improvements was 56% less than the cost to build today. Total depreciation of the improvements in the comparable examples ranged from 42% to 56%. Applying this analysis, even after adding back the property's $700,000 land cost, the property assessment should have been about $3 million instead of more than $5 million.

In this case, the appraiser had comparable sales data on similar properties where land acquisition, construction and a sale had taken place in a relatively short time. In cases where the available comparable sales are of older properties, land sales may be used to establish the land value, rather than using the actual original price. As the accompanying chart shows, the taxpayer demonstrated that the government's assessment was unlawfully inflated by over 40%. Clearly, comparable sales can help taxpayers fight the kind of excessive taxation that should only exist in the fictitious world of The Twilight Zone.

MandellPhoto90Stewart L. Mandell is a partner in the law firm of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, the Michigan member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC). He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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