Menu

Property Tax Resources

Apr
17

Solid Base: Proper Lease Structures Can Reduce Property Taxes

In Washington, D.C., as in so many jurisdictions throughout the country, commercial property assessments and taxes have steadily increased for the last five years.  For large office buildings in the District, real estate taxes now constitute an approximately 45 percent slice of the expense pie.  It is not surprising, then, that these tax hikes are generating mounting concern from landlords and tenants, with each side seeking to minimize the impact on the bottom line.

Triple-net leases enable landlords to pass increased property tax expenses to tenants, yet that situation tends to be the exception.  Most office tenants in Washington and other major markets lease space on a full-service basis, so that occupants are typically responsible for increases in real estate taxes only over a pre-established base.

Given this prevailing lease structure, tenants are become increasingly sensitive to how the base is structured.  During the past two years, we’ve noticed a significant uptick in requests from landlords for help with structuring, interpreting and negotiating base years.  The best advice can be summed up as: “Be prepared, be precise and be flexible.”

Be Prepared

Real estate taxes are generally the single largest expense for almost any owner, no matter the state in which the property exists.

During negotiations, landlords should recognize the significance of this cost to the tenant, and assume that the tenant will do the same.  This means that a landlord needs a clear understanding of the property’s current and projected real estate tax situation.

For stabilized properties, current property taxes are a reliable indicator of future taxes, prior to adjustments for changing market conditions.  For new construction or recently renovated properties, however, property taxes can spike in the years following substantial completion.  Understanding a property’s current and likely future assessment will place the landlord in the best possible position during negotiations.

Too often, however, landlords reach out to property tax counsel at the tail end of lease negotiations, after tenants and landlord have already exchanged lease language.  Rather, landlords should consult counsel at the outset of negotiations so that owner and adviser understand the property’s current and projected real estate taxes.

Be Precise

As with any lease clause, precision matters in property tax provisions.  Base-year disputes most often arise when leases use boilerplate language which is either open for interpretation or simply does not apply to the local jurisdiction.  Often this language relies on standard broker/landlord leases and uses generic terms or those that do not clearly apply to the assessing jurisdiction.

Moreover, imprecise language increases the likelihood that costly disputes will arise.  Concerns about base-year language often stalls dispositions or scuttles them altogether.  To minimize the chances of such mishaps, tax-related language should be tailored to the property and jurisdiction.  Again, consulting local property tax counsel is crucial.

Flexibility is Key

There are many ways to negotiate a real estate tax recovery clause.  In the Washington, D.C., metro, standard practice is to set either the first year of the lease or first full calendar year of the lease.  While this standard practice has some superficial logic, it may result in a base year that comprises multiple fiscal years.  For example, Washington’s fiscal year runs from October to September.  As a result, any base year patterned on the calendar year will necessarily require two assessments and could spark a dispute if those assessments differ significantly.

Mindful of this possibility, some landlords and tenants prefer to set base years on the District’s fiscal calendar so that only one assessment will be implicated.  Sometimes, however, the parties are unable to agree on a time period for the base year.  In such cases, taxpayers should shift from a temporal approach to a numeric approach.

For example, if the parties are at loggerheads over whether the base year should be 2016 or 2017, they can simply set a specific assessment or tax amount.  Taking that step can reduce the influence of chance in establishing the base.

Given the outsized importance of real estate taxes to the bottom line, managing these costs is imperative.  While this calls for engaging local counsel to review and appeal the property’s assessment, it should also include working with counsel at the front end to assist in developing appropriate lease language.

cryder scott jpg

Scott B. Cryder is a partner in the law firm of Wilkes Artis Chartered, the DIstrict of Columbia member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), 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..

Jan
01

Washington DC. Property Tax Updates

Updated september 2018

Enacted Changes to Commercial Property Tax Rate

In March of this year, Mayor Muriel Bowser proposed to increase the commercial tax rate by $0.02 to help pay for dedicated Metro funding. Her proposal would have increased the tax rate from $1.85 per $100 of assessed value, for each dollar of assessed value over $3 million, to $1.87 per $100 of assessed value. The first $3 million of assessed value would continue to be taxed at $1.65. After deliberation, DC Council amended Mayor Bowser’s proposal by further increasing the commercial tax rates and abolishing the previous blended rate structure. The new rates, finalized this past month following the mandatory Congressional review period, are as follows:

New Rates - Tax Year 2019         

Assessment                       Rate
$1 - $5,000,000                      1.65%
$5,000,001 - $10,000,000      1.77%
$10,000,001 +                        1.89%                       

Unlike the existing rates, the new rates are not blended.  For example, if your property is assessed for $10,000,000 the property will be taxed entirely at the 1.77% rate.  If, however, your property is assessed for $10,000,001 the property will be taxed entirely at the 1.89% rate. For example, a $100M office building will see an increased tax liability of $46,000. There is no change to the residential rate of 0.85%. The changes will take effect for Tax Year 2019 (October 1, 2018 through September 20, 2019).

Scott B. Cryder, Esq.
Wilkes Artis, Chtd.
American Property Tax Counsel (APTC)

Continue reading
May
30

Multifamily Boom May Skew Property Tax Assessment Systems

Since the onset of the Great Recession in 2007 the home ownership rate in the United States has fallen by a considerable 4 percent, according to the Census Bureau. While the U.S. may not have become a nation of renters, that long-cherished and widely promoted American dream of home ownership appears to be less attainable and less desirable than it was a decade ago.

This shift in housing demand has sparked a construction boom in the multifamily sector. Across the nation, developers are building a vast amount of multifamily units. According to Cassidy Turley's most recent U.S. Macro Forecast, developers are set to deliver 160,000 new units this year, the most robust construction period in 15 years.

There has been a lot of ink spilled regarding the significance of this sea-change in housing. Often overlooked, though, is the effect this construction boom will have on property taxes in the multifamily sector in general. To understand the implications for property taxes, however, taxpayers must first understand how tax assessors typically value multifamily buildings.

Many tax jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia, employ a computer-assisted mass appraisal (CAMA) system to value multifamily buildings. CAMA systems are designed to simplify the assessment process across a product type, with the goal of producing more uniform assessments, as opposed to property-specific valuations.

To accomplish this, the taxing entity first stratifies properties into different categories and sub-categories. For instance, the D.C. assessor's office first categorizes multifamily buildings as either high-rise (five floors or more) or low-rise (four floors or less). It then further segments properties by submarket; in D.C. there are three general areas.

With properties categorized by the taxing jurisdiction's specifications, the assessor's office enters actual rental, expense and vacancy data for products within each specific category into the CAMA system. The computer model then produces statistical market-based indices for the various categories.

Assessors use these market-based indices to assess individual properties within categories, rather than using rental and expense information that is unique to that property. While adjustments can be made on an individual basis for property-specific issues, the goal of the CAMA system is to produce uniform assessments within the stratification.

Notwithstanding general grievances with CAMA valuations (and this writer has many), CAMA systems are based on general market data, which makes them prone to break down during periods of rapid market change, or when the stratifications are not updated in a timely manner.

One such scenario involves an oversupply at one end of the sector, as is now occurring in many cities due to the construction of class-A multifamily product. Too much construction of class-A apartments can result in lower occupancy levels and downward pressure on rents for these properties. In another, less understood scenario is a process that has been described as "filtering," in which new class-A product, with its higher levels of finish and greater amenities, displaces existing class-A product at the high end of the market. The older, formerly class-A buildings effectively join the class-B category, achieving lower rental rates than the newer product.

In the latter scenario, the stratifications within the CAMA system must be updated in a timely manner to reflect the new market realities. If they are not, the CAMA system will break down as it aggregates data from dissimilar properties, thus resulting in inflated values for the former class-A buildings.

Washington D.C. is beginning to experience the onset of this market dynamic. Research by Delta Associates indicates that while class-A rents rose slightly across the district, they actually decreased in established submarkets with relatively little new product, such as in the Upper Northwest. The district hasn't adjusted its market stratification's to reflect this new phenomenon, however. Instead, the system lumps together markets that have seen decreased rental rates with markets that are experiencing rent growth due to the influx of new class-A product.

Moreover, in the district all high-rise buildings are included in the same pool of comparable properties, regardless of when they were built, or what levels of finish or amenities they offer. Consequently, unless D.C. updates its CAMA system to reflect these new market norms, it is likely that in the next few years we will begin to see the CAMA system overstate assessments for older class-A product.

While taxing jurisdictions should be cognizant of these market changes and make timely adjustments to their CAMA systems, it will often fall to the property owners to be vigilant in monitoring and, when necessary, appealing property assessments. Watching a building's rent levels decrease due to competition from newer product is bad enough—having the city also tax that building as if it were the newer product just adds insult to injury.

 

Cryder600 Scott B. Cryder is an associate in the law firm of Wilkes Artis Chartered, the District of Columbia 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.

Apr
09

A Tax Recipe for Failure in District of Columbia

"Washington is unique in its reliance on property taxes, and in particular commercial property taxes, for a disproportionate share of its revenue. This is due in large part to factors outside of the council's control, such as the large amount of federally owned, tax-exempt property in the district, and to Congress' decision to prevent the district from taxing income earned in the district by non-residents..."

By Scott B. Cryder, Esq., as published by National Real Estate Investor - online, April 9th, 2013

Most property owners in the District of Columbia would welcome a plan to increase the accuracy of tax assessments by providing assessors with the most up-to-date information available. But if that plan also reduced the time D.C. assessors have to conduct their assessments to two months, rather than the current six months, many of those same taxpayers might reconsider. And if this plan would also reduce the time for assessors to handle initial administrative appeals, which has been an efficient mechanism to pare down the number of formal appeals, to six weeks instead of the current four-month window, most reasonable people would likely balk at the entire notion.

The truth is, legislation mandating these exact changes is pending before the Council of the District Columbia. And if statements from key councilmembers and District officials are any indication, this legislation has a good chance of becoming law in the next few months. How did we get here?

First, understand that Washington is unique in its reliance on property taxes, and in particular commercial property taxes, for a disproportionate share of its revenue. This is due in large part to factors outside of the council's control, such as the large amount of federally owned, tax-exempt property in the district, and to Congress' decision to prevent the district from taxing income earned in the district by non-residents.

Nonetheless, this heavy reliance on property taxes has created the public perception that Washington's assessment division is a revenue-generating department. Misplaced as this view may be—and it is misplaced—it has resulted in the assessment division being subject to frequent charges of "giving away" taxpayer dollars.

The most recent iteration of this line of criticism came to a head last year when the Washington Post published a series of articles suggesting that the Real Property Assessment Division was improperly settling commercial assessment appeals. To pile on, the Washington D.C. Office of the Inspector General issued a report shortly thereafter roundly criticizing many key practices and policies in the Assessment Division.

Although many of the criticisms levied at the Assessment Division were unmerited, the top staff of the Assessment Division determined that action needed to be taken. Naturally, one would anticipate that a working committee of stakeholders was convened and suggestions of the assessors sought, since they would be implementing any changes.

One would also expect such a committee, or someone in authority, to thoroughly review implications of any proposed changes. Unfortunately, though not unsurprisingly, none of this occurred. Instead of engaging in an "all—of-the-above" type of conversation, district officials quickly rolled out a wholesale overhaul of the assessment process without anything resembling the thorough vetting needed.

Good intentioned as those public servants proposing these changes may be, most professionals involved in the assessment and appeal process (including every assessor the author has queried) agree that the recommended changes will have a negative impact on the quality of assessments, and will ultimately increase both the number of appeals and the average time required to resolve an appeal. While this is surely not the outcome that district officials desire, it will likely be the one they achieve.

Cryder600 Scott B. Cryder is an associate in the law firm of Wilkes Artis Chartered, the District of Columbia member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Feb
12

Can the Property Tax Code Improve D.C.'s Public Schools?

It is well understood in economics that, outside of the margins, the more you tax something the less of it you get, and the less you tax something the more of it you get.

By Scott B. Cryder, Esq., as published by National Real Estate Investor - Online, February 2012

A city is unlikely to maximize its potential without attracting and retaining families with children. Yet attracting and retaining such families is perhaps the greatest obstacle the District of Columbia will face over the next several decades as it seeks to navigate the region's ongoing population boom. And while it may not seem obvious, the real estate tax code may be an effective tool to meet the challenge.

A good problem to have

According to the 2010 Census, the D.C. metropolitan area grew by 16 percent over the last decade. Among the 10 largest metropolitan areas, this was the largest percentage increase of any non-Sunbelt metropolitan area. Growth extended beyond the suburbs, as the District itself stemmed a 60-year population decline by adding nearly 30,000 new residents.

Buoyed by government spending, related contracting, a robust legal and professional field and growing technology and biomedical industries, the D.C. area is well positioned to maintain this growth over the coming decades. In fact, a recent study by the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University predicts that over the next two decades the population of the greater D.C. area will increase by 1.67 million people, a 30 percent increase over the current population of 5.58 million. Compared with the problems facing shrinking metropolitan areas such as Detroit and Chicago, the District is fortunate. Nonetheless, this projected growth presents significant challenges to state and local governments.

A city of hipsters and empty-nesters?

Though the District may be spared from some of the more implacable transportation issues facing its suburban neighbors, it faces its own unique set of challenges. The most glaring, long-term impediment to growth in the District is its dismal public education system. The dearth of quality public schools renders the District inhospitable to large numbers of families with school-age children. These families, who would otherwise prefer to live in the District, are forced either to decamp for the suburbs once their children are of school age or enroll them in private schools, an option that is beyond the reach of a large swath of the populace.

This lack of quality public education effectively restricts the District's appeal to a narrow demographic group of new residents—a fact that has not been lost on the multifamily developers who increasingly dominate D.C. residential development. Reacting to market conditions, these developers are focusing on delivering smaller, more affordable units in amenity-laden buildings. These units are, however, largely impractical for families with school-age children.

DC-family-600

Attracting these families presents a Catch-22 conundrum, however: The quality of public schools will improve if more diverse families move into the District, yet these families are hesitant to move into the District because of the lack of quality public schools. Solving this challenge requires innovative thinking by the District government. Policies must be enacted that simultaneously incentivize individual families to move to the District and incentivize residential developers to provide the necessary housing stock, especially in the multifamily segment. This is where a simple tinkering with the real estate tax code could pay big dividends.

It is well understood in economics that, outside of the margins, the more you tax something the less of it you get, and the less you tax something the more of it you get. This same basic principal should be applied to attracting and retaining families with school-age children. Specifically, the District should implement a child property tax credit of $1,000 for each child enrolled in D.C. public or charter schools. This credit could be claimed by either owner-occupants or landlords where the child lives.

By making this credit available to both owners and landlords, the District would not only directly motivate families to move to the District and enroll their children in D.C. schools, but it would also incentivize developers to provide the new housing necessary to support these families. This simple, easily administered tax credit would address two difficult issues simultaneously, in an efficient manner with little regulatory overhang. If the District wishes to reach its potential, it will need to enact precisely these types of policies.

Scott B. Cryder is an associate in the law firm Wilkes Artis Chartered, the District of Columbia's member of American Property Tax Counsel.

Aug
16

Property Taxation Runs Amok in the District of Columbia

"This pumping up of assessments allowed politicians the luxury of claiming that they did not raise the tax rate during the entire period. If taxes went up, even dramatically, well then that's just the marketplace talking."

By Stanley Fineman, Esq., as published by National Real Estate Investor Online - City Reviews, August 2011

Real estate taxes, which are based on assessor opinions, are the only subjectively determined taxes on the planet. And unlike other building expenses, which are largely controllable, property taxes are volatile, chaotic and often quixotic. Above all else, in the District of Columbia, they are high.

So, how high are your property taxes? Presumably all owners can answer that question on a cost-per-square-foot basis. But there are other perspectives to consider. How much have those taxes changed in the past five years? What percentage of the property's overall operating expenses do property taxes represent, and has that ratio altered over the years?

SFineman_graph

Here in D.C., we keep track of such things — and the results are startling. Office building taxes ballooned from $4.97 per sq. ft. in 2004 to $8.81 per sq. ft. in 2009, an increase of 77%. That's more than double the rate of increase in office contract rents, which averaged $45.31 per sq. ft. in 2009, up 35% from $33.46 in 2004.

None of the tax increases in those five years resulted from changes in the millage rate, or tax per id="mce_marker",000 of valuation, which remained essentially constant for the entire period. The increase was the product of assessment legerdemain, and would have been much higher had property owners failed to wage relentless and successful administrative and judicial tax appeals.

This pumping up of assessments allowed politicians the luxury of claiming that they did not raise the tax rate during the entire period. If taxes went up, even dramatically, well then that's just the marketplace talking.

Never mind that the tax rate might have been significantly reduced, softening the blow of the assessment spikes, but it was not. After all, there were pet projects that needed feeding.

Economic toll

We can examine the impact of mushrooming assessed values on the bottom line. Non-tax building expenses including fixed costs, maintenance, utilities, administration and services rose modestly from 2004 through 2009, by perhaps 20%.

With tax bills growing at a faster rate, however, the tax burden as a percentage of total building costs increased dramatically over that same period.

By 2009, property taxes climbed to an astounding 42.25% of all operating expenses, up from 33.24% five years earlier. In the early 1990s, taxes were as low as 24% of all operating expenses.

The overall effect on property cash flow was to significantly blunt the profitability one might have expected from the general rise in property values over the period.

Let's examine that further. Average rental rates increased 35% over a five-year period. If property taxes had increased at the same rate, taxes on the average office building would be $6.71 per sq. ft.

But because property taxes actually climbed 77% over that five years, the average office taxes is $8.81 per sq. ft. That's $2.10 per sq. ft. lost from the bottom line.

In a 250,000 sq. ft. office building, not uncommon in D.C., that equates to a loss of $525,000, annually.

Let's now look at it from the perspective of the taxing authority. There are approximately 1,000 privately owned office buildings in D.C. If the average size were, say, 175,000 sq. ft., D.C. arguably would be gaining excess tax revenues approaching $400 million annually.

That is a staggering sum, a massive shift of the tax burden heaped quietly onto the shoulders of commercial owners.

The D.C. government, always a minority partner in real estate enterprises, has been biting off heftier chunks of the commercial pie through taxation as the years roll by.

This has allowed it to subsidize homeowners (i.e. voters) through reduced tax rates and capped increases. And everybody's happy. Oh, except commercial owners and their tenants, the geese that lay the golden eggs. And we all remember what happened to them.

A proposal

Over the years, commercial owners have raised many salient arguments in an attempt to hold down their taxes. For example, commercial taxes in D.C. are considerably higher than in the adjacent jurisdictions, suburban Maryland and Virginia, resulting in a competitive disadvantage for D.C. property owners.

Arguing this point has brought some success in lowering the D.C. tax rate, but a large disparity remains.

Most recently, recalcitrant D.C. assessors were slow to recognize the downturn in the economy that afflicted property values in all jurisdictions. When the economy improves, aggressive assessors will tend to be overzealous in pursuing and overstating the market.

Simply put, property taxes shouldn't increase at a faster rate than rents. In practice, such a rule would require first establishing a base line of rents and taxes, and then utilizing reliable data to establish increases.

There might be lag time involved in acquiring and utilizing the data, but that challenge is a hill, not a mountain, to climb. And most importantly, it would be reasonable and fair.

sfinemanStanley J. Fineman is a shareholder in the law firm of Wilkes Artis Chartered, the District of Columbia member of American Property Tax Counsel. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

American Property Tax Counsel

Recent Published Property Tax Articles

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...

Read more

How Property Valuation Differs for Corporate Headquarters

Lack of data makes for more important conversations between advisors and property owners.

By Margaret A. Ford, Esq.

Corporate headquarters present unique challenges and opportunities in property valuation discussions with tax assessors. Managing taxes on any real estate property requires an understanding of all three traditional approaches to value, but headquarters...

Read more

How to Avoid Excessive Property Taxes

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

By Gilbert D. Davila

As robust occupancies and escalating investor demand in many markets drive up property tax bills for multifamily housing, apartment owners must continue to monitor their assessments to avoid overtaxation. Knowing what to...

Read more

Member Spotlight

Members

Forgot your password? / Forgot your username?