Menu

Property Tax Resources

Nov
14

Oregon Law Offers Potential For Property Tax Reductions

Properties under construction and projects subject to governmental restriction can take advantage of legislative provisions the state provides.

The Portland metropolitan area is undergoing an unprecedented boom in commercial construction that extends from downtown to the suburbs and into just about every product type.Many taxpayers are preparing to pay larger tax bills, either because they are developing one of those new projects, or because they own properties that are becoming more valuable in response to growing demand for redevelopment sites. This is particularly common in developed areas where infill construction is hot.

Taxpayers in either of those positions may be missing out on significant tax savings if they are unaware of two provisions of Oregon law that could offer some respite. The Oregon legislative has carved out property tax provisions for a property under construction and for a property subject to a governmental restriction. The savvy property owner needs to know about these opportunities and comply with the statutory requirements to achieve the tax benefit.

The provisions are especially relevant to Portland's latest round of development, much of which is concentrated around infill in neighborhoods and on properties that were once used for industrial activities.

It is important to remember that Oregon law bases property taxes on the real market value of the property or the maximum assessed value under the Oregon Limits on Property Tax Rates Amendment of 1997. Also known as Measure 50, this amendment imposed restrictions on future increases in assessed values and on tax rates. Taxing entities multiply the assessed value by the tax rate to calculate the taxes owed.

The state defines "real market value" as the price an informed buyer would pay to an informed seller in an arms-length transaction. The statute goes on to state that if the property is subject to a governmental restriction as to use, "the property's real market value must reflect the effect of those restrictions."

That brings us to the tax-saving opportunities associated with usage restrictions and construction. Taxpayers typically think of government restrictions only as zoning law or a conditional land-use limitation. Often overlooked are environmental restrictions on a property's use, such as when the federal Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Environmental Quality has identified the land as a contaminated site.

When a property is governed by a qualified environmental remediation plan, it is subject to a governmental restriction on the property's use. Obviously, the contamination and the future costs of remediation or containment significantly reduce the property's real market value.

One way to measure the reduction in market value caused by the government's environmental restrictions is to calculate the present value of the future clean-up costs. The assessing authority will consider the responsibility and costs of remediation or containment, and will usually reduce the real market value of the property significantly.

Another common governmental usage restriction occurs when a governmental agency provides low-interest loans or tax incentives as a means of encouraging development of certain types of public interest projects, such as low-income housing. The government loan will typically require that the property reserve a number of units for lease at a below-market rent.

In Oregon, the statute allows the property owner to choose whether it wants to enter into the special assessment program for low-income housing. A caution to the property owner that enters into the special assessment program for low-income housing is that the property could become subject to back taxes if it later fails to meet the requirements of the county, or of the loan.

Importantly, the statute does not require the property owner to enter the special assessment program to achieve the tax benefit of certain low-income housing units, as long as the loan meets certain statutory requirements and is properly recorded.

Not to be missed is the construction-in-progress exemption, which is available for income-producing properties. Most states encourage the development of commercial and industrial facilities by sheltering construction projects from the payment of taxation until the property is in use or occupied, and therefore generating rental income or enabling an owner-occupier to pursue business activities there.

The construction exemption requires strict compliance with the statute, and inadvertently failing to meet one of the criteria could cost the property owner a year of tax savings. The exemption isn't limited to manufacturing facilities; the Oregon Tax Court has held that this tax exemption is also available to a condominium under construction, provided that the units were held for sale until its completion.

While taxpayers in Portland's hot construction market enjoy many opportunities to take advantage of tax reductions, owners all across the state should be on the alert for these potential reductions.

Cynthia M. Fraser is a partner at the law firm Garvey Schubert Barer where she specializes in property tax and condemnation litigation. Ms. Fraser is the Oregon representative of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Ms. Fraser can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
Continue reading
Sep
28

Where Has All The Value Gone In Retail?

Telltale signs can signal opportunities for tax reductions in declining retail properties.

For a number of years the mantra in the retail industry has been that retail property values and shopping center values, in particular, will continue to decline because consumers make purchases online rather than in brick-and-mortar stores. While this may be true, simply reciting the words to property tax authorities rarely succeeds in arguing for a reduced assessment.

The best strategy to obtain significant tax reductions for declining retail properties is an analysis of indicators that measure the mall's or shopping center's health. These factors come in four categories: anchor tenants, in-line tenants, tenant occupancy costs and prevailing lease agreements. While these dynamics may not be readily apparent, their analysis is the key to obtaining property tax relief.

Anchor Tenants

Mall anchor tenants have a significant say in how the property is configured, and in the mix of inline tenants. Consequently, when a national chain department store or other anchor tenant starts to experience a decline in sales per square foot, it can send tremors through the entire shopping center. Declining anchor tenant sales grow more serious when the anchor tenant's sales per square foot fall below the national chain-wide average. If the anchor consistently underper­forms the chain-wide average, the store is often deemed a candidate for closure.

Inline Tenants

Inline tenants are the bread and butter of most shopping centers. No other group receives more scrutiny than tenants occupying 10,000 square feet or less. The first thing mall evaluators look for is the types of inline tenants, as well as the trends in those tenant types. Landlords and investors prefer permanent inline tenants over temporary tenants. It is also better to have retail inline tenants than non-retail users, such as offices, government agencies and the like. Of course, the level of inline vacancy is also important because higher vacancy levels may trigger co-tenancy clauses in leases, thereby permitting tenants to vacate before their leases expire.

Tenant Occupancy Costs

The trend in tenants' cost of occu­pancy (COO) may be the best predictor of inline tenants' future performance. By extrapolating COO trends, it is also possible to project a mall's performance several years into the future.

The COO measures the ratio between gross sales and real estate ex­penses, including rent, maintenance charges and other costs that a tenant bears. The COO ratio for Class B and higher malls is usually in the 13 per­cent to 17 percent range, depending on the strength of the tenants, and between 10 percent and 12 percent for lower-end Class C malls.

COO ratios that are higher than these ranges indicate tenants are spending more of their gross revenues to pay property occupancy costs. This reduces the available revenues to pay other operating expenses and, obviously, limits the tenant's profits. Year-over­year increases in COO ratios means tenants are experiencing increasing financial pressure. Eventually, COO ratios become so high tenants will either ask for rent relief or other lease conces­sions, or just walk away.

Prevailing Lease Agreements

Most inline tenants enter into triple­net lease arrangements with the prop­erty owner when a shopping center first opens. Triple-net leases require tenants to pay for maintenance, insur­ance, real estate taxes and other property operating expenses, including the cost for operating common areas within the mall. As a mall declines, inline tenant sales per square foot dwindle, rental rates for new tenants decline and COO ratios increase. At some point, tenants will be unable to pay their rent and still make a profit. At this point, they are likely to ask the mall owner for some type of rent relief.

Rent relief for inline tenants takes different forms, but usually consists of converting triple-net leases to leases paying a percentage of sales, or some­times to gross leases, both of which make the mall owner bear more operating costs. An increase in the number of percentage and gross leases shows that inline tenants are unable to generate enough sales to pay rent and other occupancy expenses.

As more and more leases become percentage or gross leases, the expense burden on the mall owner increases, and the likelihood grows that the mall will close. During this time, the mall owner may replace departing inline tenants with new tenants that demand gross lease arrangements, which further contribute to the mall's decline.

Seek Early Property Tax Relief

The four factors discussed above are interrelated. The progression of falling dominoes starts when the anchor tenant's sales begin to decline. This then leads to a fall in the number of permanent inline retailers, a rise in COO ratios, and the replacement of preferred triple-net leases with percentage or gross leases. All these factors put downward pressure on a retail property's value, which typically reduces the property's tax assessment.

Most of this sequence cannot be observed because it happens below the surface, but it may be the precursor to a mall's failure. Thus, the local property tax authority may not realize a mall is in decline until it falls off the cliff, as when an anchor tenant closes its doors or high-end retailers fail to renew their leases and move to other malls.

Astute retail property owners and operators will identify the underlying problems in a mall or shopping center early on, and bring those difficulties to the attention of the local tax assessor. Doing so may reduce taxes - and mall operating expenses - well before a property is in free-fall mode. If the tax relief is significant and obtained early in the process, it may even extend the life of the mall.

Cris K. O'Neall is a shareholder at the law firm Greenberg Traurig, LLP and focuses his practice on ad valorem property tax assessment counseling and litigation. The firm is the California 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..
Continue reading
May
30

Utah Tax Sales Require Due Process

State Supreme Court finds that due process error bars statute of limitaitons on title challenge.

The Utah Supreme Court has affirmed the right of property owners to challenge tax sales conducted without constitutionally adequate notice to the property owner, even when the challenge takes place after the prescribed statutory limitations period has expired.

The court’s Jan. 10, 2017, decision in Jordan vs. Jensen overruled its 1955 decision in Hansen vs. Morris, where it had held that once the limitations period had passed, the purchaser of a tax deed could retain title against a challenge from an earlier deed holder even when the tax sale had violated due process.

The case centered on the question of whether or not a taxing entity’s failure to provide adequate, constitutionally required notice to an interested party of a tax sale prevented the application of a statute of limitations specific to tax title challenges.  Utah law prohibits parties from challenging a tax title holder’s ownership of real property more than four years after the property was conveyed.

In Jordan vs. Jensen, the property at issue was sub-surface mineral rights that had been severed from the surface interests in 1995. The owner of the surface estate failed to pay property taxes between 1995 and 1999, and Uintah County seized the property and sold it in a tax sale in 2000. The purchaser of the tax deed then sold the property to the Jensens.

The Jordans were the owners of the severed mineral interest and neither they nor their predecessors had ever received notice of tax assessments for the mineral estate, nor did they receive notice of the surface owners’ failure to pay taxes or of the tax sale. Although the mineral interest had been severed from the surface interest in 1995, the 2000 tax deed purported to convey the land without reservation or exceptions.

A lessee of the Jordans’ mineral rights secured two title opinions in an effort to ensure that the Jordans actually owned the leased mineral interests. Both attorneys expressed their concerns that the mineral estate might have passed to the Jensens under the tax deed.

When the Jordan's became aware of the title concerns in 2013, they asked the Jensens to sign a mineral rights quitclaim deed to settle the issue. The Jensens responded by claiming ownership of the mineral estate for the first time.

The Jordans filed a complaint to quiet title, alleging that the mineral interest could not have passed as a result of the tax sale because the Jordans never received notice of the sale. The Jensens counter-claimed, seeking title to the mineral interest and alleging that the Jordans’ action was barred under Utah’s judicial code because more than four years had passed since the tax sale.

In the code’s chapter on statutes of limitations, Section 206 prohibits a party from challenging conveyance in a tax sale after the passage of four years, as follows: “An action or defense to recover, take possession of, quiet title to, or determine the ownership of real property may not be commenced against the holder of a tax title after the expiration of four years from the date of the sale, conveyance, or transfer of the tax title to any county, or directly to any other purchaser at any public or private tax sale.”

The Jensens invoked this provision in defense against the Jordans’ action to quiet title, claiming that inasmuch as the tax sale had occurred more than four years prior to the lawsuit, the Jordans could not challenge the validity of the tax sale. The Jensens argued that the tax sale would have been voidable for failure to provide notice within the four-year period, but that the limitations period protected the tax title from legal challenges after that time.

Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. Neither disputed that the county failed to provide constitutionally adequate notice of the sale. Therefore, the only issue was whether that deficiency prevented the application of Section 206.

The district court held that the four-year limitations period did not apply because the county had violated constitutional requirements of due process by not providing notice to the Jordans of the tax sale, and that failure prevented the mineral interest from passing at the tax sale. The Jensens appealed the district court’s decision to the Utah Supreme Court.

On appeal, the Jensens relied on Hansen v. Morris (1955), wherein the court rejected a due-process challenge to the predecessor to Section 206. In that case, the Utah Supreme Court  held that the application of the four-year limitations period was constitutional even when “statutory steps required to perfect a tax title have not been taken, such as failure to give notice of sale, failure of the auditor to execute affidavits, etc.

The Jordan court acknowledged that the Hansen court had rejected a due-process challenge to the application of Section 206, but found that three subsequent United States Supreme Court decisions required reversal of Hansen.

In Mennonite Board of Missions vs. Adams (1983), state law provided a two-year redemption period after a county tax sale. However, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the mortgagee was deprived of due process and the two-year limitations period did not apply because the mortgagee had not received notice of the tax sale.

In Schroeder vs. City of New York (1962), a statute required an aggrieved party to sue for damages within three years after the city diverted water. Schroeder sued more than three years after diversion had occurred, but the court held that the limitations period did not apply because the city had not given Schroeder notice that it had diverted the water.

In Tulsa Professional Collection Services Inc. vs. Pope (1988), the court held that non-claim statutes requiring creditors to submit claims to the executrix within two months were limitations periods that required actual notice before they could bar a creditor’s claim.

According to the Utah Supreme Court, these U.S. Supreme Court. cases established that “a statute providing a limitations period will not apply when it is triggered by constitutionally defective state action.” There was no dispute that the Jordans had not received constitutionally sufficient notice of the tax sale, or that the tax sale constituted state action. Thus, the court held that the Jordans had the right to challenge the Jensens’ claim to title in the mineral interest and that “the county’s failure to provide notice prevented the Jordans’ mineral interest from passing at the tax sale.”

Stephen Young Sept 2014Hunsaker Pamela

Steven P. Young, Partner and Pamela B. Hunsaker, Of Counsel, serve the Salt Lake City law office of Holland & Hart which is a Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. 

Continue reading
Dec
16

Replacement Reserves Can Significantly Reduce Property Tax Bills

Funds set aside to maintain, repair and upgrade capital assets are the lifeblood of many commercial properties today. Known as “reserves for replacement,” the treatment of these major operating expenses in the calculation of a property’s value can significantly influence its tax burden. Mishandling that calculation can cost a taxpayer dearly.

Replacement funds are essential resources that enable hotels and resorts to renovate every few years, a critical task if they are to remain competitive. Likewise, department stores and most in-line retailers in shopping centers must rejuvenate their properties in order to keep customers coming. Even fast food outlets must update their spaces, as well as their menus, on a regular basis to maintain sales.

The sums that hospitality, retail and food outlets spend to renovate or refresh their properties on a regular basis are sizable, sometimes as much as 5 percent of total revenues. Reserves are a significant expense these properties must bear, and have a major impact on a property’s bottom line.

Property tax assessments for commercial properties usually reflect income that the properties produce. The greater a property’s net revenue, the higher the property’s assessed value and tax burden will be. Clearly, it is in the taxpayer’s interest to make sure tax assessors do not inflate that net revenue by improperly accounting for expenses in their value calculations.

Above the Line or Below?

In many industries, replacement reserves are an above-the-line expense deduction, which means they are deducted along with other operating expenses to determine net operating income. If the reserve is large, its deduction can greatly reduce a property’s net income.

Why do accountants and appraisers handle reserves this way? Because the above-the-line deduction of reserves permits properties to be compared on an apples-to-apples basis.

For example, the replacement reserves deduction for one hotel may vary from the deduction for another hotel for a variety of reasons, including intensity of use, age of the facility and so forth, based on the owner /operator’s knowledge of what is needed to keep that hotel competitive.

Removing reserves from the picture enables an appraiser or assessor to compare the net income performance of comparable competing properties on a uniform basis. Such comparisons are also important to investors.

Reserves and Property Taxes

As described above, the deduction of replacement reserves as an expense affects a property’s net income. If the assessor fails to deduct the reserves, or deducts them after net income in a below-the-line calculation, the net income will be higher. Conversely, if the appraiser deducts reserves as an operating expense, net income will be lower.

Net income often underpins property tax values and tax assessments. If the assessor deducts reserves and net income is lower, then the property’s taxes will be lower. If not, the taxes will be higher.

In some states, including California, tax authorities mimic market participants in their treatment of reserves. That means that for some properties, assessors deduct reserves so that properties can be directly compared for appraisal and valuation purposes. The consistent handling of reserves also permits taxing authorities to develop capitalization rates from comparable sales transactions.

Reporting Inconsistencies can Increase Taxes

While participants in a particular real estate sector — say, hospitality or retail — generally handle reserves in the same way, it is difficult to learn about the amount of replacement reserves deducted for a specific property due to the confidentiality of financial statements. If financial statements are available, the property’s operator may ignore industry standards and report reserves below the line, or may not report reserves at all.

The amount of reserves reported, usually as a percentage, may also vary from property to property even within the same property class. Finally, a property operator may simply use an arbitrary figure for reserves, which does not represent the actual cost of the replacement reserve deduction incurred.

Disparities in reporting reserves can significantly skew the net income, which is the basis for a property’s assessed value and property tax bill. Taxing authorities exacerbate the problem when they handle replacement reserves inconsistently, either because of inconsistent reporting or because the assessor attempts to correct financial statements that omit replacement reserves or appear to inaccurately report replacement reserves. If the assessor uses incorrect data, or incorrectly adjusts the data, the property values will be incorrect and the taxes based on those values will be erroneous.

Getting Reserves and Taxes Right

Taxpayers can insure their local assessor properly handles reserves in assessing and taxing their properties by taking these simple steps.

1.  If the taxpayer provides financial statements to the tax authorities, make sure to report replacement reserves consistently with industry practice. If most industry participants report on an above-the-line basis, follow that practice.

2.  If the taxpayer is spending replacement reserves, report the full amount of those reserves. Failure to report or under-reporting will likely increase the property’s taxes.

3.  Ask to see the financial statements from other properties that the taxing authority is using to value the property. If the assessor won’t disclose those statements, at least ask to see the portion showing the amount of reserves and the how they are being handled.

4. If investigation shows that reserves are being improperly handled and a property is over-valued, meet with the tax authority’s appraiser to discuss the situation and, if necessary, use the appeals process to correct the assessment. 

Cris ONeall

Cris K. O'Neall is a shareholder at the law firm Greenberg Traurig, LLP and focuses his practice on ad valorem property tax assessment counseling and litigation.  The firm is the California 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..

Continue reading
Apr
16

Don't Lose Out on Construction Tax Exemptions

Tax Exemptions Can Apply To Income-Producing Real Estate From Apartments To Manufacturing Facilities

The construction cranes that punctuate our city skylines confirm that economic recovery is again driving commercial real estate development. Property tax considerations should not be the tail that wags the dog when it comes to timing construction or leasing. However, the savvy investor and tax manager may want to make sure they are not leaving money on the table by overlooking potential tax savings. Most should also be aware that, in many states, property under construction is exempt from property taxes.

Most states encourage the development of commercial and industrial facilities by sheltering construction projects from the payment of property taxes until the property is in use or occupied, and therefore producing income to pay the taxes. As with most property tax exemptions, however, taxpayers must follow statutory procedures and meet specific conditions to qualify. Frankly, many taxpayers inadvertently fail to meet the criteria for receiving the full benefit of the tax  exemption.

A tax exemption typically will apply to a commercial or industrial building under construction, including ramps, loading docks, and paved areas used for parking or storage built in conjunction with the project. In most states, the key to receive the exemption is that the property must be constructed to produce an income.

Exemptions most often apply to hotels, apartments, office buildings, retail stores and manufacturing plants. Even a condominium project may be entitled to the exemption because it is built to produce an income. A qualifying income may be from a one-time sale of the property, as with a condominium project, or an ongoing income stream from a lease or use of the property in business.

The tax exemption may also apply to construction of an addition in an existing building or structure, such as a new wing for a building already on a site. In most cases, the modification must change the nature of the building, perhaps increasing manufacturing space or adding a new wing onto a shopping mall, thus increasing the property's income-producing potential.

In many states, the construction exemption also applies to machinery added to the space. This is usually limited to machinery and equipment installed or affixed to the new building, structure or addition. Unfortunately, most states disallow equipment installed subsequent to construction to qualify for this construction-in-progress exemption.

The exemption seldom applies to preparing the land for construction. That means that site development such as excavation or grading the property to prepare for construction will not qualify as property under construction for a tax exemption.

An exemption will be denied if the applicant fails to meet one of the conditions. For example, in Oregon the property must be under construction on Jan. 1 of the assessment year. As discussed earlier, site preparation is not considered part of the construction, nor is demolition of an existing building; construction commences when work begins on the foundation.

Timing can be critical to securing the tax exemption. In Oregon, if the user occupies any part of the property before Jan. 1 of the year following the year for which the exemption is claimed, the property is disqualified for a construction-based tax exemption.

Partial occupancy is one of the fatal stumbles that many taxpayers make, losing their tax exemption. For example, user occupancy of the first floor retail space in a multi-story commercial or apartment building would disqualify the entire building from exemption, even if floors 10-15 are still under construction on Jan. 1. Thus, the occupancy of the retail space, in advance of the apartment complex completion, may result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost property tax exemption.

Additionally, many jurisdictions require a full year of construction, from Jan. 1 to Jan. 1, to qualify for a property tax exemption. If the building is first occupied on day 363 of the tax year, then the property owner could lose the entire year of property tax exemption.

Finally, most states require that the taxpayer apply for an exemption before starting construction. Oregon's statute requires the applicant to file the application on or before April 1 of the assessment year for which the exemption is claimed.

Most states limit how long a taxpayer may benefit from the tax exempt status for property under construction. Usually, this exemption is no more than two consecutive years.

The taxpayer must carefully review their statutes to determine the criteria and conditions for a construction-in-progress tax exemption. The under construction provision is one of many exemptions that can yield significant tax savings for property owners who take the initiative to learn effective tax strategies for their markets. This is particularly true of the commercial projects taking shape under those construction cranes gracing our skylines today.

 

CfraserCynthia M. Fraser is a partner at the law firm Garvey Schubert Barer where she specializes in property tax and condemnation litigation. Ms. Fraser is the Oregon representative of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Ms. Fraser can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Continue reading
Jan
29

Seize Tax Opportunities When The Price Is Right

Reporting the sales price on a transaction for a real estate excise tax affidavit or refund petition can be tricky in the State of Washington, depending which side of the coin you’re on.

Seattle's hot real estate market presents two special tax-saving opportunities – or, for the unwary, two tax traps – involving Washington State's real estate excise tax.

The first arises when above-market rents in place at a property contribute to its selling price. The second occurs when the sale of a property experiences high vacancy. In both scenarios, some buyers and sellers report prices that are higher than they should be for the real estate excise tax. At nearly 1.8 percent of the property's sale price, real estate excise tax is a sizable trans-action cost that deserves attention.

Skewed By High Rents
With above-market rents, a portion of the sale price may reflect the value of contracts and business efforts. The tax only applies to the consideration paid for real estate, so the consideration paid for above-market contracts should be separated out as nontax-able.

Although we believe Washington law is clear on this, the Department of Revenue has been struggling to determine its position. The department recently agreed taxable value excludes the portion of the purchase price attributable to above-market rents, but then it changed its position.

Since these vacillations occur in the context of individual taxpayer cases, other taxpayers do not necessarily know what the department's position is at any given time. The department has not published any rules or guidance specific to this scenario.

Impaired By Vacancy
In the scenario involving the sale of a property with high vacancy, the buyer and seller frequently agree on a price as though occupancy were full and then deduct an amount for the vacancy shortfall. The deduction reflects the costs to lease the remaining space, and also the entrepreneurial profit the buyer requires for undertaking the risk and work required to achieve full occupancy.

Some parties to a transaction mistakenly report the stabilized value instead of the amount actually paid for the property. The only price they should report for tax purposes is the sum after deducting for vacancy, as that represents the actual amount paid.

Both parties have an incentive to ascertain and report the correct price on the real estate excise tax affidavit. Though the parties can negotiate who pays the tax, the seller is responsible for its payment by law. And yet, the Department of Revenue can enforce payment by placing a lien against the property, making the buyer indirectly liable.

Both buyer and seller sign the affidavit reporting the sales price, under penalty of perjury. Buyers may feel the ongoing effect of the reported price in the form of property taxes, since county assessors pay attention to the affidavits in determining property tax values. With this in mind, both parties should care about correctly reporting the transaction.

Buyers and sellers in either scenario can put themselves in a favorable tax position by presenting the information about the transaction carefully, whether in the affidavit or in a refund petition to the Department of Revenue. Note that a refund petition, if applicable, must be filed within four years of the transaction date.

Information about the transaction should be presented to the taxing authorities in a clear manner to establish the correct facts and legal analysis. In the first scenario, a detailed explanation of the facts ideally includes an appraisal that excludes the price paid for the value of the above- market leases in place, as opposed to the real property.

In reviewing the transaction, the Department of Revenue should presume the price paid is taxable, but the taxpayer can rebut that position. When the transaction price reflects more than the price for real estate alone, the department often next turns to the property's assessed value instead.

The taxpayer can argue that, by law, an appraisal as of the sale date trumps the assessed value as evidence of the taxable amount. For this reason, an appraisal is important for the above-market rent scenario.

In the high-vacancy scenario, however, the presumption applies that the price paid is taxable, and no appraisal should be needed. Therefore, the parties should report the actual price paid after accounting for the vacancy shortfall.

Recent experience indicates the Department of Revenue may choose to challenge an affidavit or deny a refund claim if it takes the position that the portion of the price attributable to above-market rent is untaxable. That does not mean the department is right, however, and its vacillations suggest its directors feel uncertain about their position. Taxpayers with strong facts should pursue the issue and work diligently to make a strong case that will help the department get to the right result.

Whether a sale involves the added value of contracts or a deduction for high vacancy, seeking professional advice about how to best report the transaction on the real estate excise tax affidavit, or in a refund petition, can turn the sale into a significant tax opportunity.

MDeLappeBrunsNorman J. Bruns and Michelle DeLappe are attorneys in the Seattle office of Garvey Schubert Barer, where they specialize in state and local tax. Bruns is the Idaho and Washington representative of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Bruns can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. DeLappe can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
Continue reading
Jul
23

Commercial Use Can Trigger Tax on Tax-Exempt Property

Utah property owners should be aware of tax laws that may even apply to tax-exempt properties.

When a business owner leases property that is exempt from property tax and then uses that property in connection with a for profit business, local taxing entities may have authority to tax the property's user. Whether and to what extent that tax applies will vary by state, but in some states, including Utah, the property user's tax burden can be significant.

Under Utah law, the assessing authority may impose a privilege tax in "the same amount that the ad valorem property tax would be if the possessor or user were the owner of the property," according to the state's tax code. But because Utah's privilege tax is an all-or-nothing tax, local authorities cannot impose the tax unless the user has exclusive possession of the exempt property.

In 2012, the Utah Supreme Court had its first opportunity to determine what constitutes exclusive possession. In Alliant Techsystems Inc. vs. Salt Lake County Board of Equalization, the court identified a three-part test for determining exclusive possession and then remanded the case back to the district court to apply the test.

In April of this year, the Utah Court of Appeals upheld the district court's decision that the user of the exempt property did not have exclusive possession and could not be assessed a privilege tax for its for-profit use of that property. Details of the case, then, may provide important insight for companies in similar circumstances.

Control Issues

Alliant Techsystems Inc., the taxpayer in these appeals, is a for-profit aerospace and defense products corporation that operates on its own property, as well as on the Naval Industrial Reserve Ordnance Plant, a property owned by the U.S. Navy. Alliant and the Navy entered into a facilities-use agreement that governs the company's use of the ordnance plant. In 2000 and for all subsequent years, Salt Lake County imposed a privilege tax on Alliant for its use of the ordnance plant. The county based the amount of the tax on the full value of the exempt property.

Alliant challenged the county's assessment of the privilege tax on the basis that it did not have exclusive possession of the property due to the control retained by the Navy. The Salt Lake County Board of Equalization, the Utah State Tax Commission and then the district court concluded that Alliant had exclusive possession of the ordnance plant because no other party had an agreement with the Navy to use the property. ·

Alliant appealed to the Utah Supreme Court, which interpreted exclusive possession to mean exclusive as against all parties, including the property owner.

Utah's Test

The Utah Supreme Court's three-part test for exclusive possession requires that the user or possessor have (1) the general power to admit or exclude others, including the property owner, from any present occupation of the property; (2) the authority to make broad use of the property, with only narrow exceptions; and (3) possession and control of a definite space for a definite time.

Alliant relied on several points to demonstrate that it lacked exclusive possession of the Navy's ordnance plant, due to the control retained by the Navy:  For one, the Navy had erected a fence surrounding the property, and posted signs stating that the property belonged to the United States government. Additionally, the parties' operating agreement stated that unauthorized use of the property could result in fines, imprisonment or both.

Alliant also pointed out that the facilities-use agreement permitted the Navy to terminate Alliant's right to use the property at any time and for any reason, and at any time to change or terminate the list of facilities that the company may use. The Navy maintained onsite representatives to manage some of the ordnance plant's operations.

Finally, Alliant lacked authority to exclude the Navy or anyone authorized by the Navy from the property; neither could the company use the property for non-Navy purposes without permission from the Navy.

The county didn't dispute these points, and the district court held that Alliant lacked exclusive possession of the ordnance plant property and was exempt from the privilege tax. The county appealed the decision and the Utah Court of Appeals upheld the district court's decision.

Whether a state can tax the business use of exempt property by a lessor will depend on how each state's tax laws are written. If the tax is based on the full value of the property, and the lessor can demonstrate that the property owner maintains control of the property, the user may challenge the tax as violating the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which establishes the supremacy of federal law (and federally established tax exemptions) over state and local laws. Alliant raised that challenge in its appeals, put the court declined to address the constitutional challenge because its interpretation of the statute fully resolved the matter.

Stephen Young Sept 2014Stephen P. Young is a partner in the law firm of Holland & Hart, the Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Continue reading
Mar
10

Utah Assessors Argue Against Fair Market Value

Utah taxpayers could soon be required to conduct an item-by-item appraisal of personal property in order to contest its taxable value if Utah assessors have their way. Utah imposes property tax on a business' tangible personal property based upon the personal property's fair market value. Fair market value means the value a knowledgeable, willing buyer would pay a knowledgeable, willing seller for the property operating at its highest and best use.

The taxable value of a business' personal property is self-reported and self-assessed using state guidelines. Every year, a business must submit a signed personal property statement to each county in which it owns property. These statements must include the year of acquisition and purchase price for each item of personal property. The taxpayer then multiplies the prices by a provided percent-good factor to determine its estimated fair market value.

Unfortunately, simply applying the percent-good factor does not always equal the property's fair market value. For example, there may be additional functional or economic obsolescence for which the percent-good factors do not account. Consequently, a taxpayer is allowed to dispute the resulting value.

Some taxing jurisdictions, however, have recently argued that taxpayers may only dispute the resulting value if they prepare an item-by-item appraisal, rather than valuing all the personal property subject to tax as a group or operating unit.

Utah State Tax Commission to Decide
In a case pending before the Utah State Tax Commission, the taxpayer disputed the assessed value of its personal property, arguing that such property suffered from functional and economic obsolescence above that accounted for in the percent-good factors. Consequently, the taxpayer argued that its property was valued above fair market value.

In challenging the value, the tax-payer had an appraisal performed. The appraiser determined that the personal property would most likely be sold as a group of assets operating together, and thus valued the personal property as an operating unit. While the appraisal looked at every piece of personal property, the valuation reflected its aggregate value rather than values placed on each specific piece of personal property. Likewise, in applying obsolescence adjustments, the appraiser applied them to the whole, rather than to specific items of personal property.

The county which imposed the tax argued that such an appraisal was improper and deficient because it failed to appoint a value to each item of personal property separately, and as a result, the taxpayer did not meet its burden of proving that the personal property was over-assessed.

The county's argument appears to lack any precedent. The Utah Constitution and the Utah Code only require that property be valued at its fair market value operating at its highest and best use. The highest and best use value for the separate items of tangible personal property in this case was achieved when the properties were viewed as operating together as a unit. Furthermore, the Utah Constitution and Utah Code do not mandate itemized valuations.

In a 2011 case (T-Mobile USA Inc. vs. Utah State Tax Commission), the Utah Supreme Court stated that "the code simply provides that property shall be assessed by the Commission at 100 percent of fair market value. Requiring the Tax Court to use a specific valuation method ignores the reality that certain methodologies are not always accurate in every circumstance."

In the case pending before the Commission today, a ruling in favor of the taxing entity would drastically change the manner in which a taxpayer is to dispute the value of its personal property. Whereas now, there is no specific method that must be followed in order to determine the fair market value. If the Commission rules in favor of the taxing entity, taxpayers would be required to separately value each item of personal property listed on its personal property signed statement. Then tax-payers would have to add those values together to derive the value estimate for all of the personal property regardless of whether that summation is the fair market value at which the personal property would likely sell.

A ruling in favor of the taxpayer, however, maintains the status quo and further emphasizes that the standard for valuation in Utah is fair market value. So long as that is achieved, it does not matter which valuation method is used.

A decision from the Utah State Tax Commission is expected later this year.

dcrapo David J. Crapo is the managing partner at Crapo Smith PLLC, Utah 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.

Continue reading
Jan
19

Highest And Best Property Use: Why Does It Matter?

"Any investor wants to maximize his property's value and income-producing potential, but many fail to take this concept seriously — until they realize what they could be missing out on"

Who cares about the highest and best use of a property? Well, appraisers certainly care, and when a property ends up in litigation, the judge cares. Understanding how these authorities determine value will make it clear that commercial property owners should care about highest and best use, too.

I learned the importance of highest and best use during my first year at the Department of Justice, in a small condemnation or government taking case. The property owner had a single-family home on a prime piece of commercial real estate, and a highway expansion was bringing traffic lanes to within 12 feet of the house. The property had been rezoned commercial and was surrounded by other commercial uses.

As a residential asset, the entire property before partial condemnation had appraised at $140,000, whereas the land as a commercial site was worth double that amount. Because the highest and best use of the property was redevelopment as a commercial site, the value for the land taken as right of way was worth more than the residential value of the entire, previously undivided property.

Not all analyses of highest and best use are so simple and obvious. This is particularly true in the context of appraising an industrial property for a property tax appeal. The standard test for determining highest and best use has four prongs, and each can be critical to the valuation of the property.

That question is: What use is legally permissible, physically possible, financially feasible and maximally profitable?

The first prong, what is legally permissible, refers to zoning or other governmental restrictions, as well as the deed restrictions, and the uses that those parameters allow for the property. In a recent case, a 57-acre property was zoned industrial, which allowed for offices as an accessory use to the industrial use. Improvements included several older flex manufacturing buildings totaling close to 600,000 square feet. The condition and use of the flex buildings varied but the need to use the structures primarily for manufacturing no longer existed.

The Oregon Department of Revenue's appraisal valued the majority of the 600,000 square feet as office use. This did not meet the test for what is legally permissible, because the zoning only allowed office as an accessory to an industrial use.

What is financially feasible? In this same case, the appraiser for the Department of Revenue also failed to address if it was cost effective to reconfigure several 80,000-square-foot, two-story flex manufacturing facilities for multitenant use. The government's appraisal lacked any discussion of the basic demising costs to create smaller rentable spaces, including common areas for hallways, lobbies, and relocation of elevators and restrooms.

What is physically possible? Many of the industrial buildings in this example were interconnected. They had shared utilities, were situated on a single tax lot and offered only limited access without dedicated parking for a given building. Separation of the buildings into viable stand-alone parcels may have been prohibited by the physical location of the utilities, the placement of the buildings on the lot, or by parking, ingress and egress to the site.

The fourth prong is often the simplest to address. Of the possible uses meeting the first three facets of the highest-and-best-use test, which offers the maximum profit for the owner?

An appraiser's failure to do a highest-and-best-use analysis and appropriately support its conclusions can be fatal in a trial setting. In a 1990 decision, Freedom Federal Savings & Loan vs. Department of Revenue, the Oregon Supreme Court held that highest and best use of the property subject to evaluation is the first question that must be addressed in a credible appraisal. This set the critical framework for valuation, and determines what other comparable properties can be used to value the subject property.

These highest-and-best-use tests must be appropriately supported. In the context of an investment property, for example, would an investor deem the current use to be most productive from a financial or physical basis for the property, or would an alternative use be preferable?

If a careful highest-and-best-use analysis is done at the beginning, the appraiser can select credible comparable sales or leases for use in valuation. The property owner, in turn, will be treated fairly, whether in a tax assessment appeal or an eminent domain acquisition.

CfraserCynthia M. Fraser is an attorney at Garvey Schubert Barer where she specializes in property tax and condemnation litigation. The firm is the Oregon and Washington member of the American Property Tax Counsel the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Ms. Fraser can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Continue reading
Oct
27

Madness in the Method Inflates Property Assessments

Though a few large companies may be expanding in the Portland region, it won't necessarily be a boon to property owners.

"The madness is in the method of assessment, because it is impossible for the assessor to physically inspect and appraise each property on its rolls. Instead, the assessor will typically add up a taxpayer's historical investments in a property as reported each year..."

The real estate headlines in Oregon newspapers this month kindled cautious optimism that the economy is in full recovery. One article touted a boom in the residential and commercial markets of Canby, a Portland suburb, while another trumpeted a bash to kick off a $25 million, mixed-use development in downtown Portland.

These positive headlines added to the stimulating effects of last year's expansion announcements by Nike and Intel. News of those companies' plans for growth in Hillsboro bolstered the industrial, office, and residential markets in the Sunset Corridor.

Industrial property owners, be vigilant. This uptick in the economic outlook does not mean there should be a corresponding increase in a property's real market value and a corresponding over-assessment of the property.

It should be simple to spot an inflated assessment. By statute, a property is assessed at its real market value, defined as what a willing buyer and willing seller would agree upon in an open market transaction. Assessments are also subject to Measure 50's maximum assessed value limitations. The assessed value is the lower of the maximum assessed value or the real market value.

Yet over-assessments are common, and the reasons numerous. Despite the economic uptick, there are still significant economic impacts to industry in Oregon resulting in over-valuation of property by the Counties and the Department of Revenue.

The madness is in the method of assessment, because it is impossible for the assessor to physically inspect and appraise each property on its rolls. Instead, the assessor will typically add up a taxpayer's historical investments in a property as reported each year, and equate the cumulative sum of those investments to the real market value of the property — without any regard to market conditions.

Market conditions that impact a company and the real market value of the property can be significant, particularly for an industrial property. Take a high tech campus that was built in the 1970's and designed for a single user. Back then, tech firms favored flex buildings designed for manufacturing, research and development, assembly, and distribution with a typical floor plate of 40,000 square feet. No thought went into an exit strategy when planning the design or layout of the access, parking, integrated utility systems, and location of the buildings on the property.

Fast forward to 2013, when globalization generally calls for overseas assembly plants and distribution centers located strategically to the company's global market. The need for a single-user campus with six or more dated, 100,000-square-foot flex buildings that share interconnected utilities on a single tax lot is gone. Globalization is an economic force that is external to a company and one that drives down the market price of these facilities. It is a form of obsolescence that is rarely accounted for in a property valuation.

Another factor that assessors typically overlook at industrial sites is functional obsolescence. Consider a facility built 30 or 40 years ago. Technology for the manufacturing processes may have advanced over the years, but the building design, including the ceiling height or floor load, may limit the use of the new technology. The overall utility of the property suffers from functional obsolescence that impairs the market value.

The assessor often lacks the people power to drill down into the details of every property. Because property value reflects not only local market conditions, but also the inherent functional and economic obsolescence unique to the property, a property being taxed solely on a trending basis may be over-assessed.

CfraserCynthia M. Fraser is an attorney at Garvey Schubert Barer where she specializes in property tax and condemnation litigation. The firm is the Oregon and Washington member of the American Property Tax Counsel the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Ms. Fraser can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Continue reading

American Property Tax Counsel

Recent Published Property Tax Articles

PROTECT YOUR RIGHTS TO PROTEST TAX ASSESSMENTS IN TEXAS

​​Learn best practices for meeting property tax deadlines and handling property tax appeals.​

Beset by ever-increasing tax assessments, Texas property owners are allowed to seek a remedy by protesting taxable property values set by appraisal districts. The property tax system can be intimidating, however, and the process is complex and fraught...

Read more

How Office Owners Can Help Lower Sky-High Property Tax Assessments

​The American Property Tax Counsel argues that if a property tax assessment is premised on a uniform per-square-foot value, rental rate or vacancy rate for all office properties in a metro area, the assessor is likely going to overlook distinguishing factors in submarkets that could benefit building owners.

Managing fixed expenses...

Read more

Unfair Taxation? Governments Need to Fix the Right Problem

​Investors should be wary when taxing authorities single out properties to be assessed in a method that is inconsistent with the treatment of other taxpayers in the same class, says attorney Kieran Jennings.

Recently, The New York Times published an article on property taxes imposed on retailers under the headline "As...

Read more

Member Spotlight

Members

Forgot your password? / Forgot your username?