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Taxing Times

"What assessors may try to ignore is how unsteady this recovery truly is in light of stalled economic growth."

How to Avoid Unfair Tax Assessments Due to the Economic Recovery

By Darlene Sullivan Esq., as published by Commercial Property Tax Executive, April 2013

Property taxes are the largest expense for many commercial real estate owners, so in today's stagnant economic climate, it would be wise to take initiative to ensure that tax assessments fairly represent property values.

Property tax systems vary from state to state, but no matter how the local system operates, there are some key things to keep in mind. As the nation's commercial real estate market continues its slow recovery, local assessors will try to capitalize on what appears to be a visible improvement in the availability of capital and an increased number of real estate transactions. What assessors may try to ignore, however, is how unsteady this recovery truly is in light of stalled economic growth.

One way assessors may attempt to reflect the market's recovery is by applying a lower capitalization rate to an inflated net operating income in order to arrive at a higher assessed value. Capitalization rates are a buyer's expected annual rate of return on a property purchase. Assessors observing improvement in the commercial real estate market will expect a stronger cash flow from the property combined with a decreased risk. Whether or not that expectation applies to the property, it will likely affect assessed value. While it is true that absorption levels have improved across property categories over the past year, rents have remained flat or decreased from pre-recession levels, and revenue growth still has not caught up to what it was five years ago. Local assessors need to be reminded that with revenues still struggling to recover, the absorption gains should not automatically translate into higher assessed values.

Strong performances recently by real estate investment trusts provide another way assessors may try to increase values unfairly. In this scenario, an assessor unfairly applies the limited number of REIT property sales within a sector to all of the assets in the area that fall within the same property code. Yet such a comparison may be inapplicable to a particular asset.

Following are some guidelines to ensure fair treatment from an assessor: First, review the 2013 property assessment promptly and do not miss any appeal deadlines. Most local assessing jurisdictions have Web sites and online resources to guide taxpayers through the appeal process. When reviewing your assessment, ask yourself: Did the value increase, decrease or stay flat from the previous assessment? Scrutinize it and consider an appeal of any increases in assessed value from 2012 to 2013. Second, evaluate the property's individual characteristics: Was occupancy up or down? Did revenues and expenses increase or decrease? Are there any significant items of deferred maintenance? Any changes, either positive or negative, may impact assessed value.

Third, in many states the expectation is that assessed values will increase significantly in 2013. For example, in three of the largest counties in the state of Texas, assessed values increased between 2.5 percent and 9 percent across property types from tax year 2011 to tax year 2012. Given the increased number of transactions and the signs of recovery, property owners should expect increases in 2013 at least equal to those in 2012.

In some cases, however, assessors will be even more aggressive to compensate for what they now perceive to be modest increases in 2012. If an assessment increases significantly, make sure to have the proper tools and a property tax professional to fight that assessment.

Finally, recognize that the management of property taxes may impact how quickly a particular asset recovers from the recession. A lower property tax expense means a higher net operating income and more cash flow. The money can then go back into the asset to cover any capital expenditures or can be distributed back to investors. As an added benefit, lower property taxes can impact other aspects of the property, such as occupancy. For example, keeping the property tax expense under control may allow a shopping center owner to quote lower expenses to prospective tenants, providing an edge over the competition when it comes to attracting and retaining quality retailers.

Be vigilant when it comes to property tax expense in 2013, and don't let the signs of an improving commercial real estate market drive assessed value to distorted proportions. Be aware of tactics your local assessor may be using to increase values, and know how to counter them.

DarleneSullivan140 Darlene Sullivan is a partner in the Austin-based law firm of Popp Hutcheson P.L.L.C. The firm devotes its practice to the representation of taxpayers in property tax disputes and is the Texas member of the American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Sullivan can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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