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Understand the Impact of Intangibles

How to use these factors to reduce a senior living property's tax assessment.

The longstanding debate over intangible value in commercial real estate taxation rages unabated, and nowhere is the squabbling fiercer than in valuing seniors living facilities. Because these properties generally transact based on income from a going concern rather than from real estate, taxpayers planning to acquire a seniors facility should consider how to separate intangible value prior to acquisition. Simply waiting for the annual tax bill is a recipe for incurring inflated cost and an inferior investment return.

Skilled nursing facilities, assisted living and other seniors housing subtypes often require state-issued licenses personal to the operator. Critically, seniors housing sales typically involve the transfer of a going concern including a valid operating license, assembled workforce and other business assets required for the operation. In other words, sales involve more than just the real estate, and the intangible personal property component involves more than just goodwill.

Acquisition pitfalls

A seniors housing owner's overall return may hinge on tax consequences. Common considerations include real estate transfer taxes, allocation of basis for income tax purposes, real and personal property tax assessments, and segregation of readily depreciable or amortizable assets from non-depreciable or non-amortizable assets.

A common mistake is to use the transaction price as the consideration in the deed. That consideration is the basis for transfer taxes and should exclude tangible and intangible personal property value. Many assessors will revalue the property based on deed consideration, which is easily identifiable and theoretically reflects both parties' valuation of the land and improvements. Thus, citing overall transaction value on the deed can lead to inappropriate excessive taxation.

Instead, define consideration in an allocation agreement at or before closing, which is when the property's federal income tax basis is determined. This generally identifies four components: land (non-depreciable); buildings or improvements (generally depreciable); tangible personal property (generally depreciable); and goodwill or ongoing business value, represented by intangible personal property or business enterprise value. A cost segregation study is helpful but not required.

Loans secured by senior living facilities often pose valuation challenges. Lenders underwriting on a going concern basis need to address whether the state-issued licenses can be secured. The Small Business Administration requires SBA lenders to obtain a going-concern appraisal for real estate involving an ongoing business. Those appraisals must value the separate components and be completed by an appraiser trained in valuing going concerns.

The federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which regulates commercial banks, requires lenders to use a competent appraiser but does not specify appraiser course requirements.

Property tax issues

State law generally requires tax assessors to value only real estate, based on a hypothetical transaction involving the real estate only. Therein lies the rub, because the property's income reflects a combination of real property and tangible and intangible personal property. There is now general agreement that hotels and most seniors living facilities involve intangible value.

The problem is isolating the intangible value. For example, in a 2020 decision involving Disney's Yacht & Beach Club Resort, the Florida Court of Appeals noted that though the nearly 1,200-room hotel's business and real estate values are linked, the assessor is required to value only the real estate, not the going concern.

Some older literature suggests that real estate value contributes only 73 percent to the value of independent living properties, 53 percent to assisted living values, and only 36 percent to the value of a skilled nursing facility. The remaining, non-taxable value, is from the going concern.

The Appraisal of Real Estate provides that going-concern value "includes the incremental value associated with the business concern, which is distinct from the value of the tangible real property and personal property." The Dictionary of Real Estate Appraisal, 6th Edition, defines intangible property as "nonphysical assets, including but not limited to franchises, trademarks, patents, copyrights, goodwill, equities, securities, and contracts as distinguished from physical assets such as facilities and equipment."

State-issued seniors housing licenses fall squarely in the definition of intangible personal property but can be difficult to value, demanding business valuation skills in addition to real estate appraisal skills.

Appropriate approaches

Appraisers typically try to value real estate using the cost, sales comparison, and income approaches, none of which fit seniors housing well. Moreover, charged with valuing many properties, assessors often employ mass appraisal techniques ill-suited for valuing complex going concerns.

Sales comparison drawbacks include the skewing effects of portfolio sales. Common in seniors housing, portfolio prices can obscure the consideration for individual properties or may include significant price premiums over individual sale prices, for reasons completely separate from real estate value.

Some appraisers will use the nearest multifamily sale as a comparable transaction. Yet most types of seniors housing offer abbreviated individual kitchens, if any, and smaller individual living spaces designed to encourage seniors to use the common facilities. If an appraiser is going to use a traditional multifamily property as a comparable, it must be adjusted to retrofit the property as conventional apartments.

To use an income approach, the appraiser must recognize that a huge portion of the seniors housing rent is not attributable to shelter but to services. As noted, seniors apartments are typically designed to get people out of individual units and into common areas. Common spaces usually generate higher expenses and are built to encourage the use of services such as shared dining rooms.

Similarly, compared with standard apartments, expenses for seniors living facilities involve higher maintenance, utility, management and administrative fees generally associated with the property's intangible value. Further, continuing care retirement communities exercise significant synergies between service levels as residents age. Proper analysis of these income and expense figures requires expertise generally removed from an assessor relying on mass appraisals.

Recognizing that many seniors living facilities include substantial intangible value, a 2017 white paper by the International Association of Assessing Officers (IAAO) suggests the cost approach is the proper method for extracting intangible value. Replacement cost certainly offers an easily understandable way for extracting that value.

While correct in valuing new construction, however, the cost approach has questionable utility for older facilities. Replacement cost will often not reflect value, since one can question whether a seniors facility would be rebuilt in the absence of a license. That raises a problem best analyzed as whether the facility represents the property's highest and best use.

The real valuation answer is anything but simple.

At its heart, the debate over how to value seniors care facilities rests on assessors engaged in a hypothetical exercise which is not reflective of the market. Without agreement on how to value the real property when a transaction involves a going concern, the debate will continue.

Morris Ellison is a partner in the Charleston, South Carolina, office of law firm Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP. The firm is the South Carolina member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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