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Property Tax Resources

Jul
02

Single-Family Rental Communities Suffer Excessive Taxation

To tax assessors, an investor's single-family, build-to-rent neighborhood is a cluster of separately valued properties.

Multifamily investors are accustomed to paying property taxes based on an assessor's opinion of their asset's income-based market value. But for the growing number of developers and investors assembling communities of single-family homes and townhomes for rent, tax assessment is more complex and potentially troublesome.

The difficulty for these taxpayers is that most assessors shun the income approach to valuing single-family rental properties. In the following paragraphs, we examine the roots of this common assessor stance, and explore strategies that may help taxpayers argue for a more predictable, apartment-like treatment for their single-family rental communities.

Similar, but different

Multifamily construction has delivered a tremendous volume of apartment properties over the past decade. Once stabilized, these assets have been relatively simple to value by relying on market rents, occupancy, expenses, and cap rates.

On the heels of this apartment construction, the nation is seeing a proliferation of investor-backed, single-family construction and acquisitions of large blocks of homes and townhouses for use as rental properties. This may take the form of constructing a multitude of homes or townhomes in a single development. Alternatively, it may involve the acquisition of many existing homes or townhomes in a localized area.

A concentration of adjacent or proximate single-family residences operated as rentals can enable owners to achieve economies of scale for management, maintenance, groundskeeping, repair and similar costs, similar to the operation of a large apartment complex or group of complexes. In most jurisdictions, however, the similarity between apartments and communities of rental homes and townhomes doesn't extend to valuation for property taxation.

As a rule, houses and townhomes are individually platted and therefore have separate tax parcel numbers. For existing properties acquired from third parties, this is expected. When it occurs with new construction, however, it typically results from the developer's decision to create true townhouses and single-family houses, as opposed to a traditional rental complex. The reasoning for this decision may be complex, but at the gate it appears to be a protective measure to allow for subsequent sales of the units.

For taxing purposes, each separate parcel – house or unit – is valued separately and independently, just as if individually owned and occupied for personal use by a homeowner. The taxing authorities value these properties using a market-comparable-sale approach, just as if the units were individually owned for personal use.

This is causing a good deal of consternation among investors who seek to have the units valued utilizing the income approach, and for those who would like to value assembled units collectively. The owner of a row of inline townhomes, for example, may prefer to have the properties valued as one economic unit, in the nature of an apartment complex.

Case law insights

The North Carolina Property Tax Commission in two recent cases affirmed that assessors must use the comparable sales approach to individually assess independent, platted rental homes. In those cases, (Mingo Creek Investments III LLC and American Homes 4 Rent Properties One LLC), commissioners set forth numerous reasons for their decisions.

Those cited factors included a legal requirement that each separately platted parcel be separately taxed. Additionally, the common owner was able to sell off a single unit at any time, and lacked an apartment owner's common control over amenities and other units. Not all units in a particular development are necessarily owned by the same entity, and in the cited cases there was a history of buying or selling of the individual units or neighboring units.

Assessors often make the policy argument that where single-family rental units exist in common with units that are individually owned for personal use, applying a different valuation method to those held for rent would create inequitable results. It would also raise uniformity concerns, because similar properties would be taxed differently. The same inequity issue that applies to a rental residential unit also applies to homes used as vacation rentals. To value rental single-family residences using an income approach and the neighboring, owner-occupied, single-family residence by the comparable sale approach would create inequities and a lack of uniformity.

Taxpayer tactics

So, where is the investor to go from here?

The elements addressed in each of the two Property Tax Commission decisions issued thus far, together with the policy considerations, limit the taxpayer's options. An investor or developer could common-plat the residential rental units in the development stage, creating a single plat that could be more readily valued with an income approach.

If the owner or developer is unwilling to common-plat the assemblage of rental homes or townhomes but seeks to have them valued for tax purposes under the income approach, it appears they would at least have to consider imposing common control restrictions on the parcels to create, as nearly as possible, the functional equivalent of an apartment complex.

For example, a development or ownership regime could impose not only common ownership but also common control over all the units, including a prohibition on the sale of individual units, or perhaps restrictions that the sale of a specific unit would not release that unit from the common control mechanism. Such a mechanism would be akin to a 100 percent developer-controlled homeowners association.

From a practical perspective, the developer could prohibit investors from selling individual properties until the developer chooses to start divesting itself of the project piecemeal. At that time, the developer could amend the restrictions, since it would still have total control because no units had been sold, and therefore no third parties had vested rights. At that time, it is likely the taxing authority would change the valuation method to a comparable sales approach.

Further, the developer would most likely need to ensure that the units under such common ownership and control would be physically distinct from neighboring properties. For example, all the units could be in a designated subdivision or portion of a development, as opposed to being alongside units held for personal use by their owners. By so doing, the developer could hopefully remove the uniformity argument.

From a market perspective, the units held for rent under common ownership and control would never be for sale on the open market as single units, at least so long as the restrictions remained in place.

As to appraisal, the appraiser could either apply the income approach to each unit, or appraise the combined residences as one economic unit and then apportion value among the units, so that each tax parcel receives a separate value. This is not to say this approach would be accepted by a tax court, but it would address many of the concerns espoused to date against use of the income approach for separately platted residential units held for rent.

These valuation regimes described above may prove too restrictive for some investors, in which case they would appear stuck with the current process. In all events, before becoming wedded to any plan, taxpayers should at least run the numbers both ways – using income and comparable sale approaches – to be certain the value difference is worth the effort of contesting their assessment. 

Gib Laite is a partner in the law firm Williams Mullen, the North Carolina member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Jun
06

The Tangible Tax Benefits of Excluding Intangibles

Jaye Calhoun and Divya Jeswant of Kean Miller LLP on an assessment strategy that may help you trim your property tax bill.

Few states impose property tax on intangible assets such as a trade name, franchise, goodwill and the like. Indeed, some office buildings, industrial properties and big-box stores don't derive significant value from intangibles in the first place.

Intangibles are a significant income generator for many hotels, casinos, restaurants and other properties, however. For these assets, assessors are required to identify and exclude the value attributable to those nontaxable intangibles. The proper method to do so has been the subject of much debate.

Fortunately for taxpayers, recent case law is helping to clarify best practices for isolating and removing value attributable to intangibles from commercial assessments. By following the examples of taxpayers who have successfully applied alternative approaches, property owners across the country may be able to exclude a larger portion of overall property value as intangible and, in turn, lower the property taxes on their business real estate.

Scaling Rushmore

Although some assessors persist in applying the cost approach, most valuation professionals consider the income approach most appropriate for valuing income-producing properties. That is because a property's past, present and future or projected income inevitably impact its valuation.

Many assessors have traditionally applied the "Rushmore Approach" to exclude the value of intangibles from an income-based valuation. This essentially deducts management and franchise fees from a property's net income, treating those amounts as a proxy for the value of intangibles.

Many taxpayers reject the notion that the Rushmore Approach can account for the full value of intangibles. Some of these property owners and their appraisers have countered with the "Business Enterprise Approach," which seeks to remove the often significantly higher revenue generated by intangible assets. This approach is sometimes called the "Income-Parsing Approach" because it requires going-concern income attributable to intangibles to be parsed and stripped from taxable property income.

A spate of decisions over the last few years, particularly concerning hotel valuation, has created a growing momentum favoring the Business Enterprise Approach. Taxpayers should be aware of the potential for significant tax savings with this approach.

Business enterprise successes

The most significant recent cases in which taxpayers successfully argued for using the Business Enterprise Approach are in two states known for high property taxes: Florida and California.

The first is Singh vs. Walt Disney Parks and Resorts U.S. Inc., a 2020 case dealing with the valuation of the Disney Yacht & Beach Club Resort adjacent to Epcot. A Florida appellate court categorically ruled that the Rushmore Approach fails to remove all intangible business value from an assessment. The court was simply unconvinced by the assessor's arguments that deductions for franchise and management fees can remove the entire intangible business value.

Another encouraging decision occurred in 2023, SHR St. Francis LLC vs. City and County of San Francisco. A California appeals court considered various income streams of the Westin St. Francis hotel, including its management agreement, income from cancellations, no-shows and attritions, in-room movies, and guest laundry services.

The court held that it was insufficient to simply deduct the management fees because income from a nontaxable, intangible asset like a management agreement should include both a "return of" and a "return on" that asset. In other words, the owner would expect to generate a profit, or income-based value over and above the cost of the management agreement. The court found that the assessor failed to present evidence that the management agreement's value did not exceed management fees.

In dealing with the remaining items, the court drew a dividing line between "intangible attributes of real property" that merely allow the taxable property to generate income (cancellations/no shows/attritions) and are therefore includible vs. "intangible assets and rights of the business operation" utilizing the real property. These latter assets and rights, including in-room movies and guest laundry services, relate to the intangible business operation and are, therefore ,excludible from income-based, taxable property value.

Another widely reported decision from 2023 is Olympic and Georgia Partners LLC vs. County of Los Angeles. The appellate court in this case pointed out a key flaw in the Rushmore Approach. That it is unlikely the deduction of franchise and management fees could fully account for the value of intangibles because no owner would normally agree to fees "so high as to account completely for all intangible benefits to a hotel owner."

Half Moon Bay legacy

Several recent decisions cite SHC Half Moon Bay LLC vs. County of San Mateo, a 2014 California case involving the Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay Hotel's workforce, leasehold interest in the employee parking lot, and agreement with a golf course operator. The appellate court explicitly acknowledged that the deduction of management and franchise fees from the hotel's projected revenue stream did not properly identify and exclude intangible assets.

Taxpayers throughout the country have successfully made these same arguments. In 1300 Nicollet LLC vs. County of Hennepin, a Minnesota court in 2023 took stock of case law across the country and observed that although the two methods have been competing for 20 years, there is an emerging preference for the Business Enterprise Approach and increasing skepticism of the Rushmore Approach.

Some states such as New Jersey continue to rigidly administer the Rushmore Approach, while other states consistently uphold the Business Enterprise Approach, at least in recent years. Yet other states view both methods as potentially reasonable for an assessor to apply; some of those cases may have more to do with the standard of proof during appellate review. There are also states such as Louisiana in which the issue is yet to be dealt with judicially, arguably giving taxpayers an opportunity to get ahead of the curve.

Clearly, taxpayers and their commercial appraisers should determine whether the assessor has properly excluded maximal value for intangibles in valuing their income-producing properties for property tax purposes. In particular, appropriately applying the Business Enterprise Approach can generate significant property tax savings on commercial real estate and may be worth pursuing.

Divya Jeswant
Jaye Calhoun
Jaye Calhoun is a partner and Divya Jeswant is an associate in the New Orleans office of Kean Miller LLP, the Louisiana member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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May
24

Don't Miss a Property Tax Deadline

Here are five of the most important dates and timelines to be aware of.

Local governments impose a staggering property tax levy on Texas' commercial and residential property owners, who are their primary source of operational funding. Property tax revenue totaled more than $73.5 billion for the 2021 tax year and represented 50.6 percent of all taxes levied by state and local governments, according to the state Comptroller's Office.

Property owners wanting to pay only their fair share of this immense burden must understand tax code deadlines or risk losing their opportunities to contest the values on which property taxes are based. 

Although the number and nature of key tax dates are nuanced and can be difficult to navigate, the following paragraphs offer a high-level overview of the most important deadlines to remember. 

Tax Lien Date 

The tax lien date is a crucial tax code milestone, even though it is not technically a deadline. For any given tax year, the lien date is Jan. 1 of that year. 

County appraisal districts determine the market value of all real estate on this date and establish the legal owner responsible for paying the taxes on each property that tax year. Property owners should understand that the timing of selling or buying properties has tax implications according to the lien date. 

Property taxes are a personal liability. That means that even if the Jan. 1 owner sold the property on Jan. 2 (or any other day that year), the Jan. 1 owner is still on the hook to pay the taxes for the entire year. 

One key exception applies when buying a property that carries an exemption: In that instance, unless the new owner is also eligible for an exemption on the property, the new owner will be responsible for property taxes prorated from the date of purchase to Dec. 31. 

Protest Deadline 

The protest deadline is the chief cutoff date for a property owner to actively meet in filing a protest. 

Each spring, appraisal districts send a notice of appraised value to every property owner. If the property owner disagrees with the assessment, they must file a formal protest with the appraisal district by the later of May 15 or 30 days after the date the notice was delivered to the property owner. 

Under the "good cause" exception, a property owner can file a late protest up until the date the appraisal review board approves the appraisal records. The property owner must show good cause for missing the original protest deadline. 

Unfortunately, the tax code does not define good cause as it relates to missing a protest deadline. The appraisal review board determines whether the property owner had good cause, and since it is unclear what cause the board would consider good, it is best not to rely on this provision. 

A common misconception by property owners who fail to file a timely protest is that they can simply sue to contest the tax appraisal. On the contrary, Texas courts cannot hear a property tax case unless the property owner filed a timely administrative protest and received an order on the same. A lawsuit without the preliminary protest will be dismissed, at which point the property owner is likely out of options for that tax year. 

Section 25.25 

The late protest deadline relates to another backstop provision that property owners can use if they miss the protest deadline. 

Section 25.25 of the tax code offers several options to file a late protest under specific circumstances. A frequently used provision is Section 25.25(d), which allows a property owner to file a late protest any time prior to the delinquency date. The delinquency date for tax year 2024 is Feb. 1, 2025, so the protest would need to be filed no later than Jan. 31, 2025. 

A major drawback to this provision is that the property owner must prove the assessor's value exceeds the correct appraised value by at least one-fourth for residences and one-third for all other property types, which is a difficult threshold to meet. 

Additionally, if the property owner successfully reduces the value beyond the threshold, the owner must pay a 10 percent correction penalty based on the amount of the correct appraised value. Although a viable option, this is not the ideal way to file a protest. 

Litigation Deadline 

The litigation deadline gives the property owner a window to file suit in district court following the appraisal review board's decision on an initial protest. 

The property owner must file no later than 60 days after they receive notice that the appraisal review board has entered a final order. If the property owner misses that deadline, they lose the ability to further contest the value for that year. 

Tax Payment Deadline 

The tax payment deadline is the final day owners can pay annual property tax bills without incurring penalties and interest. Bills are typically sent out starting in October, and owners must pay no later than Jan. 31 of the following year. The payment deadline for the 2024 tax year is Jan. 31, 2025. 

If a property owner fails to pay the tax by Jan. 31, the tax bill begins accruing penalties and interest on Feb. 1. Moreover, the owner could be subject to a delinquent tax lawsuit filed by the taxing authorities, and the owner's property could be foreclosed upon and sold to satisfy the delinquent tax. 

Taxing authorities may send a tax bill late, which creates a new payment deadline. Depending on when the late bill is initially sent, the property owner may have a new deadline after Feb. 1. However, to avoid the repercussions of late payments, property owners should set reminders to confirm that on-time tax payments have been made for the prior tax year on all real estate they own. 

The five critical dates presented here only scratch the surface of the many deadlines in the Texas tax code and do not explore the nuances that can alter those deadlines. That's why it is essential for property owners to consult with their property tax advisors early in the year and safeguard against missing any important deadlines associated with annual property tax notices, appeals and payments. 

Property owners who wait too long may forfeit the right to contest the assessed value or any other issues, even if that leaves them with an unfair tax burden.

Andrew Albright
Andrew Albright is an attorney and manager at the Austin, Texas law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC. The firm focuses its practice on defending owners in property tax disputes.
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May
20

How to Navigate the Tax Appeals Process for Contaminated Properties

Below is a property owner's guide to reducing the taxable value of contaminated real estate.

Valuing contaminated properties presents numerous challenges due to the complexity and uncertainty that contamination entails. The presence of hazardous substances or pollutants can affect both a property's value and potential uses. As an assessment must reflect market value, contamination can significantly impact taxable valuation.

Determining the extent of that impact requires careful consideration of legal, technical, and economic factors as the valuation of contaminated properties is governed by a combination of statutory law, regulatory guidance, and case law. Yet these are the fields a taxpayer with contaminated real estate must tread to evaluate assessments for fairness and, if necessary, to appeal an unfair assessment.

Tax assessment review proceedings are crucial mechanisms for all property owners to ensure fair and accurate assessments. These proceedings provide avenues to challenge property assessments they believe are incorrect or unfair. Understanding the process, timelines, and legal considerations involved is essential for property owners, assessors, and legal professionals alike.

Most real estate taxes in the United States are ad valorum or "according to value." Thus, the owner of a high-value property would expect to pay more real estate taxes than the owner of a lower-value parcel. While the exact procedures to file a tax appeal can vary by state, all give property owners the right to challenge property assessments through various means, including administrative review, grievance procedures, and judicial review.

Four Preparatory Keys

To prepare for a tax appeal, the following important considerations should be addressed:

1. Assess contamination levels: Determining the extent and severity of contamination on a property requires expertise in environmental engineering, so expert assistance is a must. Documentary evidence can significantly strengthen a property owner's case during the appeal process. Procure this with expert testimony from environmental consultants, appraisers, and other qualified professionals to establish the impact of contamination on the property's value. Assessors may need to rely on those reports to understand and truly appreciate the contamination's nature and scope.

2. Estimate remediation costs: The price tag to remove or contain pollutants can vary widely depending on the type, quantity and spread of the materials involved, as well as the chosen remediation method. While there are state statutes concerning remediation and liability, those matters are also codified at federal levels within the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation & Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980, commonly referred to as the Superfund Law. If a site is designated a "superfund site," it will typically have a remediation plan with anticipated cleanup costs, which assessment professionals can rely upon in determining market value.

3. Gauge market perception: Market perception can play a significant part in valuation since contamination can have a negative impact on the property's appeal to potential users or buyers. Known as "environmental stigma," this can severely depress market values. Prospective buyers are typically hesitant to purchase contaminated properties, often leading to decreased demand and lower market prices.

4. Don't sweat legal liability: Property owners may face legal liabilities for environmental contamination, which can also affect the property's value. This, however, should have no effect on valuation in a tax appeal proceeding, because the statutory mandate to value property in a tax appeal according to its market value cannot be subordinated to environmental property concerns. Most significantly, any liabilities for contamination or remediation must be addressed in a separate proceeding outside the tax appeal.

More to Consider

The three accepted approaches to valuation in the context of a tax appeal are income capitalization, sales comparison, and replacement cost less depreciation. Unfortunately, none of these truly account for the presence of contamination and its negative influence on value. The effects of environmental contamination, and even stigma from nearby contamination, must be part of the valuation equation.

Local case law also plays a significant role in shaping the legal landscape surrounding contamination in tax assessment review proceedings. Many courts have recognized the impact of contamination on property values and have upheld adjustments to tax assessments to account for this factor. Additionally, these same courts have established principles regarding the burden of proof and evidentiary standards in contamination-related tax appeals.

For example, the seminal case in New York is Commerce Holding vs. Board of Assessors of the Town of Babylon. In this 1996 case, a property owner filed a tax appeal contending the assessed values should be reduced to account for contamination by a former on-site tenant. While New York's highest court held that "any fair and non-discriminating method that will achieve [fair market value] is acceptable," they concluded that contaminated property in a tax assessment review proceeding shall be valued as if clean, then reduced by the total remaining costs to cure the contamination.

Clearly, valuing contaminated properties in tax assessment review proceedings requires a nuanced understanding of environmental regulations, property valuation principles, and market dynamics. Assessors and property owners must navigate complex legal and technical challenges to arrive at a fair and accurate valuation that reflects the unique circumstances of each contaminated property. By employing appropriate valuation strategies and seeking expert guidance, stakeholders can ensure that contaminated properties are assessed fairly and in accordance with applicable law. 

Jason M. Penighetti is a partner at the Uniondale, N.Y. office of law firm Forchelli Deegan Terrana, the New York State member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Apr
15

NYC's Post-Pandemic Real Estate Decline

Market deterioration and municipal ineptitude are driving taxpayers to the courts for relief.

The New York City real estate market, once the pinnacle of economic health, has undoubtedly declined in recent years. Exploring the factors that brought the market to this point paints a clearer picture of what current conditions mean for property taxpayers and suggests strategies that may offer relief.

Five Causes of Decline 

The COVID-19 pandemic left an indelible mark. The coronavirus took a significant toll on New York City, which became an epicenter of U.S. infections. Many residents fled to suburban areas for more space and less harsh mandates from local authorities. According to a Cornell analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, "New York City's population plunged by nearly 4 percent – more than 336,000 people – during the pandemic's first year as residents migrated to less dense areas in nearby counties and neighboring states."

The New York City Comptroller's Office estimated that the City lost an additional 130,837 residents from March 2020 through June 2021. This caused unprecedented vacancies in residential and commercial properties, and approximately 100 hotels in the City closed. Those that survived endured high vacancy rates and struggled to pay property taxes.

Economic uncertainty plagues the real estate market. The economic fallout of elevated vacancies and decreasing income has rendered investors and developers hesitant to invest in New York City real estate.

Remote and hybrid work slashed office demand. The decline in office usage that accelerated during the pandemic is ongoing and appears permanent. Most workplaces have loosened to a hybrid work environment, and many employers allow a full-time work-from-home option as well.

This means office buildings that once bustled with employees are now vacant or significantly emptier than they were in 2019. Midtown Manhattan lunch spots and after-work happy hour sbars and restaurants have also taken a hit. The National Bureau of Economic Research estimated in 2022 that New York office buildings had lost as much as $50 billion of value in the wake of reduced demand.

Crime is soaring. New York City police reported making 4,589 arrests for major crimes in June, a 9.3 percent increase from the same period a year earlier. In the first six months of 2023, officers made 25,995 such arrests – the most for any half-year period since 2000.

Property tax revenues are under threat. The previous trends have been slow to erode the municipal view of the tax base. The City's Department of Finance reported a tentative assessment roll of $1.479 trillion for fiscal 2024, a 6.1 percent increase from the previous tax year. For the same period, the department reported a 4.4 percent increase in citywide, taxable, billable assessed value, the portion of market value to which tax rates are applied, to $286.8 billion.

"New York City continues to show mixed signs of growth and economic recovery, with the FY 24 tentative property assessment roll reflecting improvements in subsectors of the residential market while key commercial sectors still lag behind pre-pandemic levels despite modest growth over the past year," Department of Finance Commissioner Preston Niblack said in a press release announcing the tentative tax roll.The decline in office occupancy continues to impact retail stores and hotels in the City contributing to the sector's slow recovery. At the same time, single family homes, which constitute a majority of residential properties, have exhibited a robust recovery and continued growth."

A study by NYU's Stern School of Business and Columbia University's Graduate School of Business calculated that a decrease in lease revenue, renewals and occupancy would cut the value of office buildings in the City by 44 percent over the next six years. Based on those findings, a worst-case analysis by New York City Comptroller Brad Lander found that a 40 percent decline in office property market values over the same six years would result in $1.1 billion less tax revenue for fiscal 2027, the last year of the City's current financial plan. Real estate taxes on office properties currently generate 10 percent of overall City revenue. The City expects office vacancies to peak at a record 22.7 percent this year, posing a potential threat to tax collections.

The result of the forgoing changes is that income is down, expenses are up, demand is evaporating, and market values have plunged by more than 50 percent for most commercial properties except perhaps multifamily (although sales of condominiums have stalled due to high mortgage costs).

How To Get Relief

The hotel industry anticipates a four-year recovery period. Hotel owners preparing arguments for reduced assessments should collect information for their team documenting closure dates, occupancy rates, and any specific pandemic-related expenses incurred during the reopening process.

It is inappropriate for assessors to evaluate hotels for property tax purposes solely based on non-real-estate income. A recent court ruling has affirmed the illegality of utilizing non-real-estate income generated by hotel businesses, leading to an overassessment of real estate taxes that must be refunded to owners. Business-related income, such as that from movie rentals, should not be considered in property tax assessments.

In addition, it is essential to identify and exclude income from personal property, furnishings, and the value of intangibles, franchises, trained workforce, and going concerns when determining real estate income.

The prevalence of empty stores and closures of local standby establishments in every corner of New York City underscores the severe economic impact on retail properties. Retail and office owners should be prepared to demonstrate declines in gross income and rents reported in their financial filings with the City. They are also required to provide a list of tenants who have vacated or are not paying rent. The Tax Commission now mandates an explanation for declines in rents exceeding 10 percent.

There is considerable potential for assessment reductions, but it is crucial for taxpayers to compile evidence of market value declines, and to collaborate with experienced advisors to secure warranted tax reductions.

There is no longer any absorption of vacant office space since demand is declining. That means that 80 percent occupancy or lower is the norm. Only an adjustment in property taxes to the actual earnings of the property will save the real estate, and over-leveraged properties may be lost.

Tax Process in a Tailspin

Extensive personnel turnover has hampered the review process that relies on action by City agencies, with inexperienced staff and numerous unfilled positions at both the Department of Finance (assessors) and the Tax Commission. Thus, expected remediation of excessive assessments often go unresolved. This leaves no alternative but to go to court.

Resorting to the courts is also difficult because in-person appearances are still relegated to video conferences, with few trials taking place.

The taxpayer's best approach is to push forward with all speed to demand a trial.  Only pressure to demand speedy trials will provide the needed result.


Joel Marcus is a partner in the New York City law firm Marcus & Pollack LLP, the New York City member of the American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Odelia Nikfar is an associate at the firm.
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Apr
02

Seize Opportunities to Appeal Property Tax Bills

Office property owners should contest excessive assessments now, before a potential crisis drives up taxes.

The Great Recession, from December 2007 to June 2009, was the longest recession since World War II. It was also the deepest, with real gross domestic product (GDP) plummeting 4.3 percent from a peak in 2007 to its trough in 2009.

Entering that recession, unemployment was at an unalarming 5.0 percent, which is on par with historical averages, and interest rates hovered around 6 percent. The roots of the recession lurked at the intersection of risky subprime mortgages and the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which allowed for the mega-mergers of banks and brokerages to escalate.

And here we are in January 2024, looking down a steep market slope. On the bright side, we are in a more advantageous position than at the beginning of the Great Recession. GDP was a respectable $25.46 trillion in 2022, up 19 percent from $21.38 trillion in 2019. Unemployment is at 3.7 percent, and values in the single-family housing market are increasing again, in part due to a lack of supply.

The investors standing on unstable ground this time around are those heavily leveraged in major metropolitan markets, such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, or other municipalities that rely on office values. (Think suburban office markets.) The sharp increase in interest rates under the Federal Reserve's tightening monetary policy, and the extreme drop in demand for commercial office space that accelerated during the pandemic, will have significant ramifications on all property types.

Dire developments

What ramifications? Assume a hypothetical "Metro City" that, like most major markets, has a tax base with 75 percent of its independent parcels classified as residential, and 25 percent as commercial real estate. However, the assessment values are strongly weighted on the commercial properties, with 30 percent of the entire assessment value born by office properties.

The municipality has a total tax levy of $16.7 billion and overall assessed property value of $83.1 billion. The office portion of the property makeup is 30 percent, or $24.9 billion in assessed value. The office share of the total tax levy is $5.0 billion.

Now assume that the city's overall office market value collapses by 50 percent. This leaves Metro City with a $2.5 billion deficit – not a small number. To recapture that $2.5 billion, the city must increase its tax rate by 15 percent. That means tax liability increases by 15 percent for every taxpayer, even if their property's assessed value is unchanged.

So, how can developers and owners protect themselves from excessive tax liability, given the current market conditions? One solution is to appeal property tax assessments aggressively. Regardless of the jurisdiction, regardless of property type, property owners must evaluate their opportunity for an assessment appeal.

Office-specific issues

Market transactions show vast valuation differences between Class A office properties, which are typically newer buildings with great amenities, versus "the others," or those office properties 10 or more years old and offering fewer amenities. Properties that fall in the latter category have many opportunities for assessment reductions. Here are key points to consider.

Ensure the appraiser or assessor is using the property's current, effective rental rates. In many instances, an owner will show a tenant's gross rent on the rent roll without disclosing specific lease terms contributing to effective rent. For example, the lease may have been negotiated at $27 per square foot, but the rent roll does not account for free rent, amortization, free parking or other amenities the tenant receives.

Additionally, although office leases historically pass through taxes and other costs to tenants, many negotiated leases now cap expenses for the tenant, potentially shifting a portion of expenses to the landlord. That is a key issue the taxpayer should address in the income analysis of an appeal, because it provides evidence for a reduction in effective rental rates, as well as an imputed increase a buyer would demand in the capitalization rate to reflect the additional risk.

Appraisers need to understand this issue for rental comparables as well as for the subject property. Typically, they will confirm public information posted by various data services, but if they lack the finer details of a transaction, the rates they derive could exceed the true market.

Address vacancy and shadow vacancy. Prior to the pandemic, office vacancy in most markets hovered between 5 percent and 14 percent, depending on the location and building class. As of the third quarter of 2023, vacancy is over 18 percent, according to CBRE.

In October 2023, CBRE reported that suburban Chicago's office vacancy rose 50 basis points to 25.9 percent in the third quarter. Manhattan's overall office vacancy rate including sublease offerings is 22.1 percent, according to Cushman & Wakefield.

Shadow vacancy, or space where the tenant is still paying rent but no one physically occupies the space, is the canary in the coalmine for an office building's future. If a building is 12 percent vacant, the assessor probably won't be sympathetic. But if the owner highlights that leases in the space expire in the next year or two, and/or they are large blocks of space, the assessor (or at least the owner's appraiser) should acknowledge that risk and apply a higher cap rate for the subject property.

Adjust for interest rates. Any investment-grade property is now worth less than it was two years ago, simply because of the rise in interest rates.

Because interest rates have increased significantly, the property owner can argue that the assessor should use the "band of investment" method, which calculates capitalization rates for the components of an investment to produce an overall cap rate by weighted average. This methodology takes into account not only the increase in market interest rates, but also equity demands of lenders. Interest rates have increased over 3 percentage points across the last 2 years, which in many cases equates to a 100 percent increase in interest rates.

Additionally, the equity requirements on commercial mortgages have increased from 30 percent to 50 percent. Increasing the base capitalization rate to reflect these changes in an income analysis will offer significant relief in the assessment.

Jurisdictions that rely heavily on office values to support overall assessment value in the tax base will be experiencing increasing tax rates. This increase in rate is factored into the loaded capitalization rate, which obviously means a lower market value for assessment purposes. Analysts and appraisers should review the increased rates annually.

The near term will be challenging for entities that invested in office properties prior to 2023, but the strategies outlined above can offer some protection in this stormy market.

Molly Phelan is a partner in the Chicago office of the law firm Siegel Jennings Co., L.P.A., the Ohio, Illinois and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Feb
26

How Poor Performance Can Aid Property Tax Appeals

Accounting for weak operations can buoy arguments to reduce taxable value, writes Baker Jarrell of Popp Hutcheson PLLC.

Property taxes are an ongoing headache for many commercial real estate owners, especially when their properties generate inadequate income. Assessors compound these frustrations when they value underperforming real estate as if it were operating on par with the market. By understanding the source of the poor performance, however, owners can build a compelling appeal to reduce their property's taxable value.

One of the main reasons taxing entities overvalue underperforming properties is their use of mass appraisal. The appraisal districts that value real estate for taxation typically deal with thousands of parcels contributing to hundreds of billions of dollars in market value. Mass appraisal allows these districts to systematically value large numbers of properties where performing individual appraisals would be unfeasible.

Understandably, this methodology can create confusion and frustration among property owners, who often feel their assessment does not accurately represent the specific real estate. Mass appraisal is a useful method but lacks the nuance necessary to determine the actual value of real estate and, thus, the appropriate tax levy.

Adjust to occupancy

With a standard property that operates at market-level occupancy, income and expenses create market value based on an expected rate of return. Assessors and appraisers know this as the income approach to valuation.

Additional losses should be factored into the value when the property performs below standard occupancy, however. This means that, when a property has vacancy well above the market rate, the final value must account for this gap.

The first remedy for excessive taxation on a poorly performing property is to adjust for rent loss in the income approach. For instance, if there are two otherwise comparable buildings but one maintains the market occupancy of 85 percent and the other is only at 50 percent occupancy, it does not make sense to appraise and value them equally.

Any buyer of a poorly performing property will incur significant costs to lease up the building to the market level. The costs typically include rent loss, tenant improvements and leasing commissions. In valuation, an appraiser would total the present value of these costs over the absorption period to arrive at the total discount for rent loss. The appraiser can then deduct the discount from the previously calculated value via the income approach to represent what a buyer would pay in an arm's length transaction.

Other factors

If the property's poor performance is attributable to factors other than vacancy, there are still options available in an appeal. Often, trends outside the property owner's control limit the income a particular property can generate and, consequently, the overall value. Shifts in legislation, supply and demand, or any industry-specific economics are all possible factors contributing to a reduction in earning potential. Incorporating economic obsolescence in the cost approach quantifies poor performance from these external factors.

For example, if a property has a depreciated improvement plus land value of $10 million and a market rate of return of 9 percent, it would be expected to generate $900,000 annually. If the stabilized net income before taxes is only $650,000, however, there is a deficit of $250,000. Dividing the difference by the rate of return (9 percent) determines the economic obsolescence adjustment of $2.8 million. In this scenario, the property taxes would be initially assessed at $10 million, but $7.2 million is the more accurate figure.

Lastly, what can owners do when the property is generating sufficient income today, but potential struggles loom on the horizon? The typical signal for approaching difficulty comes from a rent roll analysis, which will identify leases set to expire in the next few years. Without guaranteed rent for an extended period, property income can become volatile in tandem with economic conditions.

Potential volatility indicates an elevated risk, for which any buyer would demand an increased rate of return. As a result, the capitalization rate needs to be adjusted upward to account for the higher risk when compared to a similar property with greater cash-flow certainty. Because of their inverse relationship, a higher cap rate will result in a lower property value. Initially, the appraisal district will be unaware of the income volatility and will assess taxes at the incorrect value.

To illustrate, if a property in a specific market typically requires an 8 percent capitalization but is found to carry excess risk, the cap rate may need to be 9 percent or higher for that property. If the hypothetical building generates $600,000 in net operating income, the cap rate adjustment decreases taxable value by 11 percent. This shows how understanding the property's expected future performance helps estimate at a more accurate market value.

When it comes to determining the taxable value of real property, the owner is always going to have access to the most helpful information for showing how the property performs. It is unrealistic to assume an appraisal district can reach the same conclusion of value while using less specific information. As such, it is the responsibility of the owner's tax team to use this information in establishing a more accurate and fair opinion of value.

Baker Jarrell is a property tax consultant at the law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC, the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. The firm focuses its practice on defending owners in property tax disputes.
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Feb
23

John Stark and Kirk Garza: Assessors Often Overvalue Student Housing

With competition from a growing supply of purpose-built student housing (PBSH) and student renters' ever-evolving preferences driving costs, property owners in the sector must guard against excessive tax assessments.

Assessors often treat this special asset class as a traditional multifamily development, while PBSH is designed specifically for university students. As such, the properties have distinct lease structures, design layouts, amenities, and services that differ from traditional multifamily properties and on-campus dormitories. This misclassification often leads assessors to select valuation metrics through mass appraisal that ignore the unique characteristics of this class of real property, resulting in inflated assessments.

Taxpayer teaching guide

Student housing owners should promptly review notices of taxable property value for fairness and decide whether to contest their assessment. If they choose to file a protest, the taxpayer must file their request by the deadline in their jurisdiction.

Whether a property owner is simply reviewing their tax assessment or preparing arguments to have an assessment lowered, it will ease the taxpayer's task to know the most common mistakes assessors make in valuing PBSH properties. Many of these problem areas relate to assessor assumptions based on market-rate multifamily properties, and how those properties, features and revenue models differ from dedicated student housing.

What follows are essential factors involved in calculating taxable value for a student housing project. The property owner should understand these points and be prepared to educate their assessor about how each affects market value.

Rent and revenue

PBSH rental-rate drivers that an assessor often overlooks include lease terms, unfurnished vs. furnished units, and amenity packages. The most notable difference from traditional multifamily apartments is that PBSH properties lease by the bed. Separate leases and deposits for each resident provide students and their parents with financial security in the event that a roommate transfers colleges, unenrolls, moves away, or does not pay their rent on time.

Leases also run parallel to the academic calendar. This makes cash flow seasonal and creates an expensive make-ready period right before the fall term, when all leases expire or start concurrently. Lease terms tied to semesters or school years rather than 12-month calendar years are among the main characteristics that make student housing rental rates and revenue streams incompatible with market-rate apartment properties.

Counting costs

On the expense side, student housing units and bedrooms may be unfurnished or fully furnished, with the latter often including a wide variety of smart appliances and furniture packages catering to the latest student preferences. The property owner should ensure certain furnishings are not doubly taxed by inclusion in both the overall property assessment and a separate business personal property account.

In addition to charging higher rent for fully furnished options to offset their higher cost, student housing landlords may include charges for certain amenities in the stated rental amount. Examples of these rent inclusions range from high-speed Wi-Fi throughout the building to cable TV, trash valet services, transportation, and utilities. Understanding these differences when analyzing the subject property and comparables is critical to arrive at an appropriate market rental rate and expense structure for an income-based valuation.

Like on-campus dormitory managers, PBSH property teams strive to promote socialization and a sense of community through the built unit mix, common area amenities and budgeting for social and academic events. While traditional apartments are typically comprised of mostly one-bedroom and studio units, developers build student housing primarily as multibedroom units.

This design difference, along with student expectations for 1:1 bedroom/bathroom parity, often make multifamily-to-PBSH conversions unfeasible. The inability to pursue conventional, market-rate multifamily renters represents additional risk for student housing owners in the event that occupancy decreases. Moreover, because one-bedrooms typically garner higher rents per square foot and achieve higher occupancies than three- and four-bedroom units, comparisons of PBSH rents to traditional multifamily rental rates are often inappropriate.

PBSH intangibles

The PBSH market is experiencing numerous emerging trends that impact an asset's overall value. While some of these considerations tie directly to the tangible real estate, other aspects are intangible – meaning they cannot be held – and are typically untaxable.

Intangible assets in student housing can relate to an associated school campus and can be more or less valuable depending on the institution. In addition, properties adjacent to a college campus typically command higher rents and property values than those where residents might require transportation to reach campus. Access to neighborhood amenities, property services, attractions, and public transit can also boost a property's rental demand.

Additionally, PBSH properties historically trade at capitalization rates approximately 50 basis points higher than traditional apartment complexes due to various risks not seen in traditional multifamily assets. Property values drop as cap rates increase.

Similarly, U.S. student housing properties at Power 5 schools can achieve significantly higher rents and sales than properties near non-Power 5 schools. (Power 5 refers to the major football conferences: Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific 12 and Southeastern.)

Because traditional apartment valuations rarely need or include business value adjustments, assessors seldom adjust for the business value of intangibles not directly tied to the real estate during the initial assessment of a purpose-built student housing property. Yet, as we have presented, intangible benefits can be a factor in PBSH business models and may influence market valuations in the sector.

Finally, it is important to realize that various jurisdictions may have nuanced definitions of taxable value, tangible real estate, business personal property, and intangible business value. A local expert can provide valuable insight in forming and presenting arguments for an assessment reduction, and help to mitigate intangible business value in PBSH real estate assessments. 

Kirk Garza
John Stark
John Stark is a manager and Kirk Garza is a director at the Texas law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC, which focuses its practice on property tax disputes. The firm is the Texas member of the American Property Tax Counsel, a national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Both John and Kirk are licensed property tax consultants in Texas.
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Feb
13

Obsolescent Real Estate Presents Complications for Property Taxes

Incurable obsolescence — the stealth killer of commercial real estate value — is all too often overlooked in property tax appeals.

Any obsolescence can affect a property's value. Normal obsolescence involves curable problems, such as outdated fixtures and finishes that reduce a building's desirability. In valuation, the anticipated cost to cure the obsolescence (in this case, with a refreshed interior) is deducted from the property's taxable value.

As the name suggests, incurable obsolescence cannot be cured within the boundaries of the property. The obsolescence stems from outside circumstances, whether next door or in the larger markets, and no change to the property itself can overcome the deficiency.

Perhaps the government is going to change the traffic pattern, or a hog farm is going in next door. The market value may rise if a good thing is coming to the area. It will surely decline if a bad thing is coming, and the market value declines in relation to the predictability of such an event.

Property owners who learn the common forms and causes of incurable obsolescence will be better equipped to recognize its symptoms in their own real estate. In arguing for a reduced tax assessment value, evidence of obsolescence weighing on a property's operations will often tip the scales in convincing an assessor, review board or court to grant a reduction.

Passing or permanent?

Owners should be aware of functional obsolescence and be prepared to discuss it when appealing assessments. If it is a problem that can't be cured within the boundaries of the property, it is incurable obsolescence and reduces the property's market value.

The condition may have existed from the inception of the property's development and use, but more typically it results over time from factors relating to design, usability, markets, traffic patterns, government takings or regulation. For example, economic need or a government requirement may leave a property without adequate parking to support commercial buildings on the site, rendering those structures incurably obsolete.

Incurable obsolescence can be partial and a handicap to the property's viability without entirely preventing its continued use. For example, an office building designed for single-tenant use will not accommodate multiple users. There is a very limited market for single-tenant, high-rise buildings. The cost of retrofitting such a building into separate leasable offices is infeasible.

The loss in value due to incurable obsolescence may be anticipatory. If the market's users and investors see imminent incurable obsolescence, it may already affect market value. The negative impact of incurable obsolescence occurs when the problem cannot be cured on site at any cost.

In evaluating a property for instances of incurable obsolescence, however, it is important to remember that the source of obsolescence may be offsite.

Owners concerned with the production and marketing of a product or service from their property may not be aware of external elements of incurable obsolescence affecting their property's value. Or they may simply regard the circumstance as a non-priority item — at least until they get their property tax bill.

Instances of the incurable

Incurable obsolescence takes many forms, but taxpayers are most likely to encounter it in one of a few common scenarios. Those include:

Property access changes. Typically imposed by a highway or street authority, moving or removing access points can reduce a commercial property's appeal to users and lower its market value.

Altered traffic patterns. Changes to surrounding roads or highways can reduce commercial value. Limiting the property's visibility and accessibility, for example, may reduce customer traffic and brand exposure for operators on the property.

Size modifications. The property may fail to meet the required property size in relation to improvements. Possible causes include changed government requirements or the physical loss of a portion of the property due to government taking. A simple change in setback lines may have a dramatic negative impact on a property's value.

Takings. Use of eminent domain may reduce the remainder of the property to a legal non-conforming use which may not be altered to accommodate a commercially viable use. Alternatively, commercial uses on a state highway may be untouched by highway takings, but diverting traffic to a new highway kills viable commercial use of properties on the abandoned roadway.

More examples

Other sources of incurable obsolescence span a wide range, from changing industry practices and preferences to evolving government regulations, markets and natural phenomena. Zoning or regulatory changes may restrict usage, for example. The property may no longer meet current tenant needs regarding loading dock height, or access by delivery and customer vehicles. Nearby development or street construction may inundate the property with surface water. Properties have incurred incurable obsolescence for their intended uses from light pollution, and from disruptive air traffic following a change in flight patterns.

Property owners discussing excessive taxable valuation with the assessor should recognize that the assessor has employed the cost approach to value. While cost may be a value indicator, it lacks relevance in situations involving incurable obsolescence. Help the assessor to look beyond cost by showing how obsolescence reduces the property's value in the marketplace.

In preparation for meeting with the assessor, an owner seeking a reduced assessment should look for negative conditions beyond the control or ability of the owner to correct within the boundary of the property. Be prepared to discuss with the assessor how the conditions affect the property value. Bring plat maps, photos, restrictive regulations and ordinances, and any documents that entail restrictions on the use of the property — legal, physical or otherwise — and an explanation of how these matters negatively affect the property's value.

While there is no cure for incurable obsolescence, there are treatments for unfair tax assessments. When incurable obsolescence results in lost improvement value, the owner is entitled to an appropriate downward adjustment of the assessed value. 

Jerome Wallach is a partner at The Wallach Law Firm in St. Louis, the Missouri member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Jan
01

2024 Annual APTC Tax Seminar

The American Property Tax Counsel is proud to announce that Chicago, Illinois will be the site of an in-person meeting for the 2024 Annual APTC Client Seminar.

Save the Dates! October 23-25, 2024 - Fairmont Chicago, Millennium Park - Chicago, Illinois

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