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Sep
17

Environmental Contamination Reduces Market Value

Protest any tax assessment that doesn't reflect the cost to remediate any existing environmental contamination.

Owners of properties with environmental contamination already carry the financial burden of removal or remediation costs, whether they cure the problem themselves or sell to a buyer who is sure to deduct anticipated remediation expenses from the sale price. Fortunately, New York law allows those property owners to reduce their property tax burden to reflect their asset's compromised value.

Tax types

Most local governments in the United States impose a property tax on real estate as a primary source of revenue, levied and calculated by either ad valorem or specific means. Latin for "according to value," ad valorem taxes are imposed proportionately based upon the market value of the property. Thus, the higher the market value, the higher the real estate tax.

Specific taxes, on the other hand, are fixed sums without regard to underlying real estate value. School, county and town governments nearly always compute real property taxes using the ad valorem method, whereas lighting, garbage or sewer districts typically apply specific taxes. Because school and county/town taxes account for the overwhelming majority of a property tax bill, property owners frequently use assessment litigation concerning the market value of the subject property to reduce assessments and, as a result, lower the real property tax burden.

The cardinal principle of property valuation for tax purposes is that assessments cannot exceed full market value. Many states including New York codify this in their constitutions. The concept of full value is regularly equated with market value, which is the highest price a willing buyer would pay and a willing seller accept, both being fully informed.

Disagreements often arise if the subject property is afflicted with environmental contamination. The treatment of environmental contamination and remediation costs is of particular concern to both owners and municipalities. Owners seeking to depress taxable values and thereby reduce their tax burden claim these expenses dollar-for-dollar off the market value under the principle of substitution. In other words, a proposed buyer would not pay more than $8,000 for a parcel worth $10,000 which needs $2,000 of remediation.

On the other hand, municipalities would prefer the adoption of a rule (either via legislation or court decision) barring any assessment reduction for environmental contamination. Otherwise, they claim, polluters would succeed in shifting the cost of environmental cleanup to the innocent taxpaying public, in contravention of the public policy of imposing remediation costs on polluting property owners and their successors in title.

Pivotal case

Fortunately for property owners, a seminal 1996 court decision guides the treatment of environmental costs to cure taxable value in New York. In Commerce Holding Corp. vs. Town of Babylon, the petitioner purchased 2.7 acres of land in the Town of Babylon, Suffolk County. A former tenant of the property had performed metal plating on the premises and discharged wastewater containing multiple heavy metals into on-site leaching pools, ultimately resulting in the severe contamination of the parcel. The owner filed tax appeals and argued the value of the property should be reduced by the considerable costs needed to clean up the parcel.

As expected, the town's position relied on a public policy approach and urged the court to reject any argument for a reduced assessment. Ultimately, the case traveled to New York's highest court, which summarily rejected the public policy arguments that polluters should not be rewarded with lower assessments.

Instead, the court applied the constitutional and statutory requirements of full market value assessments, holding that the full value requirement is a "constitutional" mandate which cannot be swept aside in favor of public policy. Thus, property must be valued as clean, with the value reduced by the costs to cure the remediation per year. Challenges seeking the limitation or outright reversal of the Commerce Holding case have been continually rejected.

A recent clarification

The New York State Court of Appeals did not address remediation again in a property tax litigation context for almost 20 years after Commerce Holding. In a 2013 case, Roth vs. City of Syracuse, a property owner sought to have the assessment on certain rented properties reduced because of the presence of lead-based paint.

The court declined to expand the application of Commerce Holding in this case for two significant reasons. First, the owner continued to rent the buildings and collect income. Second, the owner had not taken any steps to remove or remediate the lead paint and restore the properties. Thus, to successfully claim an assessment reduction, a property owner should not stand idle but take definitive actions to remediate the property. 

Jason M. Penighetti is an attorney at the Mineola, N.Y., law firm of Koeppel Martone & Leistman LLC, the New York State member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

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  • Protest any tax assessment that doesn’t reflect the cost to remediate any existing environmental contamination.
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Sep
05

Big Property Tax Savings Are Available

Millions of property tax dollars can be saved by understanding seven issues before buying real estate.

We asked property tax lawyers around the country for tax advice they wish their clients would request before an acquisition to avoid excessive taxation. Their responses, like tax laws, vary by state:

Ask Early. Transaction timing can help avoid having an assessment increased to equal the sale price, says Gilbert Davila, a Principal with property tax law firm Popp Hutcheson in Austin, Texas. Texas reassesses every Jan. 1, so a transfer in the third or fourth quarter is likely to receive an assessment increase the following January. Closing the transaction in the first or second quarter allows time to gather facts for an appeal.

In Chicago, real estate taxes following a purchase depend on location and where the county is in its three-year revaluation cycle, says Mary Anne "Molly" Phelan, a partner with Siegel Jennings Co. LPA. Local counsel can advise whether to expect an immediate increase or a couple years of stable property taxes.

Structure the Transaction. Purchasing an entity that owns real estate or combining the purchase of assets and real estate may offer advantages. For example, Pennsylvania authorities calculate transfer tax using current assessed value when a buyer acquires 100% of interests in a property's holding company. With an outright purchase of real estate, however, transfer tax applies to the purchase price.

If a property is under-assessed, purchasing the holding company can reduce the tax amount and avoid the need to appeal an assessment based on a purchase price well above the current assessed value. The buyer saves on transfer taxes upfront and will likely save on future real estate taxes with an unchanged assessment.

In cities like Pittsburgh, where transfer tax is 4.5% and soon to be 5%, the savings can be significant. Some savvy buyers have structured their purchases of Pittsburgh properties using the "89/11" provisions of the tax statute. This precluded transfer tax for buyers who acquired 89% or less of the owning entity, then purchased the remaining 11% after a three-year hold. The strategy drew a public outcry following some high-profile transfers, prompting a recent legal change that made this approach more difficult.

Chicago buyers of a business that owns real estate may avoid a property tax increase altogether, Phelan observes. A local attorney is critical in such cases to advise on not only the law, but also on nuances of its application and the local political climate.

Allocate Properly. Property sale prices often include going-concern value, business value and personal property. Phelan cautions buyers to carefully segregate the real from the non-real components exempt from property tax. Then, "document, document, document," she says. "Having documentation in the file to back up the buyer's allocation of the various components can make all the difference if an appeal is filed down the road."

Similarly, Robb Udell, an attorney with Rennert Vogel Mandler & Rodriguez PA in Miami, advises that Florida law imposes a documentary stamp tax on consideration paid for real estate. There is no documentary stamp tax due for personal property or intangible value, however, so ensure the recorded price excludes those values. Hotel transactions include significant tangible and intangible personal property value.

Details Matter. Details may strengthen arguments opposing an assessor's attempt to increase the assessment to equal the sale price. For example, 1031 exchanges, portfolio transactions or purchases by a REIT may not meet a jurisdiction's criteria for an arms-length, market value sale.

What Information Will Be Public? Ask a local attorney what information will become public in a sale. Texas buyers are not required to divulge their acquisition price on the deed, Davila says, so assessors go to great lengths to discover Texas sale prices. They may search for loan documentation or use subscription services documenting recent sales, for example, to estimate the price.

Budget Correctly. Buyers who fail to understand the law when budgeting for real estate taxes can overpay on acquisitions by millions of dollars. This is especially true in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, where taxing entities can appeal to increase a property's assessment.

School districts often appeal assessments to chase sale prices, then file "fishing expedition" discovery requests of the buyer's financial information to support the district's case. Out-of-state buyers have overpaid for property due to their budgeting on historical real estate taxes not accounting for the potential government-initiated increase appeal. This common practice in Pennsylvania has drawn increasing challenges from property owners outraged at being unfairly singled out for an increase.

In Georgia, it is the assessors who increase assessments on properties using recent sale prices. Lisa Stuckey, partner in the Atlanta law firm of Ragsdale Beals Seigler Patterson & Gray LLP, advises that – due to a recent change in Georgia law – assessors can value recently traded properties as high as the purchase price, but not higher. Since the statutory change, many assessors have adopted a policy of increasing assessments to full sale prices in the year following the sale.

Understand Assessment Caps. In Florida, there are two values related to property taxes: market value and assessed value. County property appraisers determine market value annually and cap increases in the assessed value of non-homestead properties at 10% from one year to the next. School districts tax uncapped market value, however, so that portion of a property owner's tax bill is sensitive to increases in market value.

Udell cautions that capped assessments reset to market value the tax year following a change of property ownership or control, so a purchase price consistent with the prior year's market value can still have a significant tax impact if the previous assessment was capped at a low value. Capped assessments also reset to market value the tax year following an improvement that increases market value by 25% or more, and other factors also can affect the cap's applicability. Thus, proper budgeting for tax consequences requires a clear understanding of Florida law.

Asking the right questions can save enormous tax dollars. 

Sharon DiPaolo is a partner in the law firm of Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Tammy L. Ribar is a director of Pittsburgh law firm Houston Harbaugh PC and Chair of its Real Estate Department.

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  • Millions of property tax dollars can be saved by understanding seven issues before buying real estate.
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Jun
18

Use Restrictions Can Actually Lower A Tax Bill

Savvy commercial owners are employing use restrictions as a means to reduce taxable property values.

Most property managers and owners can easily speak about their property's most productive use, in addition to speculating on a list of potential uses. Not all of them, however, are as keenly aware of their property's specific use restrictions; even fewer realize how those limitations affect the property's value for tax assessment purposes. 

Government-Imposed Restrictions

Local zoning laws impose the most common use restrictions. Their impact on property uses and potential values is commonly understood. A property zoned for development as a retail power center, for example, will generally have a higher market value than a property that is limited to uses, such as auto repair or animal kenneling. Market values are often used to set tax assessment values, so a use restriction that increases or reduces market value will also increase or reduce a property's tax assessment value. 

Less common restrictions that can impair a property's value include covenants or agreements entered into with a municipality. Whether this pertains to the future development of a parking structure, to meet open-space standards, or to fire department ingress and egress lanes these covenants typically limit the owner's ability to fully develop the property and, thereby, reduce its market value. Historical designations by local government also generally reduce a property's market value. This is because they limit the owner's ability to configure the property to produce maximum rental income. 

Even fire suppression requirements reduced market value for one commercial property. This multi-building campus was constructed to suit a technology company, with all fire suppression controls located in a single building. When the technology firm moved out, regulations enforced by the local fire department prohibited the new owner from leasing or selling individual buildings because all but one of the structures lacked onsite control of the existing sprinkler system, those being in another building. 

Semi-private Restrictions 

The complexities of government imposed restrictions pale in comparison with semi-private restrictions that are often created during a property's development. Consider the covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs) on use imposed when property is subdivided for development. 

CC&Rs are not typically classified as "government-imposed," as they are based on an agreement between the developer and property owners within a development. Yet, these covenants do limit how the property may be used. While CC&Rs often govern planned residential developments, they also regulate property usage in some industrial parks and retail centers. Because CC&Rs lack the uniformity of government-imposed zoning laws which, theoretically, would apply equally to competing commercial properties, the restrictions in CC&Rs usually impact property market values negatively by limiting potential uses. 

Another complex area involves easements between adjacent property owners or among multiple owners within a larger development. Like CC&Rs, easements limit property uses and can reduce market value.

Private Restrictions 

The most common private usage constraint is the deed restriction, which prevents the buyer of a property from using it for certain purposes. The treatment of deed restrictions and other limitations imposed by property owners varies by state. In some states like California, property tax assessors must ignore private use restrictions, while in other states, such restrictions are taken into consideration when assessing properties. 

Deed restrictions and other privately imposed usage limitations can significantly affect real estate values. A property restricted to residential use where neighboring properties are allowed retail or industrial uses will have a lower market value. However, if the local tax assessor is prohibited from considering such private restrictions, the property's assessed value may be much higher than the market would otherwise indicate. 

State, Local Laws Often Prevail 

Clearly, use restrictions — whether government-imposed or privately imposed — will usually impact a property's market value. From a property tax perspective, however, an assessor may or may not consider use restrictions in determining taxable value. 

Whether and how an assessor considers use restrictions in an assessment usually depends on state and local tax laws. In California, property tax regulations, court decisions and guidance documents issued by the State Board of Equalization assist property owners in understanding how use restrictions may or may not affect their property's taxable value. 

In some cases, the treatment of use restrictions is based on local tax assessment policies that are not set forth in any particular statute, regulation or court decision. Tax or legal advisers who interact regularly with local tax assessors can be invaluable resources in those jurisdictions. 

Use restrictions play a significant role in property tax assessments. Knowing a property's use restrictions and how those restrictions affect value is crucial to obtaining a fair property tax assessment. Armed with information about their particular use restrictions, savvy property managers and owners will find out how the local assessor uses those restrictions to determine taxable value. In most cases, that will involve collaborating with a professional experienced in handling local property taxes. 

Cris K. O'Neall is a shareholder with the law firm of Greenberg Traurig LLP in Irvine, California. The firm is the California member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

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  • Savvy commercial owners are employing use restrictions as a means to reduce taxable property values.
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Jun
16

APTC Response to IAAO May 2019 Exposure Draft: Setting the Record Straight on Fee Simple

June 13, 2019

Board of Directors IAAO
IAAO Headquarters 314 West 10th Street
Kansas City, Missouri 64105

Re: IAAO May 2019 Exposure Draft: Setting the Record Straight on Fee Simple

Dear Board Members:

American Property Tax Counsel is the preeminent organization of real estate tax attorneys in North America.Please accept this letter as our official comments in response to the May 2019 Exposure Draft entitled Setting the Record Straight on Fee Simple promulgated by the IAAO Fee Simple Task Force.Consistent with our professional focus, these comments will address property tax policy and the legal implications of the Exposure Draft. As attorneys, our concern is the accuracy of the legal arguments advanced in the paper. The starting point is to ask the question, "why would the assessor's organization attempt to write a paper addressing legal theory and not one on appraisal methodology?"The paper appears to be nothing more than an attempt to support new legal/appraisal theories to gain an advantage in pending litigation and to shape public opinion to support a new way of valuing and taxing commercial properties.

1.The Exposure Draft Advocates for Uneven Assessments Over Sound Tax Policy


This Exposure Draft reads like a solution in search of a problem.The Fee Simple Task Force has done little to disguise the Exposure Draft as anything but an attempt to tax certain commercial taxpayers differently than all other taxpayers.While perhaps intended as primarily a public relations vehicle, the Exposure Draft undermines the credibility of the IAAO as an organization purportedly dedicated to education and research, and its official adoption would do a disservice to the IAAO's respected assessors.[1]

Sound tax policy requires common ground and uniformity.As recognized in the Exposure Draft, fee simple estate is the foundation of what assessors are often asked to measure.However, while the Draft's authors posit a false premise that "it is essential to clarify fee simple in order to maintain accuracy, consistency, and uniformity in assessment practices," the truth is fee simple requires no further clarification.The most glaring flaw in the Exposure Draft is the unchecked presumption there is some conflict or digression between how the legal and appraisal professions define fee simple.There isn't.[2]

Context matters, and many terms can differ from the legal to the technical or industrial uses.Liabilities in accounting, for instance, can mean short-term or long-term payables.Within the law, a liability in an income tax dispute is understood to mean something different than a liability in a tort case.Similarly, title companies will speak of a fee simple estate or fee simple title and understand that it describes how title will pass to heirs.Appraisers, being in the profession of valuation, must define and communicate how fee simple impacts an asset's value.[3] Even within the legal environment, fee simple can mean that property passes as an inheritable estate in the context of a will, or that a fee simple interest in property is to be valued in the context of assessment or eminent domain.While the phrase "fee simple" can have different implications depending upon the setting in which it is invoked, there is no conflict between the legal and appraisal definitions—in any setting, it is understood to describe the "largest possible estate," "absolute ownership," "broadest interest," and so on.No experienced lawyer or judge is confused by whether "fee simple" in the assessment context invokes questions of inheritability.

States vary somewhat in the terminology used to describe the measure of assessed property, using phrases like "true value," "fair cash value," "actual value," etc., but such phrases are generally understood to mean fair market value.As to what must be assessed, states overwhelmingly agree that the taxable estate should be fee simple.Fee simple is important as a base because the fundamental aspect of assessment in most states is uniform treatment of taxpayers within a class.Some states treat residential, agricultural, and commercial/industrial property as different classes.In other states, all real estate is considered one class.Regardless, the measure of the tax must be the same across the class, and the object being measured must also be the same across the class.Where uniformity is required, one taxpayer cannot be assessed on a fee simple with no lease while a neighbor pays taxes on the fee simple subject to a lease.[4]And in law, the unencumbered fee simple is the only standard that returns uniform assessments.

2.The Definition of Fee Simple Is Already Clear

The Exposure Draft's authors make much ado about the historical evolution of the definition of fee simple but fail to consider the modern evolution of real estate as a tradeable asset.Again, it is worth noting why context is important.Real estate was not a particularly sophisticated investment until the advent of modern financing arrangements, sale-leaseback transactions, and the trading of leases as investment vehicles.As the real estate industry grew increasingly complex, it became necessary for its definitions to get specific.Similarly, the accountants among APTC's membership have observed that the accounting profession and the federal courts interpreting the Internal Revenue Code were also compelled in the early-1980s to address the growing prevalence of sale-leaseback transactions.

The Task Force argues that practitioners are confused by the word "unencumbered," yet the only cases it cites are not even on point.As a matter of law, the Ohio cases in the Exposure Draft have been superseded by the enactment of that state's amended assessment code.Contrary to the Task Force's interpretation, those cases stood for the fact that the prior statute required valuation based on a property's recent sale price even when the sale price reflected atypical circumstances or included the value of non-realty assets.The change in the statute eliminated that issue, as Ohio now mandates that assessors value the fair market value of "the fee simple estate as if unencumbered." R.C. 5713.03, as amended by 2012 Am. Sub. H.B. No. 487 (emphasis supplied to indicate new words added).[5] As for the 9th Circuit case cited in the Exposure Draft, it is unclear what the Task Force means to suggest by its partial quotations.[6] The rest of the cited paragraph actually recognizes that a freehold estate can be "encumbered or unencumbered," and nothing in the full text of that case indicates the court is confused by that premise or by the definitions it discusses.City of Los Angeles v. San Pedro Boat Works, 635 F.3d 440, 450 (9th Cir. 2011).

As a practical matter, several states have approvingly cited (and sometimes even adopted [7]) the Appraisal Institute's definitions of fee simple and leased fee.In those jurisdictions which have explicitly relied on the recent editions of The Appraisal of Real Estate and/or The Dictionary of Real Estate Appraisal to explain these concepts, this Exposure Draft would directly conflict with applicable law.And even in states which have not adopted those definitions, most appraisers have been using the Appraisal Institute's definition of fee simple for over 35 years at minimum.No industry or professional association can force upon a state a definition which conflicts with existing laws, and the IAAO should take care not to encourage its members to violate the rules of their jurisdictions.

3.The Bundle of Sticks Endures Because It Is a Useful Metaphor

The example of the bundle of sticks is almost sacrosanct.As a technical matter, the statement, "The bundle of rights or bundle of sticks metaphor originated as a description of real estate, not a fee simple absolute estate" is incorrect.While legal historians debate the origin and evolution of the bundle metaphor there is consensus it came into common usage around the turn of the 19th century to describe ideas of ownership and rights in property, both real and personal.The fact that the bundle metaphor may be misused or misunderstood by some does not necessitate its abandonment or overhaul.As a descriptive tool, it helps most students and practitioners to visualize the interplay between the interests and the encumbrances that impact property rights and affect value.

4. Fee Simple Unencumbered Is the Basis for All Property Tax Liens

It should go without saying, but the value on which the property tax is determined should match the basis for the property tax lien to which it is attached.In every jurisdiction, property tax is a liability of the property, not the owner.When any property is valued for tax purposes, the resulting assessment gives rise to a tax lien that attaches to that property.This in rem obligation means that if the tax is not paid, the lien can be sold for the unpaid taxes.If the owner fails to take steps to satisfy the lien, the purchaser of the tax lien can become the owner of the property.These basic principles underlie every assessment of property tax.

However, the position in the Exposure Draft would cause a valuation of assets that the tax lien does not attach to.When a tax lien is sold, it is sold free and clear of all other liens and encumbrances.The buyer receives title known as "fee simple absolute."That title does not include any liability on a mortgage or any liability (or benefit) arising from a lease. None of those private, contractual rights are part of the lien.Leases and encumbrances are expressly made subordinate to the tax lien. This is because the entire premise of the property tax is that the government can seize and sell "the property" to satisfy the tax lien.

How then, can the value on which the property tax is computed include assets that the tax lien does not attach to?The answer is obvious – it cannot.Respectfully, the position in the Exposure Draft contravenes this basic principle of ad valorem taxation, further demonstrating why that position is incorrect as a matter of property tax law.

5.The paper raises ethical issues that need to be properly addressed.

The IAAO Code of Ethics raises many concerns relative to the paper.For instance, the Code provides:

"It is unethical for members to conduct their professional duties in a manner that could reasonably be expected to create the appearance of impropriety …

It is unethical to perform any appraisal, assessment, or consulting service that is not in compliance with the IAAO governing documents or the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice

It is unethical for members to accept an appraisal or assessment-related assignment that can reasonably be construed as being in conflict with their responsibility to their jurisdiction, employer, or client, or in which they have an unrevealed personal interest or bias …

It is unethical to accept an assignment or responsibility in which there is a personal interest without full disclosure of that interest …

It is unethical to accept an assignment or participate in an activity where a conflict of interest exists and could be perceived as a bias, or impair objectivity …

It is unethical to knowingly fail to observe the requirements of the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice …"

There are pending cases across the country on this very issue, including many in the home states of the authors of this report and members of the Board of Directors.This paper imbeds the IAAO into pending litigation with no acknowledgment of that in the report.The report is silent on the pending matters where one or more authors are a party or are expert witnesses.The paper should not be silent on the conflicts of interest of the authors, the Board of Directors and the organization.

Given its significant authoritative status in the appraisal industry, all appraisers are encouraged to follow the standards in the Appraisal Institute's treatise, The Appraisal of Real Estate. Advocating to specifically reject the definitions in the Appraisal of Real Estate, 14th edition, the Dictionary of Real Estate Appraisal, 6th ed., and local law is antithetical to the IAAO's mission and responsibilities to their membership.

6. Conclusion

As with the IAAO's 2017 white paper on Commercial Big Box Retail, the Fee Simple Task Force is attempting to legislate through its latest paper, without regard to the nuances in each jurisdiction. Fortunately, under the constitutions of nearly all states, the fundamental aspect of assessment is uniformity and the ideas expressed in the Exposure Draft are legally untenable.

The constitutional mandate of uniformity requires that real estate be assessed upon the fee simple, unencumbered, because that is the only definition applicable to all real estate.Office buildings that are leased can be assessed based on fee simple, unencumbered.Single-family homes that are owned can be assessed upon that same standard.Properties held as tenants-in-common can be assessed upon that same standard.Without this "white canvas" standard, assessors would be left with no basis on which to comply with uniformity requirements.

The paper raises issues of ethics, USPAP compliance and creates confusion even within the publications of the IAAO[8].

We urge the IAAO reject the adoption of the May 2019 Exposure Draft Setting the Record Straight on Fee Simple.

Respectfully submitted,

American Property Tax Counsel
BY: Linda Terrill, President


[1] The Exposure Draft's authors are all involved in litigation concerning this issue. Indeed, several are serving as expert witnesses for taxing authorities advocating for the position set forth in the Exposure Draft. Given USPAP's clear prohibition against "Advocacy" by appraisers, the IAAO should not be taking sides in this manner.The paper gives the appearance of "creating" supporting authority because none exists.

[2] Unfortunately, the Exposure Draft's authors fail to cite any authoritative legal definitions of fee simple, relying instead on references to secondary sources.While seemingly obvious, we feel it is necessary to point out that Black's Law Dictionary is binding nowhere.Similarly, although the Restatements are generally more respected, they are likewise nonbinding except in the limited jurisdictions where limited sections have been adopted.Moreover, it is unclear why the Task Force cites to an outdated Restatement.

[3] Brokers and agents may use the term loosely or even incorrectly, but that is not a reason for the appraisal or assessment professions to change a long-accepted definition.

[4] Beyond the problem of non-uniformity, because most states recognize contracts as personal property, such a framework seems doubly unworkable in states where personal property is not taxable.

[5] Importantly, the Ohio cases cited were in large part the basis for the legislative clarification.

[6] The Task Force fails to discuss California's property tax regulations pertaining to fee simple, such as the inclusion of "unencumbered or unrestricted fee simple interest" in the definition of fair market value, the adjustment of the sale price for a property encumbered with a lease to its unencumbered-fee price, and the capitalization of unencumbered net income in the application of the income approach.(18 Calif. Code of Regs., §§ 2(a), 4(b)(2) and 8(d).)The City of San Pedro case does not discuss any of these property tax regulations.

[7] See, for example, In re Equalization Appeal of Prieb Properties, 47 Kan. App. 122, 275 P. 3d 56 (2012).The IAAO cannot advocate for its members to adopt a definition and value real property in violation of their law.

[8] The positions set forth by the taskforce are inconsistent with other IAAO publications below:

Page 12, Property Assessment Valuation 3 ed., starts with a paragraph titled Fee Simple Interest. "The owner of a fee simple absolute interest holds the title to the property free and clear of all encumbrances. The assessor typically values property as an estate in fee simple, unless statutes or administrative rules dictate otherwise. The bundle of sticks example, as well as the acronym SLUGGER stating how the rights in the bundle can be bargained away, is located at page 10, Property Assessment Valuation 3 ed.

At page 11 leases are described as being private encumbrances able to affect fee simple ownership of property. Property Assessment Valuation, 3 ed.

Again, at page 11 both Leased Fee and Fee Simple interests are discussed and the caution that "before a property is valued, the appraiser must know which interests are to be valued." Absolute Ownership—Ownership of all real property rights and interests in a real estate parcel. See fee simple. P. 1, IAAO Glossary for Appraisal and Assessment, 2d ed. Fee Simple—In land ownership, complete interest in a property, subject only to governmental powers such as eminent domain. Also fee simple absolute. See estate in fee simple; fee; and absolute ownership. Page 67, IAAO Glossary for Appraisal and Assessment, 2d ed.

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Jun
06

Nothing New About The Old ‘Dark Store Theory’

Statutory law continues to require that assessors value only the real estate, not the success or lack thereof, by the owner of the real estate.

Assessors and their minions frequently take the position that an occupied store is more valuable than an unoccupied store, a conclusion commonly referred to as the "Dark Store: theory. Owners of big-box retail properties and their tax advisers bristle at this erroneous contention, because real property taxes are just that– a tax on the value of the real estate.

It is the assessor's function to value the property's real estate components, which consist primarily of land, bricks and mortar; or in the cases of most big boxes, land, concrete, pop-up concrete or metal slabs. It is a common but mistaken practice of assessors to place a greater taxable value on a big box occupied by a major retailer than on a vacant building of equal design, construction and utility.

This errant valuation methodology has given rise to controversy played out through expert testimony and sophisticated argument before administrative agencies and the courts. It is in this context that the term "Dark Store theory" has come into play.

A call to action

Owners of big-box real estate need to deliver a consistent response in the face of this increasingly pervasive and costly misconception. And because informal meetings between the owner's representative and the assessor are limited in time and scope, providing little opportunity for sophisticated argument, these owners must take a position that can be expressed in laymen's terms and understood by the average taxpayer.

That message is that the dark store theory is not a theory at all. It is a reality. The real estate components of occupied buildings have the same value as the real estate components of vacant buildings.

Dark Store theory has become part of the dialogue when valuing commercial properties for taxation. It's vilified as though it were a new concept with dark connotations, like the revelation of a new and insidious scheme by Darth Vader. In fact, its underlying concept is as old as the exercise of determining value for any purpose.

Unless a particular property has actually sold on a particular date, any opinion of its market value is hypothetical. Any such opinion is subject to informed disagreement within the boundaries of accepted valuation methodology. The standards of that methodology, as expressed, for example, in the Uniform Standards of Appraisal Practices, require that the value of a property is based on the willing-buyer, willing-seller concept. The assumption is that a willing buyer wants to buy and use the property.

Logic, not to mention all standards of appraisal practice, dictates that the hypothetical buyer is buying the property for some purpose. Whatever that purpose, it precludes the seller's continuing to use the property. This discussion is independent of a sale-leaseback transaction, which is a financing strategy.

The reality is that the buyer wants to use the property, as is the case across the spectrum of property purchases.

A residential parallel

The same concept applies to the sale of a suburban bungalow. When the Smiths buy a home from the Joneses, they expect the Jones family to vacate the property by the closing date. The Smith family bought the property expecting it to be available for occupancy on the closing date. Nothing about the selling family's success or possible dysfunction affects the purchase price.

In valuing single-family homes, assessors do not discuss the resident families' success (all the children became neurosurgeons). Yet assessors effectively do so in valuing big boxes, which by all valuation standards must be deemed available for occupancy as of the date of closing.

One does not hear the expression "dark house theory," because the assumption of availability of the property for use by the buyer at closing is intrinsic to the transaction. In appraisal parlance, the concept has been and remains that the exchanged property is "free and clear of all encumbrances," ergo vacant, or in current usage, "dark."

Many big boxes, typically measuring in the neighborhood of 100,000 square feet, have come on the market in recent years due in part to changing consumer buying patterns and reduced store counts by retailers. There is a tendency among assessors to over-value properties occupied by the surviving big-box retailers, in effect imposing a form of income tax that they justify by citing retailers' over-all company sales, while turning a blind eye to the availability of big boxes standing dark in the same market.

The sales volume and profits produced by a big-box store are as unrelated to the real estate's value as apple pie is to a computer. Thus, two side-by-side buildings of the same size and specifications, with one housing a high-profit retailer and the other an empty or dark box, have the same real estate 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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  • Statutory law continues to require that assessors value only the real estate, not the success or lack thereof, by the owner of the real estate.
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Jun
06

Benjamin Blair: Creative Deal Structures Can Yield Tax Benefits

Managing expenses is one of the best ways to ensure the long-term profitability of investment properties, and prudent developers know the importance of carefully monitoring and challenging property tax assessments. But student housing, as a subsector populated largely by tax-exempt educational institutions, presents unique opportunities to minimize taxes for some projects.

Excepting abatements and other local incentives, there are two principal ways to minimize property taxes: The property can be entitled to a statutory tax exemption, or the property can be deemed to have a value of zero dollars. In certain instances, creative structuring can take advantage of these options to improve the developer's cash flow and returns.

Beneficial vs. actual ownership

One of the most potent ways to minimize property taxes is a statutory exemption. For university-owned housing, exemptions will almost always eliminate the tax bill before it arrives in the mail. But what if the property is owned by a private developer, not the university?

Although private ownership by a for-profit entity often sentences real estate to a lifetime of property tax liability, some states disregard formal ownership for property tax purposes, focusing instead on who benefits from the asset. In states adopting this "beneficial ownership" doctrine, the law may treat privately owned properties the same as university-owned real estate, entitling them to exemptions otherwise limited to properties used for educational purposes.

Consider the example of a small private college that wants to develop new on-campus housing, but lacks the resources to borrow the necessary funds to construct the building. Instead, the school contracts with a private developer, which builds the student housing and leases it to the college. The school then operates and maintains the property as student housing, just as it would any other dormitory.

Even though a private developer owns the structure, the benefits of the building go to the college, which may be deemed the beneficial owner of the property. Because the college's intent is not to earn a profit, but rather to support its educational mission by providing housing for its students, the property is exempt.

This structure still allows the developer/owner the right to earn a reasonable return on its investment in the property. This result is logical when one considers that the college's intent is to finance the construction of on-campus housing. If the college financed the construction of a dormitory with a bank loan, the school would not be disqualified from claiming an exemption just because the bank earned a return on its loan.

Precluding profit in this manner would effectively prevent any educational institution from borrowing funds at market rates to finance any construction. Just as the bank is entitled to a reasonable return on its loan, the student housing developer is entitled to a reasonable return on the lease.

Of course, beneficial ownership works in both directions, potentially making an otherwise-exempt property taxable. If university-owned property is leased to a private party who uses it to make a profit, then the property would likely not be entitled to an exemption. Even though the true owner is an exempt educational entity, the beneficial owner is not exempt.

Leaseholds without market value

Even when a property lacks a statutory exemption, however, it will not incur property tax liability if it is deemed to have a negligible market value. An assessed value of zero dollars will always result in zero taxes owed.

A recent case from the West Virginia Supreme Court shows how a new student housing development – or, at least, the developer's leasehold interest in the development – could properly be assessed as having no market value.

In that case, a university leased land to a developer for the purpose of developing student housing with a retail component. The developer constructed the improvements on the leased land at its own expense and transferred title of the new building to the university, which executed a sublease to use the student housing. As the subtenant, the university offered the on-campus housing to students, collecting rent and turning it over to the developer, who then returned 50 percent of the net cash back to the university as a payment on its lease.

The university operated the residential facilities, therefore, while the developer was compensated for constructing the improvements and retained the right to sublease the retail space. The developer's interest in the property was a leasehold.

Because university-owned property is exempt, the university's interest in the property was not taxable. But in West Virginia, leaseholds are taxable real property interests, meaning the developer's interest needed to be assessed. The county assessor concluded that the developer's interest in the property had a value independent from the university's exempt interest, and assessed that interest. The developer challenged the assessment, arguing for a zero value.

The case eventually came before the state Supreme Court, which held that the value, if any, of a leasehold interest is based on whether the leasehold is economically advantageous to the lessee and freely assignable, so that the lessee can realize the benefit of the lease in the marketplace. After all, market value is measured by what the interest could garner if sold on the open market.

If the lease could not be freely assigned to another party, it would have no value in the marketplace. Because the lease was drafted in a way that the assessor conceded was not freely assignable, the Court affirmed that the value of the developer's leasehold interest was zero.

Beware potential pitfalls

The applicability of these strategies to a particular project is fact-dependent. For example, some states, especially those with large amounts of public lands, tax possessory interests. In those states, a government-owned property leased to a private entity can be taxed if the private entity has a "possessory interest" in the real estate. Likewise, privately owned improvements on exempt land can be taxable because the tax is being imposed on the improvement, rather than on the whole property. And assessors eager to increase the tax base can still challenge even the best structuring.

Not all development deals will be ripe for these types of exemption-planning opportunities, nor will all student housing developers find these strategies compatible with their business objectives. Competent tax counsel can help developers weigh the myriad factors that may determine what strategy can deliver the best returns.

But property taxes are one of the largest ongoing expenses of property ownership, so opportunities to minimize their impact on a project's financial results deserve full consideration. With some creativity, developers can improve their own profitability while also helping their academic partners achieve their goals. 

Benjamin Blair is a partner in the Indianapolis office of the international law firm of Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, the Indiana and Iowa member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Apr
25

Onerous Property Tax Requirements Proposed

True to campaign promises, the new Cook County assessor has proposed sweeping legislation that borrows the most burdensome tax requirements and penalties from jurisdictions across the country. But will this enhance transparency or simply saddle taxpayers with inaccurate assessments and the need for costly appeals?

The 2018 race for Cook County Assessor ended in Fritz Kaegi beating out incumbent and long-time political powerhouse Joseph Berrios. Kaegi's campaign promises targeted the "insider" game of property tax appeals and proposed to bring fairness and transparency to the Illinois property tax appeal system.

The proposed requirements would only be imposed on commercial or income-producing properties worth more than $400,000, or residential properties with seven or more units worth more than $1 million. Residential properties with six units or less, as well as mixed-use commercial/residential buildings with six or fewer apartment units and less than 20,000 square feet of commercial area, are exempt from reporting income data.

In Cook County, these commercial properties will be required to submit income and expense data to the assessor prior to July 1 each year, and attest to the truthfulness of such information. Counties outside of Cook County may adopt the same requirement.

Property owners who fail to file the required information may receive a notice from the assessor demanding its submittal. If the taxpayer fails to report the income pursuant to the notice, the taxpayer will be fined 2 percent of the previous year's total tax bill. If the taxpayer still does not submit evidence within 120 days of the original notice, the proposal adds a second penalty of 2.5 percent of the prior year's tax bill.

As if these financial penalties were not enough, the taxpayer who fails to provide the information within 120 days is precluded from appealing the subject property's tax assessment. Furthermore, the Cook County State's Attorney's office is granted the right to subpoena the income and expense data from the tax payer on an annual basis.

None of the legislation eliminates the right to appeal to the Board of Review, however.

So, will the proposed statute bring fairness and transparency to the appeal process? No.

Round hole, square peg

The requirement to file income and expense data is not revolutionary. In many cases, taxpayers file appeals based directly on the property's income data rather than incur appraisal expenses. On the other hand, income-producing properties that commission an appraisal will provide the income and expense data to the appraiser in order to explain any differences between the actual rents in the subject property and the market rents used to calculate the assessment. Thus, the new rules will not necessarily bring more transparency to the values of multimillion-dollar commercial properties.

For the institutional investor, the greatest concern about the proposal is the validity and application of the collected income and expense data. As the old saying goes "garbage in, garbage out."

The assessor claims that the collection and aggregation of data directly from taxpayers will help identify the true rental market value of specific real estate. The concern is that taxpayers will be reporting a variety of unadjusted rents rather than market rates. Market rates take into account the differences between gross, modified and triple net leases, as well as tenant improvements, concessions, length of lease, sale-leasebacks and a host of other factors. Without adjustment to market rates, the data will be incorrect and the assessments will be inflated. This will produce a higher rate of appeal on an annual basis and impose greater appeal burdens on all involved.

Furthermore, the new requirements will bring the greatest harm to smaller commercial investors who may not be filing property tax appeals at all. Many of these are mom-and-pop organizations that keep handwritten ledgers and have market values between $400,000 and $1 million. The annual reporting requirement and respective penalties would be financially burdensome to taxpayers in this group, many of whom never undertook the expense of filing an appeal. Now those taxpayers may be open to valuation increases on an annual basis and have to spend money on appraisals and attorney representation.

And transparency?

The proposed statue prohibits "non-personal income and expense data" the assessor collects from being accessed through Freedom of Information Act searches. Does this indicate that the data sets the assessor produces cannot be analyzed by the taxpayer for accuracy? Where is the fairness and transparency in that?

If the statute passes, the hurdle for Illinois taxpayers will be to clearly identify the difference between market rents and actual rents for each of their properties, which may result in extremely burdensome requirements and penalties. The mandated steps may require intricate analysis and could result in property owners expending time and money responding to annual notices for documentation, fines for noncompliance, and the inability to challenge illegal assessments as a right.

Much of the income-and-expense statements, rent rolls and other data the assessor seeks are already available in documentation currently being submitted in support of annual appeals. Based upon this readily available data, the assessor should be able to generate guidelines that reflect current rental rates, occupancy levels and capitalization rates.

If Cook County taxes need reform, this is not the reform.

Molly Phelan is a partner in the Chicago office of the law firm Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, which has offices in Cleveland, OH, Pittsburgh, PA and Chicago. IL and is the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys
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Apr
18

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 with pitfalls.

To maximize results, taxpayers must understand the assessment process and the deadlines governing filings and protests. What follows are best practices for protecting the right to protest in Texas, along with some tips for meeting key deadlines. And remember, deadlines are subject to exceptions and may change for specific properties, so consult the Texas Property Tax Code or a property tax professional to verify applicable dates.

Learn the appeal timeline. 

Strict filing deadlines govern renditions, protests, litigation appeals and tax payments. Failure to comply with these deadlines may be devastating, resulting in forfeiture of the taxpayer's appeal rights and incurring substantial penalties and interest.

Meet protest deadlines.

Texas appraisal districts value real and personal property annually, usually as of Jan. 1. For commercial real estate, appraisal districts are required to deliver notices of appraised value by May 1 or as soon thereafter as practicable. Taxpayers in most jurisdictions can expect to receive notices of appraised value sometime in April. The deadline for protesting an appraised value is the later of May 15 or 30 days after the date the notice was delivered to the property owner.

In certain situations, appraisal districts are not required to send notices of appraised value, such as when the appraised value of the property did not increase from the prior year. A best practice is to track all documents and follow up with the appraisal district if you have not received a notice by late April to ensure you have the relevant information prior to the May 15 protest deadline. Keep in mind that it is the taxpayer's responsibility to inform the appraisal district of the taxpayer's current address.

When is the business personal property rendition deadline? 

Taxpayers are required to render information regarding their business personal property to appraisal districts annually, generally by April 15. Appraisal districts may extend the deadline until May 15 upon written request by the property owner, a common practice. This deadline can vary, however, depending on whether a Freeport exemption for the property is allowed.

Determining rendition deadlines can be complex and property owners should make sure to communicate with appraisal district personnel about deadlines early on in order to avoid penalties for late reporting. Penalties generally equal 10 percent of the total tax due.

Prepare for hearings. 

After filing a protest on time, property owners are scheduled for a formal hearing before the Administrative Review Board. Often the appraisal district will schedule an informal hearing with an appraiser prior to the formal hearing. Most formal and informal hearings take place between April and July of the tax year in question, and many protests are resolved during this process. Preparation is the key to success.

More deadlines: 

The review board will determine a property value and issue an "order determining protest." Document the date the order is received and follow up with the appraisal district if you do not receive appropriate documentation within a few weeks of the formal hearing date. A property owner has 60 days from receipt of the order to file suit in district court appealing the review board's results.

Taxing entities are required to mail tax bills by Oct. 1 or as soon thereafter as practicable. Taxes become delinquent if not paid before Feb. 1 of the year following the property valuation. That is, for the 2019 tax year, taxes are due on or before Jan. 31, 2020. An active protest or lawsuit does not excuse a property owner's obligation to pay taxes prior to the delinquency date, and failure to pay taxes in a timely manner forfeits the right to proceed with an appeal in court. If an owner prevails in its appeal, the overpayment will be refunded.

Best practices for appeals

Regardless of appeal status, communicate early and often with the appraisal district and provide requested documentation and information. Informal settlement conferences are good opportunities to get to know the appraiser assigned to the protest and to understand the assumptions supporting his or her analysis.

Be prepared with all required documentation including hearing notices, property-specific information and any appointment-of-agent forms. Consider further protecting appeal rights by filing an affidavit stating the taxpayer's position in advance of the formal hearing date. An affidavit on file protects the taxpayer in the event that they are unable to attend the hearing.

What if I miss my deadline?

Let's assume a taxpayer purchased a retail center for $2 million in December 2018. The appraiser valued the property at $3.5 million for 2019, but the owner believes the purchase price reflects market value. The taxpayer missed the May 15 protest deadline, however.

Fortunately, there is an additional, backstop remedy. Property owners may file a motion to correct the appraisal roll, provided that the assessor's value exceeds the correct appraised value by more than one-third. For our hypothetical retail center, the correct appraised value would need to be less than $2.625 million for the motion to succeed.

The motion to correct the appraisal roll can be filed through the date that the property taxes are due, which in this scenario would be Jan. 31, 2020. Like other protests, the review board's ruling on a motion to correct the appraisal roll may be appealed to district court.

Taxpayers should pay attention to the details of protest procedures and deadlines or hire the right team with the expertise and experience to do so. Otherwise, the owner may get burdened with an excessive appraisal due to missed deadlines or mismanaged internal procedures. Protecting appeal rights is essential to properly managing property tax expense.


Rachel Duck, CMI, is a senior property tax consultant at the Austin, Texas law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC and Kathy Mendoza is a legal assistant at the firm. Popp Hutcheson devotes its practice to the representation of taxpayers in property tax matters and is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • Learn best practices for meeting property tax deadlines and handling property tax appeals.
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Apr
18

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 is the best way to ensure the long-term profitability of investment properties, especially in a flat market. The largest continuing expense for most commercial properties is the property tax bill, and in a market with skyline-defining properties and headline-grabbing sales prices, tax assessors have multi-tenant office properties in the crosshairs.

Any reduction in tax burden can drastically improve an investment's profitability, competitiveness and tenant retention. As another assessment season begins across the Midwest, understanding tax assessors' common errors can equip property managers and owners with the tools necessary to review the accuracy and reasonableness of the assessments on their office properties and, when appropriate, challenge those assessments.

Know the relevant market

To an outsider, the office market can appear monolithic. To such people, rent, occupancy and other income characteristics of office properties are consistent throughout the market. But pulling data from the wrong market can lead assessors to an incorrect result.

For example, assessors may assume that Class A downtown office towers are the best-performing assets in the market, and value them accordingly. Contrary to this perception, though, Class A properties may not outperform all Class B or Class C properties, and downtown may not be the strongest office submarket in a certain metro area.

Nowhere is the distinction between office submarkets clearer than in the downtown-suburban divide. In many Midwestern markets, suburban office properties tend to be newer, have better occupancy, and in some cases, command higher rents than their downtown competition.

The factors influencing the relative performance of downtown and suburban office properties vary, but they include employees' desire to work closer to their homes, and comparatively low land prices, which allow office building construction with the larger floorplates many tenants prefer. Suburban office markets also typically are able to offer free parking, while paid parking — which is common in the central business district — increases occupancy costs for tenants and their employees. Downtown towers though may appeal to large law firms, accounting firms and banks seeking a prestigious address.

If an 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 failing to consider distinguishing factors in submarkets. Finding those distinctions can benefit owners on either side of the downtown-suburban divide.

Don't blindly trust sales

Assessors are often too reliant on sales data. Although some properties may be valued by considering sales prices for comparable properties, office properties do not neatly lend themselves to such an analysis. Applying the recent sales price of a downtown office tower to all other office towers in the downtown area may seem reasonable on its face, but fails to recognize how buyers and sellers interact in the office market.

For many real estate types, an assessor can identify comparable sales and adjust those transactions to reflect differences between the comparable and subject properties. Unlike owner-occupied buildings, investment properties that are otherwise similar are not easily adjusted for real estate-related factors. This is because market participants do not settle on sales prices based on attributes of the real property, but on attributes of the income stream.

Buyers of multi-tenant office buildings are motivated by the durability of the income stream, reflecting either potential for growth or existing leases with creditworthy, in-place tenants. Knowing a target's income characteristics, buyers apply their own capitalization rate thresholds and back into the sales price. But that price necessarily reflects the particular income stream being purchased, which may have limited applicability to another property. This approach is opposite to the way many assessors believe sales prices are set.

This is not to say that sales of comparable properties are entirely irrelevant in valuing an office property for tax purposes. For example, because capitalization rates reflect the behavior of investors in the market, sales of properties that are comparable as investments can inform the selection of a capitalization rate in a particular analysis. But if an assessor has used a recent sale as the sole basis to set the assessments of the competitive set, whether their assessments truly reflect the market is questionable.

When income isn't income

As income-generating assets, office properties are most commonly valued using the income approach. But even though office rents are not as attributable to personal or intangible property as is, for example, a hotel's income, the rents paid by office tenants are not entirely attributable to the real estate. Simply capitalizing a building's existing income stream mistakenly assumes it is.

The market for office properties in many areas is extremely competitive, and nearly all leases in some markets reflect tenant incentives like improvement allowances. Even long-standing tenants expect such incentives when their leases are up for renewal, and tenants are accustomed to using those allowances to refresh their space. Landlords, in turn, collect marginally higher rent that amortizes those costs over the lease period. But the impact of above-market allowances must be removed from the lease rate in determining the market level of rent. An assessor cannot say that a lease is $15 per square foot if the landlord paid the tenant $5 per square foot upfront.

Assessors also often misunderstand reimbursement income. Triple-net leases are uncommon in the office market; instead, landlords build an assumed level of expenses into their base rent and if the expense exceeds that base-level in future years, the tenant reimburses the landlord for the excess. Some assessors mistakenly view reimbursement income as additional profit. But, as the word "reimbursement" suggests, landlords only collect reimbursement income when, and to the extent, expenses exceed the base amount. Assessors should be reminded that reimbursement income is not a profit center.

As the office market continues its slow expansion, assessors are eager to capitalize on the most visible parts of the city skyline. But by grounding the assessor in the economic realities of the office market, diligent owners and property managers can reduce fixed expenses, lower tenant occupancy costs and ultimately improve profitability.

Benjamin Blair is a partner in the Indianapolis office of international law firm Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, the Indiana and Iowa member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys​.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • 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.
Continue reading
Mar
28

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 Big Retailers Seek to Cut Their Tax Bills, Towns Bear the Brunt." This and similar articles question the fairness of how retailers have reduced their tax bills by using sales of unoccupied stores as comparable transactions to establish the assessed value for an occupied store.

The local government has cried foul, and the article concentrates on the perceived end result―lost revenue for government coffers.

What is missing from the article is basic tax law, which holds that all taxpayers in a given class must be taxed uniformly. Thus, the series of bad decisions that led local government to overtax retailers made communities dependent on inflated revenue. The initial mistake many assessors made was to seize upon sales prices associated with leased retail stores without critically examining the transactions.

Investors, and taxpayers in general, 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.

FUNDAMENTALS OF FAIRNESS

Most state constitutions specify that taxes must be uniformly assessed, which requires assessors to follow the same rules for all taxpayers within a class. At the most simplistic level, the rules of the game must be consistently applied to all and not changed to affect the outcome.

To understand how equally applied rules achieve fair taxation of property, bear in mind this fundamental truth: The assessor's goal is to measure the value of real estate only. Taxing entities then use that value to determine the tax. A lack of well-thought-out rules and procedures created the problem of non-uniform assessment.

Many states don't even have a clear definition of what they are trying to measure. States use terms such as "true value" or "true market value" without any further defining language. For most people, fair value simply means what a home would sell for in an open-market transaction. But commercial real estate is not that simple and requires clear definitions applied uniformly to all taxpayers.

Commercial property values are influenced by many factors unrelated to real estate. Consider how, under various circumstances, the same property might sell for wildly different values: An owner-occupied property will sell based on what the market will pay for the building once it is vacant, either for the new owner to occupy or as an investment for the buyer to lease-out at market terms.

The same property, were it leased at an above-market rental rate or to a highly credit-worthy tenant, functions much like a bond and will sell based on a market capitalization rate and for a greater price than the owner-occupied property.

Finally, the same property leased with long-term, below-market lease terms or a less credit-worthy tenant might sell for less than the owner-occupied price or the above-market-leased example. In each scenario, the same property sells for different amounts. Without a clear set of guidelines, establishing value based on sales price would be inconsistent even for a single property, much less an entire class.

Of the three scenarios, the only method that can be replicated consistently and applied to owners of both leased and owner-occupied real estate alike is that of the owner-occupied property. Owner-occupied interest is the unencumbered, fee-simple interest, which makes it the measuring stick common to all taxpayers. All other interests are influenced by non-real-estate factors such as lease terms or business value.

MORE CONFUSION

Adding to the confusion is the ever-changing commercial real estate sector, where market data is full of sales that include non-real-estate influences. The single-tenant market, for example, has evolved from almost exclusively retailer occupancy to include specialty uses and even nursing homes and hospitals.

The assessment goal should be to measure the real estate value alone, ensuring that all taxpayers are taxed with the same measuring stick, but confusion comes in when the sales alone don't indicate real estate value. Leased sales indicate the value of the real estate along with the tenant's credit-worthiness, the life of the lease and a host of other factors that can include enterprise zones and outside influences.

The court cases that are clarifying the methodology and the measuring stick appear to reduce assessments, when they are actually correcting the assessments and requiring assessors to value the same interests for all taxpayers. Defining terms and ensuring rule uniformity protects all taxpayers. There is no foul to be called and the losses affecting some local governments are the result of their own mistakes.

The cure is simple, but the short-term pain for community coffers is significant. States must establish clear definitions and guidelines around property rights so that assessors can value all real estate without encumbrances. Local governments cannot rely on a single taxpayer subset to carry the tax burden.

J. Kieran Jennings is a partner in the law firm of Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Deck - Summary for use on blog & category landing pages

  • 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.
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