Property Tax Resources


Transfer Taxes Are Now a Costly Consideration in Real Estate Transactions

There was a time when closing a real estate sale cost the seller a few hundred dollars for transfer tax stamps on the transfer deed, but those days are long gone.  Nowadays, transfer tax can be a major consideration in structuring and funding a property transaction.  And the requirements for complying with, or being excluded from, transfer taxes have multiplied.

In some markets, transfer tax can exceed the property tax burden in the first few years after an acquisition.  For example, in San Francisco the transfer tax on property transactions valued at more than $10 million is 2.5 percent of the sales price.

Transfer tax scope widens

Historically, transfer taxes were only collected when the county recorder’s office recorded a deed.  If a transfer occurred through the acquisition of a legal entity that owned the property, and that entity continued to exist without requiring a transfer deed, then no transfer tax was owed.

Today, however, many real estate transactions occur through the buying or selling of ownership interests in legal entities which hold title to real property, and which continue to exist and hold property after the transaction has concluded.  Technically, there is an indirect change in ownership because the legal entity is now owned by a different entity or owner, even though the title for the real estate remains unchanged.

The proliferation of these indirect property transfers has spurred tax authorities to enact laws that assess transfer taxes on indirect sales.  The deed-recording process cannot capture indirect sales, so counties and cities now require buyers and/or sellers to report such transfers through other means.

The most common way of tracking indirect transfers is to align transfer tax reporting with the property tax system.  In California, for example, taxpayers must report legal entity transfers to the state Board of Equalization, which in turn reports the transfers to county assessors.  Counties and cities which collect transfer taxes on indirect sales can now access assessor databases to learn about indirect transfers in their jurisdictions.

Fewer exclusions, a patchwork of requirements

Most transfer tax laws contain numerous exclusions.  For example, if there is a mortgage against a property, the amount financed is excluded from the purchase price when calculating the transfer tax.  Similarly, transfers of property between entities which have the same ownership percentages are excluded from transfer taxes.  A third example is the exclusion from transfer tax for marital dissolutions.

In recent years, however, tax authorities have repealed some exclusions from transfer tax. Some jurisdictions have deleted the mortgage deduction.  Likewise, gifts and transfers upon death, and transfers to non-profit entities, which were once generally excluded, are now subject to transfer tax.

The declining number of exclusions restricts a market participant’s ability to structure transactions to be exempt from transfer tax.  That task has grown only more difficult as variations in tax rules have increased between jurisdictions at the local level.

The transfer tax has traditionally been and continues to be a local tax.  Consequently, individual counties and cities determine what elements to include or not include in their transfer tax ordinances.  Transfer taxes are an attractive way for local governments to raise revenue, particularly when other sources of tax income are limited.

In California, most counties and cities operate under the traditional transfer tax laws that the state Legislature established almost 50 years ago.  But more than a dozen counties and cities have modified the transfer tax law enacted by the Legislature.  The courts have approved such changes under the home rule doctrine, which allows communities to govern themselves with laws that don’t conflict with state or federal law.

These modifications have two primary goals: The first is to impose transfer tax on indirect transfers of real property caused by changes in the ownership of legal entities.  The second goal is to repeal the exclusions that existed in the original transfer tax laws.  In addition, the modifications have often added penalties for failure to pay transfer taxes.

California, like most states, has dozens of counties and hundreds of cities, which means that buyers and sellers of real property must familiarize themselves with the specific provisions in local transfer tax ordinances.

Transfer tax compliance used to be as simple as checking a box.  But high transfer tax rates, the prevalence of indirect property sales and rising property values have increased the significance and complexity of transfer taxes in property transactions.  Awareness of tax rates, available exclusions from the transfer tax and compliance and reporting requirements is essential to maximize property value and avoiding reporting pitfalls.


Cris ONeall

Cris K. O'Neall is a shareholder at the law firm Greenberg Traurig, LLP and focuses his practice on ad valorem property tax assessment counseling and litigation.  The firm is the California member of the American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.  He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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A Fair Share of Taxes

Frequent reassessments benefit Pittsburgh-area property owners.

Pittsburgh-area properties are being reassessed more frequently than in the past – and that is good news for property owners.  Periodic reassessment helps to keep property assessments current with actual values and ensure that everyone pays their fair share.

Unfortunately, frequent reassessments are not the norm throughout Pennsylvania.  Pittsburgh and surrounding counties are the exception, with Allegheny County (in which Pittsburgh is located) having four reassessments in the last 15 years.  Nearby Indiana County is undergoing a reassessment now for tax year 2016, its first since 1968, and neighboring Washington County is undergoing a reassessment for tax year 2017.

Pennsylvania lacks a mandatory revaluation cycle.  A revaluation or reassessment is a thorough analysis of every property in the entire county, with the objective of bringing each property’s assessment into line with its current market value.  Revaluations are often conducted by outside firms, usually with the assistance of the local assessment office.  Occasionally, in-house assessment offices conduct reassessments.

Without a mandate to reassess, some counties go decades without a reassessment.  Rural Franklin County, for example, last reassessed in 1961.   Assessors there attempt to keep properties equalized by placing newly constructed assets on the tax rolls for what they believe the properties would have been worth in 1961.

The more time that passes, however, the more tenuous this methodology becomes.  Further, assessors are prohibited from “spot assessing,” or changing assessments on existing properties without a countywide reassessment.  Thus, as different parts of the county appreciate at different rates, the equality of assessment becomes more and more skewed.

Blair County, west of Pittsburgh, decided to undertake a reassessment for tax year 2017 after commissioning a study from the attorneys at Weiss Burkardt Kramer.  Comparing actual sales in the county to assessments, the study concluded that Blair County’s more than 50-year-old assessments do not meet the constitutional uniformity requirement.

Says attorney M.  Janet Burkardt, a partner at Weiss Burkardt Kramer: “If assessment systems are not periodically adjusted, they become regressive so that properties appreciating at a higher rate are taxed at less than their fair share, and properties appreciating at a lesser rate or those who have depreciated in value, pay more than their fair share in taxes.”

Because properties that benefit from unfairly low assessments rarely appeal those values, inequities become locked in over time.  For instance, in one county where revaluation had not occurred in decades, major office buildings were, on the whole, dramatically under-assessed.

Some under-assessed buildings paid such low taxes that they enjoyed a competitive advantage in attracting tenants.  A neighboring office building, despite paying dramatically higher taxes than its competition, had no recourse to appeal because it was also under-assessed and could not meet the test that its market value was too high.  The solution? A county-wide reassessment.

The longer a county goes between reassessments, the harder the next reassessment becomes.  First, big increases in assessments spark taxpayer outrage, tempting county leaders to push the problem off to another day.

Infrequent reassessments are also more time-consuming and expensive; reassessments in Pennsylvania usually stem from litigation, which is expensive and inefficient.  Less frequently, county leaders prompt the reassessment, as Indiana County did when it had reached the statutory cap on its tax rate.

In marked contrast, Erie County, to Pittsburgh’s north, was the first county to impose a reassessment cycle on itself.  “Our goal in reassessing is to gain uniformity and accuracy,” said Scott Maas, Erie County’s chief assessor.  “We meet with property owners informally and we welcome the opportunity to update our data and make corrections.  We want to get it right.” Maas initiated the county’s periodic reassessment cycle and oversaw the 2003 and 2013 reassessments.

Pittsburgh’s record four reassessments in 15 years followed years-long litigation in two different cases that went all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.  Ultimately, the Supreme Court ordered the reassessment.  Pittsburgh’s reassessment in 2013 sparked 100,000 appeals; for 2015, only a few thousand taxpayers appealed, demonstrating that most properties’ assessments have been resolved to the property owners’ satisfaction.  If Pittsburgh were to continue to reassess in the next three to five years, building on this fresh data and satisfactory values, the likelihood is that there would be minimal appeals year-to-year.

Frequent reassessments benefit property owners.  When the appeals process corrects errors, the data under under-lying the assessments improves and yields more accurate values in the next reassessment.  Pennsylvania law requires that reassessments be revenue-neutral, meaning that rather than local governments enjoying a windfall when assessed values increase, governments must reduce tax rates, so many property owners see a reduction in taxes when reassessments occur.

Most importantly, reassessment yields more uniform assessments.  Uniformity of assessment is required by Pennsylvania’s constitution.  When assessments are uniform, everyone pays their fair share.  Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court spoke to this in 1909: “While every tax is a burden, it is more cheerfully borne when the citizen feels that he is only required to bear his proportionate share...”

sdipaolo150Sharon DiPaolo is a partner in the law firm of Siegel Jennings Co., L.P.A., the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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Shrinking Retail Footprint Complicates Taxes

With other major retailers making similar announcements in 2015, this market shift will likely affect property owners and their property values for years to come.

As brick-and-mortar store operators respond to competition from online retailers, shopping center owners face a mounting risk of unfair taxation when assessors fail to account for retailers’ changing preferences for space.

In markets across the nation, select big box and junior big box retail tenants are changing their existing store concepts and shrinking the building footprints of retail shopping center and standalone locations.

Businesses that were once considered strong anchor or junior anchor tenants are even restructuring their business models, renegotiating leases for smaller spaces and closing stores that no longer meet viable internal metrics.

JC Penney, Barnes & Noble and Sears have all announced nationwide store closings in 2015, and the merger of Office Depot and Office Max has fueled additional store closings this year.

With other major retailers making similar announcements in 2015, this market shift will likely affect property owners and their property values for years to come.

Changes Threaten Values

Retailers’ new criteria for inline and freestanding stores will almost certainly present a property tax challenge for big box and junior big box space, as store closures and footprint reductions affect demand, market vacancy and lease rates in the sector.

Often, assessors will focus too much on the tenant and what the lease states, instead of remembering that the ultimate goal is to properly value the building and land as of the date of value.

When working with assessors, it is important to consider that calculations involving existing tenants constitute a leased fee analysis, which is inappropriate for calculating value for property taxes.

On a fee simple basis, which looks at the property and its market position, this type of space may have an entirely different market value.

With that in mind, it is important to know what the space would lease for if available for lease in an open market as of the date of value.

Another important factor to consider is what the property would sell for in an open market transaction on a fee simple basis. In reviewing the assessor’s calculations, consider whether any referenced sales of other properties reflect leased fee or fee simple pricing.

Blending leased fee and fee simple sales without a proper analysis can yield conflicting data points, compromising the integrity of subsequent conclusions.

These oversights often result in in-correct market value assumptions and metrics, and lead to artificially inflated property tax values.

Interest Shrinks for Big Boxes

Some tenants have reduced their store footprints by more than 20 percent over the past few years.  In part, this adjustment maximizes inventory turnover and sales per square foot.

When looking for new space, certain retailers have also set strict size limits with leasing brokers, and some stores that were once considered anchors are moving into inline retail space.

This type of size restriction can significantly impair a retail property’s overall market rent potential if an owner already has a vacant big box or junior box space. These factors are important metrics to consider when surveying rent to arrive at an appropriate market rental rate conclusion.

One way property owners are dealing with unmarketable big boxes is by subdividing the space into smaller suites that better accommodate the growing demand for small retail footprints.

This conversion can be costly, and if relevant, it is important to discuss the conversion costs with the assessor as of the date of value for the property.

It is also important to consider a proper lease up analysis if the property has substantial vacancy. With store closings triggering an increase in the available retail supply and online shopping continuing to gain market share, a lease up analysis that captures these factors is essential.

An additional issue to consider with the conversion into smaller suites is the depth of the original box and the potential for what some brokers term “bowling alley” space.

Often when the subdivision of big box or junior big box space is complete, new tenants will refuse to lease the excess depth the suite may provide.

In this instance owners are sometimes left with non-leasable space in the rear portion of the original building.

When this happens, it is important to consider excluding this space from the net rentable area of the analysis since the configuration often makes this space impossible to lease.

If subdivision is not an option, be realistic about the future lease up prospects for this type of space and use an appropriate, stabilized vacancy rate in addition to a proper lease up analysis.

Even after observing the points mentioned here, be sure to consider the particular characteristics of the local market before reaching any value conclusions.

As business models for big box and junior box retailers evolve, so must the assessor’s approach to valuation. Only after considering all of these factors can the assessor determine a proper market value to the fee simple estate.


kirk garza activeKirk Garza is part of the Member Appraisal Institute and a licensed Texas Property Tax Consultant with the Texas law firm of Popp Hutcheson PLLC, which focuses its practice on property tax disputes and is the Texas member of the American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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Big-Box Valuation Fight Jeopardizes Retail Property Profitability

Assessors' incorrect use of the data inflates property taxes.

Tax assessors across the country are drawing battle lines to pit new valuation theories against accepted appraisal methodologies.

This fierce ideological assault threatens the sustainability of retail businesses weighed down by ever-increasing property taxes.

Retail landlords who desire to have their real estate valued on a fee simple basis routinely face assessors who claim that these owners want their property valued as a “dark store.” This prickly issue originally focused on how to value big-box stores for property tax purposes, but its scope has widened to affect a range of retail property types.

Dispute’s Roots Run Deep

Woolworth’s opened the first big-box store in 1962, the same year that McDonald’s introduced the golden arches and ushered in the concept of branding stores with identical interiors and exteriors.

Over the following decades, Walmart, Kmart, Target and other retailers married the big-box format with McDonald’s-style branding. Replicating the same store in many locations increased consumers’ brand recognition and reduced the owner’s cost to develop, stock open and operate new locations.

Much of today’s controversy over assessments stems from alternative financing methods that caught on with these major retailers. The two most common strategies are build-to-suit and sale-leaseback arrangements, both of which generate rent payments that exceed market rates.

A build-to-suit is a financial arrangement where the tenant’s rent is a repayment of the developer’s cost to acquire the land and build a tenant specific building. These transactions can include a variety of other non-real estate costs, such as financed inventory, personal property and/or cashback incentives.

A retailer uses sale-leaseback transactions to free up capital by selling its building and then renting it back under a long-term lease. The rent is purely a function of the amount of capital to be financed and the number of years to pay it back.

In either scenario, a landlord with one of these above-market leases in place to a high-credit tenant will often sell the lease and property to an investor. The resulting sales price is a function of the length of the lease in place and the strength of the tenant, and has nothing to do with the real estate’s fair market value. In other words, the value is no longer what the real estate is worth, but what the investor would pay to receive the income from that user.

Bad Data Proliferates

Property valuations for tax purposes are not done as single-property appraisals. In single-property appraisals, the appraiser uses data specific to a property to develop an opinion of its value. Tax assessors, on the other hand, use mass appraisals. The latter method values a universe of properties using common data.

The problem arises when non-market data taints the assessor’s common data. For instance, if the above-market rents from build-to-suits are included in the common data, the assessor will overstate the market rental rate and subsequently overstate property value under the income approach.

Concurrently, when common data includes investor acquisitions of properties with leases in place under these alternative financing methods, the sales comparison approach to value suffers from the same flawed methodology as the income approach.

The problem doesn’t stop there, as the defective data spills over into depreciation calculations used in the cost approach to valuation, and in developing capitalization rate percentages. Using bad common data will taint every commonly used valuation method and lead to an overvaluation.

Implications Outside the Box

This issue is worth watching for shopping center owners, investors and developers for two reasons. First, big-box tenants traditionally are high-credit national retailers committed to a financing-based lease on an absolute net basis. That makes them a valuable addition to a shopping center as a draw for customers, and to the investor as a guaranteed income stream.

The second reason to closely follow the assessment issue is often overlooked, but has more serious implications. What began as an anomaly in the method assessors used to value and tax big-box stores is now spreading to all retail. Assessors increasingly use incorrect, inflated, non-market data to value anchor stores, discount and department stores and strip centers, overstating valuations for tax purposes.

Most states require assessors to value commercial real estate uniformly and equally. That means that two identical buildings should have the same value.

The taxable value should not be higher if one is leased to a high-credit tenant and the other to an independent local retailer. The value of the business may be greater for one over the other, but the value of the real estate must be the same.

Uniformity and equality dissolve when real estate values fluctuate based on nothing more than the identity of the tenant. And uniformity and equality can exist only when assessors value bricks and mortar alone. That is not valuing a dark store; that is valuing the fee simple.

Linda Terrill is a partner in the Leawood, Kansas law firm of Property Tax Law Group, the Kansas and Nebraska member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Six Ways to Reduce Student Housing Property Taxes

Advice on one of the biggest hurdles in acquiring -- and owning -- off-campus student housing properties.

Property taxes can have a huge impact on a student housing project's bottom line, and that expense is growing as assessors across the country aggressively increase valuations. Student housing owners should ask themselves the following questions as a part of any effort to combat excessive valuations.

1. Is My Property Data Correct?

Assessors' records commonly contain errors regarding a property's age, square footage, leasable area, number of units, number of beds, unit mix and amenities. An error can significantly increase a property's assessment.

Providing a current rent roll to the assessor can correct many of the above-referenced mistakes. Consider providing a property site plan and marketing materials that show the project's floor plans and amenities. Correcting basic errors in the assessor's records remains the simplest path to a lower tax assessment.

2. When Will My Property Be Re-Appraised?

Assessment schedules vary from state to state and sometimes county to county. Many jurisdictions appraise commercial property annually, while some opt for every three to five years. A handful of jurisdictions reevaluate a property's assessment only when the asset sells. Student housing owners should learn their jurisdictions' appraisal rules, since this can factor into a property tax appeal.

3. How Did The Assessor Arrive At My Valuation?

Assessors commonly derive market value using one or more of the three classic approaches: cost, income, or sales comparison. Cost is arguably the least reliable approach if the property is more than a few
years old, especially given the difficulties of estimating depreciation and obsolescence for older properties. In valuing student housing, an assessor will most likely rely on an income and/or sales comparison approach. Taxpayers have reduced assessments by disputing how the assessor applied a valuation methodology to a specific property.

4. How Did The Assessor Apply The Income Approach To Valuation?

In an income approach, assessors typically use market rent, vacancy and expense factors to arrive at an annual net operating income figure and then apply a market capitalization rate to calculate value. Often, the market factors used in the assessor's income approach reflect data taken from properties that are incomparable to the property being assessed.

The most common mistake assessors make when using the income approach for student housing is applying conventional apartment data in their analysis. Student housing owners should explain the differences between these two property types, especially when discussing values per square foot used in conventional apartments versus values per unit or bed in student housing. Also, owners should emphasize seasonal occupancy fluctuation differences between a student housing property, which often experiences low summer occupancy, and a conventional apartment project, in addition to the influence of on-campus housing supply on the performance of an oft-campus student housing project.

Even if an assessor is using student housing market factors in a valuation analysis, the owner should challenge the market factors with data taken directly from the property's current and previous year's operating statements, if such data is in the property owner's favor. Specific income and expense items can show trends in rental rates, occupancy and expenses that differ from the market
trends alleged by the assessor.

5. How Did The Assessor Apply The Sales Comparison Approach To Valuation?

Aggressive assessment increases often stem from an assessor's reliance on the recent sales prices of other student housing properties. A property owner can usually discredit so-called "comparable" sales by outlining the physical and economic differences between the properties sold and the assessed property.

Specifically, the owner can point out to the assessor that the factors influencing a buyer's decision to purchase a property cannot be known unless the assessor was a party to the transaction. For example, a purchaser may have obtained below-market-rate financing, or might have been motivated by time constraints or income tax consequences. Make sure that the assessor understands the meaning of comparability.

Many student housing owners worry that a recent purchase price will increase their property's assessment. Owners should consider a tax appeal even if the recent purchase price of their complex was higher than the taxable value of the property, however. Buyers analyze factors extending beyond real estate in determining what they can pay for properties. As a result, a purchase price should provide no more than a touchstone for an assessor.

Taxpayers arguing against the assessor's use of a purchase price as a value basis should outline for the assessor the considerations that affected the price, such as special financing. Also explain how the actual performance of the property differs from projections made at the time of purchase. A purchase price may lead to a higher assessment, but student housing owners can mitigate the increase through a discussion with the assessor.

6. Did The Assessor Consider Equality And Uniformity?

Most taxing jurisdictions require equal and uniform assessments among comparable properties. An equal and uniform argument is separate from a discussion about a property's market value. Assessors often value student housing projects without considering the assessment of like properties, which presents an additional opportunity to argue for a reduced assessment.

The assessment of a student housing property should fall within a uniform range of values for comparable properties. Student housing owners should compare their property's assessments to comparable properties on a per-unit or per-bed basis. Assessors often compare by square footage, which is inappropriate for student housing.

Another unit of comparison for student housing owners is to analyze the gross rent multiplier ratio between comparable properties. If an owner's property is assessed disproportionately higher than the comparable properties on an appropriate unit of comparison, the taxpayer can argue for a value reduction based on equality and uniformity, regardless of the assessor's market value claims.

Owners of student housing should consistently monitor their property tax assessments.

Asking the appropriate questions can lead to effective strategies to reduce taxable values.

Gilbert Davila is a partner in the Austin law firm of Popp Hutcheson PLLC, which focuses its practice on property tax disputes and is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Mr. Davila can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Undermining A Public Purpose

"Economic development tools are under assult in Louisiana by tax assessors"

Louisiana tax assessors have begun assessing taxes on properties that have been exempt from property tax under economic development incentive programs, undermining one of the state's essential tools for promoting job growth and commerce.

Louisiana offers a handful of enticements to attract new business and spur economic development, including the industrial property tax exemption, inventory tax credits, payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) and cooperative endeavor agreements (CEAs) with private companies. Each of these incentives involves reducing a private entity's property tax liability.

Article 7, Section 14 of the Louisiana Constitution authorizes the state and its political subdivisions to enter into cooperative endeavor agreements that serve a public purpose, and Section 21 of the same article provides that public lands and other public property used for public purposes are exempt from property tax. The Louisiana Supreme Court has also recognized that economic development is a public purpose.

Under a typical cooperative endeavor agreement, a political subdivision leases industrial property to a private entity for development and operation. Since a political subdivision owns the property, it is exempt from property taxes. Unfortunately, some assessing authorities have decided otherwise, and have attempted to collect property tax in connection with these assets.

In Pine Prairie Energy Center LLC vs. Soileau, in 2014, a local industrial development board issued bonds and loaned the proceeds to privately held Pine Prairie to build an underground natural gas storage facility and associated facilities and pipelines. Prior to entering into the transactions, the industrial development board, Pine Prairie, and even the local tax assessor all agreed that, as long as Pine Prairie paid the agreed-upon lease payments and payments in lieu of taxes, the property would be exempt from property taxes during the lease period.

Pine Prairie built the facility, sold it to the industrial development board and then leased the property back for operations. The assessor subsequently listed the property on the tax rolls as Pine Prairie's property. Pine Prairie paid the taxes under protest and sued for a refw1d and declaratory judgment that it did not owe property taxes on an asset owned by the industrial development board.

The assessor contended that the property was not being used for a public purpose. The Third Circuit Court of Appeal noted that actual public use was not the criteria by which public purpose was determined. Rather, public use is synonymous with public benefit, public utility or public advantage, and involves using the natural resources and advantages of a locality to extract their full development in view of the general welfare.

Considering that Pine Prairie's investment resulted in approximately $700 million in local economic value, the court held that the project was beneficial to the public and thus the property was indeed being used for a public purpose.

In Board of Commissioner of Port of New Orleans vs. City of New Orleans, the Port of New Orleans leased property to two private entities that provide warehousing, freight forwarding and intermodal transportation services at the port. As i n Pine Prairie, the assessor assessed property taxes on the private companies that leased the properties, not on the public entity that owned them. When the companies failed to pay the taxes, the assessor attempted to sell the leased properties at a public tax sale.

The assessor argued that, because the activities of the private companies did not qualify as a public purpose as they did not constitute a governmental function, a benefit to the general public or a dedication for use by the general public, the property was not being used for a public purpose. The port authority demonstrated that the companies' activities were necessary for the operation of a port facility and that they furthered its broad public mission to maintain, develop and promote commerce and traffic at the port. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal punted on the question in 2014, and ordered a hearing on whether the specific activities conducted by the companies served a public purpose. That case is ongoing.

Cases like these obviously erode business confidence in the reliability of tax incentives. Although Pine Prairie won its case, it had to pay some $122,000 in taxes under protest and then sue to recover its funds. And the Port of New Orleans had its property seized and offered at tax sale, and now has to prove up that traditional port activities like warehousing, freight forwarding and intermodal transportation services, which have always been necessary to the operation of a port facility, serve a public purpose. This kind of uncertainty is devastating to economic development efforts.

Adolph Angela

Angela Adolph is a partner in the law firm of Kean Miller LLP, the Louisiana member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Overstating the Case

To Save on Property Taxes, Beware of Inaccurate Valuations

Every year, the dreaded property tax envelope hits the desk of tax managers and property owners. Despite the anxiety that accompanies this event, surprisingly few taxpayers take reasonable steps to learn whether or not their tax documents may be overstating their liability. Many property owners simply pop an antacid and write a check to cover the bill.

Property taxes are a necessary evil be-cause in most jurisdictions, they are the primary source of revenue for funding schools, social services and other government functions. That said, of course, property taxes are also a major cost item. Approaching an assessment with a healthy dose of skepticism and an eye for common errors is a good way for owners to ensure that they are paying only their fair share of the tax burden.

Assessing property for taxation starts with determining real market value. The leased fee value of the property, or the going-concern value of a business, are inappropriate criteria for assessment and should raise red flags when they appear in a property tax review.

In a review, evaluate the origins of the property assessment to determine whether the assessed amount reflects the property's real market value. For example, if state law provides that a sale or other transfer resets real market value for tax purposes, the reviewer needs to evaluate the entire transaction.

The purchase price of a fully leased commercial building will typically reflect the value of a leased fee. The sale can reflect a higher value than it would if the property were vacant because the purchaser is achieving an immediate return on investment from in-place rents. If an asset's sale price is recorded as its taxable value, without an evaluation of market rents and lease-up costs to determine real market value, the owner will be overpaying taxes.

Similarly, the purchase of real estate within a business transaction may include compensation for goodwill, an in-place work force, management and other intangible assets that are not taxable in most jurisdictions. In order to properly reflect the value of the real property, the assessor must exclude these intangibles from the sale price, as only tangible real property is taxable.

In a complex, multi-property transaction, the buyer's appraiser typically conducts a mass appraisal of the portfolio rather than analyzing each asset in depth. However, this practice may overlook issues that affect the value of individual properties.

An allocation appraisal of that nature may overvalue a property that is encumbered by governmental restrictions which limit its development potential. Likewise, a property that carries significant environmental liability can be overvalued, resulting in a tax assessment that exceeds the asset's real market value. Drilling down to the level of the individual asset prior to reporting the sale value to the assessor may help cut the tax bill significantly.

Another overlooked source of savings hinges on recognizing that construction costs do not necessarily equate with a property's real market value. Assessors like to use the cost approach to set real market value, because it is simple and relies on the property owner's documentation of costs. But what about added costs that don't affect value?

Suppose, for instance, that the design of a manufacturing facility calls for a stairway in a certain place, but because local regulations require the stairway to be farther from manufacturing activity, an inspector directs the builder to move it. The change adds $200,000 to the project's cost without adding to the facility's real market value.

Another kind of overstatement often results when an owner builds an addition. Temporary walls, electrical infrastructure and extra labor may be required in order for the occupant to keep functioning normally. These items increase the owner's out-of-pocket costs without adding to the property's real market value. Keeping track of such costs can result in significant tax savings.

Awareness of these often overlooked pitfalls offers opportunities to trim the annual property tax bill. So between the time the bill comes in and the payment goes out, it is crucial to evaluate the bases for real market value. That will go a long way toward determining whether the assessment–and the dill–are correct.

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

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Texas Legislature Retains Equal and Uniform Property Tax Remedy

Tax relief was a hot topic from the very beginning of the session, with lawmakers submitting bills in both the House and the Senate proposing property tax, sales tax and franchise tax relief.

The 84th Texas legislative session followed a pre-session spectacle that seemed to promise heated debates over property tax issues, but ended with no casualties or otherwise drastic changes to the state’s property tax remedies and system.

Legislators submitted some 332 property tax bills. Among those were several bills addressing grumblings raised in the news media as to the equal-and-uniform remedy, unique to Texas and instrumental in granting its taxpayers property tax relief. The remedy holds that a property’s appraised value must be equal to or less than the median appraised value of a reasonable number of comparable properties appropriately adjusted.

In the end, the legislature passed about 65 bills, granting tax relief to property owners, making tweaks to the property tax system and leaving the equal-and-uniform remedy intact.

Tax relief was a hot topic from the very beginning of the session, with lawmakers submitting bills in both the House and the Senate proposing property tax, sales tax and franchise tax relief. Eventually, the legislature increased the homestead exemption for school district property taxes from $15,000 to $25,000, effective for the 2015 tax year. In addition, the legislature reduced franchise taxes by 25 percent.

In another effort to grant property tax relief, the law will now require a taxing entity to achieve a 60 percent majority vote, rather than a simple majority, to adopt a property tax rate that exceeds the effective tax rate. The effective rate is the tax rate that would achieve the same amount of revenue as the previous year’s taxes. Additionally, the interest rate taxing entities must pay on refunds resulting from the final determination of a taxpayer’s property value increased to 9.5 percent until the refund is made.

As expected, the equal-and-uniform tax relief provision garnered considerable discussion. In recent years, countless articles and interviews criticizing commercial property owner’s “abuse” of the equal-and-uniform remedy circulated in the industry. Although the Constitution guarantees equal and uniform taxation, opponents alleged the remedy had shifted the property tax burden from commercial property owners to homeowners.

On the reverse side, commercial property owners advocated fair and equitable treatment in a district’s valuation of their property, and wanted a right to pursue their equal and uniform remedy through litigation, just like homeowners do.

The equal-and-uniform remedy for commercial property owners was at risk going into the session, and a few lawmakers introduced a handful of bills that would have substantially limited or completely eliminated the remedy for commercial property owners. Those bills failed to gain momentum, however, and none passed out of committee.

Instead, to address both appraisal district and taxpayer concerns over the perceived misuse and the general preservation of the equal and uniform remedy, lawmakers eventually passed a compromise bill. House Bill 2083 amending the tax code provides that any equal-and-uniform analysis must be based on the application of generally accepted appraisal methods and techniques.

At the same time, it recognizes a property owner’s right to give an opinion as to the value of his own property. While increasing the standard under which an equity analysis must be prepared and reviewed, the new law leaves the equal-and-uniform remedy in place for all taxpayers.

Several other measures adopted during the legislative session seek to secure taxpayer access to relief. The legislature expanded the availability of arbitration as an alternate means to appeal property values, for example.

Now, commercial property owners with a property appraised at $3 million or less may appeal directly through binding arbitration instead of having to file an appeal in district court. This replaces the previous $1 million threshold, making the remedy available to more commercial property owners.

Another new law aims to facilitate the process for lawsuit settlement by requiring parties to attend settlement conferences before incurring unnecessary expenses. And lawmakers passed other laws directed at addressing taxpayer concerns over exemptions, applications and other procedures.

A legislative session is sometimes more notable for the measures that failed to pass. At least one failed bill proposed to allow appraisal districts to recover their attorneys’ fees should they prevail in district court, as taxpayers are currently allowed. Another would have provided for a 5 percent appraisal cap on all property, disregarding studies suggesting that caps are ineffective tax relief measures that run contrary to equal-and-uniform taxation. Neither these nor some of the more curious bills received much attention.

Ultimately, despite warnings of the looming collapse of the equal-and-uniform remedy, the bills that passed were uncontroversial. The equal-and-uniform remedy for commercial property owners remains secure, and other passed amendments will generally benefit property owners.

MelissaRamirez150Melissa Ramirez is a principal with the Austin law firm of Popp Hutcheson P.L.L.C., which focuses its practice on property tax disputes and is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Ms. Ramierz can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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How Assessors Incorrectly Classify Property to Overstate Values

Where the value of commercial properties has failed to keep pace with local governments’ revenue needs, real estate assessors have pursued unconventional arguments and valuation methods to protect and grow the property tax base. Among those arguments and methods, assessors increasingly contend that manufacturing and other commercial properties are “special-purpose properties,” and therefore the property tax assessments on these assets should exceed the value that would result from the use of traditional market data.

While special-purpose properties certainly exist, these assessors’ arguments typically fail in three ways. First, they erroneously confuse limited-market property with special-purpose property. Second, they refuse to consider available market evidence that, even if imperfect, provides information about the value of the property. Third, even when a property is a special-purpose property, assessors often value the wrong interest, valuing more than the fee simple real estate, for example.

Wrong definition, incorrect assessments

The Dictionary of Real Estate Appraisal defines special-purpose property as "[a] limited-market property with a unique physical design, special construction materials, or a layout that restricts its utility to the use for which it was built; also called special-design property.” Thus, special-purpose property is both a limited-market property and a property having a unique physical design, special construction materials or a layout that restricts it to the use for which it was built. By definition, special-purpose properties are a subset of limited-market properties; they are not synonymous.


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A subset, not the same set

In general, special-purpose properties are a subset of limited-market properties, which are a small subset of commercial properties.

Appraisers often identify certain categories of property as special purpose, such as churches, schools, railroad stations and sports arenas. But such properties, in addition to being limited-market properties, also reflect specific evidence of unique physical design, highly restricted use and/or special construction materials.

The facts of a New Jersey case illuminate the difference between properties with special features and special-purpose properties. In Ford Motor Co. vs. Township of Edison, the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1992 concluded that an automotive manufacturing plant was a general-purpose property, even though it was constructed with heavy steel framing, paint booths, baking ovens, massive boilers, terrazzo amenities, and electrical, steam and plumbing infrastructure that exceeded normal industrial requirements. Although the property was a limited-market property, the court noted that “[a] property does not qualify as special-purpose where it possesses certain features which, while rendering the property suitable to the owner’s use, are not truly unique.”

Importantly, whether a property is special-purpose is a fact-specific inquiry, and courts rightly reject attempts to classify properties as special-purpose in the absence of evidence that the property is special-purpose. Other cases reinforcing this concept include a 2015 decision in Certain Teed Corp. vs. County of Scott, in which a Minnesota tax court rejected the contention that a shingle factory was a special-purpose property; and TD Bank vs. City of Hackensack, a 2015 case in which a New Jersey tax court rejected an argument that a bank branch is a special-purpose property.

Refusal to consider market data may lead to higher assessments

Assessors typically argue that special-purpose properties may only be valued using the cost approach; that market comparable sales may not be used to value special-purpose property, and/or that the value of the special-purpose property is so intimately tied to the property’s owner or user that the assessor must use income from business operations (as opposed to rents) to value the property.

These arguments share a flawed premise that, due to the property’s unique nature, there is simply no market data available to value the property. These arguments often fail because they conflict with real world evidence.

For example, while it may be true in a given case that there are few or no comparable market transactions for a special-purpose property, this is not an appraisal rule or point of law. That is why the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2007 reversed the decision of a tax court that had refused to consider available sales data based on the classification of the property as special-purpose. In that case, Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Coop vs. County of Renville, the Court acknowledged that if market transactions exist and shed light on the value of a special-purpose property, it should be considered even if adjustments must be made to account for differences between the comps and the subject property.

Just as it is wrong to refuse categorically to consider market transactions when valuing special-purpose property, it is inappropriate to consider taxpayer-specific income data reflecting more than the value of the real property. For example, special-purpose manufacturing properties are seldom rented in the market. Attempting to value the real estate based on non-rental income from the manufacturing operations would produce a highly misleading estimate of value, since such income is derived from non-real estate elements such as intangibles and personal property. Examples of intangibles include an in-place work force, intellectual property and goodwill; personal property includes items such as manufacturing machinery and equipment.

Given the tenuous link between manufacturing income or business income and the value of a special-purpose property in which the manufacturing occurs, taxpayers can—and should—object to the assessor’s use of such income information to value the real property, even if it is a special purpose property.

When assessors increase assessments or defend excessive assessments by claiming that the property is special-purpose, taxpayers should request the evidence on which the classification and the valuation are based. In many cases, taxpayers will find that such assessments lack support, conflict with generally accepted appraisal practices, and should be appealed.

Suess David photo

David Suess is a Partner in the Indianapolis law firm of Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, the Indiana member of the American Property Tax Counsel. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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A (Tax) Tale of Two Campuses

With apologies to Charles Dickens, a tale of two corporate office campuses underscores the fickle nature of real estate fads and the difficulty property owners face in convincing tax tribunals that standard valuation matrices may not apply in properly assessing these large, suburban properties.

Aetna’s challenge

Aetna Life Insurance Co. developed more than 1.6 million sq. ft. of corporate and computer center space together with parking garages in the early 1980s in a rural area of Middletown, Conn., spending almost $170 million in the process. In 1995, the property owner challenged the city’s $250 million market valuation.

Aetna held that the property’s highest and best use was as a multi-tenant office project, rather than as a corporate headquarters designed for its exclusive use. This argument seemed reasonable because, among other matters, the developer had built the property with large atria and excessive common areas, together with a number of special amenities such as cafeterias and recreational space which a typical office building would not contain. These amenities obviously drove up the assessor’s value, but mattered little in the market place.


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The city contended that since the property was used as a corporate headquarters, its highest and best use was its continued use for that purpose, and that regardless of its inefficient features and super adequacies, it was typical of headquarters structures. In that sense, the highest and best user, not use, determined
market value.

Key to the owner’s argument in the tax appeal was that the reproduction cost was legally suspect because it was highly unlikely that anyone would reproduce such a quirky, outmoded structure as the 20th century ended. The owner argued that the situation called for a replacement cost approach that would eliminate the inefficiencies and super adequacies of the property.

Although a Connecticut appellate court upheld the trial court’s reliance on the reproduction cost approach, when Aetna’s occupancy concluded in 2010 and the property owner was unable to find another headquarters corporate occupant, it demolished the building—albeit too late to affect the valuation case.

Union Carbide’s conundrum

Union Carbide Corp. moved to Danbury, Conn. from New York City in 1985. It selected a beautifully wooded location close to the New York border to construct an idiosyncratic, multi-level property that floated above the site in so dramatic a fashion that many of its occupants referred to the building as “Battlestar Galactica.” Faced with excessive operating costs and a declining need for such a large area under one roof, Union Carbide reduced its occupancy, but was unable to find many subtenants.

The development’s unusual qualities and its practical insufficiencies prompted a property tax appeal. The company argued, as had Aetna, that whatever the construction cost might have been, the assessor should base its campus’ market value on replacement cost and/or income analysis. The resulting value, the company maintained, was far less than the one the City of Danbury’s assessor had produced.

Here again, the court was unsympathetic, given the huge amount of money spent on development, a juicy sale-leaseback deal which had little relationship to market realities, and what was likely the prevailing view 20 years ago that cost equals value.

Value the use, not the user

A valuation that relies on a single corporate occupant or user assumes a sale to a similar occupant. That essentially converts the market-value-in-exchange analysis, which is legally required in most states, to a market-value-in-use construct.

In the second decade of the 21st century we know that these buildings are seldom re-used by single occupants. Demolishing a bad decision, as with Aetna’s Middletown campus, or subdividing the structure for multiple users as in the case of Union Carbide, is far more likely.

Reliance by local assessors on the single occupant, value-in-use theory ignores the much greater likelihood of multiple occupancy, with attendant significant renovation, subdivision and tenant improvement costs, as well as a considerable period of vacancy while the building is marketed for lease.

The Egyptian pharaohs coerced thousands of slaves to build their pyramids three millennia ago, creating the classic single-user structure in the process. While these potentates succeeded in creating their brand and in making a profound statement about their majesty and importance, both in life and in death, most corporate campus headquarters lack these qualities and must stand the test of economic utility.

That so many campuses failed is one of the dramatic real estate stories of the last 40 years or so. Owners faced with appealing the assessments of overvalued headquarters assets today should emphasize that whether or not value in use to the user was ever a valid yardstick, is utterly irrelevant today.

pollackElliott B. Pollack is a member and Valuation Department chairman in the law firm of Pullman & Compley LLC, the Connecticut member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  Melton Spivak, retired, was vice president of corporate property taxes for JPMorgan Chase & Co.

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