Property Tax Resources


Bay Area Real Estate Recovery Creates Property Tax Appeal Opportunities

The uneven recovery of the Bay Area real estate market over the past year has created opportunities for real estate owners to challenge their property tax assessments. Areas that have experienced the strongest growth, as well as markets in which the recovery is lagging, may be ripe for challenges to property tax assessments.

By Cris K. O'Neall, as published by National Real Estate Investor - Online, October 2012

Pregnant propositions

Under California's Proposition 13, property taxes are based on the purchase price paid for a property or on the cost of constructing the property. Thereafter, Proposition 13 caps value increases (and property tax increases) at 2 percent annually.When property values decline, Proposition 8, the bookend to Proposition 13, requires county assessors to reduce taxable property values below Proposition 13 value caps to reflect current market conditions. As real estate values recover following a downturn, assessors restore taxable values back to Proposition 13 levels.

Over the past year or so, core Bay Area markets (primarily San Francisco and the Silicon Valley) have experienced strong growth in market rents and declines in capitalization rates, particularly as compared to other Bay Area real estate markets. Because of the brisk recovery in core markets, county assessors have aggressively moved to restore 2012 values, determined as of Jan. 1, 2012, back to Proposition 13 levels. Such value restorations can bring major increases in assessments and taxes.


Assessors exercise value judgment

In order to restore property values to Proposition 13 levels, California requires county assessors to evaluate market sales and rental information. In so doing, assessors consider ranges of information on sales and rentals, and exercise their judgment as to whether values should fall in the top, middle or bottom of a range.
While assessors generally determine values for residential properties using computerized mass appraisal techniques, commercial properties tend to be more complex and require individual attention by assessor staff.

This year, the assessors in San Francisco and Santa Clara County have restored property values and assessments to levels at or near Proposition 13 amounts, which, in some cases, has dramatically increased tax bills as compared to 2011. In doing so, assessors may have justified assessments using more recent rental rates or cap rates, rather than using average rates during the 12 months prior to Jan. 1, which tends to accelerate value increases.

In 2012, most Bay Area counties announced increases in their property tax rolls.
The 2012 roll increases are due, at least in part, to increasing sales and leasing activity, which tend to be reflected in higher property tax values and assessments. However, these increases also reflect Proposition 13 value restorations described previously, and highlight those counties which merit increased consideration as far as whether to review and appeal property tax assessments.

Property tax appeal opportunities

The current situation presents several types of property tax appeal opportunities. First, for properties in San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, it is possible that assessors have been overly aggressive in restoring values to Proposition 13 levels. Taxpayers should request backup information supporting full or partial restoration of Proposition 13 levels and if the assumptions appear excessive, file an appeal.

This same advice goes for properties in secondary and tertiary markets, particularly where there have been Proposition 13 value restorations. Properties in these markets should also be reviewed, however, to determine whether they have participated in the economic recovery that San Francisco and the Silicon Valley have experienced. Economic recovery among Bay Area counties has been uneven, and hasn't benefited every city within a county consistently. In San Mateo County, for example, property values in Atherton have increased significantly, but values in East Palo Alto have continued to decline. Similarly, in Contra Costa County, values in five cities increased while in the county's remaining 14 cities values generally declined.

Finally, property owners should not assume that a "no change" assessment or that a lower assessment by the local assessor is correct. Values in some areas declined during 2011, which means that market values as of Jan. 1, 2012 may be lower than 2011 values, and should not reflect value increases that have occurred during the first nine months of 2012.

CONeall Cris K. O'Neall specializes in property and local tax matters as a partner in the law firm of Cahill, Davis & O'Neall LLP, the California member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Continue reading

Tax Trap in Dallas

"Just because a value may have decreased from a previous year assessment doesn't translate into a correct assessed value. Make sure that the property is being valued correctly with the appropriate approaches to value—income, cost and sales comparison..."

By John Murphy, as published by National Real Estate Investor - Online, September 2012

Since the beginning of the economic decline in 2008, property values have fluctuated in many Texas counties, including Dallas County. Now that the Dallas commercial real estate market is on the mend, commercial property owners must continue to monitor their property values and consider remedies available to appeal errant assessments.

Generally, the Dallas County real estate market has fared well over the past five years, having proven itself largely immune to the effects of the recession. In fact, the Dallas Central Appraisal District (DCAD) in July announced that overall property values increased this year for the first time since 2008, climbing by 1.4 percent. Commercial real estate drove the increase with a 4.6 percent gain that trumped a slight decline in residential values to boost the total tax roll.

Each July, DCAD produces an estimated value report which, after certification by the Dallas County Appraisal Review Board, is published as the Certified Estimated Value Report. This report summarizes tax roll estimates by property type, including commercial, business, personal and residential property. The report also provides a total value for all classes.

It is important to note that the appraisal district bases values on an effective date of Jan. 1 for each year, and that the certified estimated value is 100 percent of market value.

Popp Hutcheson conducted a market research study to determine changes in asking price per square foot for commercial properties in Dallas as of Jan. 1 for each year from 2008 through 2012. Please note, in the chart below, the research data represents an average of the three dominant commercial property types: office, industrial and retail.


Asking price per sq. ft. has fluctuated over the five years measured but does not correspond directly to the Dallas County Certified Estimated Values. Although the Dallas market did not suffer nearly as much as most counties in Texas and the U.S., it is clear that the market failed to adjust asking prices appropriately during and after the recession. This is especially true in 2009, when the average asking price increased despite market-wide value declines at the deepest point of the downturn. Arguably, DCAD tracked the recession more appropriately with decreases in Certified Estimated Values for each year.


What does this mean for the taxpayer?

The apparent disconnect between market value and asking prices in Dallas underscores the potential for overestimating taxable property values. While this is a macro-level view of certified values and asking prices, the point of all this is quite simple. The property owner must be diligent in tracking assessed value. Carefully review each notice of appraised value from the appraisal district and watch for any increases in assessments.

Just because a value may have decreased from a previous year assessment doesn't translate into a correct assessed value. Make sure that the property is being valued correctly with the appropriate approaches to value—income, cost and sales comparison. For example, an appraiser may value a 15-year-old, income-producing commercial property via the cost approach. That typically isn't the most appropriate method, because an assessor seldom appropriately captures all forms of depreciation (physical, functional and external) using the cost approach.


The income approach may be the most appropriate method for appeal purposes, and careful consideration should be taken in applying a true market rent, vacancy rate, collection loss, expense ratio and, of course, capitalization rate to arrive at an appropriate market value. Cost can be used as additional support, however, provided that all forms of depreciation are properly captured. The value indicated via these approaches should be very close, thus arriving at a reasonable concluded value.

Also make sure that the appraisal district has the correct building square footage, age, physical characteristics and land size on its record cards. DCAD, like most jurisdictions, has a difficult job tracking and making sure that each and every property is valued correctly. As with anything, mistakes happen and more often than a property owner may realize.

Additional remedies

Dallas taxpayers, as well as all Texas property owners, have a right to equal and uniform appraisals. Taxpayers need to seek professional help to determine whether their property is valued the same, from an equality and uniformity perspective, as competing properties in Dallas County.

DCAD's shrinking value estimates over the years do not ensure accurate assessments. Inappropriate valuation methods, clerical errors and unequal appraisals can all inflate taxable values, and it is extremely important to keep these risks in mind.

john-murphy-activeJohn Murphy is director of real estate assessments at the Austin, Texas-based law firm Popp Hutcheson which represents taxpayers in property tax disputes and is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Continue reading

What Revaluation Means for Chicago

"In Chicago specifically, the most telling statistic may be the lack of property sales. From an average of 50,000 to 55,000 Cook County sales per year in the boom years, sales in the last three years have not exceeded 5,500 per year..."

By James P. Regan, Esq., as published by National Real Estate Investor - Online, September 2012

Cook County, Ill. systematically revalues all properties for taxation every three years, and 2012 is the reassessment year for Chicago. The last revaluation took place in 2009, shortly after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the beginning of the Great Recession. The county has already sent reassessment notices to real estate owners in the northern sections of Chicago and will notify those in the rest of the city of the proposed assessed value of their properties over the next six months. The 2012 assessment will be used to determine each Chicagoan's real estate taxes through 2014.

Homeowners and business owners alike should pay close attention to this year's revaluation. Real estate has undergone a significant value loss since 2008, and that alone makes the 2012 revaluation a defining event for Chicago's property owners.

Assessment officials strive to make the process as transparent as possible, and the notices contain a wealth of information about the property and its assessment history. At neighborhood meetings throughout the city, officials stress that the proposed 2012 assessment contained in the notice is only the first step in a process, and that every taxpayer has the opportunity to provide evidence which shows that the proposed assessment inaccurately reflects the property's value. The assessor calculates values using mass appraisal techniques applied to data amassed on all segments of the city's real estate markets, but recognizes that each property is unique and that market data can be made more precise by information provided by the property owner.

Despite the efforts at transparency, the process of producing a final tax bill is not restricted solely to valuation. The budgets of local agencies funded by real estate taxes affect the bill as well.

The assessment process

Real estate taxes are an ad valorem tax, or dependent upon how much the property is worth. Illinois relates taxes to the fair cash value of the property. Simply said, the assessor must determine how much the property would have sold for as of Jan. 1, 2012. The primary purpose for assessment valuation is to determine the fair share of taxes and to assure that each property is uniformly taxed in accord with its value.

Value loss must be considered in that context. The real estate markets—residential and commercial—were at the heart of the boom of the last decade. In the last three years real estate has, in turn, felt the full force of the burst bubble. According to the Moody's REAL Commercial Property Price Index, as of the first quarter 2011, office, industrial, apartments and retail properties had all fallen back to 2003 value levels.

regan reevaluationChicago

In Chicago specifically, the most telling statistic may be the lack of property sales. From an average of 50,000 to 55,000 Cook County sales per year in the boom years, sales in the last three years have not exceeded 5,500 per year.

Office vacancy rates in the Central Business District have gone from 11.5 percent in 2008 to more than 20 percent as of the first quarter of 2012, according to MB Real Estate Services. Concessions and rent abatements continue for new tenants.

Retail rents declined from $18 per sq. ft. in 2009 to $16 per sq. ft. by 2011, according to Colliers International. And the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Prices Indices show that Chicago condominium prices in 2010 had fallen to 2002 levels, and that home prices closely followed the downturn in condos. Home prices were down 18.7 percent on an annual basis.

One could strongly argue that the decline in value, together with the paucity of sales, demands new methods to arrive at fair cash value. Income data is available to determine values more accurately determine, even for the residential and condo markets, and extraordinary times require extraordinary solutions.

The budget process

The other contributor to the real estate taxpayer's bill is the aggregate budget requirement of local schools, police, fire, county, city governmental, park districts and libraries, which determines the dollars that must be collected from real estate taxes. The assessment determines the proportion of that aggregate amount the individual taxpayer owes, based on property value.

Chicago's usage classifications further obfuscate the process: Residential properties are assessed at 10 percent of value while commercial properties are assessed at 25 percent. That triggers a state equalization factor, which is included in the computation of every taxpayer's bill. Experienced tax counsel can help taxpayers evaluate all these factors and determine whether to protest their assessment.

reganJames Regan is the managing partner of the Chicago law firm of Fisk Kart Katz and Regan, the Illinois 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.

Continue reading

The Silver Lining of Increased Vacancy

"By demonstrating the scale of the reduction in income to the property and quantifying the precise loss in value through the process of income capitalization, a taxpayer can often reduce its tax burden..."

By Stephen Paul , Esq., as published by Real Estate Forum, September 2012

The clearest way to convey the bright side of declining commercial real estate values is through a residential example. At the height of the real estate boom in 2007, my wife and I received an unsolicited offer for a condominium we owned in Florida. The buyer was persistent and eventually paid us three times what we had paid only four years earlier. But because we still wanted a vacation place in Florida, we purchased a new condo as the market was topping out.

As soon as we moved into our new condo, the market crashed. Similar units in our development were soon selling for half the amount we had paid for ours. When my wife saw our first tax assessment, she was dismayed that our condo's value had dropped so far below our purchase price. But because we intended to hold onto the property for many years, and because our property taxes had decreased, the decline in assessed value actually improved our position.

For commercial real estate, the post-2008 increase in vacancy rates and the collapse of the capital markets have led to a substantial value loss. Value-weighted US commercial property values in June this year were down 30.7% from the peak of January 2010, according to the CoStar Commercial Repeat Sales Index. This cloud has a silver lining for property owners, however. The decline in the market creates an opportunity to reduce taxable value, increase the bottom line and begin to turn the property's value upward. To everything there is a season.

Real estate values, much like the real estate market itself, are largely cyclical. Tax assessors usually calculate commercial property value by capitalizing the property income. As rents decline, property value declines, both for business valuation and tax purposes. A lower assessment also reduces the tax bill.

Logically, any reduction in a major expense will raise net income. Other than debt service, the largest expense for most real estate is property tax. Consequently, as the tax load decreases, the property owner's bottom line increases.

Few local governments assess properties annually. Most properties are reassessed every three or four years, and the tax authority simply adjusts values annually to reflect general market changes. A property may carry an assessment from the market's peak or from a time when the property had less vacancy, thereby overstating the current value.

Assessors will not always reduce a property's assessed value simply because hard economic times have fallen on a region. The problem is further compounded because assessors rarely have access to a property's rent roll. When assessors choose to reduce values generally, the reduction may not be tied to a specific property's actual reduction in tenancy.

In most jurisdictions, however, when a building suffers from an inordinate loss through vacancy, the taxpayer can file a real estate tax appeal requesting an adjustment of the building's assessed value. By demonstrating the scale of the reduction in income to the property and quantifying the precise loss in value through the process of income capitalization, a taxpayer can often successfully and substantially reduce its tax burden. A successful tax appeal and the resulting reduction in tax burden can in turn help offset the loss of income caused by the building's excessive vacancy. Additionally, the lower assessment may remain in effect even as the market improves, resulting in savings for future years.

The tax reduction will boost the property's net operating income. In turn, this will raise the property's market value once the building's increased net operating income is capitalized into anindication of value. This cyclical cause and effect is a built-in economic buffer for owners whose properties suffer from above-normal vacancy rates.

Outside of the tax arena, if a property's expenses decrease and its net income increases, the owner may seek a professional appraisal of the property. An appraisal that accounts for the reduced tax burden may be used to secure more favorable financing, particularly for properties with underwater mortgages. Further, for owners looking to sell their properties, the decrease in the real estate tax load may counterbalance higher-than-average vacancy. A potential buyer will see a better return on investment with a lower tax burden and may be willing to pay more for the property than the occupancy alone would suggest.

By recognizing that there is a silver lining to excessive vacancy and by acting to secure a more favorable assessment, owners can better manage their taxes and keep their property's value elevated in lean times.

paul Stephen Paul is a partner in the law firm of Faegre Baker Daniels, the Indiana member of American Property Tax Counsel. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., associate, contributed to this article.


Continue reading

Warning: Your Assessor Doesn't Understand Tax Credit Properties

Strategies for differentiating between LIHTC and conventional apartments

"In most jurisdictions, the assessor's statutory responsibility is to value a property at its market value as of a particular date. Assessors often have difficulty incorporating the restrictions spelled out in a tax credit property's Land Use Restriction Agreement (LURA)..."

By Gilbert D. Davila, Esq., as published by Affordable Housing Finance, July/August 2012

Owners of low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) properties face an unending struggle to keep their property tax assessments at a reasonable level. The fight continues because local assessing authorities receive little guidance from state legislatures and courts on how to account for the unique characteristics of a LIHTC project. Thus, assessors derive a tax credit project's assessment from traditional methods of valuing conventional apartments. Unfortunately, this approach can lead to inflated assessments.

No uniform approach

There is often little consensus across state taxing jurisdictions regarding how to account for tax credits in the valuation equation. Some jurisdictions include the value of the LIHTC allocation as part of a property's net operating income under the contention that the tax credits enhance a project's value in a way that a prospective buyer would take into account when estimating the property's value. The resulting higher property taxes make low-income housing less economically feasible, which undermines the credit program's goal of encouraging the development of affordable housing.

Other jurisdictions exclude tax credits from a project's income, arguing that inclusion of the tax credits leads to excessive assessments. LIHTC property owners should educate themselves on how their local assessor accounts for tax credits in the valuation process. Only then can they begin a meaningful conversation about LIHTC valuations versus conventional complex assessments.

In most jurisdictions, the assessor's statutory responsibility is to value a property at its market value as of a particular date. Assessors often have difficulty incorporating the restrictions spelled out in a tax credit property's Land Use Restriction Agreement (LURA) into their valuation analysis, so they fall back on three classic approaches to value: cost, sales comparison, and income.

It often falls on the LIHTC property owner to show the assessor why tax credit properties defy conventional market value definitions and approaches to value. In that discussion with the assessor, the property owner should incorporate the following points:

Cost and sales-comparison approaches inapplicable

The cost and sales approaches to value are almost never reliable methodologies for tax credit projects, and owners should aggressively protest valuations derived from these approaches.

A cost-based assessment is rarely a reliable value indicator for any multifamily project, much less a tax credit property. And development costs for a LIHTC project usually exceed those of similarly sized conventional projects, given the additional amenities required under the LURA. In addition, a replacement or reproduction cost estimate excludes value associated with the future tax credits and ignores income lost due to restrictions in the LURA.

It is easy to apply the salescomparison approach to a conventional complex because these properties trade frequently in the open marketplace. Sales of LIHTC projects are rare, and the terms and conditions may render the sales data unreliable.

For example, a transfer may occur under a "right of first refusal," in which case the sale price is negotiated well before the transfer date and may not relate to current market value. If the transfer is under a "qualified offer," then the price is based on a statutory formula unrelated to market conditions.

The modified income approach for LIHTC properties

The income approach is the most reliable valuation methodology to derive a tax credit project's property tax assessment, but it requires some special treatment. Typically, assessors using this approach will apply market rents, expense ratios, and capitalization rates into a direct-income pro forma to value the real estate. Owners of tax credit properties should argue for a modified income approach to account for key differences between conventional and LIHTC apartment projects. Here are the major differences:

1. Rents. A tax credit property operates under limited income potential due to the restrictions associated with the LURA and LIHTC regulations. Specifically, rental rate restrictions cause rents per unit to be much lower for a LIHTC project than for conventional properties.

A market rent factor derived from rental data associated with conventional apartment projects will lead to an inflated indication of effective gross income for a LIHTC project and, ultimately, an excessive assessment. Tax credit owners should argue for the use of their actual restricted rent amounts in the income analysis to arrive at a realistic representation of the property's income potential.

2. Expenses. Tax credit properties require management expertise and administrative duties that run up operating costs above those of conventional projects. Tax credit properties also see higher turnover rates than conventional apartments, so make-ready costs are greater.

Finally, rental rates are limited but expenses are not, so the actual expense ratios for tax credit projects are often well above the ratios assessors are willing to use for conventional apartments. LIHTC owners should provide the assessor with a copy of the LURA and point out the requirements that cause expenses to exceed conventional levels.

3. Marketability and capitalization rate. In their income analyses, assessors rely on a capitalization rate, or a buyer's initial annual rate of return based on price and the property's net income.

Assessors typically derive capitalization rates from sales of conventional apartments sold under the willing buyer, willing seller concept associated with most market value definitions.

As previously discussed, tax credit properties rarely sell. If a LIHTC complex does sell, the LURA dictates who the property can be sold to. What's more, tax credits expire after 10 years, but the restrictions may last for another 20 years, and the property's restrictions survive a sale. A purchaser would, in effect, be buying only the restrictions without getting the benefit of the credits. These factors make for an extremely illiquid and unmarketable asset.

A tax credit owner should argue that the assessment take into account the subject property's illiquidity, and the most logical place to do that is in the capitalization rate. The capitalization rate for a tax credit property should be higher than the rates used for conventional projects.

Using these talking points will help LIHTC owners demonstrate to the assessor the differences between tax credit and conventional apartments, which will ultimately lead to reduced assessments and property taxes.


GilbertDavila150 Gilbert Davila is a partner with Austin, Texas, law firm Popp Hutcheson, PLLC. The firm devotes its practice to the representation of taxpayers in property tax matters and is the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Davila can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Continue reading

Don't Drown In Excessive Property Taxes

With assessors often in denial about the decline in valuations, a well-constructed tax appeal can pay off.

By Stewart L. Mandell, Esq., as published by Heartland Real Estate Business, August 2012

We've all heard the old saw: "Denial ain't just a river in Egypt." Yet with property taxation, it is no laughing matter when assessors are in denial about the substantial decline in property values both during and even following the Great Recession. Fortunately, tax attorneys who presented appropriate evidence have succeeded in many recent cases.

A 2011 Michigan Tax Tribunal decision involving a grocery-anchored retail building is particularly telling. The tribunal reduced each assessment about 85 percent because the vacant building was worthless on each of the Dec. 31 valuation dates in 2007, 2008 and 2009. The evidence the owner's tax appeal counsel submitted was compelling. Among the highlights:

  • A contractor testified about the property's significant structural problems, calculating that a partial demolition and reconstruction to restore the asset's value would cost almost $1.7 million.
  • An architect, who was qualified as an expert, corroborated the contractor's cost estimate as reasonable.
  • The broker who had tried to lease or sell the property testified about the lack of interest in the building. The only purchase offer received was well below the government's position, and was withdrawn after the prospective buyer's property inspection and due diligence.
  • An appraiser testified that it would be more economical to demolish the building and use the parcel as a new site rather than renovate. Based on the foregoing, the appraiser valued the land using the sales comparison valuation method and deducted the cost of demolishing the existing structure.
  • Pictures of the building supported the testimony of the property owner's witnesses.

The tribunal found the taxpayer's evidence convincing, even though the government's parade of witnesses included its assessor, a professional planner, a building inspector, the city manager and an appraiser who supported the assessor's assessments. None of the government's witnesses, however, could disprove the property owner's most important evidence that the cost of renovating the building would have exceeded the value added.

In three other recent cases the tribunal also ruled for the taxpayer based on the sales-comparison-based valuations submitted by each taxpayer's appraiser.

One case involved a big-box retail store of more than 135,000 square feet and the property's valuations for the tax years 2009 through 2011. The appraisers for both parties considered all three approaches to value, but the tribunal found the analysis of the property owner's appraiser convincing.

This included the conclusion that the sale prices of leased big-box stores reflect the value of the leased fee interest, which in a property tax appeal is irrelevant to the valuation of an owner-occupied property's fee simple interest. In summarizing the errors of the government's appraiser, the tribunal concluded that "there is nothing so frightening as ignorance in action."

Two other recent decisions show the importance of selecting truly comparable properties for sales comparisons of properties under appeal. In one case, the tribunal used the sales comparison approach to substantially reduce the value of the taxpayer's industrial building of more than 200,000 square feet located in a small city well outside of the Detroit metropolitan area.

Comparing Apples to Apples

The key to the taxpayer's victory was having documentation of sales of industrial properties whose size and location made them comparable. Properties in the Detroit metropolitan area, which were a key part of the appraisal the government submitted, were not comparable.

Similarly, in a case involving the Dec. 31, 2009 value of 36 acres of vacant land near Detroit Metropolitan Airport, the tribunal rejected all of the purported comparable sales cited by the government's appraiser.

The most important flaw of all of those sales was that they occurred before the Great Recession had ruined property values.

Ultimately, the tribunal found most persuasive a recent listing of property that was relatively close to the subject property and of similar size.

To be sure, many taxpayers have not prevailed in their tax appeals in Michigan and across the country. Taxpayers typically bear the burden of proof and can easily lose without appropriate valuation evidence and an experienced tax appeal counsel. However, as the Michigan cases show, taxpayers are able to obtain tax justice with the right evidence and representation.

MANDELL Stewart Stewart L. Mandell is a partner in the law firm of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, the Michigan member of American Property Tax Counsel. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Continue reading

Minimize Real Estate Transfer Taxes in Low-Income Housing Transactions

"Investigating potential exemptions before structuring a real estate transaction can create a large tax savings. Some jurisdictions tax not only real estate transfers but also the transfer of an interest in an entity that owns real estate. A controlling interest transfer may be sufficient to trigger a real estate transfer tax..."

By Norman J. Bruns, Esq., and Michelle DeLappe, Esq., as published by Affordable Housing Finance News, July/August 2012

Whether it is called a documentary stamp tax or a transfer tax, most states and some local jurisdictions tax conveyances of real property. In connection with transfers of interests in low-income housing, transfer taxes often create opportunities for tax savings or, for the unwary, looming traps.

Here are the two most common issues, along with taxpayer strategies to approach the tax as an opportunity rather than a pitfall.

The first scenario relates to special exemptions that may be available but that may require special care in planning the transaction. The second relates to how the parties report the transfer price to tax authorities and the potential to adjust the nominal price to account for the value of below-market financing that is part of some low-income housing programs. State tax laws vary considerably, but the following strategies will work in many jurisdictions.

Take advantage of exemptions

Investigating potential exemptions before structuring a real estate transaction can create a large tax savings. Some jurisdictions tax not only real estate transfers but also the transfer of an interest in an entity that owns real estate. A controlling interest transfer may be sufficient to trigger a real estate transfer tax.

Parties to a potentially taxable transaction should explore exemptions from transfer taxes from the outset because the availability of an exemption may influence negotiations and terms. An exemption may depend on how the transaction is structured, and altering the structure after the parties execute the agreement is often impossible.

Washington state, for instance, exempts from tax a transfer that under federal income tax rules does not involve the recognition of gain or loss for purposes of entity formation, liquidation, dissolution, or reorganization.

Consider an investor who plans to divest its controlling interest in a partnership, the sole asset of which is a Sec. 42 tax credit project. In this hypothetical example, the remaining partners want to avoid bringing in a new partner.

Correctly structuring the transaction as the liquidation of one partner's interest for federal income tax purposes would avoid some or all of Washington's real estate transfer tax. But if the departing partner simply sells its interest to the remaining partners, the real estate transfer tax applies. All the federal tax reporting must be consistent with the position for state tax purposes to qualify for this exemption. Though many states do not have this particular exemption, careful investigation of exemptions may reveal significant potential tax savings in any state.

Adjust the reported price

The second common opportunity or trap revolves around proper reporting of the value of the real estate transferred, which can reduce transfer tax incurred. Of more lasting importance to the buyer of a low-income housing project, proper price reporting can also help prevent over-assessments later, as assessors often rely on recorded transfer prices to set values for property taxes.

Many states base the transfer tax on the property's market value, which is not always the same as the sales price. One way market value can differ from the sales price is when the buyer pays a higher nominal price by using below-market financing. Embedded in the concept of market value as defined by the American Institute of Real Estate Appraisers is the concept of cash equivalence, that is, the most probable price in cash or in terms equivalent to cash.

Several state courts have agreed with that definition. New Jersey's Tax Court in 1984 held in Presidential Towers vs. City of Passaic that market value requires adjustments to account for favorable financing. The following year, Michigan's highest court reached the same conclusion in Washtenaw County vs. State Tax Commission, requiring "a method of valuation that separates the cost of ... artificially low financing from the sales price to achieve the 'true cash value of such property.—

Wisconsin's highest court, in its 1990 decision in Flood vs. Lomira Board of Review, similarly concluded that "cash equivalency adjustment is applicable whether the analysis is of the market value of comparable property or the market value of the taxpayer's property." For states that base transfer taxes on market value, adjustments for cash equivalency should apply.

Cash equivalent adjustments should apply to low-income housing programs that receive mortgage subsidies. One such program is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development program, which provides long-term loans at an effective 1 percent interest rate to what are called Sec. 515 projects. Under certain circumstances, owners of Sec. 515 properties can transfer the project to a new owner who assumes the subsidized loan and preserves the low-income housing restrictions.

Transactions involving below-market financing, such as Sec. 515 preservation transfers, reflect not only the value of the real estate but also the very valuable subsidized financing. Before a Sec. 515 transfer, the federal program usually requires an appraisal to ensure that the property's value will provide adequate security for the assumed loan. Rural Development appraisals separate asset value from the value of the financing to reach the cash-equivalent value of the property.

Reliance on such an appraisal should help in reporting the market value of the transferred property, but reporting an adjusted value can be complicated. Tax authorities may be unfamiliar with cash equivalency adjustments or simply resist accepting anything but the nominal purchase price. Competent state tax counsel should be able to present the information appropriately to the tax authorities.

Exemptions and proper price reporting can minimize the tax impact for both sellers and buyers. Engaging legal counsel familiar with locally applicable tax laws and practices early in the planning of a transaction may significantly reduce the parties' immediate costs and the buyer's future property taxes.

MDeLappe Bruns Norman J. Bruns and Michelle DeLappe are attorneys in the Seattle office of Garvey Schubert Barer, the Idaho and Washington member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Bruns can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. DeLappe can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Continue reading

Government Green

Jurisdictions Vary in Approach to Taxing Sustainable Measures

"Governments are trying to strike a balance between encouraging (sustainability) and finding taxable value."

By Philip J. Giannuario, Esq. & Brian A. Fowler, Esq., Commercial Property Executive, July 2012

As energy prices soar, the search for economical alternative energy has become a pressing issue for all consumers, including businesses. Solar power represents a burgeoning alternative to fossil fuels. "Green" is all the rage in society today. But it can take a toll in the tax department.

With plentiful open rooftops on big-box retail and warehouse buildings across the country, installation of solar arrays makes sense, on its face, for both the building owner and the solar provider. The building owner can obtain low-cost electricity for its business, while the solar provider benefits from federal tax credits. Solar panels make use of available real estate with zero negative impact on the environment.

But there are assessment issues surrounding structures erected to deliver the new energy.Property tax treatment of this evolving building attribute varies by jurisdiction. Governments are trying to strike a balance between encouraging greater use of sustainable energy systems and finding taxable value in the equipment that generates and transmits the new energy. It stands to be a new source of revenue for taxing authorities if the state is silent as to its taxability.

California has exempted systems built between 1999 and 2016. For the property owner in New Jersey, a renewable energy system that provides all or a portion of the building's energy needs can be deemed to have no effect on the building's assessed value. (While unstated, it is anticipated that a third party would be obligated to pay taxes on the equipment's value.) In Texas, onsite systems are exempt. In states like New Hampshire and Virginia, the effect on property taxation is left to local rule. Some states, such as Utah, have not specifically passed legislation on the matter.

Most jurisdictions have dealt with property tax issues by writing legislation that embraces many forms of sustainable energy. Pennsylvania, by contrast, has focused more on wind turbines, designating the turbine, tower—and even the foundation—as tax exempt.

In states that have remained silent on the issue, the question of taxability is often reduced to an argument over the definition of business personal property versus real property. This frequently centers on the issue of whether the property can be removed.

For the owner-user, solar panels are easily moved from one location to another and could be considered business personal property, but the structure that connects them to the building and its electrical system—or to the electrical grid—is not. The municipality could choose to assess those components of the system as it does electrical systems. Most states have legislation in place to provide the assessor with guidance on addressing business personal property if it is to be taxed as real property.

New Jersey, which exempts business personal property as real property, is also representative of a more disconcerting circumstance: the extension of an exemption only to the owner-user of the power. While the owner-user is entitled to special protection from ad valorem taxation, it is withheld from for-profit entities such as an investor or utility company.

Furthermore, often the owner-occupier that opts to lease its rooftop for the installation of a solar array where the power supplies the building and the excess power is sold to the market could receive an added assessment notice. There are many situations in which a solar firm owns the panels and obtains federal tax credits that can be sold to utilities, all while selling the energy to the building occupants or to the local utility company.

Is the income approach available to the assessor based on the lease rates on the rooftops? Or should the cost approach be implemented to reflect the cost to install the system? Will assessors attribute more value to the roofs of buildings without solar arrays because there is unrecognized potential there? It will be interesting to see how the assessing community reacts to these evolving trends in energy production. Will they go green or go for the green?


gianuarioFowlerPhilip J. Giannuario is a partner and Brian A. Fowler an associate at the Montclair, N.J., law firm Garippa, Lotz & Giannuario, the New Jersey member of the American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Giannuario can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and Fowler at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Continue reading

Taxpayers Increasingly Use Appraisal Standards in Tax Appeals

"It is not unusual to find situations where appraisers are brought in to assist tax assessors in setting assessments. This is certainly understandable when complicated properties are being appraised..."

By John E. Garippa, Esq., as published by National Real Estate Investor - Online, July 2012

Property owners throughout New Jersey have observed that more tax appeals are headed to trial. More than ever, cases that would have been settled had they occurred a few years ago are now routinely in the litigation track.

What's behind this trend? The most significant reason is that government is under increasing pressure to preserve the municipal treasury. And as the drive for tax revenue brings more taxpayers to court, many of those property owners find an uneven playing field during litigation. The assessment is presumed to be correct until it is overcome by the preponderance of the evidence. The level of proof the taxpayer must provide to reach this standard has become increasingly more difficult to attain.

One useful aid in arguing a property owner's appeal is often overlooked because it comes right out of the appraiser's tool box. The Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice (USPAP) can help to level the playing field for the property owner. Taxpayers need to understand this set of regulations because it affords opportunities to attack the credibility of the taxing jurisdiction's presentation.

Any licensed appraiser in the state of New Jersey is subject to USPAP, which mandates that an "appraiser shall ensure that all appraisals shall, at a minimum, conform to the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice." An appraiser's failure to comply with the provisions of USPAP may be construed to be professional misconduct in violation of New Jersey tax law.

For example, USPAP sets minimal standards for the retention of records, referred to as the "recordkeeping rule." An appraiser must prepare a work file for each appraisal, appraisal review or appraisal consulting assignment. A work file must exist prior to the issuance of any report, and a written summary of any oral report must be added to the work file within a reasonable time after the issuance of the oral report. Such a work file must include the report as well as the information used in creating the report.

The standards set time requirements as well. The work file must be retained for at least five years after preparation or at least two years after final disposition of any judicial proceeding in which the appraiser provided testimony related to the assignment, whichever period expires last. Any appraiser who willfully or knowingly fails to comply with the obligations of this recordkeeping rule is in violation of the state's ethics rule.

In further clarifying the recordkeeping rule, USPAP states that it applies to "appraisals and mass appraisal, performed for ad valorem taxation assignments."

USPAP is adopted by statute, so a violation of its standards may leave a violating appraiser susceptible to sanctions imposed by the governing professional association. In addition, New Jersey's tax statute provides explicitly that for engaging in an act of professional misconduct, the professional licensing board may penalize the offender by suspending or revoking any certificate, registration or license.

It is not unusual to find situations where appraisers are brought in to assist tax assessors in setting assessments. This is certainly understandable when complicated properties are being appraised. Now, however, as the appraiser advises the assessor as to value in setting an assessment, that advice and conclusion is now discoverable by the taxpayer. This presents a significant opportunity for taxpayers to discern the machinations behind the setting of an assessment.

Under USPAP, the appraiser must have a work file demonstrating all of the evidence relied upon to determine that value. It does not matter whether the advice given the assessor is written or oral; the work file must contain written evidence supporting the advice and conclusions given to the assessor. This now becomes a potential gold mine of information that can be used to damage the presumption of correctness of the assessment.

In another common scenario, taxing jurisdictions that rely on outside appraisers to assist the assessor in setting the assessment will typically retain those same appraisers to defend the assessments before the tax court. Because of the backlog of cases in the tax court, this means that an appraiser that originally assisted in setting an assessment could be testifying about value several years after the assessment was set.

This presents an opportunity for the taxpayer to probe the appraisal report prepared for trial and compare it to the work file prepared when the assessment was made. Was the value predetermined because of the early work in setting the assessment? Does the early work erode the conclusions of the later work?

These are all important considerations, and will significantly help to level the playing field against recalcitrant taxing jurisdictions. Appraisers who lend their licenses and credibility to taxing jurisdictions in setting assessments need to be aware that there could be a day of reckoning.

Garippa155 John E. Garippa is senior partner of the law firm of Garippa, Lotz & Giannuario with offices in Montclair, N.J. The firm is the New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania 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..

Continue reading

Fair Market Value Versus Intrinsic Value

How Wisconsin Supreme Court decision on assessments of specialized manufacturing plants affects owners

"The critical aspect of the case for property owners is the Supreme Court's conclusion that there was a market for continued use of the property, when neither party could identify an example of such a sale..."

By Robert L. Gordon, Esq., as published by Heartland Real Estate Business, July 2012

Wisconsin tax law requires assessors to assess real estate at its fair market value. Whenever possible, that value must reflect recent sales of reasonably comparable property. Longstanding Wisconsin Supreme Court decisions have held that real estate cannot be assessed based on an imaginary or hypothetical market, or at its intrinsic value to the current owner, if that value differs from fair market value. Under those decisions, real estate can only be assessed at what market evidence indicates a third party would pay for the property in the open market.

In the recent case of a specialized plant, the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected the property owner's argument that the plant was assessed at its intrinsic value to the owner's manufacturing business and not at its fair market value as real estate.

The Background

The plant was built to manufacture a highly specialized food product, using a process regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The manufacturer incorporated unique real estate features — at tremendous cost — to meet FDA standards. These included a spray dryer more than 100 feet tall housed in an 8-story tower, as well as concrete surfaces specially treated to eliminate any air pockets where moisture with microbial growth could reside.

At trial before the Wisconsin Tax Appeals Commission, neither the assessor with the Wisconsin Department of Revenue nor the manufacturer's appraiser could identify a single instance anywhere in the United States where a similar plant had sold for continued use to manufacture the same product. The manufacturer's appraiser concluded that there was no market to sell the property for continued use, and that the highest and best use of the plant was as an ordinary food processing plant.

The assessor, however, speculated that one of the manufacturer's few competitors could be a likely purchaser of the plant, and that there was a market for the plant for continued use. The assessor thus valued the property based on its cost to the manufacturer, including the expensive features added solely to support production of its one specialized product, but disregarding the lack of value of those improvements to a purchaser buying the plant for any other use.

The Decision

The Tax Appeals Commission upheld the Department of Revenue's conclusion that there was a market for continued use of the property to manufacture the same specialized product, thereby upholding the assessment based on the plant's cost to the manufacturer.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed the Tax Appeals Commission and rejected the manufacturer's arguments that the plant was being assessed at its intrinsic value to the owner's manufacturing business and that this was inconsistent with prior Supreme Court decisions.

The critical aspect of the case for property owners is the Supreme Court's conclusion that there was a market for continued use of the property, when neither party could identify an example of such a sale. The court held that a "market can exist for a subject property, especially a special-use property, without actual sales data of similar properties being available." The court further stated that "markets are necessarily forward-looking" and that "empirical evidence of past sales activity is certainly informative, but it is not conclusive."

The Net Effect

Traditionally, owners of properties with expensive features included solely to support the business conducted on the property have pointed to a lack of comparable property sales as evidence that the features do not translate into real estate value.

Because of the Wisconsin Supreme Court's conclusions that markets are forward-looking, that lack of evidence of sales is not conclusive, and that a market can exist without actual sales data, it may now become more challenging for taxpayers to contest assessments. This may be especially true for assessments that are primarily based on the cost of features that are valuable only to the current owner.

In the Wisconsin Supreme Court case, the manufacturer argued that affirming the Tax Appeals Commission decision would place an impossible burden on property owners to prove a negative, which is the absence of a market. The court disagreed, stating that taxpayers are only required to present "sufficient contrary evidence" to demonstrate that an assessor's highest and best use conclusion is incorrect based on the existence of a particular market.

As a result, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has left the door open for property owners to claim that there is no market to sell their plant for continued use. In light of the decision, and the statutory presumption that an assessor's conclusions are correct, property owners should be prepared to make a strong case if they intend to establish the absence of a market.

That case might include an analysis of the industry in which the manufacturer operates. Such analysis could attempt to show that there is no one who would purchase the plant to manufacture the same product. Thus, no one would pay what the plant is worth to the current owner to buy the plant as real estate.

Gordon Robert-150 Robert L. Gordon is a partner at the Milwaukee law firm of Michael Best & Friedrich LLP, the Wisconsin member of the American Property Tax Counsel. You can contact him via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Continue reading

American Property Tax Counsel

Recent Published Property Tax Articles

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...

Read more

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...

Read more

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...

Read more

Member Spotlight


Forgot your password? / Forgot your username?