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Jul
07

Lifting the Veil on Chicago and Cook County Real Estate Taxes

It seems like politics watchers and the news media like to establish a veil of mystery around Cook County tax assessments. And although it sells papers and conjures an atmosphere of the unknown, the most important thing to know about tax relief in Cook County is the role of market value in assessments and how taxes are  calculated.

On June 13, taxing entities announced that tax rates in the City of Chicago would be going up approximately 10 percent. The second installment 2016 tax bills were scheduled to be published around July 1 with a very short payment deadline of Aug. 1, 2017. Those bills will reflect all changes to assessments, as well as the new tax  rates.

Tax increases make good headlines, but the increases were not a real surprise. The large anticipated property tax increases arise from a local ordinance designed to recapture a portion of the City of Chicago's and Chicago Public Schools' large budget deficits and pension plan deficits. This local real estate tax increase resulted from the absence any current resolution of the continuing budgetary stalemate between the general assembly and the governor's office in Springfield, Illinois.

The table below illustrates the potential real estate tax increase that could result from the projected 9.3 percent 2016 tax increase from the previous year's tax bills. It addresses a commercial property in Chicago which had a $10 million assessor's fair market value in 2015, considering the projected 2016 property tax increase of about 10  percent.

Projected Tax Bill
$10 million commercial property

 

2015

2016

Market value

10 million

10 million

x 25 percent assessment ratio

  

Assessed value

2.5 million

2.5 million

Equalization factor

2.6685

2.8032

Equalized assessment

$6,671,250

$7,008,000

Tax rate

6.867 percent

7.145 percent

Tax bill (increase 9.3 percent)

$458,114.74

$500,721.60

News outlets made a splash over the approximate 10 percent increase in the tax rate. However, to satisfy the needs associated with funding police, fire and schools, it is likely that there will be future tax increases over and above that initial 10 percent.

What to do? First, understand that a tax challenge is not surrounded by intrigue. Individuals can very easily appeal their assessments to the assessor. Taxpayers that present good facts and arguments following sound appraisal theory will often find some tax relief. Property owners can take a further appeal to the board of review and beyond. However, at the board level, corporate taxpayers require an attorney.

There are a number of practical arguments to consider. One is to pursue an argument based solely on the assessment as compared to the actual market value of the property, considering the contract rents in  place.

Another is taking what appears to be the opposite approach. When arguing about uniformity, taxpayers look toward the general market. In short, assessments should reflect current market rents and not necessarily the actual contract rent at the subject property.

Taxpayers should also consider market occupancy with an eye toward the limitations of the subject property. These arguments  work best when submitted to the board along with reliable appraisal evidence as supporting material.

From a practical standpoint, a uniformity argument hits close to the response that most taxpayers want, which is to be taxed in a similar manner as their neighbors or competitors in similarly situated  properties.

Most assessments are sub-arguments to the income, sales and cost approaches to determining value. The assessors and boards heavily favor the income approach for commercial properties.

Thus by understanding the limitations of the subject property, the taxpayer can argue his own case or be better able to assist tax professionals in establishing the most accurate assessment for the property. There are no smoke and mirrors required, just sound judgment.

 

jbrown kieran jennings

J. Kieran Jennings is a Partner at the law firm Siegel Jennings Co, L.P.A., which has offices in Cleveland and Pittsburgh.  The firm is the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel. Kieran can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..   Jeffrey Brown is an attorney at the law firm of Fisk Kart Katz and Regan LTD.  The firm is the Illinois member of American Property Tax Counsel.  Jeffrey can be reached at jbrown@proptax.

Jul
01

Are You Leaving Property Tax Savings On The Table

" In Texas, don't fail to appeal your assessment because the state gives taxpayers unusual advantages as a tax protest. "

Texas enjoys one of the most fair property tax protest systems in the country.

Suing to appeal an unsatisfactory appraisal review board decision is straightforward in Texas. The state property tax system provides taxpayers with a pragmatic approach to air their valuation disputes before the courts, without the delay and headache frequently experienced in other types of litigation. Yet many taxpayers choose not to appeal, relinquishing the opportunity to achieve significant tax savings. Do not be so shortsighted.

Texans enjoy one of the most fair property tax protest systems in the country, beginning with the right to  contest their appraised values through an administrative process. If they do not like the result, they can file a law-suit that provides a fresh start, turning the valuation issue over to a judge or jury, whichever the parties prefer. And if the taxpayer is unsatisfied with the court's decision, he or she can seek review from a state appellate court and even the State Supreme Court.

Not all states provide such a favorable review process. Texas is special.

Built into the Texas Tax Code are processes and requirements that make litigating property tax appeals more efficient and less procedurally burdensome for taxpayers, even if an appeal advances to the state's highest court. Here are a few of Texas' answers to common taxpayer worries.

Are you concerned that your property tax appeal will be a years-long slog?

Property owners who have been involved in lawsuits before may fear that a property tax appeal means protracted litigation, mired in delay and gamesmanship. Fortunately, the Texas Tax Code limits such behavior by providing numerous tools that can help bring the litigation to a quick resolution, like the ones mentioned below. These features do not apply in the initial filing to appeal an assessment, and are peculiar to property tax lawsuits.

Was your lawsuit filed in the wrong property owner's name?

In most types of litigation, a defect in parties could be fatal to a claim, especially if there is a tight window of time in which to file the lawsuit. In Texas, however, a property tax appeal continues despite having the wrong plaintiff so Tong as the property itself was the subject of an administrative order, the lawsuit was filed on time and the lawsuit sufficiently describes the property at issue. There is no jurisdictional problem.

Did you miss the deadline to protest the appraised value?

There are deadline-driven, jurisdictional prerequisites to pursuing a property tax protest, but Texas law provides some limited "back stop" protection in the event these deadlines are missed. For instance, at any time before Feb. 1, when the taxes become delinquent, a property owner may file a motion with the appraisal district to change an incorrectly appraised value that exceeds the correct appraised value by one-third. This is consistent with other statutes designed to be fair, so that property owners can efficiently challenge excessive appraised values.

Would you like to have something akin to a trial, but not necessarily be bound by the result?

The Texas Tax Code allows a property owner to take the dispute to non-binding arbitration. This is particularly helpful when the parties would like to get a sense of what might happen if the matter goes to trial. An independent, third-party arbiter decides who is right and issues a ruling on the valuation question. This procedure can drive more serious settlement discussions. Although the result is non-binding, it may nonetheless be admitted into evidence at trial for the judge and jury to see.

Would you like the appraisal district to meet with you early in the case to discuss settlement?

Upon written request by either side, the parties or their attorneys must meet and make a good-faith effort to resolve the matter. The meeting must take place within 120 days after the written request is delivered. If the appraisal district cannot meet this deadline, the deadline for property owners and the appraisal district to meet will be moved closer to the trial date — 60 days before trial for parties seeking affirmative relief to their complaint, 30 days before trial for all other experts. This allows more time for the parties to discuss settlement with a temporary reprieve from the pressure of having to engage experts and pay for costly appraisals.

Would you like to ensure that both sides produce their expert reports at the same time?

Property owners can do this by, within 120 days of filing suit, making a written settlement offer and identifying which cause of action is the basis for its appeal, meaning a claim for either excessive appraisal or unequal appraisal. At this time, the taxpayer must request alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation.

By triggering this process, property owners may protect their expert's valuation work from being used against them by the appraisal district's expert appraiser when preparing an opposing report. If property owners had to produce their expert appraisal reports first, the appraisal district's expert would likely try to discredit them in its opposing analysis. This "simultaneous exchange" requirement removes the unfair advantage that the appraisal district would otherwise have.

Property owners should not hesitate to continue their property tax protests beyond the appraisal review board level. In Texas, litigation adds numerous tools to the taxpayer's toolbox that can help property owners achieve fair property tax assessments.

 

daniel smith active at popp hutcheson

Daniel R. Smith is a principal with and general counsel 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. He represents commercial property owners in property tax appeals across the state, and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Jun
20

Taxation of New York City Real Property

Introduction

This article provides an overview of real estate taxation in New York City (the “City”) including (i) the process by which the City assesses real property, (ii) how property owners challenge the City’s assessments, (iii) benefit programs available to reduce property owners’ real estate tax burdens, and (iv) the importance of understanding real estate taxes in lease negotiations. In New York City, real estate taxes have become an increasingly greater expense for property owners and landlords in recent years. As such, they are an ever-growing factor that any potential purchaser or tenant must account for in its business decisions. Counsel on either side of any real estate transaction should possess at least a basic knowledge of the real estate taxation process to be able to appropriately account for such taxes in negotiations. The process is complex, involves interaction with many government agencies, and is often counter-intuitive. Therefore, a working knowledge of the process is also important in order to understand that, for more complex transactions, specialized real estate tax representation might be necessary and appropriate.

New York City’s Department of Finance (DOF) is the agency charged with assessing all real property in New York City. DOF reassesses all real estate (over one million parcels) each year. Income generated from real estate taxes is the top source of revenue for the City, currently comprising over 40% of the City’s revenue. As a result, real estate taxes are a major factor to account for in the sale / purchase, and leasing of real estate. Furthermore, the City offers numerous real estate tax benefit programs that builders, developers, purchasers, landlords, and tenants need to be aware of in considering any transaction.

Procedures for assessing real property, challenging real estate tax assessments, and qualifying for the various tax benefit programs are governed by the New York State Real Property Tax Law (RPTL) and the New York City Charter, Administrative Code, and Rules.

Arriving at a Tax Assessment

Unlike most jurisdictions around the country, New York City reassesses every property on an annual basis and adheres to a strict and consistent calendar for publication of its assessment roll. Below is a summary of the key dates in the assessment process.

  • Taxable Status Date. DOF assesses real property as of its status and condition each January 5, also known as the taxable status date. This date is particularly important when assessing properties that are experiencing large vacancies as of January 5 or are in various stages of construction and/or demolition. Since the status and condition of these types of properties are likely to change dramatically over the course of the year, their assessments the following year may experience similarly dramatic changes.
  • Tentative vs. Final Assessment Dates. Each parcel of real property subject to assessment is identified on the New York City Tax Maps by a specific block and lot number. An individual tax lot may range from multiple buildings to just one residential or commercial unit in a condominium. On January 15, the City publishes tentative assessments for each tax lot. Between January 15 and May 24 the City has the authority to increase or decrease any assessment for any reason. This is called the change by notice period. During this time period taxpayers can also request a review of assessments if they feel such assessments were made due to usage of erroneous factors (i.e., incorrect square footage). Any changes to the tentative assessment made during this time must be sent to the taxpayer, in writing. The assessment roll closes on May 25 of each year, at which time the final assessment roll is published. This final assessment is the one upon which a taxpayer’s property tax bill is based and the one from which any challenge to the assessment will arise.

It is important for counsel to note that the tentative assessment published on January 15 is not the final word on a property’s tax burden. This assessment should be reviewed for potential errors that should be brought to the City’s attention in advance of the final roll’s publication on May 25. While the City sometimes adjusts errors on its own, there is an opportunity to alert them to potential issues. It is also important to note that this change by notice period exists separately and apart from the administrative and legal challenges to an assessment that take place later and have different deadlines associated with them. That process is discussed in greater detail below.

The Property Tax Bill

When the tentative assessment roll is released each January, DOF provides taxpayers with a notice of value. The notice of value includes many numbers and terms which may cause confusion, but which are important to understand for purposes of what a taxpayer’s real estate tax obligation will ultimately be based upon. Below is a summary of the key terms to understand in the notice of value.

Equalization Rate: In assessing properties, DOF first derives a parcel’s market value which is the City’s determination as to what the property is worth. The City, other than the few exceptions discussed below, assesses properties at 45% of their market value. This is the City’s equalization rate.

Actual Assessment: The City applies the 45% equalization rate to a property’s market value to arrive at its actual assessment.

Transitional Assessment: To shield taxpayers from sudden and drastic annual fluctuations in assessed value, the City provides for a five-year “phase-in” of every property’s actual assessment. Other than an important exception discussed below, this number is generally an arithmetic average of the five most recent years’ actual assessments and is known as the transitional assessment for a property. A property’s real estate tax liability is based on the lower of the actual vs. transitional assessment. As a result, if a property’s actual assessed value increased by $1 million over the previous year’s assessment, the transitional assessment would really only be incorporating 20% of that increase into this year’s transitional assessment. The taxpayer will not bear the full brunt of that large increase immediately.

As an example, take a hypothetical apartment building in Manhattan with the following values and assessments:

Tax Year

Market Value

Actual Assessment

Transitional Assessment

17/18

$8,100,000

$3,645,000

$2,587,500

16/17

$6,400,000

$2,880,000

$2,173,500

15/16

$5,500,000

$2,475,000

 

14/15

$4,750,000

$2,137,500

 

13/14

$4,000,000

$1,800,000

 

12/13

$3,500,000

$1,575,000

 

As you can see, the actual assessment increased by almost $1 million from $2.88 million in tax year 16/17 to $3.645 million in tax year 17/18. However, because the transitional assessment incorporates the five most recent actual assessments, the transitional assessment only increased by about $400,000. The real estate taxes for the property will therefore be based on this lower ($2,587,500) amount. Note that tax years 12/13 – 15/16 would also have transitional assessments based on actual assessment of years not listed. For purposes of illustration only, the focus of this chart is on the two most recent tax years (15/16 and 16/17).

An important exception to note regarding transitional assessment phase-ins comes up when there is construction or demolition being done on a property. In those instances the City adds or subtracts what is called a “physical increase” or “physical decrease” to the property based on the value added or subtracted for the construction or demolition taking place. This physical increase or decrease is not subject to a five-year transitional phase-in and is taxable in the year in which it took place.

Tax Rate: After determining the appropriate billable assessment, a tax rate is applied to the billable assessed value to come up with the real estate tax liability for a particular property. The tax rates vary depending on the class of property being assessed (see below). The rates are set annually by the New York City Council and are not subject to challenge.

Assessment of Different Classes of Property

Real property in New York City is divided into four classes, each with distinct assessment rules as detailed below:

  • Class 1. Properties in tax class 1 consist of primarily residential properties with three or fewer residential units. Essentially these are one, two, and three family homes. Properties in class 1 enjoy highly favorable treatment from a real estate tax perspective. As discussed above, while the City assesses the vast majority of properties at 45% of their city-determined market values, properties in class 1 are assessed at only 6% of their market values. This generally makes their assessed value (and as a result, their real estate tax bill) much lower as compared to the other classes of property. Furthermore, state law places caps on the amount the assessed value for class 1 properties is permitted to increase each year. Specifically, properties in tax class 1 cannot see their assessment increase by more than 6% year over year and by more than 20% over any five year period. As with all other properties, any physical changes to the property are not subject to these statutory limitations on increases and can result in increases that are larger than 6%.
  • Class 2. Properties in class 2 are primarily residential properties with more than three units. Class 2 includes residential apartment buildings as well as cooperatives and condominiums. Within class 2 is a subset of properties (class 2a, 2b, and 2c) that enjoy limitations on assessment increases similar to those that properties in tax class 1 enjoy. Specifically, primarily residential properties in class 2 with fewer than 11 units cannot see their assessments increase by more than 8% per year and by more than 30% over any five year period. These properties include rental properties as well as cooperatives and condominiums. Class 2a properties contain 4-6 residential units; class 2b properties contain 7-10 residential units; class 2c properties are cooperative or condominium properties with 3-10 units. While they are still assessed at 45% of market value (as opposed to the 6% equalization rate for class 1), the statutory caps still provide a benefit to these smaller residential properties. Transitional assessments do not apply to this subclass.

Many of these smaller residential properties that may qualify for favorable tax treatment by being within class 2a, 2b, or 2c also contain a commercial component. Since commercial properties fall within tax class 4 (see below) and do not enjoy any statutory limitations on increase, it is important for an owner hoping to qualify for these statutory caps to make sure the property is considered primarily residential. There is no explicit definition of primarily residential and, over the years, the City has had various policies in determining whether something should be considered primarily residential or commercial. Previously, the City looked at which component generated greater rental income for the building and considered that to be its “primary” function. More recently, greater weight seems to be given to overall commercial vs. residential square footage as well as to the total number of commercial versus residential units within the building in determining whether it would be considered primarily residential for purposes of receiving class 2a, 2b or 2c status.

On April 25, 2017 a coalition seeking tax reform called Tax Equity Now filed suit against New York City and New York State in New York State Supreme Court seeking a declaratory judgment that the entire New York City real property tax system is unconstitutional on various grounds. Specifically, the lawsuit targets the inequity and alleged constitutional infirmities created by the beneficial treatment of class 1 properties and smaller class 2 properties (described above) at the expense of other real estate tax payers among the other tax classes. Furthermore, the suit goes on to claim that this unequal treatment among the tax classes has a disparate impact on minorities. Tax Equity Now claims that since minorities in the City are predominantly tenants in larger class 2 rental apartment buildings which are not subject to any favorable tax treatment, minorities pay a disproportionate share of the City’s tax burden. As a result, wealthier, predominantly non-minority homeowners pay a disproportionately lower real estate tax burden. While this lawsuit will likely take years to be resolved and is not of immediate concern to the accuracy of the information in this practice note, it something to be mindful of as it works its way through the courts.

  • Class 3. Properties in tax class 3 consist primarily of utility properties (i.e., power plants). These are also assessed at 45% of market value.
  • Class 4. Class 4 is all properties that do not fall within tax class 1, 2, or 3. These are essentially all commercial properties, including office buildings, retail spaces, hotels, parking garages, etc. Under New York State law, certain utility related equipment is also considered real property for the purposes of assessment and falls into tax class 4. This property is known as Real Estate Utility Company (REUC) property and is separately assessed by the City of New York. The most common type of property that is assessed as REUC property is emergency backup generators. The assessment of these generators has become increasingly important in the wake of Super Storm Sandy as the sheer number of generators in the City has increased exponentially. From an assessment policy perspective, the City actually differentiates between tenant-owned and building-owned generators. Specifically, generators that are owned by the building are not separately assessed, as they are considered part of the building and, therefore, their presence is deemed to have already been incorporated into the building’s assessment. Conversely, tenant-owned generators are separately assessed and given their own unique REUC Identification Number, which is basically the equivalent of an individual tax lot for assessment purposes. These generators are considered more portable, are more likely to travel with the tenant, and are, therefore, not reflected in the overall assessment of a building.

Particularly with respect to REUC properties, counsel should understand and be aware of the intentions of both sides with respect to backup generator equipment. Do tenants plan to install their own backup generating systems? Will they use some other backup system already in place in the building? These backup generators are not traditionally the type of item one would consider “real estate,” however, New York State Law defines them as such. Furthermore, City policies treat these generators differently based on their ownership status. As a result, they may be subject to additional real estate taxes not initially contemplated in any deal.

Three Methods of Real Property Valuation

Set forth below are the three methods of valuation typically used in assessing real property.

  1. Income Capitalization Approach. The City assesses the vast majority of properties using the income capitalization approach. By law, most owners of income-producing properties are required to provide annual real property income and expense statements to the City (referred to as RPIE). In the simplest cases, the City reviews and adjusts these numbers to arrive at a net operating income for the property. It then applies a capitalization rate to the property to arrive at a market value for the property. As discussed above, the City then generally takes 45% of that market value to arrive at an assessment. However, strictly and blindly applying RPIE numbers to arrive at an assessment becomes difficult when issues of vacancies, construction, and other factors result in the RPIE numbers not necessarily being a reflection of a property’s true value. In these cases, DOF will generally make various adjustments to a property’s net operating income based on annual guidelines and parameters DOF establishes for the various types of properties it is responsible for assessing.

Obviously residential co-ops and condos do not report rental income. Therefore, in order to arrive at a net operating income (and ultimate assessment) for these properties, New York State law requires that co-ops and condos are to be valued and assessed as if they were rental properties. This results in City assessors looking to the rental income market of what they deem to be comparable buildings and applying those rents to the co-ops and condos to arrive at their assessments. A successful challenge to the assessment of a residential co-op or condo would require finding other comparable rentals that more closely reflect and mirror the situations at the subject property being assessed. Since commercial condominium units typically do pay rent, the City assesses them as they would any other individual block and lot. The one caveat is that, since an individual commercial condominium unit is usually part of a larger building containing many condominium units, DOF will generally assess a specific unit based on its percent interest in the common elements of the building as a whole. This percentage figure is listed in the condominium’s declaration. As a result of this methodology, the percent interest of a particular condominium unit is an important factor in the unit’s ultimate tax bill and the ultimate allocation should be considered carefully when drafting and reviewing the condominium offering plan.

  1. Cost Approach. City assessors primarily use the cost approach in valuing specialty properties or equipment (power plants, generators, etc.). They arrive at the assessment by determining what the current cost would be to build a new identical specialty property and then deduct from such cost for depreciation.
  2. Sales Approach. The City has a policy to not reassess properties based on sales prices. Property sales may be used as evidence of value when challenging a property’s assessment; however, they are not the basis of an assessment. The City does review sales when valuing class 1 properties (1, 2, and 3-family homes) and to arrive at market values for those properties. However, as discussed above, since the permissible annual assessment increases for class 1 properties are capped, the market value the City applies based on comparable sales generally has no bearing on the assessment.

How to Challenge an Assessment

As discussed above, DOF publishes tentative assessments for all properties on January 15 of each year. A property owner (or other party with standing) who wishes to challenge that assessment must do so by filing an application with the New York City Tax Commission (the Tax Commission) by March 1 (note that for class 1 the deadline is March 15). Most properties also require the filing of an income and expense statement, which must be filed by March 24. Failure to timely meet these deadlines is a jurisdictional defect which precludes an owner from challenging that year’s assessment.

In order to challenge an assessment, a party must have standing to do so. Generally, any party claiming to be aggrieved by an assessment has the right to challenge that assessment. This has been defined as anyone whose pecuniary interest may be affected by an assessment. As a result, not just property owners, but tenants, partial tenants, and other parties responsible for the payment of real estate taxes may have standing to challenge the assessment upon which those taxes are based.

The Tax Commission is the administrative agency charged with reviewing the assessments issued by DOF. It schedules hearings to review the assessments of all properties that file timely challenges each year. These hearings are held from late spring to early fall each year. At the hearings, the Tax Commission generally reviews the two most recent years’ assessments. However, legally, the agency has jurisdiction to review any two of the five most recent assessments. The Tax Commission may decide to offer a reduction in an assessment or confirm DOF’s assessment. The Tax Commission is prohibited from raising a property tax assessment as a result of a hearing.

DOF publishes its final assessment roll on May 25 of each year.

By June 1 of each year property owners are required to file income and expense statements with DOF, reporting their numbers from the prior calendar year. This is the RPIE filing (discussed above), which must be completed online through DOF’s website.

If an owner is unable to resolve its assessment challenge with the Tax Commission in a particular year, the owner must file a petition in New York State Supreme Court by October 24 of each year in order to preserve its right to litigate over the assessment.

Grounds for Court Challenges/Trials

If an assessment challenge proceeds to trial there are four grounds under which that assessment may be challenged. The assessment must be alleged to be: (i) excessive, (ii) illegal, (iii) unequal, or (iv) misclassified. The vast majority of trials involve a claim of overvaluation.

Trials over an assessment are generally bench trials. The City agency responsible for handling assessment-related litigation is the New York City Law Department. At trial, generally, each side submits an expert appraisal report with conclusions of value and the expert real estate appraiser who prepared the report testifies at the trial. Testimony is usually limited to the four corners of the report.

City assessments are deemed presumptively valid so the burden is on the petitioner to show the assessment was incorrect. Much as in the case of administrative review of the assessment at the Tax Commission, a court is prohibited from raising an assessment as the result of a trial. The City’s assessment can only be confirmed or reduced at trial.

Recently, DOF has provided an additional administrative avenue to challenge an assessment on the grounds that it was based on a clerical error or error of description. New York State law has had a longstanding procedure by which to challenge assessments based on clerical error, however, those sections of the RPTL were inapplicable to New York City. As a result, the City recently amended its rules to codify and apply similar procedures. The types of errors DOF considers under these rules include, but are not limited to, errors in assessments due to: computation errors, incorrect square footage, incorrect number of units, incorrect building class, as well as all other clerical errors specified in Article 5 of the RPTL. DOF will specifically not consider clerical error challenges if the challenges have to do with valuation methodology, incorrect comparables and other valuation-related challenges that are more appropriately challenged in the standard ways described above. Much like New York State law, the new City rules allow DOF to look back up to six years prior to the time a clerical error challenge was filed when considering changing an assessment on these grounds.

Benefit, Abatement, and Exemption Programs

The City offers a wide variety of real estate tax exemption/abatement programs to encourage development of new buildings and renovation of existing buildings, among other things. Below is a summary of the most commonly utilized programs.

  • Industrial Commercial Abatement Program (ICAP). ICAP provides tax abatements for renovating commercial buildings and, in some parts of the City, for building brand new industrial/commercial buildings. In some instances even renovated or newly built retail space can qualify for ICAP benefits. Abatements can last as long as 25 years in some cases and protect a developer from the large increases in value (and consequently, real estate tax assessments) that normally results from these large development projects. There are complex filing procedures and requirements to be met and maintained during the duration of the project in order to qualify for the benefit, including minimum required expenditure amounts and requirements for soliciting Minority and Women-Owned Businesses (MWBE) for the work being done.
  • 420 Benefits. This program provides various tax abatements/exemptions for properties owned by charitable and not-for-profit entities. There are initial requirements that must be met and substantiated in order to qualify as well as certification of continuing charitable or non-profit use in order to ensure the benefits remain in place each year.
  • J-51Program. This program provides a property tax exemption and abatement for renovating and upgrading residential apartment buildings. The benefit varies depending on the building’s location and the type of improvements.
  • 421-a Program. In April, 2017 legislation was signed amending and replacing the previous 421-a program to create the new Affordable New York Housing Program. This program applies to new construction of multi¬family residential buildings and eligible conversions and provides eligible projects with substantial tax savings, in some cases up to 35 years of real estate tax abatements (in addition to a three year abatement during construction).       To benefit from the tax savings, some significant requirements must be met - for example, all projects must be comprised of at least 25% affordable units. For projects located in specific areas and comprised of more than 300 units, certain wage requirements for construction workers also apply. The program applies to both rental and condominium/co-op projects though the eligibility for condo/co-op projects has more restrictions. (3) This new version of the 421-a program applies to eligible projects that commence between January 1, 2016 and June 15, 2022. As of May, 2017, the law is brand new and there are nuances that will likely need to be resolved by the City in its rule making process, however, the key point is that this benefit for new residential projects will once again be available to developers.
  • Exemptions for Individual Homeowners. Many individual home and apartment unit owners may qualify for certain property tax reductions pursuant to programs such as the cooperative/condominium abatement, School Tax Relief Program (STAR), Senior Citizen Exemption, Disabled Homeowners Exemption, Veterans Exemption, and Clergy Exemption. Applications for benefits must be made annually as changes in circumstances (i.e., transfers) each year may take a unit out of eligibility for the various programs.
  • Progress Assessments. While not part of any formal exemption or abatement program, New York City law does allow for some tax relief for the construction of new commercial and residential buildings. It is a general rule of assessment in the City that a building in the course of construction, commenced since the preceding fifth day of January and not ready for occupancy on the fifth day of January following, shall not be assessed unless it shall be ready for occupancy or a part thereof shall be occupied prior to the fifteenth day of April. All newly constructed commercial and residential buildings are entitled to at least one year of this so-called “progress assessment” whereby any building assessment placed on the property would be removed. With the exception of hotels, new commercial buildings can actually get up three years of progress assessments while in the course of construction if the building is not ready for occupancy each April 15. This essentially allows for up to three years of no building assessments while in the course of construction.

The programs noted above are important for counsel to be aware of. When representing an owner, any discussion regarding major construction projects and changes to a building should be considered in the context of potential availability of some of these benefit programs. They can play a huge role in reducing an owner’s tax burden and making contemplated projects more economically feasible. Similarly, counsel representing a purchaser should be aware of any plans the purchaser may have as far as construction and/or converting the nature of the building (i.e., from commercial to residential) as these types of changes have substantial property tax ramifications as well as potentially substantial benefit programs that may help mitigate potential increased liability.

Tax Certiorari Lease Provisions/Exemption Lease ICAP Provisions

Real estate taxes in New York City are becoming an increasingly large portion of landlords’ and tenants’ investment calculations and it is vital to account for real estate tax issues in commercial leasing. Determining whether a landlord or a tenant is responsible for payment of the taxes and who has the right to challenge the taxes is just one issue. Tax escalation clauses and how payments are spread among the tenant and the landlord, as well as choosing an appropriate base year from which said real estate tax escalations begin, are essential components to any commercial leasing negotiation and often make or break deals.

Knowledge of assessment procedures and DOF calendars for when rental figures will be used in assessments is vital in determining base year real estate tax payments and how increases in tax payments are to be determined on a going-forward basis. These issues must also be accounted for in commercial leases. Finally, provisions regarding which party benefits from any abatement programs (if applicable) need to be negotiated in any lease.

This will certainly affect overall rental and tax payments. Many negotiated real estate transactions hinge on real estate tax projections going forward. Projecting future real estate taxes is fraught with uncertainty. However, with comprehensive knowledge of how the system works, one can make reasonable estimates. It is these estimates and projections that are frequently the basis for lease negotiations. Specialized real estate tax counsel may be retained to assist in these projections and to review drafts of leasing documents.

Conclusion

At the very least, when entering into a real estate transaction involving property in New York City, counsel should be aware of New York City’s complex real property tax process and how the issues surrounding that process may affect his or her clients. The process of challenging property taxes involves a complicated assessment procedure system on the part of the City as well as multiple required filings throughout the course of the year, which must be complied with in order to even have the opportunity to challenge one’s assessment.

An understanding of the assessment process, how real estate taxes are calculated, and the benefit programs the City makes available to property owners will allow counsel to better negotiate on behalf of clients. Failure to accurately and meticulously account for the increasingly important role that real estate taxes play will put counsel at a major disadvantage.

Tishco image

Steven Tishco is an associate at Marcus & Pollack, LLP. Mr. Tishco concentrates his practice on real estate tax assessment and exemption matters (tax certiorari). He handles all types of real estate tax disputes and appears regularly before the Courts of the State of New York and various New York City agencies. His experience includes litigation and trial work involving the valuation of residential and commercial properties.  The law firm of Marcus & Pollack LLP, is the New York City 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.

Jun
10

Presentation at Appraisal Institute and Appraisal Institute of Canada Annual Conference

Summary

The logical and proper valuation of big box stores for assessment purposes is not based on the income stream. We believe the cost approach with adjustments for obsolescence is the most satisfactory methodology. This conclusion was arrived at after lengthy discussions and negotiations amongst appraisers that took place outside the usual litigation environment, subject to the supervision of legal counsel and overriding purview of the Assessment Review Board in Ontario.

We examined the current value assessments of 162 big box freestanding stores in the Province of Ontario owned by a single operator. There were outstanding assessment appeals by the taxpayer for the 2008 base year (2009-2012 taxation), and the 2012 base year (2013-2016 tax years). Most significantly, we settled those appeals on the basis of the cost approach, including going forward to the 2016 base year (2017-2020 tax years).  The settlement process began in 2013 and resolution was achieved in 2016.

Background

Big box stores are large discount stores, including WalMart, Home Depot and our own Canadian Tire. These stores generally exceed at least 40,000 square feet in area. Unlike most property types, the buildings are built to suit or custom built for a specific retailer’s business. The boxes are not built on a speculative basis to be sold or leased in the marketplace after development.

Upon sale of the fee simple interest in the big box store, the original use may be modified for the new user, or the building may be demolished. Such stores are rarely purchased to be leased by a single tenant after the purchase (for retail purposes or otherwise).

There has been much litigation in the United States relating to the big box store valuation conundrum.  Kennard and Fisher asked:

“. . . if it cost $70.00 per square foot to build an anchor department store, then why is it they sell for about half of their replacement cost new?”

This question led, in part, to the so-called “dark store” theory of valuation which resulted in numerous decisions of courts and tribunals concluding that the sales comparison approach, based on market sales of the big box store resulted in an objective determination of market value. Invariably these sale prices were substantially less than the cost to construct. Application of the “dark store” theory has devastated assessments of big box stores in many American jurisdictions.

In Ontario, the assessment standard is “current value”. Current value in essence means the same as what you might know as fair market value, or appraised value, or actual value.  Current value is defined in the Assessment Act as follows:

“Current Value means in relation to land, the amount of money the fee simple, if unencumbered, would realize if sold at arm’s length by a willing seller to a willing buyer.”

There has been much litigation in the Province of Ontario as to the meaning of current value. It is clear that this valuation standard is an objective, market based concept.

The value to the owner, or the subjective value of the real estate, is irrelevant for assessment purposes. The statutory standard of value is based on objective analysis of data from the marketplace. The identity of the occupant is not relevant.

Historical Reliance on Income Approach

“An appraisal is the logical application of available data to reach a value conclusion.” (borrowed from William Kennard)

The data showed that these big box properties are never built speculatively and then put on the market for rent or sale. Once the property is rented by the developer to a retailer, the real property may be sold from investor to investor. Generally the developer and the retailer are either related or the same person. The attractiveness of the purchase to investors is a function of the lease amount – rent amount, terms and quality of tenant – rather than the fee simple interest in the real estate.

Frequently the developers/retailers sell the real estate for financing purposes, and lease it back.

Sales-leasebacks are financing arrangements rather than pure fee simple real estate transactions. Sales of real estate occupied by a long-term tenant reflect the value of the leased fee of the real estate and, implicitly, the quality of the tenant. However, for assessment purposes we are searching for the fee simple value – not the leased fee interest.

Municipal assessments in Ontario are undertaken by a single corporation collectively owned by all the municipalities – MPAC. The three statutory parties to the appeals are the property owner (ie. the taxpayer), MPAC and the municipality in which the property is located.

Notwithstanding the above concerns regarding the income approach, Ontario big box stores had been valued by assessors using an income approach with rents derived from available financing transactions. The basis for determining market rent was a mystery. The capitalization rates relied upon by the assessor seem to have been drawn from sales of shopping centre regional malls. Frequently, the rents applied by MPAC were nothing more than the previous base year’s economic rent indexed to the next base year. The number of open- market lease transactions available was extremely limited and, therefore, data extracted to support the appraised value came from a very shallow pool. The assessed values were based more on hokum-pokum than objective data reflective of a true market.

To a great extent, historically the resolution of assessment appeal litigation with MPAC regarding big box stores in Ontario was based upon comparability and equity as between similar properties. Eg. Is a WalMart store worth $1 per square foot less than Home Depot? Is the Toronto market for big box stores worth $2 per square foot more than in Ottawa?

2008 Base Year

In order to prepare for the 2008 CVA reassessment, the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (“MPAC”) determined a scale of fair market rents applicable to big box retailers based on the name of the occupant and “bench marking” of rents according to market area (ie. land values) and notional base rents for WalMart stores. An extract from that analysis produced by MPAC is set out below:

Market Area (b) 500,000 – 750,000 per acre – Regions 3, 13, 16, 19, 21, 22

Tenant

Base Rent

Adjustment

Final Rent

Comments1

WalMart

$11.00

0

11.00

Base benchmark rent

CTC

$11.00

+0.50

11.50

Base + 0.50 – higher building cost2

Lowes

$11.00

+1.00

12.00

Base + 1.00 – higher building cost2

Home Depot

$11.00

+1.00

12.00

Base + 1.00 – higher building cost2

Rona

$11.00

+1.00

12.00

Base + 1.00 – higher building cost2

Costco/Sams

$11.00

+1.25

12.25

Base + 1.25 – higher building cost3

1 Adjusted rate may be further adjusted if effective age greater than 20 years.

2 Higher buildings = higher building costs

3 Plus 0.24 for coolers and freezers

We commenced the appeals litigation with the assertion that the income approach utilized by MPAC was invalid because there was insufficient data regarding fair market rents available to support it. The taxpayer relied upon the cost approach as the most appropriate measure, conditional upon a full measure of obsolescences being accounted for in the valuation process.

Although we left open the option of referring to the “dark store theory”, that path was not pursued. The expectation was that a settlement could be negotiated using the cost approach with appropriate adjustments for obsolescence. It was also our view that the scorched earth results of the dark store theory were based on a faulty assumption regarding non-compete clauses registered on title for the big box stores.

The Settlement Process

In 2013, negotiations began between MPAC and the big box property owners.

The big box operators had retained the services of appraisers familiar with assessment practices. MPAC similarly directed experienced appraisers within its organization to grapple with the appeals. Counsel for both the taxpayers and MPAC agreed to suspend ordinary litigation proceedings and litigation tactics to permit an open and frank exchange of views between the parties, in particular amongst appraisers without counsel present. Counsel for both the property owner and MPAC agreed from the outset that full disclosure of information and candid, without prejudice exchanges of opinions amongst the appraisers would be the hallmarks of the negotiations. Furthermore, counsel agreed that the consensual results of the appraisal discussions would guide the terms of settlement of outstanding appeals and future assessments.

As part of our negotiations, and after an initial state of discussions, MPAC and the property owner invited municipal representatives to form a Municipal Working Group (“MWG”) and participate in the negotiations.  The MWG included seven (7) representatives from some of the affected municipalities. Each representative signed an undertaking of confidentiality and non- disclosure.

As a prelude to those negotiations, MPAC and the property owner issued a Joint Communique to the MWG, which became the starting point for negotiations. The Joint Communique provided a current status report of the initial negotiations, which included the following statements:

  1. MPAC and the taxpayer have agreed that the cost approach is the most reliable determinant of current value for these properties.
  2. MPAC and the taxpayer have agreed that the appropriate approach to determine economic life of the buildings is the market extraction method.
  3. MPAC and the taxpayer have agreed that the MPAC automated cost approach to determine RCN of the buildings overstates actual construction costs.
  4. MPAC and the taxpayer are reviewing 300 land sales and the assessments of approximately 600 comparable land parcels to respond to municipal concerns that land values may have been understated in the comparative sales analysis.

The property owner and MPAC invited the MWG to review and challenge the various data files and analyses undertaken jointly by the property owner and MPAC.  In 2016, the property owner and MPAC entered into a Memorandum of Understanding as to principles for resolution of outstanding appeals for 2008 and 2012 base years, and the principles for assessment going forward with the 2016 CVA reassessment. The Memorandum of Understanding was endorsed by the MWG.

The Memorandum of Understanding was widely distributed to the municipalities, and published in the Canadian Property Tax Association’s monthly newsletter as an article authored by an MPAC officer. A copy of that article is attached.

The result of this process has been to resolve two cycles of assessment appeals (2008 and 2012), and to set in place assessment principles for the 2016 cycle.  The process was based on three elements not commonly found in assessment appeals:

  1. Candid and transparent disclosure of information, on a multi-party basis.
  2. Involvement of municipalities relatively early in the appeal process to provide a forum for their concerns and understanding.
  3. Most importantly, establishing a protective zone where appraisers could meet, share data, exchange views and analysis, all without tactical advocacy of their respective client’s interests.

In summary, the participants in the process found success when:

  1. Legal counsel provided interest based general counsel to their respective clients and facilitated the process, rather than simply litigating conventionally.
  2. Appraisers appraised with open minds, rather than advocating for or against the status quo.
  3. Trust and patience was maintained, even when unexpected developments created log-jams, hurdles or delays.

In other words, the appraisers were not advocates, and legal counsel were not experts.  The result was a happy resolution to a thorny assessment problem.

J. Bradford Nixon

Brad Nixon is a Member of the law firm Nixon Fleet & Poole LLP which has an office in Toronto, Canada.  The firm is the Canadian member of American Property Tax Counsel. Brad can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.                                       

 

 

May
31

Tax Exemptions Draw Scrutiny

Owners face hidden pitfalls when applying for commercial property tax exemptions.

Municipalities are taking a hard look at real estate tax exemption applications, hoping to offset revenue losses stemming from a rash of successful assessment challenges.

It’s unsurprising that taxpayers are mounting protests in record numbers, considering the dollars at stake. Commercial real estate taxes in the Northeast are among the highest in the nation, and the high cost of living in the area compounds the financial pressure on property owners. That also explains why many property owners are seeking relief from those costs by applying for exemptions.

Most states provide an avenue which exempts religious, educational and not-for-profit entities from the payment of real estate taxes. Some states, such as Maine, limit tax exemptions to a dollar amount. Others including Rhode Island impose a property size limitation, while some states have no discernible limits on the property size or exemption amount, which is the case in New York. Despite these limitations, tax exempt applications represent a significant loss of potential tax revenue for a municipality.

To qualify for the tax exemption, each state has its own application, which must be filed with the proper agency, typically the assessor or assessment department. Many states require taxpayers to file a new application each year, along with supporting documentation.

Once submitted, there are three possible outcomes: The application may be granted in full, meaning the property is 100 percent exempt from real estate taxes; it may be granted in part, meaning only a portion of the property will receive tax-exempt status; or it may be denied.

Provided the exempt organization is operated exclusively for the purposes specified in its enabling statute, and the entire property is wholly used for its specified purpose and no profit is made by the property owner, the application should be granted. Many courts have determined that all parts of the exempt property must be used in connection with its exempt purpose to qualify for a 100 percent exemption. Any property not utilized in this respect will be placed back on the assessment roll.

If a building or portion of the property is not being used or is vacant, the property may still qualify for the exemption, provided that a clearly defined plan is in place to utilize the property in the near future for exempt purposes. Construction plans, grading of the property, renovations and the like would  satisfy this requirement.

In recent practice, these three conditions have been strictly interpreted, with municipalities seizing every opportunity to place previously tax-exempt property back on the assessment roll.

Praying for Relief

Recently, a small yet nationally recognized church of about 75 congregants in New York needed to retain legal counsel to defend its tax-exemption application. The 13-acre property was improved with a number of free standing buildings used for administration, housing for the pastor and places of worship. The church had owned the property for decades and always received a 100 percent tax exemption.

Sometime in the winter of 2015, a pipe not properly winterized burst in one of the buildings. The property flooded and sustained considerable damage. To save on renovation costs, the church and its members took on the repair of the building themselves. The church’s subsequent application for the real property tax exemption duly related this information, and as a result, the application was denied in part.

The municipality reasoned that because the building was now vacant and not being used for an exempt purpose (it could not be used while under renovation), it was no longer entitled to tax-exempt status. The taxing entity placed the property back on the assessment roll and issued a tax bill totaling more than $100,000.

The church did not have the funds to pay, and faced the distinct possibility of foreclosure and the loss of the property by tax lien sale. Negotiations by the local attorney for the reinstatement of the 100 percent tax exemption stalled. Ultimately, the church successfully challenged the partial denial in court via motion for summary judgment.

Tax-exempt Lessees

Problems can also arise when a privately owned property is leased to a tax-exempt entity seeking a tax exemption. In other words, would a taxable building be entitled to an exemption based on a lessee’s status as an exempt entity? The answer is unequivocally “no.”

New York Real Property Tax Law 420(b)(2) carves a limited exception to the above, however. If a for-profit entity that owns a property leases the entire parcel to a non-profit, the only time the property would be entitled to tax-exempt status would be if any money paid for its use is less than the amount of carrying, maintenance and depreciation charges on the property. However, the terms “carrying charge,” “maintenance charge and “depreciation charge are undefined in the statute.

Nevertheless, courts have interpreted carrying charges as outlays necessary to carry or maintain the property without foreclosure, such as insurance, repairs and assessments for garbage disposal, sewer, and water services. Amortization of mortgage principal for these purposes should be excluded from carrying charges, as should corporate franchise taxes, which are crucial to the corporation’s existence but not to the maintenance of the building. Legal expenses for the collection of rent or penalties and late fees should also be excluded.

Maintenance charges include costs to maintain and repair the property. They may not include enhancements that increase the property’s value, replacements that suspend deterioration, or changes that appreciably prolong the life of property.

Depreciation can be defined as a decline in property value caused by wear and tear, and is usually measured by a set formula that reflects these elements over a given period of useful property’s life.

Clearly, while real property tax exemptions are becoming more popular, potential applicants would be wise to contact an attorney or expert familiar with applicable statutes and case law before submitting an application for property tax exemption.

 

Jason Penighetti 217x285Jason M. Penighetti is an attorney at the Mineola, N.Y., law firm of Koeppel Martone & Leistman LLP, the New York State member of Amercian Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.  Contact Jason at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

May
30

Utah Tax Sales Require Due Process

State Supreme Court finds that due process error bars statute of limitaitons on title challenge.

The Utah Supreme Court has affirmed the right of property owners to challenge tax sales conducted without constitutionally adequate notice to the property owner, even when the challenge takes place after the prescribed statutory limitations period has expired.

The court’s Jan. 10, 2017, decision in Jordan vs. Jensen overruled its 1955 decision in Hansen vs. Morris, where it had held that once the limitations period had passed, the purchaser of a tax deed could retain title against a challenge from an earlier deed holder even when the tax sale had violated due process.

The case centered on the question of whether or not a taxing entity’s failure to provide adequate, constitutionally required notice to an interested party of a tax sale prevented the application of a statute of limitations specific to tax title challenges.  Utah law prohibits parties from challenging a tax title holder’s ownership of real property more than four years after the property was conveyed.

In Jordan vs. Jensen, the property at issue was sub-surface mineral rights that had been severed from the surface interests in 1995. The owner of the surface estate failed to pay property taxes between 1995 and 1999, and Uintah County seized the property and sold it in a tax sale in 2000. The purchaser of the tax deed then sold the property to the Jensens.

The Jordans were the owners of the severed mineral interest and neither they nor their predecessors had ever received notice of tax assessments for the mineral estate, nor did they receive notice of the surface owners’ failure to pay taxes or of the tax sale. Although the mineral interest had been severed from the surface interest in 1995, the 2000 tax deed purported to convey the land without reservation or exceptions.

A lessee of the Jordans’ mineral rights secured two title opinions in an effort to ensure that the Jordans actually owned the leased mineral interests. Both attorneys expressed their concerns that the mineral estate might have passed to the Jensens under the tax deed.

When the Jordan's became aware of the title concerns in 2013, they asked the Jensens to sign a mineral rights quitclaim deed to settle the issue. The Jensens responded by claiming ownership of the mineral estate for the first time.

The Jordans filed a complaint to quiet title, alleging that the mineral interest could not have passed as a result of the tax sale because the Jordans never received notice of the sale. The Jensens counter-claimed, seeking title to the mineral interest and alleging that the Jordans’ action was barred under Utah’s judicial code because more than four years had passed since the tax sale.

In the code’s chapter on statutes of limitations, Section 206 prohibits a party from challenging conveyance in a tax sale after the passage of four years, as follows: “An action or defense to recover, take possession of, quiet title to, or determine the ownership of real property may not be commenced against the holder of a tax title after the expiration of four years from the date of the sale, conveyance, or transfer of the tax title to any county, or directly to any other purchaser at any public or private tax sale.”

The Jensens invoked this provision in defense against the Jordans’ action to quiet title, claiming that inasmuch as the tax sale had occurred more than four years prior to the lawsuit, the Jordans could not challenge the validity of the tax sale. The Jensens argued that the tax sale would have been voidable for failure to provide notice within the four-year period, but that the limitations period protected the tax title from legal challenges after that time.

Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. Neither disputed that the county failed to provide constitutionally adequate notice of the sale. Therefore, the only issue was whether that deficiency prevented the application of Section 206.

The district court held that the four-year limitations period did not apply because the county had violated constitutional requirements of due process by not providing notice to the Jordans of the tax sale, and that failure prevented the mineral interest from passing at the tax sale. The Jensens appealed the district court’s decision to the Utah Supreme Court.

On appeal, the Jensens relied on Hansen v. Morris (1955), wherein the court rejected a due-process challenge to the predecessor to Section 206. In that case, the Utah Supreme Court  held that the application of the four-year limitations period was constitutional even when “statutory steps required to perfect a tax title have not been taken, such as failure to give notice of sale, failure of the auditor to execute affidavits, etc.

The Jordan court acknowledged that the Hansen court had rejected a due-process challenge to the application of Section 206, but found that three subsequent United States Supreme Court decisions required reversal of Hansen.

In Mennonite Board of Missions vs. Adams (1983), state law provided a two-year redemption period after a county tax sale. However, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the mortgagee was deprived of due process and the two-year limitations period did not apply because the mortgagee had not received notice of the tax sale.

In Schroeder vs. City of New York (1962), a statute required an aggrieved party to sue for damages within three years after the city diverted water. Schroeder sued more than three years after diversion had occurred, but the court held that the limitations period did not apply because the city had not given Schroeder notice that it had diverted the water.

In Tulsa Professional Collection Services Inc. vs. Pope (1988), the court held that non-claim statutes requiring creditors to submit claims to the executrix within two months were limitations periods that required actual notice before they could bar a creditor’s claim.

According to the Utah Supreme Court, these U.S. Supreme Court. cases established that “a statute providing a limitations period will not apply when it is triggered by constitutionally defective state action.” There was no dispute that the Jordans had not received constitutionally sufficient notice of the tax sale, or that the tax sale constituted state action. Thus, the court held that the Jordans had the right to challenge the Jensens’ claim to title in the mineral interest and that “the county’s failure to provide notice prevented the Jordans’ mineral interest from passing at the tax sale.”

Stephen Young Sept 2014Hunsaker Pamela

Steven P. Young, Partner and Pamela B. Hunsaker, Of Counsel, serve the Salt Lake City law office of Holland & Hart which is a Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. 

May
25

Property Tax Tip: Beware of Misleading Comp Sales

Are you challenging an assessment?  

A veteran tax attorney urges a close look at sales comps used by the assessor, which may not reflect your asset's true market value.

To estimate a property’s value for taxation, assessors customarily draw on in-house databases.  Sales chosen for comparison are selected on the basis of general characteristics, such as location, use and zoning.

However, those characteristics do not tell the entire story. To begin with, databases are neither designed nor maintained to record crucial details. Although buyer motivation is assumed to be implicit within the transaction that information is rarely included, if ever.

In practice, no two property sales are identical. In order for the assessor to draw value conclusions, comparisons must reflect adjustments for the unique characteristics affecting the price. A real property transaction may meet one standard of a market sale: the arm’s-length test, which establishes that the buyer and seller are independent and acting in their own interest.

FINDING THE MOTIVE

Nevertheless, the taxpayer must examine the buyer’s motivation, which may very well turn out to disqualify the transaction as a comparable market sale. If the buyer’s needs are unique to that transaction, reflecting a motive that other investors are unlikely to share or value, that disqualifies the exchange as a valid transaction for comparison.

The assessor’s records should include such basic information as the buyer and seller, the property’s size and location and the closing date. This provides a starting point for further inquiry.

In many instances, the needs of the seller or buyer create an exchange value unique to the parties and do not reflect market value. They may include one or more of the following situations.

Strategic premium. The buyer under this scenario is protecting its own enterprise by eliminating opportunities for competitors to move into its trade area. An owner of convenience stores that sell gasoline, for example, may acquire sites likely to attract other operators, impose deed restrictions that preclude competition, and resell the restricted property. To that convenience-store owner, the value of the deal is to enhance sales volume by eliminating competition. Other categories of retail chains may employ the strategy. One big-box retailer typically imposes deed restrictions on sites it vacates, thus thwarting competitors from moving into its former space.

Part of a larger deal. The assignment of value within a portfolio transaction is always subject to question. When investors buy multiple properties in a single deal, they may be compelled to take on some under-performing assets along with the most desirable ones. For that reason, values assigned to individual assets in the transaction may be arbitrary, or at best driven by other priorities, not the least of which may be depreciation schedules for federal tax purposes.

Unique buyer needs. A business that must expand its footprint to keep growing has two choices: Buy the property next door, or move to a larger location. The value of the neighboring property to that buyer does not necessarily reflect how the market would typically value the property, but indicates only the buyer’s need at that time.

Sale-leasebacks. The transfer of a property with a leaseback agreement is more a financing arrangement than a conventional sale. It generates cash for the seller and returns to the buyer through lease payments that may bear little or no relation to actual market lease rates. The value in exchange lies in the entirety of the arrangement, which is essentially equivalent to a loan secured by a deed of trust that includes outside collateral.

Assemblage. In order to create a parcel large enough to meet its needs, a buyer may acquire several tracts to create a single property. The individual parcels cease to exist separately and become an undefined part of the new, larger assemblage. Sometimes the owner of the key tract—perhaps the final one required to complete the assemblage—is able to extract a higher price than the property would otherwise command. To the buyer, it is a must-have piece without which the project cannot be completed. Since the buyer pays more than the market value, the excessive price is an unreliable barometer.

These examples demonstrate that the values an assessor references as comparable purchase prices may well be misleading. Indeed, the prices paid for those assets regularly stem from strategic priorities, rather than from actual market. By carefully examining the assessor’s database of comparable sales, taxpayers can reduce property assessments that do not reflect the fair market value of a property.

 

Wallach90Jerome Wallach is the senior partner in The Wallach Law Firm based in St. Louis, Missouri. The firm is the Missouri member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Jerry Wallach can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

May
01

IPT's 2017 Property Tax Article of the Year

The Institute for Professionals in Taxation has awarded Brent A. Auberry, Esq., Stewart L. Mandell, Esq., and Daniel L. Stanley, Esq. with the 2017 Property Tax Article of the Year Award for their article entitled, “Invalid “Dark Box” Property Tax Claims Misinform Indiana and Michigan Legislatures,” which was published in the July 2016 issue of IPT’s monthly publication, IPT Insider.

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May
01

Invalid "Dark Box" Property Tax Claims Misinform Indiana and Michigan Legislatures

Some have recently called this the dark box theory. However, what some are now calling the dark box theory is simply traditional accepted valuation methodology. Indeed, among appraisal professionals, it is the use of comparable sales of occupied stores that generates controversy and is often inappropriate to value an owner-occupied store.

If the criticisms of valid appraisal methodology are not legitimate, why has this issue received so much attention? One cause is the financial pressure on localities due to lower property values from the Great Recession. Not only did property values fall after 2008, but many businesses closed altogether. Communities have faced not only a loss in jobs but also decreasing property values. In both Michigan and Indiana, that pressure was compounded by the application of property tax caps. Public coffers to support local services have been squeezed, and state governments have not provided additional funding.

Another root cause was self-inflicted: the unjustified, over-assessment of new big box stores. Assessors used construction costs and land cost as the “market value” of the property, despite the fact that, like a new car or a newly tailored suit, the market value of these properties is always less than the cost of construction.

The purported problem is also one of public perception. If a retail store is operating, with inventory on the shelves and customers in the aisles, it may be difficult for the general public and local officials to understand why it is appropriate to value the property by using a transaction of a similar store that was vacant at the time of sale.

Trained assessors, however, should know better. They are legally required to only value the property itself, i.e., its “sticks and bricks” as well as the land. The occupants and content of the property have no relevance to the market value of an owner-occupied real property. Most states separately tax the business activity conducted on a property through income and sales taxes. Assigning value to property based on a taxpayer’s business operations will unlawfully tax properties based on both intangible assets and intangible factors, and result in nonuniform taxation of similar properties.

Indiana Board of Tax Review Decisions
In December of 2014, the Indiana Board of Tax Review (IBTR) issued two opinions, which in most respects were no different than hundreds of rulings that preceded them.In both cases, taxpayers prevailed after the IBTR concluded their USPAP-compliant appraisals represented the best evidence of value. In the first case, involving a freestanding 237,000 square foot big box store in Indianapolis, the taxpayer’s appraiser developed and relied upon the sales comparison and income approaches to value (assigning more weight to the sales approach) to reach value conclusions for multiple tax years. In the second case, involving an 88,000 square foot big box store attached to a shopping center, the taxpayer’s appraiser developed all three approaches to value but relied on and assigned equal weight to the sales comparison and income approaches to value.

In both cases, the taxpayers’ appraisers used sales of vacant stores. Each appraiser adjusted those sales to reflect the differences between the appraised store and the comparable stores. Neither appraiser relied exclusively on the sales comparison approach to value. Consequently, the IBTR’s rulings in both appeals were not based solely on the supposed “dark box” sales, and the sales that were relied upon were adjusted to reflect differences between the subject and the comparable properties, with respect to physical condition, location and other factors.

That nuance was lost on the assessing community as a whole and the subsequent statewide media reporting. The public was told that the IBTR incorrectly compared an active store with a defunct one. Yet, a sale of a vacant store represents the transfer of the real property alone, without the value of the business operations, which is exactly what should be valued under the law. The flawed and overly simple criticisms of the IBTR’s decisions were repeated often, and loudly. Unfortunately, the Indiana General Assembly listened.

The Indiana Legislative Reaction and its Subsequent Fallout 2015 Legislation
After much heated discussion, the Indiana legislature, in the waning hours of its 2015 session, passed two provisions addressing “dark box” assessments in Senate Bill 436. The first provision (Section 43) was directed at big box stores. Assessors were directed to assess newer stores (those with an effective age of ten years or less) using a modified cost approach, accounting for physical depreciation and obsolescence.

The second provision (Section 44) impacted all “commercial non-income producing real property, including a saleleaseback property.” In determining the true tax value of qualifying properties with improvements with an effective age of ten years or less, a “comparable real property sale” could not be used if the comparable, among other restrictions, had been vacant for more than one year as of the assessment date.

Sections 43 and 44 were not well received. The IBTR issued a memo noting the new law contained “provisions that run counter to generally accepted appraisal practices.”

2016 Legislation
Indiana’s 2016 legislation session saw a complete repeal of Sections 43 and 44, effective January 1, 2016. House Bill 1290, Section 13, added Ind. Code § 6-1.1- 31-6(d) to provide: “With respect to the assessment of an improved property, a valuation does not reflect the true tax value of the improved property if the purportedly comparable sale properties supporting the valuation have a different market or submarket than the current use of the improved property, based on a market segmentation analysis.” Any such analysis “must be conducted in conformity with generally accepted appraisal principles.” And the analysis “is not limited to the categories of markets and submarkets enumerated in the rules or guidance materials adopted” by Indiana’s property tax rulemaking agency, the Department of Local Government Finance (DLGF), which is the agency that was directed to develop rules classifying improvements in part based on market segmentation.

What does this mean? That remains to be seen. Subsection 6(d) will undoubtedly be litigated before the IBTR and Indiana Tax Court, and the DLGF is in the process of developing its market segmentation rules. We do know two things: (i) the party challenging use of comparable sales must provide the market segmentation analysis; and (ii) the analysis must be based on generally accepted appraisal principles. No presumption exists under the statute that a sale is excluded. Exclusion must be proven with expert analysis.

Subsection 6(d) will lead to more costly appeals, with additional expert testimony and reports on market segmentation being required. As appeal expenses increase, litigants are likely to adopt tougher settlement positions, which will cause fewer cases to settle. As litigation takes longer to resolve, local officials’ uncertainty regarding the tax base will also increase. Section 13 also added Ind. Code § 6-1.1- 31-6(e), which cemented a long-standing principle of Indiana assessment law, i.e., that true tax value “does not mean the value of the property to the user.” To illustrate, the assessed value of a big box store owned and operated by Wal-Mart cannot be based on the specific value that the store has to Wal-Mart due to, for example, how Wal-Mart uses its unique marketing and employee training standards to sell its distinctive product mix.

Proposed Michigan Legislation – HB 5578
As in Indiana, Michigan government representatives have been waging a public relations campaign that has misled the public, including policy makers. The legislation drafts originally circulated were influenced by Indiana’s legislation. Ultimately, on June 8, 2016, the Michigan House passed House Bill 5578 (“HB 5578”). Among its many significant flaws, HB 5578 prevents use of the sales comparison approach in cases where its use would be appropriate, and forces reliance on the cost approach, without accounting for all forms of obsolescence. It is not yet known what will happen to the bill in the Michigan Senate.

HB 5578’s Required Findings of Fact
HB 5578 requires many specific findings of fact by the Michigan Tax Tribunal in a tax assessment appeal. Among others, HB 5578 requires specific findings of fact regarding: the market in which the subject property competes, the highest and best use of the property under appeal, the reproduction or replacement cost, and comparable properties in the market that have the same highest and best use.

While the listed factors are appropriate to consider in a valuation appeal, requiring specific findings of fact will be extremely burdensome and, in some cases, is ambiguous or unworkable. For example, an automotive assembly plant in Michigan might compete with automotive plants in the Midwest, Canada and Mexico and the automobiles produced at the plant could be shipped worldwide. HB 5578 provides no ascertainable standards on how one determines “the market in which the property subject to assessment competes.”

HB 5578 requires calculation of a “replacement or reproduction cost for property that has the same . . . age as the property subject to assessment.” It is nonsensical to calculate the construction cost to reproduce or replace property that has the same “age” as the property under consideration because, as an example, one cannot construct a 40-year old building. Presumably, what was intended was that cost new would be calculated, with a deduction for the depreciation of the subject property due to age. However, that is not what the plain language of HB 5578 requires.

HB 5578’s Exclusion of Comparable Properties
HB 5578 requires that a comparable property be excluded if its “use” is different than the highest and best use of the property subject to assessment. It is unclear what the term “use” means as applied in this subsection and whether it means “actual use when sold,” “subsequent use after sale,” or “highest and best use when sold.”

The proposed legislation also allows a comparable property to be considered “if the sale or rental of the property occurred under economic conditions that were not substantially different from the highest and best use of the property subject to assessment unless there is substantial evidence that the economic conditions are common at the location of the property subject to assessment.” This provision is absurd. It is impossible to compare “economic conditions” with “highest and best use” and, even if it were possible, it would not make any sense to do so.

For the sale of a comparable property that was vacant at the time of sale, HB 5578 requires consideration of whether “the cause of the vacancy is typical for marketing properties of the same class.” How is a “cause of vacancy” ever “typical for marketing”? HB 5578 further requires consideration of whether “the vacancy does not reflect a use different from the highest and best use of the property. . . .” Conspicuously missing from HB 5578 are any instructions as to the determination of how a vacancy reflects a use.

HB 5578 requires exclusion of a comparable sale property if the comparable property was subject to a deed restriction or covenant, “if that restriction or covenant does not assist in the economic development of the property, does not provide a continuing benefit of the property, or materially increases the likelihood of vacancy. . . .” What is missing from this analysis is any consideration as to whether such a deed or covenant would impact the price at which the property sold. For example, a reciprocal easement on the comparable property that did not “assist in the economic development of the property” but did not impact its sale price likely would be enough to exclude the comparable sale. Such reciprocal easements are commonplace and generally do not affect the price at which property sells.

Conclusion
Few would challenge the fundamental principles that property tax assessments should be uniform and should reflect the value of the fee simple interests of the properties – not the values of the business operations conducted thereon. Yet, the “dark box” bogeyman threatens these cornerstone valuation principles. In both Indiana and Michigan, new legislation gives taxpayers good reason to fear that in future years they may be faced with inflated property tax bills based on non-uniform and inequitable assessments.

 

Brent AuberryBrent A. Auberry is a partner in the Indianapolis office of the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, the Indiana member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the natonal affiliation of property tax attorneys. Mr. Auberry can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Mandell StewartStewart Mandell is a Partner of the Tax Appeals Practice Group Leader, in the law firm of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, the Michigan member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC). He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

Daniel L. StanleyDaniel Stanley is a Partner in the law firm of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP, the Michigan member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC). He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Apr
26

Add Value Through Correct Valuation

Even in a booming market, managing expenses is the best way to ensure the long-term profitability of investment properties. For most student housing, the largest expense after debt service is property tax.

Assessors in college towns are happy to shift the tax burden onto out-of-town students and investors in student housing communities. And due to the perplexing assessment systems in most jurisdictions, owners and developers of student housing communities often treat tax assessments as a given, making appeals the exception rather than the rule. Yet any reduction in the tax burden can substantially increase profitability, so prudent owners monitor tax assessments closely.

Most ad valorem tax disputes hinge on property value. Developers are adept at valuing assets for investment, but there are substantial differences between taxable value and how much a property is worth as an investment. Knowing these differences can protect owners from overzealous assessors.

Identify the right income

Because student housing communities are income-producing properties, developed and purchased for the high-quality income streams they generate, most assessors argue that capitalized income is the best indication of their real estate value. Accordingly, assessors often ask for the property’s historic income and expense information. Taxpayers should be hesitant to provide the property’s operating statements without considering appropriate caveats, however.

In most states, property tax assessments reflect the property’s market value. Consequently, the assessor should value the asset using market levels of rent, vacancy, and expenses – not the property’s actual financial results. Just because the subject student housing operator maximizes revenues, for example, doesn’t mean that all of its competitors do.

Consider vacancy: Because of the school calendar, many student housing communities generate the majority of their annual income in a nine-month window and sit nearly vacant over the summer months. That equates to a market-wide effective vacancy of 25 percent. The fact that one complex appeals to summer students does not mean that competing properties should be valued as fully occupied year-round.

Further, unlike most standard apartments, the rent a student housing community can generate is attributable to substantial non-realty components. Most units are furnished, and rent often includes utilities, premium cable television, high-speed internet and other amenities. As a result, the income stream is not exclusively attributable to the real estate, but to personal property, intangibles, and business value as well. Likewise, some developments have favorable contracts with the university whose students will be housed by the community. Such non-realty components are not taxable, and must be removed. Failing to cleanse the income stream solely to its realty component can result in an overstated, overtaxed property value.

Scrutinize comparable sales

In certain markets, evaluating the selling prices for other student housing communities may be a valid method of determining a property’s taxable market value, but assessors often misinterpret that sales data. Just as a property’s income stream reflects more than the value of the real estate, a sales price – usually based on the same income stream – may reflect more than the value of the realty alone.

The most relevant sales for comparison are those where the real estate transacts without any personal property, intangibles, or business value. Since such sales are rare, an assessor using the sales of nearby student housing communities must take care to remove the value of everything but the realty. This task, often overlooked by assessors, requires identifying and measuring hard-to-value assets with certainty.

Moreover, comparable sales have to be adjusted to account for differences between the sold property and the property being assessed. Three communities might all have the same number of beds, but one might have mostly one- and two-bedroom layouts, while another has more community amenities that appeal to a different mix of students. They may serve different schools with different demographics. If the differences between the properties affect their respective rents, then the sales prices should be adjusted accordingly so they best match the configuration of the subject property.

In the absence of sales of purpose-built student housing, some assessors might be tempted to use sales of other types of multifamily housing. Despite superficial similarities, the properties compete in different markets, which appear as structural differences between the properties. An assessor failing to account for such differences may be making a fundamental error.

Cashing in on unusual cases

As the student housing market grows and matures, a particular community may face other circumstances that require a closer look during tax season. For example, public-private partnerships (P3s) are becoming more common in the student housing marketplace. Whether a taxpayer enters a P3 for monetization, development, or operational purposes, the agreement’s characterization can have substantial property tax consequences. Parties to P3s should keep taxability in mind as they draft contracts.

Similarly, in some states dormitories are exempt from property tax because they are deemed educational property. This exemption has historically extended to dormitories owned and operated by colleges and universities. But some properties owned or managed by third parties may still qualify for exemptions because, for example, the school can be deemed the beneficial owner of the property. Of course, the inverse can also be true, so operators should be cautious when drafting contracts so as not to convert an exempt property into a taxable one.

As the student housing market continues to surge, assessors are eager to expand the local tax base by capturing a piece of that growth. But by focusing on the key distinctions of the student housing market, diligent owners can improve the profitability of existing properties and free capital for new investment.

 

 Ben Blair jpgBenjamin Blair is an attorney in the Indianapolis office of the international law firm of Faegre Baker Daniels, LLP, the Indiana and Iowa 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..  

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