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Property Tax Resources

Aug
12

When Property Tax Valuation Worlds Collide

Simultaneously protesting an assessment and a government taking can put taxpayers in a quandary.

There are multitudes of ways for property owners to reduce their tax burdens, as well as missteps that can derail a tax strategy. With that in mind, taxpayers should beware of trying to prove a low value for a tax appeal while simultaneously claiming a higher value in another proceeding. And here is how it can happen.

Protesting a high assessment

Most real estate taxes in the Northeast -- including those in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts -- have an "ad valorem" or "value-based" assessment method. Thus, the greater a property is worth, the higher its real estate tax burden. A property tax bill is calculated by multiplying the property assessment by the tax rate. The assessment or taxable value is determined by the local assessor or board of assessors and is typically a percentage of market value.

This percentage varies among states and even municipalities. In New York, it is based on a comprehensive analysis of sales. The percentage is released annually by the state's Office of Real Property Tax Services and is different for each municipality. Connecticut sets its percentage by statute. In Pennsylvania, it is set by the state's Tax Equalization Board. But regardless of the state or method, local statutes fortunately allow property owners to reduce their real property tax burden by protesting the assessment they receive.

To successfully appeal a tax assessment, property owners must file a tax appeal and conclusively prove a lower market value. There are a few accepted ways to do this, namely the sales comparison, income capitalization, and cost approaches to determining value. No matter which method is used, the calculation must value the property according to its actual use and condition as it existed on a specific date in the past. New York designates this as a taxable status date and most states use the same or a similar term.

Asserting a higher value

The "actual use and condition" guideline in setting taxable value stands in stark contrast with condemnation and eminent domain guidelines, which value property when it is taken for a public purpose. In that scenario, the property must be valued according to its highest and best use, regardless of how the property is actually being used.

When the government takes private property for a public purpose, it must compensate the owner for the damages to the property's most valuable use. This valuation standard is known as "highest and best use," and has a specific meaning in the appraisal and eminent domain world.

According to the Appraisal Institute's reference text, "The Appraisal of Real Estate," and a multitude of state and federal court cases, the highest and best use of a property must be (1) physically possible, (2) legally permissible, (3) financially feasible, and (4) maximally productive. A taxpayer building a case for maximum value will typically need a lawyer, along with an appraiser and/or engineer, to evaluate these four categories for the specific property, look at the range of uses that qualify under each of those categories, and then conclude which use will result in the highest market value.

For example, a vacant, five-acre, commercial-zoned parcel of land on Madison Avenue in New York City would not be valued as vacant land, but as whatever its maximum use could have been, such as an office building.

At crossed purposes

There can be a serious conflict between the two guidelines when there is a partial taking, such as when a government takes a strip of a larger tract for a road widening, during the pendency of a tax assessment appeal on the larger property. The conflict can arise when the property's highest and best use happens to be its present use and condition.

In that scenario, a property owner is in the difficult position of claiming a low market value for the tax assessment proceedings and claiming a higher market value during the condemnation proceeding. When that happens, the taxpayer's team must perform an analysis to determine which proceeding will potentially result in the greatest benefit to the owner.

A good rule of thumb would be to withdraw the tax appeal and concentrate on the eminent domain claim. This is because for condemnation, the damage has occurred on a single date (the date of the taking). Tax appeals, on the other hand, are filed annually, and market values can change from year to year. A wise petitioner would proceed with a tax appeal only after the eminent domain claim is concluded.

Jason M. Penighetti is an attorney at the Mineola, N.Y., law firm of Koeppel Martone & Leistman LLP, the New York State member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Aug
03

COVID-19’s Impact on Affordable Housing Property Tax Valuations

The pandemic leaves affordable housing property owners vulnerable and searching for ways to reduce their property tax liabilities.

After a pandemic year that decimated rental incomes, owners of affordable housing properties should prepare to protest property tax assessments that overstate their liability.

As stay-at-home orders in 2020 forced businesses across the county to change their operations, a large portion of the labor force began to work from home. But many renters, including a large contingent of affordable housing residents, found themselves without jobs and struggling to pay rent.

Job losses and other issues related to COVID-19 adversely affected tenants and property owners alike, straining rental income while adding the cost of new safety procedures and equipment to landlords' operating costs. To reduce property tax liabilities and limit financial losses from the pandemic, it is now crucial for owners of affordable housing to correctly navigate procedures across jurisdictions and weigh all relevant valuation considerations for their properties.

Here are key areas for affordable housing owners to consider in arguing for a lower assessment.

Procedures have changed

The global pandemic transformed interactions between appraisal districts and property owners throughout the 2020 tax year. Many appraisal districts across Texas closed their doors to the public and shifted formal and informal meetings to a virtual setting to combat the spread of COVID-19.

As hearings approach in 2021, appraisal districts are expected to keep many of the pandemic-related practices in place. Telephone and video conferences will likely be the preferred format for hearings and informal meetings, but taxpayers should be prepared to appear in person should the jurisdiction require. Property owners can avoid procedural uncertainty by proactively communicating with the appraisal districts and being sure to meet requirements related to the protest process. Appraisal district websites can also be a helpful resource with regard to procedural guidelines.

Affordable housing performance suffered

The pandemic presented unprecedented challenges for the affordable housing industry. Many tenants lost income as result of job losses and experienced increased financial hardships. The federal government provided economic aid in the form of stimulus checks, which enabled some renters to pay partial or full rental amounts. As the pandemic ravaged on, however, stimulus checks ran out and many tenants ceased to pay rent, cutting into property owners' revenue. Nine out of 10 low- and moderate-income housing providers experienced a revenue decrease as result of COVID-19, according to a study from NDP Analytics.

While tenants' financial difficulties contributed to decreased property revenues, property owners also incurred increased expenses. Property owners were forced to invest in personal protective equipment, increase their cleaning standards and take other measures to ensure the safety of their employees and residents. Research from NDP Analytics also found that low- and moderate-income housing providers across the country averaged an 11.8% decline in revenue and 14.8% surge in operating expenses due to the pandemic. These additional expenses, combined with decreased revenues, created major hardships for many in the affordable housing industry.

Property tax valuation outlook

The Texas Property Tax Code provides two methods for protesting excessive property tax valuations: a market value remedy and an equal and uniform remedy. A market value claim argues that the assessment is excessive based on the three approaches to valuing commercial real estate: income, cost, and sales. Assessors and appraisers typically value an affordable housing property using the income approach. Assessors will gather market income, vacancy, and expense data to arrive at a net operating income, and then capitalize that using a market cap rate reflective of market performance. Taxpayers should evaluate the assessor's cap rate and argue for a more appropriate rate if needed.

Decreased net operating incomes at affordable housing properties in 2020 could result in lower 2021 assessments. When addressing valuation concerns with appraisal districts, property owners should provide evidence of financial strain such as concessions and reduced rent. Data of this sort provides insight to appraisal districts on the performance of a particular property or market and can aid in achieving a value reduction.

The Texas Property Tax Code also requires that properties be appraised equally and uniformly when compared to a reasonable amount of comparable properties. Affordable housing owners should be sure their properties fall within a similar range of values with other like properties on a square-footage basis. Assessors must consider the characteristics of affordable housing projects when choosing comparable properties. Valid comparable selections will allow for a true comparison that reflects the unique characteristics of this property type.

Address tax rates, too

Assessed valuations and tax rates are the two components that determine a property owner's tax expense in Texas. Disgruntled property owners often place the blame of a higher tax bill upon the assessor and forget to address the issue of tax rates.

Taxing entities determine their respective tax rates in the fall, once appraisal districts have certified their appraisal rolls upon completion of the administrative protest process. Property owners should not only protest their property taxes, but attend tax rate hearings and voice their opinions with elected officials to minimize their property tax expense.

Managing Property Taxes

COVID-19 strained affordable housing property owners throughout the past 12 months. Skillfully managing property tax expenses will be vital to the financial health of the real estate. The decision to appeal a tax assessment and partner with a knowledgeable property tax professional will be crucial to successfully reducing assessed values and navigating challenges in the pandemic's wake.

Carlos Suarez is a tax consultant at the Austin, Texas, law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC, the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

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Jun
10

New York City's Pandemic Property Tax Problems Persist

Property tax assessments show market-wide value declines for the first time in 25 years but fall short of reflecting taxpayers' true losses.

What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?

The longstanding physics conundrum encapsulates the situation in which New York City property owners currently find themselves, and for better or worse, they're about to discover the answer to the age-old question. 

City government has squeezed increasing sums of property taxes from its real estate stock in each of the past 25 years, but the pandemic is changing everything.

The basic fact is that 53 percent of New York City revenues come from real estate taxes. Fueled by rising rents
that are tied to high costs of new construction, the city property tax base has grown and enjoyed record tax revenues in recent years. 

Total real property tax revenue was almost $30 billion in 2020, according to the city's annual property tax report. Nothing paused the year-over-year tax increases – not the 2008 financial crisis, nor Hurricane Sandy, nor even 9/11. Only a global pandemic could do that.

COVID-19 has affected every element of New York City's economy, but its effect on real estate and property taxes deserves special attention. Total market value of Class 2 properties (cooperatives, condominiums and rental apartment buildings) decreased by 8% last year, according to the Department of Finance's tentative property tax assessment roll for fiscal 2022. Total market value for Class 4 properties (non-residential commercial properties such as hotels, offices, retail and theaters) fell by a whopping 15.75%, including a 15.5% drop for office buildings. Citywide declines were 21% for retail buildings and 23.8% for hotels.

Impact of Tax Status Dates

New York City assesses all its real estate as of Jan. 5 of each tax year. Therefore, last year's market values set as of Jan. 5, 2020, did not reflect any effects of the soon-to-arrive pandemic. For the 2021-2022 tax year, however, the valuation date of Jan. 5, 2021, must fully account for the impact of COVID-19.

As the tentative property tax assessment roll shows, tax assessors have acknowledged significant reductions in property values. But were these values decreased enough to reflect actual contractions in market value?

Many property owners and tax experts believe that recent assessments fail to adequately reflect the extent to which property owners have suffered due to the pandemic. Taxpayers filed a record number of appeals by the March 1 tax protest deadline and there are massive appeal efforts underway to complete the Tax Commission's review of all the filed cases by the end of the year.

While the newly released assessment values show that assessors addressed many COVID-19 issues, such as the negative effects of state and city executive orders and lockdowns, many properties have not seen adequate assessment reductions. Many hotels, for instance, are experiencing ongoing closures, and some hotels report that their total 2020 revenues are less than their property tax bills, even before accounting for operating expenses and debt service. Theaters do not have a hint of a future reopening in sight. Retail landlords have either lost their tenants or stores are withholding rent payments. Residential renters are not paying rent and new laws prohibit eviction proceedings.

Relief Strategies

Property owners can improve their chances for obtaining further relief on appeal by quantifying property value losses. Hotels should gather documentation showing closure dates, occupancy rates and any special COVID-19 costs they will incur when they reopen. Some 25,000 rooms have been permanently closed, and of the few hotels that did not cease operations, occupancy was about 25% for most of the tax year. Some occupied rooms were for COVID-19 patients and displaced homeless families. Industry forecasts anticipate a four-year recovery period for hotels.

Retail and office property owners should be prepared to show declines in gross income and rents received or paid on their financial reports filed with the city. Make a list of tenants that vacated and of those not paying rent. Additionally, the Tax Commission now requires taxpayers to explain the basis of rent declines greater than 10%.

Tax assessments must reflect the entirety of what this pandemic has done to the real estate industry. Almost every avenue and street in New York City has multiple empty stores and local standby establishments are out of business. Theaters and Broadway are shattered; tourists and all manner of visitors have vanished, leaving an empty, lonely and bleak picture for real estate.

New York City authorities must provide more substantial tax relief for property owners. Taxpayers and their advisors will need to take an active part in obtaining reduced assessments, by carefully assembling proof of the decline in their property's market value.

Joel Marcus is a partner in the New York City law firm Marcus & Pollack LLP, the New York City member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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May
18

The Presentation Of Obsolescence Helps Commercial Property Owners Achieve Successful Tax Appeals

Judith Viorst, author of the children's book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, had nothing on 2020. By virtually every metric, 2020 was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year.

Most states have some sort of catastrophe exemption for a property tax abatement or reduction tied to a defined disaster event. These statutes are state-specific, however, and few states had authority to address whether a property had to have sustained physical damage to qualify for catastrophe relief on property taxes.

Most states, including Texas, eventually concluded that some form of physical damage was necessary for property values to be reduced following a disaster. Its neighbor, Louisiana, went the other direction, concluding that its disaster statute did not require physical damage, only that the property be inoperable due to a declaration of emergency by the governor. Accordingly, property values for the 2020 tax year could be reduced in Louisiana due to COVID-19-related economic losses.

Pandemic paper trails

Fortunately, 2021 gives all taxpayers a fresh start. Most states use Jan. 1 as the "lien date," or valuation date for determining fair market value of property subject to ad valorem tax. For income-producing properties, taxpayers now have a full year's documentation of COVID-19 impacts, which more accurately demonstrate the fair market value of their properties in the current, COVID-19 economic climate. At a high level, such documentation may include financial statements with year-over-year and month-over-month comparison of revenues to expenses and profits to losses.

Drilling down, taxpayers should be able to demonstrate the source of these changing numbers, such as reduced employee hours, decreased production outputs and sales, unoccupied rooms, canceled conferences and the like. Comparable sales information should also now be available.

This information generally relates to economic obsolescence, which is a loss in value due to causes outside the property and which are not included in physical depreciation. Taxpayers also must consider whether their property exhibits functional obsolescence, or a loss in value due to the property's lack of utility or desirability.

Functionality is tied to a property's amenities, layout and current technology. A property's functional obsolescence is measured through reduced or impaired use. Taxpayers can quantify the lack of use in 2020 and compare it to pre-2020 capacity and usage in arguing for a reduction in taxable value.

Value and evolving utility

Historical information is key to the taxpayer's case — as is evidence of adaptation to current market trends. For instance, a year ago, who would have imagined that neighborhood and big-box stores of all stripes would start delivering their products directly to customers' homes? Suddenly, abundant check-out lanes, wide aisles, sampling stations and sprawling parking lots are unnecessary. Retailers would rather have drive-thru lanes and dedicated carryout parking.

Hotels have been similarly affected. Traditional amenities such as atriums, event space and intimate lounges that preclude safe social distancing are passé. Motels with open-air access are enjoying a renaissance. Resourceful restauranteurs have figured out how to make street-side dining desirable. Patios are now essential. While many of these changes in use are likely temporary, some are expected to be longer-lasting.

Consider commercial office space. Prior to the pandemic, many office-using employers permitted only limited remote work but working from home has now become the new normal. Facility planners expect the traditional office environment to shift to a hybrid model, with expanded remote working, office-sharing, and fewer in-person communications. Large conference rooms are out and state-of-the-art multimedia systems have taken their place.

These trends impact real estate values because they affect how property is used, or more importantly, not used. Commercial real estate developers will not be laying out offices the same way they used to, and hoteliers will not be building out the same large conference centers post-COVID. And the reality is that much existing buildout, furniture and equipment is going unused. So for now, a replacement cost analysis is the most appropriate valuation method for those property types, because it reflects the functionality of the property and the fact that the property would not be rebuilt as is.

Of course, as more and more businesses adapt to post-pandemic market trends, the lack of utilization may be deemed industrywide rather than property specific. At that point, appraisers should treat the lost value as economic obsolescence, which is value losses stemming from factors occurring outside the property. In either case, taxpayers should be prepared to demonstrate the inutility of their property, and the cost of such inutility, to reduce taxable value.

Better than terrible

Whether or not 2021 is radically better than last year, at least taxpayers are now in a better position to show the adverse impact the pandemic has had on fair market values. And if that translates to lower ad valorem tax liabilities, then this decade is off to a very good start.

Angela Adolph is a partner in the law firm of Kean Miller LLP, the Louisiana member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Apr
14

Unwelcome Property Tax Surprises in D.C.

Insights into managing real property tax liabilities in the nation's capital.

After the tumult and disruptions of 2020, the last thing taxpayers need is another surprise. Our society craves predictability more than ever before, and commercial real estate owners want predictability in their property taxes. 

In the District of Columbia, commercial real estate owners keen to make their future expenses more predictable can start by familiarizing themselves with the full gamut of real property liabilities. In addition to the standard annual property tax, the District imposes a variety of charges on real estate that vary by the property's location, use and payment history. 

Managing these real estate charges can help a taxpayer budget for upcoming expenses and minimize the risk of incurring unplanned costs. What follows is a primer to help taxpayers manage real property tax liabilities in the District: 

Start with the basics 

The DC Office of Tax and Revenue (OTR) recently launched MyTax. DC.gov, a new taxpayer website intended to streamline the tax assessment and billing processes. This single portal offers insight into taxes on individual income, businesses and real property, as well as fees administered by OTR. 

The site features self-service tools that enable taxpayers to review and pay property tax bills online, view assessment histories, apply for tax relief benefits, request mailing address changes and submit mixed-use declarations, among other features. While this centralized system should help to organize the billing and payment processes, it offers little information about the District's fees and may leave owners still wondering: What are these charges? 

The BID tax 

Many commercial property owners in the District incur a business improvement district (BID) tax. The District defines a business improvement district as "a self-taxing district established by property owners to enhance the economic vitality of a specific commercial area." Each of the District's 11 BIDs assess a surcharge to the real property tax liability, which the District collects and then returns to the BID. Each BID dictates how it spends its funds, typically supporting the community with programs promoting cleanliness, maintenance, safety and economic development. 

The DC Code establishes BIDs and their geographic boundaries. These provisions empower each BID to establish its tax rates. How those taxes are calculated varies by BID. For example, an individual district may base its tax on the number of rooms in a hotel, a building's square footage and a percentage of the tax assessment value. Thankfully, these organizations often have robust, informative websites that can be useful resources for property owners. 

As with real property taxes, a property owner that fails to pay its BID tax on time and in full can incur penalties and interest charges on its tax account. Therefore, mismanaging a property's BID tax can lead to pricey consequences. 

Public space or vault rent 

To optimize the operation of an asset, many property owners rent-adjacent, District-owned space known as "public space." The District categorizes these offerings as either "vault space," which is below ground level; or above-ground "café space." Examples include outdoor café space, above or below-grade parking and areas for storage of utilities. 

The formula for calculating vault rent is Land Rate x Vault Area x Vault Rate. Therefore, changes in a property's taxable land assessment value will result in a change in the rental charge for associated public space. Unlike BID taxes, public-space rent is charged to the renter as a separate bill. This requires extra attention to avoid those pesky penalty and interest charges. 

Special assessments 

A variety of supplementary special assessments may arise to fund city-wide projects. Examples of these charges include a ballpark fee, Southeast Water and Sewer Improvement fee and the New York Avenue fee. The levy of these assessments is governed by specific criteria set forth in the related DC Code provision. 

Given the often-complex nature of the code, taxpayers may choose to consult a tax or legal professional to help navigate these less-common levies. 

Credits 

A credit on a property owner's tax account will likely come as a welcomed surprise, but the taxpayer should give these circumstances the same scrutiny they would give to unexpected charges. Understand that a credit is not free money, nor is it always an accurate designation. 

If a credit appears on the account, it will likely stem from a prior overpayment. This may reflect a reduction in tax liability that occurred after a bill was issued. Other possible causes include a DC Superior Court Refund Order, a dual payment from a third-party vendor or a prepayment of the full year tax liability on a first-half tax bill. 

Before enjoying the benefit of the lowered tax liability, it is important to verify this credit is justified. If the credit was wrongfully applied, a taxpayer will still be liable for the remaining balance. The District may issue a corrected bill for the outstanding amount, or the balance may appear on a future tax bill. A failure to remedy this balance can once again lead to penalty and interest charges. 

Penalties and interest 

The most unwanted surprise charges are penalties and interest. These charges can arise under several circumstances such as when the taxpayer has failed to file a yearly income and expense form with the District, or after missed, late or incomplete payments. 

Penalties and interest can cause a headache for taxpayers. The District will apply any future payment to penalties and interest before the account's principal balance. Therefore, it is easy for a small charge to cause a cascading liability if it is not timely addressed. In addition, while a taxpayer may petition for these charges to be waived, this process is often lengthy and the issuance of such a waiver is at the sole discretion of the OTR. 

The prospect of navigating these charges may seem overwhelming but it is a vital part of owning and managing real estate in the District. Therefore, it is best to learn the tax rules or consult with a local tax attorney who has experience dealing with these issues, as well as with the corresponding governmental entities. A knowledgeable expert can sort through this complicated web of liabilities, penalties and errors.

Sydney Bardouil is an associate at the law firm, Wilkes Artis, the District of Columbia member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Apr
06

Industrial Landlords: Beware of Higher Property Tax Assessments

Find out why not all industrial properties deserve increased tax assessments, contrary to popular belief.

While some commercial property types struggled to stay relevant in 2020, industrial real estate seemed supercharged by the pandemic. This year, tax assessors are likely to use strong investor and occupier demand for some industrial properties to support significantly higher assessments for all industrial real estate. They may see this as a solution to make up for value losses in the hospitality, retail, and office sectors. That means industrial property owners should prepare for major assessment increases and begin building arguments to establish their properties' true taxable value.

E-commerce in perspective

If e-commerce was rising before 2020, it skyrocketed after the initial shock of the pandemic. The e-commerce share of total retail sales jumped to 16.1% at the end of the second quarter of 2020 from 11.8% in the first quarter and 10.8% a year earlier, according to the Census Bureau. As e-commerce grew, so too did industrial leasing demand, as online retailers secured spaces to process incoming goods and fulfill orders for shipment to consumers.

The e-commerce operations driving the surge in demand brought with them a list of demands to serve their logistical plans, however. Their preferences typically included locations close to major transportation corridors, proximity to their customers for deliveries, high ceiling heights and other traits necessary for handling the rapid growth of logistics-related technologies.

For 2021 industrial property tax appeals, it is important to understand that not all industrial real estate is equally suited to meet the demands of e-commerce operations. In practice, occupier demand that makes some properties more valuable will often lower the marketability and value of properties not fitting that demand. This, in turn, can affect a property's taxable value.

A Checklist for Appealing Tax Assessments on Industrial Property

The following are issues to consider in 2021 industrial property tax appeals:

Pick the right approach. There are several appraisal methods that assessors can use to value a property, but taxpayers should pay special attention in 2021 to the sales comparison approach. Though Texas is a non-disclosure state, meaning the state does not require a buyer to reveal the purchase price for acquired real estate, assessors have tools at their disposal to obtain or back-into purchase prices.

For tax year 2021, it will be important to note that although there may have been a few transactions, overall industrial sales volume generally declined from the prior year's numbers among the major metropolitan markets. In the second quarter of 2020 especially, the drop off in sales indicate that lenders and investors had to reevaluate the market and their underwriting assumptions.

For the sales comparison approach to value properties accurately, the properties and transactions used as evidence need to be comparable to the subject property. If that is not the case, calculations may place an unnecessary premium on the property.

For example, sales of warehouses with cold storage capabilities should not be directly compared to a conventional warehouse without a cold storage component. Thus, if an assessing jurisdiction raises an assessed value based on limited sales information, chances are the sale is not representative or comparable to the taxpayer's property. The taxpayer should consider raising this issue in their property tax appeal.

Consider property age and class. The industrial real estate sector serves a wide variety of uses that require special buildouts or designs that must be completed for the intended tenant to conduct their business effectively. For example, older, Class C industrial buildings tend to have smaller square footage and lower ceiling heights than more modern spaces. With the rising cost of transportation and emphasis on logistical efficiency, these attributes make Class C properties less marketable than newer, Class A or B industrial buildings.

According to CBRE, the warehouses built in 2019 are typically greater than 100,000 square feet and have ceilings that average 3.7 feet higher than warehouses built between 2002 and 2007. The increased space is primarily for more inventory and reverse logistics for returns. The newest buildings also feature more bay doors and parking space for large trucks. If the assessor is comparing properties and valuing a 2002-built warehouse the same way as the newer product without adjustments for class and age, the taxpayer may have an additional issue to raise in their appeal.

Location is critical. Location is becoming more important than ever to the tenant. Since land is more expensive the closer it is to the central business district of any city, the potential for using the space efficiently becomes more crucial as well. Assessors may increase the value of properties that are close to these markets.

E-commerce businesses demand locations that can speed last-mile deliveries to consumers. Proximity to transportation corridors is a significant advantage for tenants because it improves the timeliness of the supply chain. If an industrial property does not meet current demand because of its location, that may be an avenue for relief from increased property tax valuations.

Is rent paid, or deferred? Governments have deemed some industrial real estate tenants to be essential businesses during the pandemic, and this has limited the disruption of rent payments to certain landlords. During property tax appeals, it will be important to highlight the properties that suffered decreases in net operating income and occupancy, so they are not treated like the properties that saw no disruption in rent payments.

Owners of industrial properties may be able to fight and defeat the property tax increases potentially heading their way. Keys to winning assessment appeals will include following the industrial trends and being able to distinguish the taxpayer's property from the desirable properties that are trading, possessing evolving technology, being in the right location, andcollecting strong rents. 

Darlene Sullivan is a partner in Austin, Texas, law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC, the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel.  Justin Raes is a tax consultant at Popp Hutcheson.
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Mar
16

COVID-19's Heavy Toll on Property Values

Georgia taxpayers should start preparing arguments to lower their property tax assessments.

Few commercial properties emerged with unscathed values from the harsh economic climate of 2020. Yet Georgia and many jurisdictions like it valued commercial real estate for property taxation that year with a valuation date of Jan. 1, 2020 – nearly three months before COVID-19 thrust the U.S. economy into turmoil.

This means governments taxed commercial properties for all of 2020 on values that ignored the severe economic consequences those properties endured for more than 75% of the calendar year. When property owners begin to receive notices of 2021 assessments, which Georgia assessors typically mail out in April through June each year, property owners can at last seek to lighten their tax burden by arguing for reduced assessments.

The pandemic hurt some real estate types more than others, however, and with both short-term effects and some that may continue to depress asset values for years. For taxpayers contesting their assessments, the challenge will be to show the combination of COVID-19 consequences affecting their property, and the extent of resulting value losses.

The experiences of 2020 can serve as a roadmap for valuations in the current year and, in certain settings, in future years.

A three-pronged attack

COVID-19 can inflict a three-pronged assault on a commercial property's value, and taxpayers should explore each of these areas for evidence of loss as they build a case for a lower assessment.

Widespread losses. The first prong of the trident may be a drop in value stemming from an overall decline in the market. Like the Great Recession of 2008, the pandemic has reduced many property values by impeding economic performance in general.

Reduced income and cash flow, for example, can indicate reduced property value. Valuing the property with a market and income analysis approach can reveal this type of loss.

Reduced functionality. Is the property's layout or format less functional than models that occupiers came to prefer during the pandemic? In Georgia, functional impairments may have curable and incurable components beyond normal obsolescence. In other words, when changing occupier demand has rendered a property obsolete, there may be some features the owner can address to restore utility and increase value.

Adverse economic trends. Economic factors occurring outside the property can suppress property value. Georgia tax law recognizes that economic trends can reshape market demand and render some property models obsolete. This economic obsolescence can be short term while the economy is down or a permanent change.

Subsector considerations

Retail. Big-box stores, malls and inline shopping centers had already experienced a functional decline and an economic downturn, both of which accelerated as shopping habits changed during the pandemic. Big box properties were already becoming functionally obsolete as retailers reduced instore inventory requirements and shrank showrooms, which left little demand for the large-format buildings.

Moreover, outside economic factors such as declining instore sales, competition with ecommerce retailers, and high carrying costs have also undercut the value of these properties. The pandemic accelerated this decline, and it is unlikely there will be much, if any, recovery.

Hospitality. The pandemic has severely diminished travel and vacations, and hotel vacancies have skyrocketed. The income yield per room is declining. Operating costs have increased per visitor as amenities have been shut, curtailed or reconfigured. Many hotels have eliminated in-house dining and offer only room service.

The cost to maintain kitchen services is disproportionate to the number served. This decline is solely a product of COVID-19 and, over time, will revert to near normal. Some increased costs may remain elevated, such as extra cleaning supplies and labor to disinfect the property.

Office. COVID-19's effect on office buildings, especially high-rises, may be long-lasting. Fully leased buildings have seen less of a direct affect, but properties with significant unleased space are already hurting. Demand will diminish as more employees work remotely and companies consolidate with shared workspaces, motivated to reduce occupancy cost. This trend will produce both functional and economic effects on the value of office buildings.

Industrial. To a lesser extent, some manufacturing plants can suffer industry-specific economic consequences of COVID-19. Reduced travel has compelled airlines to reduce flights and sideline aircraft, reducing the demand for new and replacement aircraft. Less aircraft being built reduces the value of aircraft manufacturing plants, including the buildings that house them. Likewise, oil production, storage and consumption is down, due to reductions in leisure and business travel and commuting as more people work remotely. Excess capacity for drilling, storage and processing petroleum makes those facilities temporarily obsolete.

Multifamily residential. COVID-19 may have had little negative effect on multifamily complexes. During the pandemic, the supply of available housing on the market has contracted, driving up rents. As a result, apartments remain in high demand from renters and investors, although some areas may be overbuilt.

Despite high occupancy rates, properties may have non-paying or late-paying tenants. It would seem that yields per square foot may be higher, which would suggest increased property values for apartment complexes now. This is not always the case, however, and multifamily values must be considered individually.

Expect resistance

COVID-19 has also affected the mindset of taxing authorities, whose operating costs have remained the same or increased during the crisis. Taxing authorities will be reluctant to decrease tax revenue and will push back against property owners' arguments for reducing taxable values.

Just as individuals have taken personal health precautions against COVID-19, property owners must take precautions to protect the financial health of their properties from the virus' detrimental effects. All commercial property owners in Georgia should carefully examine assessment notices. Wise owners should strongly consider consulting with property tax experts to determine whether to file an appeal.

Lisa Stuckey
Brian Morrissey
Brian J. Morrissey and Lisa Stuckey are partners in the Atlanta law firm of Ragsdale Beals Seigler Patterson & Gray LLP, the Georgia member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Mar
11

The Property Tax Response to COVID-19

Valuation and procedural changes that were implemented in 2020 may have significant effects on owners' 2021 tax liabilities.

Expertly managing property tax liability is more important than ever in 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic pummeled both real estate and business personal property values in the past year, forcing local jurisdictions to overhaul procedures that had been in place for decades. Many of those procedural changes will likely continue this year as assessments finally register the pandemic's full effect. Understanding the procedural changes made by local jurisdictions, and new valuation considerations for both real and personal properties, will be key. 

New Procedures Volatile 

When the pandemic hit, neither appraisal districts nor property owners knew how long the crisis would last. Most appraisal districts closed their doors to the public and quickly converted all informal and formal meetings to telephone or video conferences. Moving into 2021, much of that uncertainty remains. Most jurisdictions will likely continue to rely upon virtual formats for this year's informal meetings and hearings, which generally begin in April and continue throughout the summer. Property owners should be prepared, however, for procedural changes that may be implemented as conditions change. Communication with assessors will be vital, and taxpayers should make sure to provide all requested documentation in a timely manner. Communicating early and often about the valuation and protest will ensure no deadlines are missed and no procedural changes are overlooked.

Managing Real Estate Taxes 

While the fundamental valuation and appeal process for real property will remain the same in Texas, procedural changes initiated in 2020 will likely continue in many appraisal districts. Assessments will reflect the property's value as of Jan. 1, 2021, and notices will likely be mailed in mid-April as usual. The deadline for property owners to protest their 2021 real property values will be unchanged at May 15 in most cases, or 30 days after receipt of the notice of appraised value. 

Property owners can expect the continued option to protest assessments online, as well as telephone and video conferencing options for hearings. While these procedures were enacted and refined in 2020, the combination of virtual hearings and a potentially increased volume of protests in 2021 may push hearing schedules past their typical end (in June or July) and into the fall.

A Real Impact on Values 

Undoubtedly, 2020 was a unique year for property performance. Some property types sustained disastrous effects from the pandemic and stay-at-home orders while others fared the year well. Because Texas' valuation date for the current tax year is Jan. 1, 2021, many valuation methodologies will rely upon a property's performance over the 12 months preceding that date to inform their value metrics. 

Shopping centers, restaurants, theaters and hotels are among those properties that suffered greatly in 2020. Sadly, many closed their doors for good after struggling to perform this past year. Hotels saw revenue dip as much as 80 percent. Restaurants and theaters experienced government-ordered closures for most of the year, and capacity restrictions for the remainder. 

The resulting drag on potential rents, occupancy and cap rate assumptions has pushed down values. Property owners should see some recognition of value decline in these most-affected property groups, but to what extent remains to be seen.

Business Personal Taxes 

On the business personal property front, we expect deadlines to mirror the statutory language for filing exemptions and rendition reports, which list owned machinery, furniture, equipment, vehicles, merchandise and other business personal property. Due to COVID-19, many large appraisal districts extended the rendition deadline for all taxpayers in 2020, but we expect the typical formal extension request process to be back in place for 2021. All extension requests must be made in writing to the appraisal district before the statutory deadline of April 15. An approved extension allows the taxpayer an additional 15 to 30 days past the statutory deadline. 

Taxpayers with significant business personal property investment need to thoroughly analyze how COVID-19 limited or otherwise compromised the usage of their income-producing assets. Assessors and appraisers rely almost exclusively on the cost approach to value business personal property. In this climate, however, the simple depreciation they normally apply will not capture pandemic-related losses to produce an accurate market valuation.

To account for the loss in value, owners should consider developing an additional obsolescence factor to apply after typical depreciation. The Texas Property Tax Code allows for the inclusion of all forms of depreciation including economic obsolescence, which occurs when factors or trends occurring outside the property reduce its value. 

Each owner will require their own, unique obsolescence factor to measure economic impact. There are many ways to calculate an economic obsolescence factor, depending on the taxpayer's core industry. Analyzing production versus capacity is most often beneficial for manufacturers, for example, while income metrics are better suited for some retailers and medical providers. 

We recommend also doing a lookback for at least three years to properly illustrate the COVID-19 impact. The property tax team must truly understand the business in order to arrive at the proper factor.

What About Tax Rates? 

In addition to assessed value, the second piece of a property owner's tax liability is the tax rate. Taxing entities set their tax rates in the fall, after appraisal districts determine property values. 

Should 2021's overall property valuations decline, property owners should not expect an exactly equal decline in their tax liability. If the total tax levy falls significantly due to the valuation factors affecting property values as of Jan. 1, 2021, it is possible — and maybe even likely — that tax rates will rise. 

No one can predict tax rates with certainty, but owners would be wise to budget conservatively for anticipated tax liabilities. A 40 percent decline in revenue may not translate to a 40 percent decline in the assessed property valuation or tax liability for 2021.

Partnership is Key 

Navigating property taxation in a COVID-19 world can be overwhelming. It can be particularly challenging to stay on top of frequent procedural changes, and to understand the sometimes unique valuation metrics affecting real and business personal property. Partnering with an experienced property tax team can give owners peace of mind in a tumultuous year.

Rachel Duck, Esq.
Lisa Laubacher, Esq.
Lisa Laubacher, CMI, is a director and senior property tax consultant specializing in business personal property. Rachel Duck, CMI, is a director and senior property tax consultant specializing in real property. Both are at Austin, Texas, law firm Popp Hutcheson PLLC, the Texas member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Mar
05

COVID-19 Demands New Property Tax Strategies

Commercial real estate owners should build arguments now to reduce fair market value on their properties affected by the pandemic.

The uncertainties and changes brought on by COVID-19 have had far-reaching effects on all facets of daily life. As commercial property owners position themselves to weather the storm, it is crucial that taxpayers most affected by the virus do what they can to control their property tax expenses.

The issues they face are complex, from pre-crisis valuation dates and the need to quantify value losses, to cash-strapped taxing entities that will be reluctant to compromise on values. Taxpayers will need creative, innovative approaches to successfully protest their assessments and see their cases through to having their taxable property values reduced.

Ohio mulls relief

Assessors in Ohio and many other states value real property as of Jan. 1 of the tax year under protest, known as the tax lien date. Other than when a property has recently sold, assessors and courts seldom consider factors occurring after the tax lien date in a property tax case.

For example, the current property tax filing period in Ohio relates to tax year 2020, and real property is required to be valued as of Jan. 1, 2020, for that tax year. That means valuations for 2020 in those jurisdictions typically ignore changes to a property's value that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ohio is the only state considering legislation that would require taxing authorities to recognize the effects of COVID-19 on real estate values where the impact occurred after the tax lien date. Depending on where a property is located, taxpayers will need to consider all options if their jurisdiction does not allow for consideration of the impact of COVID-19 in a tax challenge this year.

When it comes to deciding whether to challenge a property's assessment, there are many factors to consider. If the property recently sold, analyze the sales price to indicate the actual market value of the real estate deducting any non-real estate values. Then factor in the pandemic-related issues.

The taxpayer may need to order an appraisal, whether to support their own complaint or in fighting a tax increase complaint filed by a school district. These circumstances are more likely in some jurisdictions than others; experienced local counsel can help the taxpayer decide whether, and when, to obtain an appraisal.

At times, taxing authorities or a court may require testimony from a property owner or other individuals associated with a property. Many taxing authorities are allowing testimony via popular video conferencing applications, which may make it easier than in the past to seek the involvement of witnesses for a hearing.

Variations by property type

Market trends affecting specific property types and operations will provide evidence to support many assessment protests. Hotels, for example, have been directly impacted by COVID-19, therefore data for hotel properties must be carefully evaluated in light of current events.

Compile historical information such as 2020 financials as soon as possible, as well as recent occupancy reports. Hotel owners must be prepared to testify along with their expert appraisal witnesses.

First-hand knowledge of the devastating effects of COVID-19 will be an important component of a case. While Ohio courts in the past have generally disfavored the discounted cash flow method of valuing commercial properties, expert witnesses may need to explore, use, and be prepared to explain that option in a post COVID-19 world.

It is important to note that COVID-19 has not affected all property types in the same manner. The pandemic devastated many hotels, restaurants, and certain retail and office properties, for example. On the other hand, other properties such as industrial properties serving ecommerce operations have fared well.

How trends relating to property type translate into a potential reduction in a property's fair market value depends on what a particular jurisdiction requires from taxpayers to prove their case. Property sales data from 2020 to the present will become an important component of any property tax review, given the events of the past several months. Discussions with an appraiser familiar with local data and trends will be critical.

Even if a taxpayer cannot reference COVID-19 effects in a challenge filed this year, they should consider effective strategies now in preparation for future property tax issues related to the pandemic. Most likely this will involve a long-term approach to contain property taxes, while addressing short-term needs as best as possible. A case settlement may address several tax years, giving the taxpayer some certainty and planning capabilities for the future.

Additionally, a plan for how to approach a case often depends on the regional property tax landscape. Because of this, achieving a good outcome in the future may depend on how the taxpayer prepares their case from the outset, affecting decisions such as whether to have an appraisal and which parties should testify.

The best means to address recent change and today's uncertainties are to remain adaptable and to begin forming effective case strategies as soon as property tax expenses become available for evaluation.

Jason P. Lindholm is a partner and directs the Columbus, Ohio office of law firm Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, the Ohio, Western Pennsylvania and Illinois member of the American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Jan
12

Reduce High Occupancy Costs

Closely examine your 2021 tax assessment to ensure your property's valuation isn't excessive.

   E-commerce was here to stay even before the pandemic devastated small businesses and placed an even greater premium on technology. In the changed landscape, lowering occupancy costs by reducing property taxes is one of the most important steps businesses can take to remain competitive.

  Stay-at-home orders still prevent many shoppers from visiting their favorite brick-and-mortar stores, while fear of contagion exacerbates consumers' reluctance to shop in person. Regardless of customer traffic, however, retailers still incur fixed costs including insurance, enterprise software, property taxes and, arguably, rent.

  Online-only retailers' occupancy costs are much lower, making it difficult for small brick-and-mortar businesses to compete. Put differently, sales taxes decline with reduced sales but property taxes do not. Landlords and tenants in triple net leases often fail to examine property taxes, but the survival of both may depend on reducing this cost.

  Other costs such as insurance and the enterprise software needed to run the business generally lie beyond a small business' control and do not diminish with reduced business volume. The active 2020 hurricane season certainly has not reduced insurance costs. During the pandemic, some landlords have deferred or forgiven rent, but this forbearance provides no long-term solution to the challenges e-commerce poses.

Mounting pressures

  The threat that high ad valorem taxes pose to pandemic battered small businesses is compounded by, and interrelated with, the e-commerce threat. Small businesses face enormous challenges in competing online with major brands such as Amazon and Wal-Mart, which command a far greater web presence than small mom-and-pop retailers.

  E-commerce's challenge to traditional retail will not end with the pandemic. The bulk of retail sales still occur in stores, with online purchases peaking in the second quarter of 2019 at just 16% of total U.S. retail sales, according to the Commerce Department. That percentage slowed to 14% in the third quarter.

  COVID-19 has accelerated the trend to "Buy Online, Pick Up In Store" (BOPIS). Pre-pandemic, BOPIS offerings were already growing as shoppers used it to avoid instore browsing time and shipping charges. A 2018 study reported 90% of surveyed online shoppers stated high shipping fees and home delivery longer than two days would likely deter them from completing an online purchase. Even before the pandemic, Amazon's rapid delivery model was pressuring conventional retailers to compete by accelerating shipping times.

  BOPIS allows retailers to blend online and in-store customer engagement while offering a more convenient way to shop. COVID-19 accelerated this trend as shoppers sought to minimize interpersonal contact during store visits. Retailers, however, need to be certain that applicable restrictive covenants permit BOPIS, since shopping centers often limit tenants' right to use common space. Further, traditional methods of valuing properties for tax purposes struggle to recognize and separate the intangible and untaxable value of web presence from the value of a physical location that serves as a pick-up point.

  Black Friday and Cyber Monday 2020 illustrate the evolving relationship between brick-and-mortar stores and e-commerce. RetailNext reported foot traffic to physical stores on Thanksgiving through the following Sunday decreased by 48% from 2019, while spending per customer increased more than 36%.

  Mall traffic tracker, Sensormatic Solutions, concluded that online ordering and social-distancing restrictions made shoppers more "purposeful" on their Black Friday trips. Adobe Analytics reported that Black Friday saw $9 billion in U.S. online sales, a nearly 22% increase year over year that made it the second-largest online spending day. Cyber Monday 2020 brought the largest shopping day in American history with $10.8 billion in volume, a 15.2% increase over 2019, Adobe reported. Adobe also noted that Black Friday curbside pickup increased 52% year over year.

Shared interests

  Landlords and tenants must recognize the mutual harm of high occupancy costs and guard against unwarranted property taxes as local governments seek to shore up their finances. Every nickel counts when retailers are under economic pressure just to keep their doors open. Years of remaining lease term is of cold comfort to a landlord whose tenant is forced to close by reduced revenue and high occupancy costs.

  Some short-sighted landlords ignore the property tax burden placed on their triple net tenants until a renewal is imminent since the landlord's costs are not directly impacted.  Where possible, a good lease on multitenant properties will address tax challenges and discourage taxes from being viewed as a mere pass-through expense. Further, prudent landlords should help reduce tax costs and avoid being forced to negotiate reduced rent to keep small businesses operating. Most leases do not include a provision permitting tenants to challenge ad valorem property taxes. Similarly, many state statutes only permit property owners, not tenants, to challenge taxes.

  Most assessors have not yet recognized COVID-19's impact on retail stores, primarily because the valuation date for most properties preceded the pandemic's full impact on retail. That will change in 2021 in many jurisdictions. Similarly, the trend toward BOPIS will increase the intangible value of online presence, generally not subject to ad valorem taxation, and decrease the importance of physical locations.

  COVID-19 is pressuring local governments to increase the property tax burden on small businesses. A recent survey found that municipal revenues are down 21% while expenses have increased 17% amid the pandemic. The survey reported 45% of mayors expect to see dramatic budget cuts for education, while at least one-third expect to see drastic cuts in parks and recreation, mass transit and roads. Only 36% of mayors expect to see a replacement of the businesses shuttered due to COVID-19.

  High property taxes will only exacerbate the municipal revenue problem. A short-term remedy to municipal finances, higher property taxes, risks the permanent closure of many small businesses and increase the burden on remaining brick-and-mortar retailers. Failing to address the problem will only accelerate the decline of physical stores and eliminate their local jobs and taxes.

Morris Ellison is a partner in the Charleston, S.C., office of the law firm Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP. The firm is the South Carolina member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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