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Mar
20

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Takes Up Issue of Reverse Property Tax Appeals Across State

The Philadelphia School District is looking to increase the number of reverse property tax appeals, which could result in more tax dollars for schools such as South Philadelphia High School

Pennsylvania property owners and tenants, who pay some of the highest property taxes in the nation, are no doubt aware of the annual deadline to file a property tax appeal. After all, one look at a new tax bill is often enough to make even the most seasoned tax manager scramble to contact their local tax counsel.

However, very few taxpayers are aware that the assessment they may have accepted as favorable could easily trigger a reverse appeal filed by the local school district.

Assessment appeals filed by the taxing entities, often referred to as reverse appeals, are increasingly common as cash-strapped school districts seek to fill their coffers. Just as a tax manager might view an inflated assessment as a reason to appeal, more and more school districts see potentially under-assessed properties as a much-needed source of additional revenue.

To the bane of many taxpayers, this tactic has now reached the city of Philadelphia. Despite undergoing a citywide property revaluation for the 2014 tax year, with another currently slated for 2018, the Philadelphia School District recently decided to begin filing reverse appeals against properties it feels are under-assessed.

On Sept. 15, 2016, for the first time, the school district authorized the superintendent to contract with an outside law firm for the sole purpose of filing reverse appeals on the district’s behalf. It also authorized the superintendent to contract with Keystone Realty Advisors LLC, a real estate valuation and advisory group that will serve as the primary identifier of under-assessed properties in the city.

Changes a long time in the making

To many in the world of tax appeals, the emergence of reverse appeals in Philadelphia was unsurprising and inevitable. Keystone had previously peddled its services in a number of other Pennsylvania counties, including Lackawanna and Luzerne. Additionally, last year the Philadelphia School District hired Uri Monson to fill the vacant chief financial officer position. Monson previously served as chief financial officer for Montgomery County, another Pennsylvania county that saw a number of school districts utilize Keystone’s services to identify potential reverse appeals.

In Philadelphia, Monson says the reverse appeal initiative will focus on properties that are undervalued by at least $1 million. City Councilman Allan Domb has indicated that there may be up to $75 million in untapped revenue from commercial properties alone. The school district, which receives 55 percent of the city’s total property tax revenue, stands to gain up to $41 million.

According to Monson, reverse appeals are a tool to ensure that the school district’s funding is spread equitably across all taxpayers throughout the city, and are not intended to target particular neighborhoods or classes of property. Commercial taxpayers are not so sure.

Currently pending at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is the case of Valley Forge Towers Apartments N, LP vs. Upper Merion Area School District and Keystone Realty Advisors, LLC. At issue before the court is whether the Upper Merion Area School District and Keystone Realty Advisors violated the uniformity clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution by selectively filing reverse appeals on commercial properties, while ignoring significantly under-assessed single-family properties.

The court will have to decide whether a school district’s statutory right to file an appeal, and an economic reason for doing so, insulate the district from review when it decides to appeal an assessment.

The long-term results

The Supreme Court’s decision will likely have far-reaching effects. Should the court decide that the school district and Keystone’s method for selecting reverse appeals does indeed violate the uniformity clause, that finding will likely preclude taxing districts throughout the state, including Philadelphia, from selectively filing reverse appeals.

On the other hand, if the court rules in favor of the school district, it will legitimize the current reverse appeal process that is slowly permeating the state. The latter result may even inspire additional taxing districts to explore reverse appeals as a source of revenue generation.

The court has already received over a dozen friend-of-the-court briefs from various groups with an interest in the outcome, seeking to weigh in on the issue.  Oral arguments were heard on March 8, 2017, though it will be months before the court issues a decision.

Whatever the outcome, taxpayers will want to pay close attention to the Supreme Court’s decision, especially those considering purchasing property in Philadelphia or any other school district that actively pursues reverse appeals.

Under the current system, one of the easiest ways for the districts to pick up on potential appeals is to compare the sale price against the property’s current assessment. Unfortunately, this often means unexpected litigation expenses for new property owners and the potential for higher-than-anticipated tax bills.

Gregory Schaffer photo

Gregory Schaffer is an associate at the Montclair, N.J., las firm Garippa Lotz & Giannuario, a New Jersey and Eastern Pennsulvania 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..

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Feb
01

Putting A Stop To The 'Hidden Property Tax'

When property values rise, tax rates should fall.

Owners should be delighted to see the value of their property increase, but in our current tax environment, higher property values have become synonymous with higher property taxes.

School districts, municipalities, counties and other taxing units have the power to limit property tax bills by lowering their respective tax rates as property values rise. Instead of doing this, however, many taxing entities opt for a tax revenue windfall.

Remarkably, as they collect this additional revenue, these same taxing units claim that they have not raised taxes because they have not increased their tax rate. This distinction has afforded taxing units a convenient escape from the ire of taxpayers. But is it fair?

The Texas property tax system has two components: appraisal districts and taxing authorities. First, appraisal districts assess the market value of taxable property within their boundaries. They then participate in protest hearings initiated by property owners about those values and subsequently certify appraisal rolls for taxing entities.

Second, the governmental bodies that levy and collect taxes prepare budgets and, with their certified appraisal rolls in hand, adopt tax rates sufficient to meet those budgets. Then these municipalities, school districts and other institutions send out tax bills and collect tax revenue.

Both appraisal districts and taxing authorities have the power to affect property owners’ ad valorem tax liability. Nevertheless, many media outlets and news publications have blamed appraisal districts exclusively when tax bills have increased.

For instance, on April 11, 2016, the Austin American-Statesman reported: “Home values rise 9 percent in Travis County!” The San Antonio Express-News reported on May 4, 2016, “2016 Bexar County property value is up $13 billion over year before, real estate values up 7.5 percent.” Similarly, on May 25, 2016, the Dallas Morning News warned about “A taxing problem,” specifically discussing how “Dallas property taxes squeeze middle class” because homeowners in that demographic saw an average increase in the value of their homes of over 11 percent.

These news articles focus on the distress that rising appraised values have inflicted upon taxpayers as property tax bills have increased. Is it fair, though, to malign appraisal districts when they are simply fulfilling their charge to assess property values, especially when they do not participate in the tax rate setting process?

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston), who served as the Harris County tax assessor-collector from 1998 through 2008, formed the Senate Select Committee on Property Tax to look into the issue. The Committee has held public hearings all around the state to listen to taxpayers’ concerns arid frustrations about the system.

It has become apparent that the root of the rising property tax burden lies with tax rates set by taxing units, not in appraised values assessed by appraisal districts. Indeed, at a hearing in Arlington earlier this year, there were hundreds of property owners in the audience, but not one complaint about the Dallas Central Appraisal District or the work of its Chief Appraiser, Ken Nolan.

The issue has caught the attention of a number of politically astute organizations, including the Texas Association of Realtors, which has taken a strong interest in Texas’ property tax policy. Its Director of Legislative Affairs, Daniel Gonzalez, has made it his mission to educate the public about what he describes as the “hidden property tax.” This includes spending resources to maintain the informational website, hiddenpropertytax.com, which provides videos, articles, and other details about the problem.

Likewise, certain taxing entities have spoken out against this “hidden property tax.” The mayor of Fort Worth, Betsy Price, in an opinion piece that appeared in the May 19, 2016 edition of the Fort Worth Star Telegram, wrote: “What to do about high property tax assessments? Cut the tax rate.” The Dallas Morning News echoed this sentiment on May 25, 2016, when it explained, “The only way officials can reduce the burden on taxpayers is by lowering their tax rates.”

And why shouldn’t taxing units do this? Our truth-in-taxation laws are supposed to prevent excessive taxation by limiting tax rate increases that lead to higher tax revenues. The same principle should apply when tax rates remain steady, but through the increase in property values, tax revenues soar. That is an unintended consequence of the prosperity of a community that governments should not be able to exploit.

Texas has one of the nations best property tax systems. To make it work, however, appraisal districts and taxing entities alike must do their part in maintaining the system’s integrity and fairness. Local taxing units should not be allowed to hide behind increased appraised values to raise their budgets, nor should the Texas legislature be able to take advantage of higher appraised values by sending less funding per student to school districts.

Instead of vilifying appraisal districts and complaining about a “broken” property tax system, property owners should put pressure on school districts, cities, counties and other taxing entities to exhibit greater accountability and transparency over tax rates.

daniel smith active at popp hutcheson

Daniel R. Smith serves as 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..

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Dec
16

Replacement Reserves Can Significantly Reduce Property Tax Bills

Funds set aside to maintain, repair and upgrade capital assets are the lifeblood of many commercial properties today. Known as “reserves for replacement,” the treatment of these major operating expenses in the calculation of a property’s value can significantly influence its tax burden. Mishandling that calculation can cost a taxpayer dearly.

Replacement funds are essential resources that enable hotels and resorts to renovate every few years, a critical task if they are to remain competitive. Likewise, department stores and most in-line retailers in shopping centers must rejuvenate their properties in order to keep customers coming. Even fast food outlets must update their spaces, as well as their menus, on a regular basis to maintain sales.

The sums that hospitality, retail and food outlets spend to renovate or refresh their properties on a regular basis are sizable, sometimes as much as 5 percent of total revenues. Reserves are a significant expense these properties must bear, and have a major impact on a property’s bottom line.

Property tax assessments for commercial properties usually reflect income that the properties produce. The greater a property’s net revenue, the higher the property’s assessed value and tax burden will be. Clearly, it is in the taxpayer’s interest to make sure tax assessors do not inflate that net revenue by improperly accounting for expenses in their value calculations.

Above the Line or Below?

In many industries, replacement reserves are an above-the-line expense deduction, which means they are deducted along with other operating expenses to determine net operating income. If the reserve is large, its deduction can greatly reduce a property’s net income.

Why do accountants and appraisers handle reserves this way? Because the above-the-line deduction of reserves permits properties to be compared on an apples-to-apples basis.

For example, the replacement reserves deduction for one hotel may vary from the deduction for another hotel for a variety of reasons, including intensity of use, age of the facility and so forth, based on the owner /operator’s knowledge of what is needed to keep that hotel competitive.

Removing reserves from the picture enables an appraiser or assessor to compare the net income performance of comparable competing properties on a uniform basis. Such comparisons are also important to investors.

Reserves and Property Taxes

As described above, the deduction of replacement reserves as an expense affects a property’s net income. If the assessor fails to deduct the reserves, or deducts them after net income in a below-the-line calculation, the net income will be higher. Conversely, if the appraiser deducts reserves as an operating expense, net income will be lower.

Net income often underpins property tax values and tax assessments. If the assessor deducts reserves and net income is lower, then the property’s taxes will be lower. If not, the taxes will be higher.

In some states, including California, tax authorities mimic market participants in their treatment of reserves. That means that for some properties, assessors deduct reserves so that properties can be directly compared for appraisal and valuation purposes. The consistent handling of reserves also permits taxing authorities to develop capitalization rates from comparable sales transactions.

Reporting Inconsistencies can Increase Taxes

While participants in a particular real estate sector — say, hospitality or retail — generally handle reserves in the same way, it is difficult to learn about the amount of replacement reserves deducted for a specific property due to the confidentiality of financial statements. If financial statements are available, the property’s operator may ignore industry standards and report reserves below the line, or may not report reserves at all.

The amount of reserves reported, usually as a percentage, may also vary from property to property even within the same property class. Finally, a property operator may simply use an arbitrary figure for reserves, which does not represent the actual cost of the replacement reserve deduction incurred.

Disparities in reporting reserves can significantly skew the net income, which is the basis for a property’s assessed value and property tax bill. Taxing authorities exacerbate the problem when they handle replacement reserves inconsistently, either because of inconsistent reporting or because the assessor attempts to correct financial statements that omit replacement reserves or appear to inaccurately report replacement reserves. If the assessor uses incorrect data, or incorrectly adjusts the data, the property values will be incorrect and the taxes based on those values will be erroneous.

Getting Reserves and Taxes Right

Taxpayers can insure their local assessor properly handles reserves in assessing and taxing their properties by taking these simple steps.

1.  If the taxpayer provides financial statements to the tax authorities, make sure to report replacement reserves consistently with industry practice. If most industry participants report on an above-the-line basis, follow that practice.

2.  If the taxpayer is spending replacement reserves, report the full amount of those reserves. Failure to report or under-reporting will likely increase the property’s taxes.

3.  Ask to see the financial statements from other properties that the taxing authority is using to value the property. If the assessor won’t disclose those statements, at least ask to see the portion showing the amount of reserves and the how they are being handled.

4. If investigation shows that reserves are being improperly handled and a property is over-valued, meet with the tax authority’s appraiser to discuss the situation and, if necessary, use the appeals process to correct the assessment. 

Cris ONeall

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

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Dec
15

Market-Value Tax Assessments Under Attack

Governments increasingly seek tax increases through value-in-use property taxation.f the compelling evidence is on your side, the record shows you have a fighting chance.

An unprecedented national debate is raging as vocal proponents of additional government revenue seek significant property tax changes that will be costly to taxpayers.

A recent Michigan Court of Appeals decision in Menard Inc. v. Escanaba (the “Menard decision”), which involved a Menards hardware store in the Michigan Upper Peninsula City of Escanaba, confirms that proponents of greater taxation are masking their true goals with claims that they merely seek equitable taxation. Consequently, it is important for property owners to understand the issues involved.

Typically, property taxes reflect market value rather than a property’s value-in-use, which is the value to the owner. The market value standard bases taxes on the amount the property probably would fetch, after reasonable market exposure, in a sale between two knowledgeable, unrelated parties.

With the exception of the right to appeal under due process, no property tax component is more essential to taxpayers than basing taxation on market value, and not on value-in-use. The market value standard provides a framework for equitable and uniform property taxation.

Market value bases taxes on what is achievable in a market sale, determined through objective information such as comparable sales, rental income, operating expenses, capitalization rates and other market information.

Important distinctions

With market value taxation, a property’s value is unaffected by who owns the property, or whether the owner is able to use the property to operate a successful business. For example, a retailer, manufacturer, or cloud data storage provider may use intangible and tangible property, including real estate, in a way that achieves extraordinary income from business operations. This does not change the market value of the real property used.

In contrast, value-in-use taxation is inequitable and non-uniform. Consider two identical, neighboring residential properties that have the same market value. Their value-in-use would most likely differ, and the differences could be dramatic. The disparity could be because one house has more occupants, or because one property is used only part of the year.

Alternatively, one house could have greater value-in-use because a resident generates significant income from work done while in the home, such as in a home office or studio. Also, when one of these identical properties sells, the property’s value-in-use could substantially increase or decrease.

Those who seek value-in-use taxation might argue that such taxation is equitable because owners who obtain more value from using their properties should pay higher property taxes. But consider some of this position’s enormous failings:

  • Most people would readily agree that the most equitable system is one in which all properties are uniformly valued based on their usual selling price, rather than their differing values in use.
  • Value-in-use taxation is highly subjective and inherently inequitable. Imagine the problems and disputes if properties were valued based on the value each owner experienced.
  • Value-in-use assessment would result in duplicative taxation. If a property is used in conjunction with a business, whether the property is a residence or otherwise, value-in-use property taxation will reflect the business’s income and success. Yet, there will be duplicative taxation where other taxes are imposed on the business, such as income taxes, gross receipts taxes and value-added taxes.

Given the enormous problems with value-in-use taxation, taxpayers could understandably think there is little risk that such taxation would be adopted.

Unfortunately, those seeking value-in-use taxation have shrewdly focused on the taxation of large big-box retail properties, which they claim have been unfairly valued based on sales of vacant properties that allegedly had value-depressing deed restrictions.

The proponents of greater taxation have even tried to divide taxpayers by suggesting that some taxpayers will pay higher taxes because big-box taxpayers are not paying their fair share.

Keys to the truth

Developers build big-box retail properties to the owner’s specific needs, typically with a layout matching the owner’s other stores. Buyers of such properties invariably pay far less than the cost to construct such properties. They do so because they will spend large sums for renovations the new owner desires, in particular to fit a business image.

Also, there is reduced demand for these properties. It’s what appraisers call external obsolescence – especially with growing industry disruption from Internet sales. There are numerous sales of big-box properties without deed restrictions that confirm the selling prices for these properties are low compared with their construction costs.

Notwithstanding these irrefutable truths, the Menard decision held that an assessor could value the property under a cost approach, as if the property had no functional obsolescence. According to the Michigan Court of Appeals decision, a buyer would consider a property suitable for its own needs, merely because the property satisfied the needs of its original owner.

Such reasoning obviously values the property based on its value to the original owner – i.e., value-in-use, not its market value. These principles are the same whether dealing with a non-residential property or a home that has been custom built to an owner’s unusual tastes.

Significantly, the Menard decision specified that value-in-use taxation also could apply to a large industrial property. And a prior Michigan Court of Appeals decision endorsed value-in-use for the headquarters of a financial institution. Once the value–in-use genie is out of the bottle, it can cause above-market valuations and increased taxes for virtually any type of property.

Notably, the pro-government briefs that oppose Menards appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court deny that the decision endorses value-in-use taxation. These denials, like those in the press made by advocates of greater taxation, disregard that the Menard decision itself uses the very words “value-in-use" in endorsing such taxation. It remains to be seen if the Michigan Supreme Court will review the Menard decision, and it could be a year or more before the case’s ultimate outcome is known.

High stakes game

Some in the business community are responding to today’s property tax debate as they would to any intense effort to broadly raise property taxes. Such groups understand what is at stake and are defending market value-based property taxation for all properties.

Yet those who seek higher taxes appear to be strongly united. Whether they succeed in imposing value-in-use taxation may well depend on whether the business community itself will unite to oppose what eventually could become an enormous tax increase.

To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, a business community divided against itself will inevitably succumb to the united forces that seek greater taxation.

Mandell Stewart jpg

Stewart 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..

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Dec
07

Superstorm Sandy's Impact On Property Taxes

Mistaking rehabilitation for new construction, assessors inflate post-superstorm tax assessments.

Four years have passed since Superstorm Sandy slammed the East Coast and crippled the Northeast. The overwhelming majority of media coverage centered on the devastation suffered by residential properties, paying little attention to the tens of thousands of commercial property owners who suffered equally historic destruction.

The rebuilding process has been a feast for local tax assessors, who have increased property assessments throughout these Sandy-stricken areas based on the misguided opinion that rehabilitated commercial properties should be valued as newly constructed buildings, ignoring the financial realities and stigma attached to "Sandy properties."

The post-Sandy rebuilding process has taken years, requiring commercial property owners to overcome insurance claim nightmares, bureaucratic red tape, and the massive exodus of tenants who either lost their businesses or relocated as a result of the storm. Too often, local tax assessors ignored the hardships suffered by these property owners, taking advantage of the reconstruction by increasing assessments well above pre-Sandy values to increase their tax base.

Fortunately, the laws of each state allow landlords or property owners to reduce unfairly increased property tax assessments by filing a commercial tax appeal. These appeals offer the owner or the owner's representative the opportunity to prove that the property is worth less than its current taxable value. Whether that tax-reduction opportunity occurs at an administrative hearing, through negotiations or in the courtroom, taxpayers are best served by seeking the expertise of an attorney experienced in navigating the appeals process and the valuation of commercial properties.

Proper Valuation vs. Unfair Increases

Traditional methods to valuing commercial real estate for property taxation include the sales-comparison, cost, and income capitalization approaches.  Sales comparison typically relies upon arms length sales data. Unfortunately, there is very little arms-length transaction data in Sandy-ravaged areas because the market has been flooded with sales of distressed properties.

The cost approach should only be applied when valuing new construction or specialty properties.

When tax assessors value commercial buildings as in-come-producing properties, they capitalize the subject's net income stream, or if owner-occupied, the income it would generate if leased. Appraisal professionals and the courts agree that this income-capitalization approach is the preferred method of valuation at a commercial tax appeal.

Nevertheless, local tax assessors have been leaning on the cost approach when valuing post-Sandy re-habilitated retail properties. These assessors mistakenly perceive a property owner's rehabilitation or reconstruction work as equivalent to a capital improvement or new construction, at the same time ignoring the economic realities that these property owners faced as a result of the storm. More specifically, the cost approach ignores increased expenses, extended periods of vacancy and the difficulty that landlords continue to face in luring tenants back to properties destroyed by the storm. This unfortunate valuation practice has inflated tax assessments and created unfair tax burdens.

Hidden Costs Linger

Sandy's impact runs deeper than brick and mortar reconstruction. Cleanup, rehabilitation and lingering stigma have forced landlords to contend with increased expenses and lengthy vacancies. The stigma that follows a "Sandy property" is similar to that attached to cars sold in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, engendering the burdensome label of "Katrina cars."

Like suspicious car buyers in Katrina's wake, prospective tenants either ran for the hills or demanded low rents with short-term leases after learning that a property was ravaged by Sandy. The fear of the unknown resulted in tenants searching for what they perceived as less risky locations further inland.

In addition to disproportionately high vacancies, Sandy-stricken property owners have had to contend with significantly increased expenses. Insurance is one example. Not only have premiums skyrocketed due to the perceived risk of owning property near Sandy's point of impact, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency has issued new flood zone maps that expand many flood zones inland. Flood zone boundaries have compelled landlords to purchase flood insurance in areas that are relatively far from the shore, regardless of whether their property incurred damage from the storm.

Property owners typically bore the costs to rehabilitate flooded and destroyed properties, because many insurance companies exclude wind or hurricane damage from coverage. Other properties sustained damages in excess of policy limits. Unfortunately, many owners lacked the necessary funds to rehabilitate, leaving entire shopping centers abandoned.

Property owners who were lucky enough to have full coverage still had to deal with empty buildings and high carrying costs for many months during ongoing construction.

Taxpayers Fight Back

The key to a successful property tax appeal is to arrive armed with data supporting the argument that the subject property is worth less than its assessed, taxable value. For commercial property, the owner or their representative should analyze the subject's income and expense history, together with market data of similar properties in the area. For a Sandy property, this analysis should concentrate on the actual economic harm suffered as a result of Sandy and its aftermath.

In order to do this, prior to filing a property tax challenge, the taxpayer's representative should review copies of the leases, rent rolls and income and expense data of the subject from the last five years. Assuming the asset suffered major vacancies, the property owner's representative must be prepared to discuss and produce documentation or an affidavit attesting to the hardships faced in trying to rent the property and overcome the stigma associated with marketing Sandy-stricken space. In addition, the owner must be prepared to produce and discuss all insurance claims, including awards and denials, and provide an accounting of all out-of-pocket costs associated with the property's rehabilitation.

A carefully prepared and documented presentation of the facts offers the owner a real possibility to avoid unfairly high property tax assessments on these Sandy-impaired properties.

Hild and PenighettiRyan C. Hild and Jason M. Penighetti are attorneys 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 Ryan at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Jason at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Dec
05

In Tax Law, There Are No Insignificant Cases

Throughout the United States, taxpayers can expect to bear the burden of proof in property tax appeals. Standards vary by jurisdiction, but owners who seek to change a municipality’s assessment must convince a board or court that the property owner is correct in challenging the assessor’s conclusion. If they fail in that argument, the assessment remains unchanged.

Commercial taxpayers and their tax professionals often review decisions by local courts to glean direction and weigh prospects of a favorable outcome in their own cases. These stakeholders tend to only view complex commercial property cases for insight, ignoring residential and small commercial cases. But seemingly insignificant residential and small commercial cases are rich in detail that may aid taxpayers with a more sophisticated case when preparing to meet the standard of proof.

Some of these smaller cases shine a light on changing expectations of the court. For example, courts may begin to deem evidence that once would have been acceptable to meet the court’s threshold is no longer adequate. Thus, while the court does not change the law or create new standards, its interpretation of “sufficient competent evidence” may well move the goal post. The education obtained from these cases is not a guiding light to win a case, but rather a reminder of how not to lose one.

In New Jersey, law presumes that any property assessment is correct. Based on this presumption, any taxpayer appealing that valuation has the burden of proving the assessment is erroneous. The presumption is more than an allocation of which party carries the burden of proof. Rather, it expresses that in tax matters, the law presumes that the assessor correctly exercised their governmental authority. In a 1998 decision, MSGW Real Estate Fund vs. the Borough of Mountain Lak, the court stated that the presumption of correctness stands until sufficient competent evidence to the contrary is presented.

Courts must decide whether the evidence presented is sufficient to counter the assessor’s conclusion. To meet that standard, the evidence presented must be sufficient to determine the value of the property under appeal, thereby establishing the existence of a debatable question as to the correctness of the assessment.

This language is common in most jurisdictions. In New Jersey, it is also increasingly more common to see a change in the trial court’s interpretation of what meets the level of proof to question the assessor’s assumptions. The danger to taxpayers occurs when a court of special expertise establishes case law that, in effect, raises the standard of proof by simply increasing the evidence barrier to attain a reduction.

For example, in January of this year a New Jersey tax court decided Arteaga vs. Township of Wyckoff, where the taxpayer challenged the assessment of a single-family home assessed at approximately $900,000. The property owner offered an expert and an appraisal report for the years under appeal, while the municipality did not complete an appraisal, instead relying on the presumption of correctness.

The taxpayer’s expert cited three sales in a sales comparison and concluded a value of approximately $775,000. In a 10-page opinion, the court rejected the expert’s conclusions, finding fault with his adjustments to the comparable sales.

The court stated that an expert’s testimony must have a proper foundation to be of any value in an appeal. Citing earlier cases, the court stated that an expert must offer specific underlying reasons for their opinions, not mere conclusions. An expert witness is required to “give the why and wherefore of his expert opinion, not just a mere conclusion.” In this case, the court found that the plaintiff’s expert provided no substantive factual evidence to support the adjustments made.

The trend toward requiring a higher level of evidence has been growing over a number of years. As the court noted in a 1996 case, Hull function Holding Corp. vs. Princeton Borough, expert opinion unsupported by adequate facts has consistently been rejected by the tax court. Other rulings have stated that while the court has an obligation to apply its own judgment to valuation data submitted by experts in order to arrive at a true value and find an assessment for the years in question, the court must receive credible and competent evidence to make an independent finding of true value.

In the recent case, the court stated it was not provided with credible and competent evidence. As a result, the court had insufficient information from which to determine valuation. The court concluded that in general the expert provided no market analysis for any of the adjustments he made to his comparable sales.

The lesson to be learned: be aware of the potential of a new, heightened level of proof to establish a reduction. The case law has not been changed or altered. However, while most jurisdictions have case law suggesting that a court be mindful of the expense and reasonableness of data it should expect from a taxpayer to prove its case, trends have started to appear that swing the decisions toward a more difficult and expensive standard.

A number of recently decided residential tax appeals have followed this path to a find of no-change to the assessment. While the courts may be correct in the conclusions that evidence was lacking, they set a disturbing tone as to the level of expectation required for data to prove a value reduction.

The answer for taxpayers seeking a solution to this issue cannot be detailed so as to follow a definitive path to victory. For taxpayers seeking reductions in assessments, they must be aware and wary of not only the law, but the court’s most recent expectations.

Phil Giannuario photoPhilip Giannuario is a partner at the Montclair, N.J. law firm Garippa, Lotz & Giannuario, the New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania member of American Property Taxc Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.  Contact Philip at Ryan at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Jason at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Nov
09

Why Timeshares Shouldn't Be Taxed Like Condominiums

The perceived similarity between condominiums and timeshare projects often leads tax assessors to treat those properties as identical.  “If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, then it probably is a duck,” right?

But when it comes to property assessments for taxation, looks can be deceiving.  Fundamental differences between timeshares and condominiums can lead to significantly divergent value calculations.  All too often, it falls to the taxpayer to see that the assessor acknowledges and accounts for those factors in order to accurately assess timeshare properties.

In 2015, an assessor increased the assessment for a timeshare project at a Utah ski resort by 10 percent from the previous year.  The property owner appealed the assessment and provided evidence of the project’s fair market value.  The assessor challenged that evidence, however, based in part on an increase in sale prices for condominiums during previous years.

Under Utah law, the value of a wholly-owned condominium does not provide a meaningful comparison to the value of a timeshare project for several reasons.  First, such a comparison assumes that units within a timeshare project could be resold as wholly-owned condominiums.  This is impossible, given the legal structure of timeshare properties.  Once a timeshare project is put into place, it cannot be altered.  Unlike condominiums, individual units can never be sold.

Although the Utah assessor identified a 30 percent increase in per-unit condominium sale prices near the project, there was not a similar 30 percent increase in timeshare sales.  The only consistent figure shared by timeshares and condominiums each year is the number of units subject to foreclosure.

Second, treating timeshares like condominiums fails to take into account the costs associated with operating a timeshare project.  Utah law recognizes that timeshares are significantly different from condominiums and requires assessors to exclude costs that are unique to timeshare properties.

Specifically, those factors include any intangible property and rights associated with the acquisition, operation, ownership and use of the timeshare interest or timeshare estate.  The assessor must also exclude fees and costs associated with the sale of timeshare interests and timeshare estates that exceed those fees and costs normally incurred in the sale of other similar properties.  Other excluded costs include the operation, ownership and use of timeshare interests and timeshare estates, vacation exchange rights, vacation conveniences and services, club memberships and any other intangible rights and benefits available to a timeshare unit owner.

Sales commissions for timeshares are typically about 18 percent, whereas sales commissions for condominiums are closer to 6 percent.  Because the law requires an adjustment for costs and fees which “exceed those fees and costs normally incurred in the sale of other similar properties,” the property owner is entitled to remove the excess 12 percent portion of commissions.

There are other fees and costs for operating a timeshare that, by law, may be deducted from the value.  Those fees and costs may be difficult to identify or to allocate to individual units, but would include fees and costs for customer service, management costs necessitated by the existence of numerous owners, accounting and similar expenses.

A third distinction is that the assessor may need to make a personal property adjustment for timeshare property.  In Utah, the personal property of timeshares is separately assessed and, to avoid double taxation, must be excluded from the real property assessment.  In the pending Utah appeal, the assessing county challenged the property owner’s proposed personal property adjustment because it exceeded the reported value for the project’s personal property tax assessment.

In Utah, personal property assessments reflect depreciation schedules, which are rough estimates of the depreciated value of certain classes of personal property.  When those schedule-based values diverge from fair market value, an adjustment removing the fair market value of that property (for purposes of the real property assessment) will not perfectly correspond to the personal property tax assessment.  Nevertheless, a fair market value assessment of the timeshare property should include an appropriate adjustment for personal property which is otherwise taxable.

Timeshare units are simply incomparable to wholly-owned condominiums.  Under Utah law, the most appropriate way to value timeshare units is to look at sales of similar timeshare units, making adjustments consistent with the tax code.  Laws in other states may require similar adjustments.

When reviewing local assessments of timeshare properties for comparison, be aware of the distinctions between condominiums and timeshares, and ensure that proper adjustments were made in each.  If those timeshare assessments are comparable to assessed values of condominiums, then the assessor likely neglected to account for the unique characteristics and expenses associated with timeshares.

Pamela B. Hunsaker serves as counsel in the Salt Lake City office of law firm Holland & Hart and is a Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.  She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

Hunsaker Pamela

Pamela B. Hunsaker serves as counsel in the Salt Lake City law office of Holland & Hart and is a Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. She can be reched at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Nov
01

Tax Trauma - How Higher Assessments Can Cause Lower Net Rents

Resurgent demand for commercial real estate is driving sale prices to record highs, pressuring assessors to increase taxable property values substantially. In the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, tax bills on some suburban and downtown Minneapolis buildings have shot up 30 percent or more within two years following a sale.

These assessment spikes yield staggeringly larger tax bills, with some buildings now taxed at $8 to $10 per square foot, up from $5 to $6.50, for taxes payable in 2014.

For landlords with well-occupied properties, the tax burden itself is less important than the increased occupancy cost it creates, because most tenants compare lease proposals by total occupancy cost rather than by net rent alone. It does not matter to a tenant where the rent dollar goes; for every dollar that taxes increase, tenants will likely try to reduce net rent payments by that same amount in order to keep occupancy costs flat.

Assessors under Pressure

The Minnesota Department of Revenue prepares an annual sales-ratio study that compares assessments to sales prices. This puts pressure on assessors to react strongly to rising sale prices when properties are revalued each year.

If a sale price is 50 percent higher than the assessed value, then a 20 percent assessment increase in the first year after the sale, and 20 percent again the next year, will only raise the value to something approaching the sale price.

For example, a downtown Minneapolis property assessed at $107 million sold for $200 million. The assessments increased only 10 percent the first year and another 10 percent the second year, but jumped another 34 percent in year three. These repeated increases drive building costs well beyond owner and taxpayer expectations.

Assessors increased another property’s value by 30 percent in the year after the sale. Yet another pair of buildings were assessed 10 percent higher the year before they sold, then increased 30 percent and 50 percent in the year following the sale, putting them at approximately 90 percent of the purchase price.

Tenant Repercussions

Tenants notice operating cost increases, especially those recurring over consecutive years. Operating cost increases can discourage a tenant from renewing its lease at a higher rent.

As an example, a local tenant in a build-to-suit property had projected taxes at $4 per square foot, but with taxes of $10 per square foot this year, the tenant faces occupancy costs far in excess of projections. Whether the difference is looked at in an absolute sense as $6 per square foot or as 250 percent higher than expectations, the tenant is in a very different financial position than anticipated. How can the next lease be at the same net rate?

Many national tenants demand lease provisions that cap annual increases in real estate tax charges as protection against these increases, turning a triple-net lease into a quasi-gross lease, at least for taxes. Common in retail properties and found in flex space or office buildings as well, this practice puts a dent into the owner’s return. As in many other states, Minnesota assessors try to equalize assessments, so a few high-priced sales may trigger increased assessments for neighboring buildings. If an assessor is trying to avoid being accused of “chasing sales,” then one or two sales in a market area can lift all assessments. Comparable properties may see an increase in taxes with no changes to their own net rents or occupancy. Such increases can be a burden if the assessor has done a poor job of equalizing.

One of the biggest surprises for new buyers can occur when trying to renew leases. Many landlords discover that higher assessments lead to lower net rents or increased vacancy numbers that are far different from the assumptions made at the time of purchase. Relatively few buyers project double-digit tax increases, so tax hikes approaching 30 percent can inflict a troublesome dampening effect on net rents and occupancy.

Even tax increases limited to 10 percent annually for two or three years will exceed the 3 percent increases that a typical buyer builds into a discounted cash flow analysis when evaluating a purchase. That unexpected cost can decrease cash flow in future years to the point that the purchase price appears too optimistic. When this increase in taxes is combined with lower net rents as tenants fight to keep occupancy costs under control, the entire analysis at the time of sale becomes a meaningless historical curiosity.

Clearly, potential buyers must perform due diligence on assessor practices when a contemplated sale price is significantly higher than current assessments, or risk nasty surprises in the next few years.

 

jgendler

John Gendler is a partner in the Minneapolis law firm of Smith, Gendler, Shiell, Sheff, Ford & Maher, P.A., the Minnesota member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Oct
20

Purchase Price Isn't Property Tax Value

Know the many factors that often make property tax value different than the purchase price.

Don’t worry about challenging a property tax value that is less than the taxpayer’s purchase price, right? Wrong! There are numerous factors that distinguish a purchase price from a taxable assessed value, and the failure to closely review an assessment can cost a property owner dearly.

The legal standard for determining property tax values can differ from state to state, but it is generally equivalent to fair market value.  That is the probable price that the property would bring in a voluntary, arms-length transaction between a willing and knowledgeable buyer and seller, in an open and competitive market, with neither party being under undue duress, as of the valuation date.

While it is possible for a purchase price to be the same or similar to market value, there are many instances where the two deviate.  Here are some common examples:

A sale is not an arms-length market transaction if it occurs between related parties and isn’t exposed to the open market.  A sale between a company and its subsidiary, for example, may not reflect fair market value.

Fee Simple vs. Leased Fee

For property tax purposes, fair market value is most often based on the fee simple estate, unencumbered by Leases or other third-party interests in the property.  If the property is subject to an above-market lease, perhaps in a sale / leaseback transaction, the leased fee purchase price might greatly exceed the property’s fee simple valuation used for assessment purposes.

Portfolio Sales and M&A

A transfer of real estate in connection with a merger or acquisition is not a market transaction with respect to that particular property.  Likewise, an assessor shouldn’t use the sales price for a portfolio of properties, which might be bundled together and marketed as a whole, to determine the market value of one small component of the transaction.

Although buyers regularly make purchase price allocations for these types of transactions, such allocations are not synonymous with fair market value standards used for assessment purposes.

Unique Sales Terms

Sellers and buyers often think outside the box to close a deal.  Seller concessions come in all shapes and sizes and can drastically affect the final purchase price.  For instance, a seller may agree to provide certain services or take on additional obligations after closing that would not be part of a typical market transaction.

1031 Exchanges

Buyers motivated to defer substantial income tax liability by executing a 1031 exchange before a deadline may pay above-market prices.

Special Financing Terms

The purchase price may be artificially inflated because of unusual or favorable financing terms.  Institutional investors, with greater access to the capital markets, are able to obtain more favorable financing terms than the average market participant.  This lower cost of capital allows the institutional investor to pay above-market prices on lower cap rates in order to beat out competing bidders, while still achieving the same return as the typical investor.

Construction Costs

Developers and expanding businesses often find their projects detailed in the newspaper, with anticipated costs or total project investment.  Often these amounts include expenses not associated with the real estate, such as equipment, employee training and the like.  And just because something costs a certain amount to build does not mean it can be sold for a similar price.

Declining Market

Markets heat up and markets cool down.  Overpaying at the height of the market may mean a poor return, but this should not justify an overassessment.

A prudent assessor looks beyond the price to determine if a sale is a true, market-value transaction.  Despite the best intentions, even the most diligent assessor cannot account for all of the factors that can skew a sale price away from market value.  Referencing non-market deals for comparison will erroneously influence the sales data and can lead to artificially higher assessments.  The assessor’s reliance on an assumed purchase price for the subject property can have an even more dramatic and costly effect on that taxpayer’s assessment.

Many states charge a transfer or privilege tax to record a deed, which may require the buyer or seller to disclose a purchase price.  Assessors will look at these stated purchase prices and will quickly flag any that are higher than the assessed value.  A taxpayer should consult with local counsel to avoid overstating the purchase price.  For instance, a purchase price may include personal property, intangibles or perhaps additional real estate that should not be included in the consideration amount required to be disclosed.

Real estate brokers should not be surprised when contacted by assessors or subscription services to confirm details of a sale.  Before quickly confirming a sale as a market transaction, the broker should be mindful of the issues discussed in this article.  The failure to do so might significantly increase the purchaser’s future tax assessment.

All real estate investors should have a property tax review plan in place, with professionals knowledgeable of local valuation standards, rules and procedures.  When purchasing or developing real estate, remember to provide your tax professional with the particulars of the transactions, including any reasons why the purchase price or investment may not indicate market value.

Always keep in mind that purchase price and market value are not synonymous, so there is no need to concede a high assessment without first looking beyond the price on the deed.

  adv headshot resize Aaron D. Vansant is a partner in the law firm of DonovanFingar LLC, the Alabama 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.

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Oct
18

Why Taxing Authorities are Suing Taxpayers

Municipalities and school districts increasingly file lawsuits to increase property tax assessments.

As property owners increasingly participate in transactions across multiple states and countries, they could be shocked to find themselves defending against a lawsuit filed to increase their real estate taxes.

A minority of states allow the local real estate tax assessing body or school district to appeal a tax assessment, arguing that the property's value and resulting taxes should be higher.  States where these types of appeals are allowed include Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  Property owners in those states should  be aware that someone may be filing a lawsuit to increase their property taxes.

Method to the madness

Taxpayers cannot prevent a school district or assessing body from appealing a property tax assessment in states that allow them to do so.  Property owners should be especially watchful in the following situations where it is more likely to occur:

Sales – In Ohio, if a recorded sales price is higher than the current assessment, it is almost guaranteed that the local school district will file a complaint to increase an assessment, particularly in large markets around urban areas.

School district attorneys routinely review recorded sales for comparison to the current assessment.  Although recent legislative changes have increased assessors' ability to consider all relevant facts of a sale, a recorded sales price is still a formidable challenge to overcome.

In Pennsylvania, and particularly in Western Pennsylvania, sales are the most common trigger for an appeal to increase a tax assessment.  In states where chasing sales price may run afoul of constitutional protections, the local taxing authority may wait until a few years after the sale closes before filing the appeal.

Mortgages – In response to lower sales prices and increased sales volume resulting from foreclosure or bankruptcy during the Great Recession, taxing bodies also file appeals to increase taxes based on recorded mortgages.

Similar to the tracking of recorded sales, attorneys for the taxing authority will review the amounts of recorded mortgages and compare them to the current assessment.

When the mortgages are secured by collateral that includes other assets in addition to the real estate, this practice can lead to inaccurate and inflated real estate tax assessments.

Other available filings – A recent case in Ohio shows the spread of this practice from recorded mortgages and deeds to Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings.

The local school district filed an appeal to increase the assessment of an apartment in Athens from approximately $12.6 million to $48.98 million, based on an SEC filing by a mortgage lender.

The property owner's attorney has stated that the SEC filing includes the total value of the business purchased, which includes other assets in addition to the real estate.

The local county board of revision granted the revision at the first level of review and the case is currently on appeal.

Outside consultants – In Pennsylvania, taxing authorities filing complaints to increase assessments are on the rise, particularly in counties that have riot undergone a reassessment in some time, based on the recommendations of outside consultants.

These consultants contract with a particular taxing body, typically the school district, to review assessments and recommend appeals on properties they identify as under assessed.

Although this consultant activity seems most prevalent in the eastern part of the state, the regular practice of school districts filing appeals is spreading across Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, in Ohio certain school districts have even begun to file complaints to increase values in cases that have previously been tried in court.

Practical pointers

Because sales trigger so many of these cases, it is important to get pre-closing advice on the property tax consequences affecting your specific property.  There may be measures the taxpayer can take in structuring the transaction to avoid or minimize an increase in taxes.

Be aware of the tax consequences of recorded and publicly available documents, including SEC filings, particularly with portfolio asset purchases across multiple states.

Filially, attorneys for the taxing body may use procedural tactics to fish for non-public documents that could help them argue that a property is under assessed.  For example, school districts in Ohio have used the discovery process to subpoena financing appraisals from lenders.

Local expertise is key

Because real estate taxing schemes vary greatly, owners should consult local tax professionals to determine the best strategy to defend against an appeal that seeks to increase the property owner's taxes, or to minimize the potential that such an appeal will be filed in the first place.

Procedural, jurisdictional and evidentiary traps abound for those not well-versed in the local law.

For example, in Ohio, property taxes are levied and paid one year behind, meaning that taxes for the 2016 tax year are paid in calendar year 2017.  Similarly, appeals to reduce or increase the tax assessment are filed one year behind.

If a taxpayer purchases a property and the sale closes on Dec. 31, 2016, for a recorded price that is higher than the current tax assessment, the school district will be aware of that sales price and can contest the 2016 assessment any time from Jan. 1 through March 2017.

If the school district appeals the assessment based on the sales price and is successful, the assessment will be increased to the sales price, effective at the beginning of the 2016 tax year.

That means the buyer could be on the hook for increased taxes for a period of time when he did not own the property.

Local taxing bodies have been filing appeals now more frequently to increase property tax assessments, attempting to generate revenue after property values and sales prices dropped during the economic downturn.

Even though the market has improved, these taxing authorities are unlikely to now abandon the practice.

Consult with professionals who have local experience to defend against these suits in order to maintain fair real estate assessments and taxes.

Cecilia Hyun 2015

Cecilia Hyun is an attorney 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. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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