The music continued to play in 2015 for the white-hot multifamily market, as many investors saw rents and occupancies climb higher and cap rates fall. Sales of apartment projects still under construction remain commonplace. Record-high sales prices seem to be the norm.
Accompanying the high prices, however, are rapidly increasing property tax valuations. Multifamily investors should be prepared for such increases, and be ready to combat overassessments. All multifamily investors should also be aware of the myriad property tax issues associated with the development, purchase or sale of their particular project.
The amount of attention property owners pay to property taxes often depends on the investor’s specific situation. For instance, property taxes may indeed be the most pressing concern for a long-term owner of an apartment complex who receives a tax notice 50 percent higher than the previous year’s bill, based on a lofty sales price paid for a new project down the road. Not only does this investor have to compete for tenants against a new development with better amenities; he or she now has to pay more in taxes because of that same development, effectively slashing the property’s net operating income.
On the other hand, a developer might be preoccupied with her own, more immediate concerns, such as site selection, construction schedules and financing. Even so, the developer should be mindful of important property tax considerations: Are there property tax incentives available, such as affordable-housing exemptions, brownfield abatements and many others? What is the valuation date for assessment purposes? How do assessors assess the value of construction in progress? Will a change in use trigger any roll-back taxes, or increase the tax rate?
Careful property tax planning is of vital importance to purchasers of multifamily properties. A purchaser of a newly constructed apartment complex must determine how an assessor will value the property after closing. Will the assessor base the value on construction costs, sales of comparable properties, income information or a combination thereof?
Unfortunately, some investors wrongly assume that property tax values will remain unchanged following a transaction. Although a sale will not necessarily result in a new tax value, tax assessors are increasingly trying to catch up to sales prices that exceed current assessed market values.
Underestimating property taxes at the time of the purchase can significantly reduce the investor’s actual return. For that reason, a purchaser should carefully scrutinize any tax estimate based on an assessed value that is lower than the purchase price.
Purchasers of low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) properties should consult local counsel to confirm whether the jurisdiction allows assessors to consider rent restrictions and tax credits in determining fair market value. In some jurisdictions, local tax laws may compel the assessor to value an LIHTC property much higher than the actual sales price.
In states that require the deed to show the purchase price, assessors frequently rely upon these deed amounts in determining fair market values. The declared transaction value on the deed too often includes consideration not attributable to the real property, such as value for personal property or intangibles, although assessors rarely take this into account. Similarly, assessors may not look behind a sale to consider factors that distinguish the acquisition from a market transaction, such as an allocated purchase price as part of a portfolio sale.
As the multifamily market continues to sizzle, lower rates of return diminish the margin for error when estimating property taxes. Investors must recognize the importance of appropriate property tax planning, or risk an unpleasant surprise at tax time that could jeopardize their property’s cash flow.
By consulting knowledgeable local professionals, investors can equip themselves to make better-informed decisions when estimating taxes. A seasoned tax expert can review tax notices for accuracy and fairness, and navigate any local rules and deadlines to challenge unfairly high assessments.
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 [email protected].