In many states, abnormally high vacancy at commercial properties should mean a lower tax bill. Market transaction evidence essentially dictates this result: States that assess taxable value on commercial properties based on market value, as though leased at market rents, should allow a deduction from that value when the property incurs above-market vacancy and collection losses.
Would buyers pay as much for a vacant income-producing property as they would for an identical property that is fully leased at market rates? Of course not. For the same reason, in states that value the property as though leased at market rents, below-market occupancy should result in a lower property tax assessment.
To determine whether your property may qualify for relief, identify the market occupancy rate for that property type and submarket. Loan underwriting is a good source of this information because lenders underwrite property loans based on the normal, stabilized occupancy rate.
For example, in many areas lenders assume 95 percent stabilized occupancy for shopping centers. In those areas, a shopping center that is only 80 percent occupied has below-market occupancy and, therefore, is worth less than otherwise similar properties with the higher market occupancy rates.
Similarly, the prospect of the imminent departure of a major tenant reduces the price a buyer would pay, even if the property currently enjoys market occupancy. And a vacant anchor space diminishes value even when the owner continues to receive rent on the dark space. All these circumstances signal an opportunity for property tax relief.
Start the process
If any of these circumstances apply, the best first step is usually to contact the tax assessor’s office and inform the appraiser responsible for valuing the subject property. Providing data about the vacancy problem may be all it takes to reduce taxable value in the next assessment.
If this fails to achieve a reduced value, consider a property tax appeal. Engaging counsel experienced with property tax matters will help the owner evaluate the merits of appeal opportunities. Counsel may also be able to give the conversation with the assessor’s office a fresh try.
An appraisal may be necessary to support a property tax appeal. The property owner’s counsel should help select a good appraiser who can testify, if necessary. Counsel will also instruct the appraiser on what will be needed for property tax purposes.
Deduct a vacancy shortfall
In states where below-market occupancy affects property tax valuation, the appraiser should engage in a two-step analysis. First, determine the property’s stabilized value. Then estimate the amount of vacancy shortfall to deduct from the stabilized value to account for the costs, risk, effort and skill that a buyer of the property would require to bring it to stabilized occupancy.
The three components of a vacancy shortfall deduction are direct costs, indirect or opportunity costs and entrepreneurial incentive. Direct costs include tenant improvements and leasing commissions that would be required to lease up the vacant space. Indirect costs include lost rent until the space is leased, lost expense recoveries and any free rent or other concessions the new tenants would require, based on market lease terms.
Finally, the entrepreneurial incentive profit margin represents the additional deduction from the stabilized value that value-add investors require for the extra risk, skill and effort required to bring the property to stabilized occupancy. The entrepreneurial incentive profit margin can range from as little as 20 percent to over 100 percent of the vacancy shortfall costs.
Another approach to account for entrepreneurial incentive is to increase the capitalization rate used in the income approach to calculating stabilized value during the first step. That does not show the effect of the abnormal vacancy as clearly. Ideally, step one includes several valuation approaches rather than relying on the income approach alone and concludes a reconciled value as if stabilized. Then the full effect of the abnormal vacancy can be isolated in the second step of the appraisal (i.e., in the vacancy shortfall analysis).
To value property with below-market occupancy, the appraiser must understand how buyers and sellers treat such properties in actual transactions. The appraiser will need to verify comparable sales prices directly with buyers and sellers or their brokers to determine how they determined the selling price for properties that sold subject to below-market occupancy. Though each party to the transaction may differ in its analysis, both will likely have performed this two-part examination to determine the as-is selling price of the struggling property. This market evidence will bolster the subject property’s tax appraisal.
Just as a buyer typically would negotiate a lower price for deferred maintenance such as a leaky roof, buyers pay less for properties struggling with vacancy issues. Typically value-add investors expect a significantly higher return to compensate them for the elevated risks of trying to create additional value. Many states appropriately recognize this in lower property tax assessments.
Michelle DeLappe and Norman J. Bruns are attorneys in the Seattle office of Garvey Schubert Barer, where they specialize in state and local taxes. Bruns is the Idaho and Washington representative of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at [email protected] DeLappe can be reached at [email protected].