All too often assessors get away with over assessing big-box properties owned or occupied by national chains. Assessors see cost of construction, sale-leaseback rents or the capitalized value of the lease and just use the information without looking at the relevancy of those figures to market value.

To bring fairness to the property taxation of big boxes, taxpayers need to understand a number of key issues. The following tax appeal case serves as an example of how taxpayers should approach their property tax assessment, even if they think it appears fair.

In 1997, a developer constructed a large retail warehouse building for a Lowe's. The 133,000 sq. ft. building was built to this user's specifications at a cost in excess of $8 million. A 20-year lease was entered into with a triple-net rental rate of $7.25 per sq. ft. One year prior to the tax appeal, the property was sold for about $9.2 million. The assessor valued the property at $8.5 million, even though it was marketed for $15 million.

At first blush, the facts in this case appear not to warrant a property tax appeal. The assessor valued the property at about what it cost to build, and less than the price at which it sold. This scenario represents the trap that ensnares all too many big-box owners.

However, in this particular case, the taxpayer correctly analyzed the facts, decided an appeal was warranted and successfully litigated a reduction in value to $6.3 million. In litigating the case the assessor and the taxpayer both relied heavily on the market and income approaches to value, but each with a different take.

The market approach

The assessor argued that the capitalized value of the lease was equal to the value of the real estate. Since the value of the lease could be established by the sale, it was crucial for the taxpayer to identify and remove from the sales price any value attributable to the lease in place.

Here the taxpayer had an advantage because the company owned a number of similar properties in different locations. As the market for larger boxes increased, the taxpayer closed the smaller ones and marketed them for sale. There were enough sales to prove two important points. First, the sales were never to another national retailer. Second, these properties always sold for substantially less than their cost to construct.

So, the court had evidence showing the amount the buyer paid for the leased property and what similar buildings sold for without any leases in place. The court ruled that the difference between the selling price of a property with a lease and one without a lease represents the intangible value attributable to the lease in place. The value of the lease isn't the value of the real estate, and only real estate market value is subject to property tax.

The income approach

The battle here was a familiar one. Does the contract rent, the actual rent paid by the lessee, represent market rent? The assessor relied on other build-to-suit and sale-leaseback rental rates. Conversely, the taxpayer argued that these types of rental rates are irrelevant as they are based on financing costs and are not market-driven rates.

The cost to finance construction of a property forms the basis for establishing the lease rental rate, whereas market rates are a function of buyers and sellers agreeing on a rental rate. The taxpayer relied exclusively on marketplace leases as evidence of what one could expect to receive in rent. Again, the taxpayer's argument prevailed.

Scholarly advice

As taxpayers receive their new assessment notices, they need to remember these general principles:

  • For property tax purposes, leased fee and fee simple are different. Don't assume a leased fee sale will also represent the value of the fee simple. If they are the same amount, it's coincidental.

  • Some rents are functions of financing, others are a function of the market. Financing rents are prevalent in build-to-suit and sale-leaseback arrangements. If financing rents are equal to market rents, it's coincidental.

  • Remember, the value of the property to the taxpayer is irrelevant. The only relevant issue is what buyers are willing to pay for the property. If the amount a buyer would pay to buy a property equals the taxpayer's investment in it, it's coincidental.

An experienced property tax professional can help with the factual and legal arguments raised here. As a taxpayer, don't let coincidence or other irrelevant issues become the basis for a property's real estate value.

Linda Terrill is a partner in the Leawood, Kansas law firm Neill, Terrill & Embree, the Kansas and Nebraska member of American Property Tax Counsel. She can be reached at lterrill@ntelaw.com