The question arises all too often: Is the recent sale price of a property the best evidence of the property’s taxable value?

Basic appraisal principles dictate that market value is the price upon which a willing buyer and willing seller would agree. Coming out of the recent recession, however, assessors continue to question whether the purchase prices paid for commercial or industrial properties reflect the properties’ market value.

The confusion derives from the distressed sales that dominated commercial real estate transaction activity during the recession. As tenants defaulted on leases and property incomes plummeted, many owners were either compelled to sell their real estate in order to avoid foreclosure, or gave their underwater properties back to lenders. A number of lenders simply sold those assets after foreclosure at liquidation prices, adding to the volume of sales at distressed pricing levels.

Where the majority of sales of similar types of property are distressed, those sales may become the market, establishing pricing even for non-distressed sellers. To assert a higher taxable value on a property in this scenario, the assessor would have to demonstrate that these sales defy current economic conditions.

Now, as the country’s economy begins to improve and property owners remain cautiously optimistic that the recession is ending, which recent sales truly represent market value? It is a challenging question for property owners and assessors seeking to use recent transactions for sales comparisons in order to determine current market value and taxable value of a property.

In many parts of the country, there was a complete dearth of sales and little construction activity during the downturn. In those areas, the sale of a property may have been the only transaction that occurred in that market in several years, with no other sales available for comparison.

With the uptick in the economy, assessors are latching onto recent transactions as fully indicative of a new market, and are inflating assessed taxable values in the process. Distinguishing the value indicated by a property’s sale price remains vital to having it correctly assessed.

One reason that evaluating a sale for tax purposes requires more than just looking at the closing price is that the sale price may reflect financial incentives and tax-exempt components included to motivate the buyer or seller. For example, sale prices paid for restaurants, hotels, nursing homes and some industrial plants may reflect the value of the business enterprise, as opposed to just the real estate.

In Oregon, California and Washington, many intangible assets may be exempt from taxation for most properties. Thus, for purposes of determining the property’s taxable market value, the appraiser or assessor must determine and exclude the value of the intangible rights relating to the business.

In Oregon, properties other than those used in power generation or other utility services may have tax-exempt intangible assets including goodwill, customer contract rights, patents, trademarks, copyrights, an assembled labor force, or trade secrets. Properly separating real estate value from the business enterprise value can substantially reduce the assessed value.

Additionally, an often overlooked influence on the sale price may be the existence of a sale-leaseback provision. In Oregon and many other states, real market value for tax purposes involves a willing seller and willing buyer in an open-market transaction, without consideration of the actual leases in place.

Thus, in the sale of a building fully leased to an ongoing enterprise that sets the buyer’s anticipated rate of return, the assessor must extract the existing lease value and instead apply market lease and occupancy rates to arrive at the real market value for taxation purposes. In other words, whether the leases in place at a sold property are at, above, or below market rates affects the relationship of its sale price to taxable value.

Assessment requires more than simply assuming that the sale price is the sole indicator of value. For a vacant property, the sale price may be the best indicator of value. But any transaction used to establish market value for tax purposes needs to be thoroughly vetted. Taxpayers should keep these principles in mind when reviewing the assessor’s process to set the taxable value of their real estate.

Cynthia M. Fraser is a partner at the law firm Garvey Schubert Barer where she specializes in property tax and condemnation litigation. Ms. Fraser is the Oregon representative of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Ms. Fraser can be reached at cfraser@gsblaw.com.