Don’t Let Taxing Authorities Kill Your Deal

Tips from a veteran attorney on handling the assessments that can spell the difference between a successful closing and coming up short.

Kieran_Jennings_922 x 1383Almost every week, I get calls from brokers or investors who want to know how property taxes could impact a potential purchase. With property taxes forming the largest variable expense in most real estate acquisitions, investors should question the tax implications of every deal.

In some jurisdictions, the effective property tax can reach 5 percent of market value, so an unexpected increase can cause a deal to go under. With planning and an understanding of the local environment, however, investors can fully appreciate the risks and expenses, and may be able to come in with a winning bid in a tight market.

Most of the inquiries I receive relate to properties in Ohio or Pennsylvania, where school districts can, and do, file appeals to raise taxes on real estate. In those states, the aggressor is often a school board that seeks to value an asset based on its recent sale price. In other states, it may be the county assessor. Some states have deemed it unconstitutional to “chase” sales in setting taxable value.

Know your district

Knowing which states have aggressive taxing authorities can reveal potential problems, but familiarity with those agencies and their personnel is the key to deciding whether to walk away from a deal or to stay and find a creative solution, resulting in a deal that is favorable to everyone.

An examination of any real estate purchase, whether office, retail, hotel, etc., in the context of various taxing districts’ behavior illustrates the importance of thoroughly knowing your taxing authority.  In all the following examples, assume that the property is uniformly assessed and that the current assessment is consistent with the value of competing properties.

Also assume that the property is assessed for less than the proposed sale price, and that increasing taxable value to the amount of the purchase price would ruin the deal.The first example takes the case of a taxing district with an aggressive, unyielding district attorney. The tax district’s counsel is unwilling or unable to see that the tax increase will end up lowering the property’s value below the purchase price.

In this scenario, the assessment is raised to the purchase price, which becomes part of the tax budget. Since taxing entities typically establish tax rates based on the overall assessment of the community, the tax district only gets a single year’s increase in tax revenue. In subsequent years, the newly increased tax burden weighs down the property’s market value, ending in an eventual refund of taxes. The net effect is a loss for the district and a loss for the taxpayer, though the taxpayer eventually recovers some of those losses. It is altogether a lose-lose situation.

Big gambles

The relatively passive school district occasionally files an increase appeal and generally isn’t driven to get the last penny from the taxpayer. At first this seems like a good situation. Although a passive district may be less difficult to deal with than a more aggressive counterpart, it still leaves the buyer with a great deal of uncertainty. Risking large sums of money on chance is gambling, not investing.

The advice to the investor in a passive district rests greatly upon the taxpayer’s risk tolerance, and upon local counsel’s experience with how cases are typically settled. In some instances, the investor could assume that the case would be settled similarly to past cases. This requires counsel that has enough experience with the district to gauge the risk as well as the possible outcome. It also requires that the buyer fully understand the nature of the risk.

Finally, there are districts with counsel that is both reasonable and creative. In that situation, attorneys have been able to resolve tax questions with the district in advance of closing. This allows for the obvious decrease in risk. As in the previous example, it takes a great deal of experience with the opposing attorney.

Of note, approaching a district early can produce a better result. Taxing authorities have become more likely to pursue appeals of assessments, and the chances that a sale will go unnoticed—and that an assessment will go unchanged—are becoming slimmer.

Due diligence means more than determining what might happen; it requires arranging the deal to whatever extent is possible to bring about the desired outcome. Paper the file with an appraisal that satisfies any allocations, and make notations in the purchase agreement that support the tax strategy.

Being able to explain the nature of the purchase later in a tax hearing is important, but having facts and documents that support those assertions is much more valuable. With the right opportunity and preparation, an investor may be able to enter into an acquisition while eliminating risk that has driven away the competition.

Kieran Jennings is a partner in the law firm of Siegel Jennings Co. LPA, the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at kjennings@siegeltax.com.