How Value Transfers Reduce Tax Liability

Investment value is not market value for property tax purposes because the excess value transfers elsewhere, according to attorney Benjamin Blair. But where does the value go?
Benjamin Blair  Photo courtesy of Faegre Baker Daniels LLP

When a new building enters the market with a headline-grabbing development budget, the local tax assessor is often happy to use the value stated on the construction permit as a blueprint for a high initial tax burden. After all, would a property owner fight an assessment equal to construction cost? The answer is yes, and here is why the taxpayer should file a protest.

Consider this all-too-common scenario: A new building’s publicized development cost is, say, $50 million. The first year after the completion of construction, the assessor assigns the property a market value of $50 million. The owner, now a taxpayer, protests the assessment, relying on an appraisal that shows the property’s value to be only $40 million.

The initial reaction of virtually every assessor that faces this common pattern is skepticism—skepticism sometimes shared by the judges deciding the tax appeal. How can it be that the property “lost” $10 million in value so quickly? Why would the owner have even constructed the building if it was an economic loser?

An owner who can explain this value loss—or, more accurately, this value transfer—will be better prepared to ensure a property’s tax assessments are based solely on the value of the real estate in question. And, when appropriate, that owner will be prepared to challenge inaccurate assessments.

Cost is Not Market Value

Anyone who has ever purchased a new car or made-to-order clothing understands that cost may not equal value. Regardless of the price the buyer paid, those items are worth less to the market after the initial sale. The same factors that immediately depreciate a new car or custom suit affect some types of real estate.

A property can have an off-the-rack market value and then minutes later have a resale value that is different. This does not mean that the owner overpaid for the asset. Rather, the owner paid what the asset was worth to that owner, but a second buyer will not necessarily pay the same price at a later sale.

Real estate buyers will not pay for branding elements, design elements or items of personal preference. When a building is built to the specifications of a specific user, the design, layout and components make it unlikely that cost will equal market value. These buildings exist because they are worth the cost to the first user, not because they inherently have an increased market value.

Investment value is not market value for property tax purposes because the excess value transfers elsewhere. The key question is, where does the value go?

Where the Value Goes

Circumstances vary and different properties will transfer value in different ways. Here are some common ways it can occur.

The examples of a custom suit or built-to-suit building illustrate how value can transfer to a person or organization, but value can also transfer to another property. For example, a golf course surrounded by homes is unlikely to have a market value equal to its development cost. The golf course’s value is not in the golf course alone; much of its value is reflected in the increased sales prices garnered for the surrounding homes. Likewise, amenities in a subdivision or common spaces in a condominium tower have little value on their own because their value is transferred to the adjacent properties.

Value can also transfer within a property. For example, a parking garage or conference center in a suburban office development is unlikely to generate sufficient rent to make those assets independently feasible, but the increase in rents achievable to the adjoining tenant spaces can make those amenities valuable to the whole. Were the parking garage to sell in the open market, it would almost certainly garner a sale price below its development cost.

Finally, value can transfer to the community. A highway interchange will never have a market value equal to its multimillion-dollar price tag, and public transit systems and arenas would never be justified based on ticket sales alone. Communities deem these projects worthwhile, however. The value of such properties transfers to the community.

Similarly, in many markets the cost of “green” building features, such as a green roof or permeable parking surfaces, is rarely recovered upon the property’s sale. Developers still incur those development expenses, even when they will not contribute to the property’s profitability. The value of those features is transferred to the community, which receives air purification and water retention benefits.

Fight for Transferred Value

Understanding the concept of transferred value is important, both because it explains the motivations of those who build and own properties that are worth less than cost to the open market, and because it can help to avoid overvaluing the property. Property can be overvalued in many situations—for example, for insurance or financing purposes—but the pain of overvaluation is most acute in property taxation, since overvaluation generates a higher tax bill and corresponding lower profitability for the life of the asset.

Understanding transferred value can also assist enterprising owners in generating additional revenue streams. If part of the property’s value transfers to another person, property or the community at large, then the owner may be able to build a case for monetizing the value transferred to others.

In times of stagnant growth and personnel cutbacks, assessors are eager to capitalize on published construction costs. But by explaining how cost relates to market value, and being able to show where the value went, diligent owners and property managers can reduce fixed expenses, lower tenant occupancy costs and ultimately improve profitability.

Benjamin Blair is a partner in the Indianapolis office of the international law firm Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, the Indiana and Iowa member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.