Law & Policy: Tax Trauma

How Higher Assessments Can Cause Lower Net Rents

Resurgent demand for commercial real estate is driving sale prices to record highs, pressuring assessors to increase taxable property values substantially. In the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, Wallet held in clamptax bills on some suburban and downtown Minneapolis buildings have shot up 30 percent or more within two years following a sale.

These assessment spikes yield staggeringly larger tax bills, with some buildings now taxed at $8 to $10 per square foot, up from $5 to $6.50, for taxes payable in 2014.

For landlords with well-occupied properties, the tax burden itself is less important than the increased occupancy cost it creates, because most tenants compare lease proposals by total occupancy cost rather than by net rent alone. It does not matter to a tenant where the rent dollar goes; for every dollar that taxes increase, tenants will likely try to reduce net rent payments by that same amount in order to keep occupancy costs flat.

Assessors under Pressure

The Minnesota Department of Revenue prepares an annual sales-ratio study that compares assessments to sales prices. This puts pressure on assessors to react strongly to rising sale prices when properties are revalued each year.

If a sale price is 50 percent higher than the assessed value, then a 20 percent assessment increase in the first year after the sale, and 20 percent again the next year, will only raise the value to something approaching the sale price.

For example, a downtown Minneapolis property assessed at $107 million sold for $200 million. The assessments increased only 10 percent the first year and another 10 percent the second year, but jumped another 34 percent in year three. These repeated increases drive building costs well beyond owner and taxpayer expectations.

Assessors increased another property’s value by 30 percent in the year after the sale. Yet another pair of buildings were assessed 10 percent higher the year before they sold, then increased 30 percent and 50 percent in the year following the sale, putting them at approximately 90 percent of the purchase price.

Tenant Repercussions

Tenants notice operating cost increases, especially those recurring over consecutive years. Operating cost increases can discourage a tenant from renewing its lease at a higher rent.

As an example, a local tenant in a build-to-suit property had projected taxes at $4 per square foot, but with taxes of $10 per square foot this year, the tenant faces occupancy costs far in excess of projections. Whether the difference is looked at in an absolute sense as $6 per square foot or as 250 percent higher than expectations, the tenant is in a very different financial position than anticipated. How can the next lease be at the same net rate?

Many national tenants demand lease provisions that cap annual increases in real estate tax charges as protection against these increases, turning a triple-net lease into a quasi-gross lease, at least for taxes. Common in retail properties and found in flex space or office buildings as well, this practice puts a dent into the owner’s return.

As in many other states, Minnesota assessors try to equalize assessments, so a few high-priced sales may trigger increased assessments for neighboring buildings. If an assessor is trying to avoid being accused of “chasing sales,” then one or two sales in a market area can lift all assessments. Comparable properties may see an increase in taxes with no changes to their own net rents or occupancy. Such increases can be a burden if the assessor has done a poor job of equalizing.

One of the biggest surprises for new buyers can occur when trying to renew leases. Many landlords discover that higher assessments lead to lower net rents or increased vacancy numbers that are far different from the assumptions made at the time of purchase. Relatively few buyers project double-digit tax increases, so tax hikes approaching 30 percent can inflict a troublesome dampening effect on net rents and occupancy.

Even tax increases limited to 10 percent annually for two or three years will exceed the 3 percent increases that a typical buyer builds into a discounted cash flow analysis when evaluating a purchase. That unexpected cost can decrease cash flow in future years to the point that the purchase price appears too optimistic. When this increase in taxes is combined with lower net rents as tenants fight to keep occupancy costs under control, the entire analysis at the time of sale becomes a meaningless historical curiosity.

John Gendler_legal

John Gendler

Clearly, potential buyers must perform due diligence on assessor practices when a contemplated sale price is significantly higher than current assessments, or risk nasty surprises in the next few years.

John Gendler is a partner in the Minneapolis law firm of Smith, Gendler, Shiell, Sheff, Ford & Maher, P.A., the Minnesota member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.

Wallet image by Catherine Yeulet/iStockphoto.com

Originally appearing in the November 2016 issue of CPE.