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Appealing Property Taxes for Commercial Owners

Property taxes are one of the largest line item costs incurred by apartment owners. However, many owners do not appeal effectively. Even though owners realize that property taxes can be managed and reduced through an appeal, some view taxes as an arbitrary estimate provided by the government which can't effectively be appealed. It tends to boil down to the old adage, "You can't fight city hall".

Fortunately, the property tax appeal process in Texas provides owners multiple opportunities to appeal. Handled either directly by the owner or by a property tax consultant, this process should involve an intense effort to annually appeal and minimize property taxes. Reducing the largest line item expense has a significant effect in reducing the owner's overall operating expenses. While it is not possible to entirely escape the burden of paying property taxes, it is possible to reduce taxes sharply, often by 25% to 50%.

Why some owners don't appeal

Some property owners don't appeal because they either don't understand the process, or don't understand that there is a good probability of achieving meaningful reductions in property taxes. Some owners believe that since the market value of their property exceeds the assessed value, then it is not possible to appeal and reduce the property taxes. Although appeals on unequal appraisal are relatively new, there is a clear-cut way to appeal property taxes at the administrative hearing level based on unequal appraisal. Unequal appraisal occurs when property is assessed inconsistently with neighboring properties or comparable properties. Also, some owners are reluctant to hire a property tax consultant, even though many consultants will work on a contingent fee basis, in which there is no cost to the owner unless property taxes for the current year are reduced.

Overview of appeal process

The following are the primary steps in the annual process for appealing property taxes:
Request notice of accessed value
File an appeal
Prepare for hearing
. Review records
. Review market value appeal
. Review unequal appraisal appeal
Set negotiating perimeters
Administrative hearings
Decide whether binding arbitration or judicial appeals are warranted
Pay taxes timely

Requesting a notice of assessed value

Property owners have the option of requesting a notice of assessed value for their property annually. Section 25.19g of the Texas Property Tax Code provides the owner the option to request a written notice of the assessed value from the chief appraiser. Owners benefit from requesting and receiving a written notice of assessed value for each property because it ensures they have an opportunity to review the assessed value. This notice should be sent on an annual basis. The appraisal district does not have to send a notice of assessed value if the value increases by less than ,000. However, if an owner was not satisfied with a prior year's value and the value remained the same, the appraisal district probably will not send a notice of the assessed value for the current year. In this situation, the owner might forget to protest since a notice of assessed value for the property was not received.

How to file and appeal

On or before May 31st of each year, the property owner should file an appeal for each property. However, while many owners are comfortable with an assessed value, in many cases there is a basis for appealing. Two options for appealing include:
1. unequal appraisal, and
2. market value based on data the appraisal district provides to the owner before the hearing.

You can appeal by completing the protest form provided by the appraisal district and indicating both excessive value (market value) and unequal appraisal as the basis for appeal. In addition, the property owner can simply send a notice that identifies the property, and indicates dissatisfaction with some determination of the appraisal office. The notice does not need to be on an official form, although the comptroller does provide a form for the convenience of property owners. (You can access the protest form at www.cutmytaxes.com .)

House Bill 201 - helpful information

House Bill 201 is the industry jargon for a property owner's option to request information the appraisal district will use at the hearing, and to receive a copy 14 days before the hearing. The name House Bill 201 is derived from the bill used to enact the law. The details for House Bill 201 are located in sections 41.461 and 41.67d of the Texas Property Tax Code. When filing a protest, the property owner should additionally request in writing that the appraisal district provide a copy of any information the appraisal district plans to introduce at the hearing. The appraisal district will typically require the property owner to come to the appraisal district office to pick up the information and charge a nominal fee, typically .10 per page. While the cost for House Bill 201 requests are quite low (typically .50 to .00 per property for residential and commercial) the information is invaluable in preparing for the hearing. In addition, filing a House Bill 201 request is important because it limits the information the appraisal district can present at the hearing to what was provided to the property owner two weeks before the hearing.

Preparing for the Hearing

Start by reviewing the appraisal district's information for your property for accuracy. If the appraisal district overstates either the quality or quantity of improvements, this will justify a deduction. The next step is to review the information on market value and unequal appraisal provided by the appraisal district in the House Bill 201 package. If the subject property is an income property, review the appraisal district's income analysis versus your actual income and expense statements. Consider the following areas as opportunities to rebut the appraisal district's analysis:
Gross potential income
Vacancy rate
Total effective gross income, including other income
Operating expenses
Amount of replacement reserves
Net operating income
Capitalization rate
Final market value

Many property owners and consultants start with the actual income and expense data, and use one or two of the assumptions provided by the appraisal district. However, they primarily utilize information from the actual income and expenses in preparing their own income analysis and estimate of market value for the subject property.

When comparable sales are the primary issue in determining market value, start by reviewing the comparable sales data provided by the appraisal district versus the assessed value for your property. Convert the sales prices from the appraisal district to either a per square foot or per unit basis. Then compare the sales to the per square foot or per unit assessment for your property. Sales can be helpful during the hearing.

The cost approach is not typically used in the property tax hearings except for brand new or relatively new properties. If your property is new, the appraisal district will probably want to review the cost information and you probably won't want to show it to them. In many cases, the actual cost of a property is higher than the estimate provided by the appraisal district. If this is the case, you will likely want to appeal on unequal appraisal instead of on market value. No matter how good your argument or how passionately it is expressed, the appraisal district staff and Appraisal Review Board (ARB) members tend to believe that cost equals value for new properties.

Deferred Maintenance and Functional Obsolescence

Another issue that is important for the market value appeal, and to some extent for a unequal appraisal appeal, is information on deferred maintenance and functional obsolescence. Deferred maintenance could include items such as:

rotten wood
peeling paint
roof replacement
substantial repair
landscaping updating and other similar items

Most appraisal districts give minimal consideration to requests for adjustments based on deferred maintenance, unless the property owner provides repair costs from independent contractors. There are some exceptions where a cooperative informal appraiser or sympathetic ARB will take an owner's estimate of deferred maintenance and make adjustments based on those costs. Most appraisers and ARB members are much more inclined to make adjustments if third-party cost estimates are provided. In addition, the appraisers and many ARB members are inclined to only deduct a portion of the total cost using the argument, "we've been giving a replacement reserve allowance for this item for the past years and it'd be double-dipping to deduct the whole value off it in the current year." While this is an incorrect appraisal argument, it does tend to be the practice at many appraisal districts. The reality is, the cost of curing deferred maintenance is deducted from the offer by a prospective buyer.

Examples of functional obsolescence would be a three-bedroom apartment unit that only has one bathroom, or a two-bedroom apartment that does not have washer/dryer connections in an area where those connections are common. Another example would be an apartment that has a window air conditioner in an area where central HVAC is typical and expected.

Unequal appraisal analysis

The Texas Property Tax Code, section 41.43(b)(3), provides for appraising or appealing on unequal appraisal including ratio studies and "a reasonable number of comparable properties appropriately adjusted." Virtually all unequal appraisal appeals involve a reasonable number of comparables that are appropriately adjusted. Comparables are similar properties.

This is primarily because of the difficulty and cost of performing a ratio study. Historically, the position of many appraisal districts was that the property owner needed to get a fee appraisal for each comparable property and compare the market value estimated by the appraiser to the assessed value. The cost of getting multiple appraisals made this process financially impractical. Compiling a reasonable number of comparables appropriately adjusted is simple and straightforward. The first step is to choose a reasonable number of comparables. Usually four to five comparables is the typical number used at a property tax hearing, but in some cases, property owners choose ten to thirty. In some cases, there may only be one to four comparable properties that merit consideration. Most unequal appraisal presentations include three to ten comparables. The number of reasonable comparables depends on the location, type, size and age of the property. For example, there would be fewer five-year-old bowling alleys in the northern part of Harris County compared to recently built apartment complexes.

After choosing a reasonable number of comparables, array them in a table format, including fields of data such as account number, net rentable area, year built, street address, assessed value and assessed value per square foot.

The next step is to determine whether or not to make appropriate adjustments. For the administrative hearing, if you have truly comparable properties, most boards (appraisal review board or ARB) won't be concerned with you not making adjustments. If you make adjustments, those would typically be based on factors such as differences in size and age compared to the subject property.

You should also review the information in the appraisal district's House Bill 201 packet on an unequal appraisal. In many cases, the appraisal districts unequal appraisal analysis will document a reduction in your assessed value! If the appraisal districts unequal appraisal analysis documents a reduction, either the informal appraiser or the ARB should make the adjustment in assessed value for you. Having the opportunity to get an assessed value reduced automatically based on the appraisal districts unequal appraisal analysis is one of the reasons to appeal every property every year.

Completing Hearing Preparation

After reviewing the appraisal district's information on your property, the House Bill 201 package, and your market value and unequal appraisal analyses, determine the strengths and weaknesses of each approach and decide which basis of appeal provides the best opportunity for a meaningful reduction. Although appeals on unequal appraisal have clearly been the law of the land since 2003, some appraisal districts and review boards have chosen to disregard the option for unequal appraisal put forth by the Texas Legislature. Although there is litigation underway which should resolve this issue within the next year, it would be prudent to visit someone who is knowledgeable in local property tax appeals to determine whether the county appraisal district and ARB in your area are considering appeals on unequal appraisal.

Set Negotiating Perimeters

After reviewing the information, it is important to set the highest level of assessed value you will accept at the informal hearing because after you accept an assessed value, the appeal process will be complete for the year and you will not be able to appeal further.

Administrative Hearing Process

The two steps to the administrative hearing process are the informal hearing and the appraisal review board hearing.

The Informal Hearing
The following procedure and rules are typical at the informal hearing:

Meet with an appraiser representing the appraisal district. You should be polite and prepared at this meeting. While many property owners are frustrated and angry at the high level of real estate taxes, the appraisal district appraiser does not control the tax rate set by various entities nor the policy regarding property taxes in the area or the state. The appraisal district appraiser is trying to execute his job in a professional manner and appreciates it when property owners work with him on that basis.
Provide the appraiser information on your property and he will review that information and information he has available.
The appraiser will likely make an offer to settle the assessed value of your property fairly quickly. You can either accept the value or negotiate further. Either way, you should know within ten to twenty minutes whether the appraiser will offer an acceptable value. If the value is acceptable, conclude the negotiation by agreeing to the value for the current year. If the value offered is not acceptable, ask to go forward with an ARB hearing.

Appraisal Review Board Hearing (ARB)

The ARB hearing panel consists of three impartial citizens selected and paid by the appraisal district. The age of most ARB members ranges from fifty to eighty. There is an unfortunate bias in the system since the ARB members are selected and paid by the appraisal district, but most ARB members are reasonable people who want to make appropriate decisions.

Like the appraisal district appraiser, the ARB does not set tax rates or tax policy. The members are also not responsible for the effectiveness of local government. It is unlikely to help your case if you complain to the ARB members about either the high level of property taxes or the poor quality of some aspect of local government.

The ARB will expect you to make your presentation in about three to ten minutes. They will typically wait patiently while you make your presentation and may have questions after you conclude. An appraiser from the appraisal district, who may or may not be the same person who attended the informal hearing, will represent the appraisal district at the ARB hearing. The appraiser will comment on the evidence you presented and will often present other information the appraisal district has available. If you requested a House Bill 201 package for your property, it substantially limits the evidence the appraisal district appraiser can offer at the hearing. The ARB members may have questions after the appraisers presentation. Then the property owner will be given a final opportunity to rebut evidence presented by the appraisal district appraiser and quickly summarize the evidence. The ARB members strongly prefer you not repeat your entire presentation at this point.

After hearing the evidence, the ARB members will confer and make a decision. This decision is not subject to negotiation and they will not revise the decision if further evidence is presented. When this decision is announced, the hearing is effectively over. The ARB will send a letter two to four weeks later summarizing their decision and notifying the owner of a 45 day limitation from the date receipt of the ARB decision to either request binding arbitration or file a judicial appeal.

Binding Arbitration or Judicial Appeal

Beginning September 2005, owners of properties with an assessed value of million or less may file a request for binding arbitration. The owner must file with the appraisal district no more than 45 days after receipt of the notice of the ARB's decision. The binding arbitration option is interesting because it includes a loser pays provision. The appraisal district pays for the arbitrator's fee if the final value is closer to the owner's opinion of value, and the owner pays for the binding arbitration if the final decision is closer to the appraisal district's opinion of value. Binding arbitration was passed to provide an alternative to judicial appeals, which can be expensive to prosecute.

Many owners pursue judicial appeals to further reduce property taxes. In 2005, O'Connor & Associates filed over 1,200 judicial appeals on behalf of property owners in the state of Texas. The judicial appeals can be expensive if the property owner and attorney don't understand the process and have a plan in place to minimize the cost of legal and expert witness fees. Judicial appeals are typically successful. However, success requires cooperation from the property owner, such as providing responses to questions, documents and a deposition if requested. The judicial appeal is meaningful as an option to minimize property taxes since it reduces the base value. This is important because the appraisal district and ARB consider the base value in the subsequent year when setting the administrative hearing value.

Conclusion

Property owners can generate substantial reductions in property taxes by appealing annually. Consider appeals on both market value and unequal appraisal and obtain the House Bill 201 information when preparing for the appeal hearing. Property owners should consider all three levels of appeal: informal hearing, ARB hearing and judicial appeal/binding arbitration. While the ARB hearing and judicial appeal/binding arbitration can be an intimidating process, each is straightforward once you understand the mechanics.


About the Author: Patrick O'Connor, a designated member of the Appraisal Institute, is president of O'Connor & Associates. The firm, in business since 1974, specializes in real estate appraisals, research, and state and federal tax reduction services nationwide. Visit /article.asp?id=46




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