When the early pandemic sent hotel occupancies plummeting and uncertainty soaring, it also created clear opportunities for many hotel operators to reduce property tax bills by appealing their assessments.
Today, however, it can be difficult to know whether appealing an assessment still makes sense. Record selling prices are being reported on a macro level despite increasing interest rates, rapid inflation and ongoing unpredictability in many markets. This gives taxpayers a potentially confusing array of mixed messages affecting valuation.
Hotel operators should heed the real estate adage that “all properties are unique,” a saying that certainly rings true in the current hospitality market. To really understand hotel values, it has become essential to delve into what drives demand at each property.
I recently heard an appraiser sum up the hotel market recovery as follows: “At the beginning of the pandemic, we thought it was going to take five years [for hotels to recover], but it turned out it was more like two to three,” he said. “And if a property isn’t recovering by now, then it’s probably not going to.”
This was, admittedly, an oversimplification, but it seems to reflect the reality in many places.
Laurel Keller, an EVP at of Newmark Valuation & Advisory's gaming and leisure division, observed that the recovery has been uneven across different markets and hotel types. “I've seen a range of recoveries, from midscale hotels that recorded their best top-line revenue and profit margins ever last year, to full-service hotels still performing at levels below pre-pandemic,” Keller said. “In most instances, average rate growth has been substantial over the past 18-plus months, though occupancy recovery has been slower.”
So, how can an owner or operator know if their hotel is fairly assessed?
For property tax purposes, most states recognize that hospitality properties are operating businesses (also called going concerns) of which real estate is only one value component. The other components are the furniture, fixtures and equipment, and the intangible business value.
To reduce property taxes, an owner must challenge the assessor's property value assessment, and that value pertains only to the real estate component. Failing to prove the proper allocation of overall value among the going concern components can result in an owner paying taxes on non-taxable property.
There is widespread agreement that a lodging operation carries a business value that must be separated from the real estate to determine taxable property value. However, for the past two decades there has been debate about how to tease out those separate values. This ongoing discussion is dominated by two generally accepted valuation methods. The more conservative of the two assumes that the removal of management and franchise fees from the income stream offsets the hotel’s business value. That approach gained favor in many jurisdictions in the early 2000s for its straightforward and simplistic nature.
Several prominent court decisions in recent years have endorsed a more robust analysis, however, to ensure that all non-taxable assets are removed from the real estate assessment. This more detailed approach considers the values associated with intangible items such as a trained workforce, reservation systems and brand goodwill.
One expert witness recently described post-pandemic hotel analysis as “granular,” and noted that seemingly minor differences between properties have become more important than ever. As an example, he pointed to two properties in his market with the same flag which would have been considered comparable three years ago, but subtle differences in their locations relative to office submarkets, sporting facilities, and hospitals could now make a big difference in performance and valuation. Despite appearing similar on the surface, each property has unique demand factors.
In a similar vein, an owner of hotels throughout the United States used the term “hyperlocal” to describe property performance in 2022. As an example, the owner cited two upscale hotels about a mile apart from each other in the same submarket, just outside of a large metropolitan area. Pre-pandemic performance at both properties was similar and relatively predictable. Today, the property slightly closer to the airport is thriving while the other struggles to get back to 2019 performance levels.
It also can be difficult to make sense of the news around recent acquisitions. Even as billions of dollars are pouring into the extended-stay sector nationwide, owners in some markets are looking to convert their extended-stay properties to apartments. Similarly, 2022 has seen significant investment in hotels along interstate highways despite indications that occupancy may be starting to decline in that subsector.
“Pandemic recovery has varied widely from property to property and market to market and been far more protracted for some hotel assets," Keller said. "More surprisingly, we are now seeing performance decreases at some hotels that experienced a surge in leisure-oriented travel last year. So, the recovery is ongoing, and perceived rapid recovery at some hotels may have been slightly misleading.”
Perhaps the key takeaway from all this is that the reported “recovery” in the industry doesn’t equate to a recovery for every hotel.
Just as all properties are unique, all taxing jurisdictions have their own rules and idiosyncrasies. Understanding the intersection between accepted appraisal practices and a jurisdiction’s particular laws around the assessment of going concern properties is essential to ascertaining whether a particular hotel is fairly assessed.
Operators seeking assistance in evaluating their property tax assessments should lean toward qualified appraisers and tax counsel with local knowledge, which can help identify opportunities to right-size taxes and articulate the narrative behind each property in question.
Brendan Kelly is a partner in the Pittsburgh office of law firm Siegel Jennings Co., the Ohio, Illinois and Western Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.