Property Tax Reform Priorities
continuing Priority #2: Enforce Good Laws
Use the Building-Residual Method of Allocating Value
It is equally important to use the "Building-Residual Method" of allocating value between land and buildings. This means you value the land first, as though it were vacant, based on highest and best use. You subtract this land value from the total value of land-&-building as currently improved: the residual, if any, is building value.
Valuing one lot or parcel this way, you have information needed for valuing neighboring and other comparable parcels. Using a map with value contours, you can value a whole city this way with surprising ease and speed.
Using this method, I valued Milwaukee land in 1963 and 1967. The building-residual method nearly tripled the land values reported by the City Assessor, who was using the assessor's usual inconsistent mix of various other methods. How's that again? Did I say tripled? Yes, I really said "tripled." By his methods, buildings on the eve of demolition were carrying values higher than their sites; by the building-residual method these old buildings had no value at all, which of course is why they were being torn down. Besides depreciation and technological obsolescence, many buildings suffered severe "locational obsolescence," owing to shifting demand patterns. The land was re-usable, and had as much or more value without the extant buildings.
Using the building-residual method requires no change in present laws. It is within the latitude of assessing officials, who, in turn, respond to public opinion. The conscientious citizens' move is to educate and bring pressure, just as the old single-tax campaigners like Jackson Ralston did. In the process of "losing" they won over half of what they sought, just by taking a stand and making the effort.
Federal Income Taxes
One of assessors' greatest problems today is the strong pressures from owners who want to allocate as much value as possible to buildings that they may depreciate for federal income tax purposes. Here is where we must study how the parts form the big picture. Here is where federal and local tax policies intersect. Some Georgists have neglected or misunderstood the income-tax treatment of land income. Let us see how this works.
Congress and the IRS let one depreciate buildings, but not land, for income tax. This important distinction harks back to when the income tax was new, and Georgist Congressmen like Warren Worth Bailey, from Johnstown, PA and Henry George Jr., from Brooklyn were instrumental in shaping it.
When a building is new, the depreciable value is limited to the cost of construction. The non-depreciable land is the bare land value before construction. So far, so good. Over time, however, building owners have converted this into a tax shelter scheme. Owner A, the builder, writes off the building in a few years, much less than its economic life, and sells it to B. "A" pays a tax on the excess of sales price over "basis." The basis is reduced by all depreciation taken, so any excess depreciation is "recaptured" upon sale. It is defined by Congress as a "capital gain," and given the corresponding package of tax preferences: deferral of tax, lower rate, step-up of basis at time of death, tax-free exchanges, etc.
Thus far, any tax preference goes to A, the builder, and may be seen as a wellconsidered building incentive. Watch, however, what happens next. "A" sells to B and B depreciates the building all over again, from his purchase price. To do so, B must allocate the new "basis" - i.e., his purchase price - between depreciable building and non-depreciable land.
How shall B allocate the new basis? Enter the local tax assessor. Here is where local assessment intersects with Federal income tax policy. The IRS does not try to assess land and buildings. Instead, IRS instructions tell taxpayers they may use locally assessed values to allocate basis between depreciable buildings and non-depreciable land. The IRS accepts this allocation as conclusive. As a result, local owners of income property press their assessors to allocate as much value as possible to buildings, and as little as possible to land. This does not affect their local taxes, but lowers their federal taxes. It lets them depreciate land.
Local revenues are not immediately affected. Local assessors have little reason not to accommodate their constituents, local landowners, to help them depreciate land for federal and state income tax purposes. They have little reason to use the correct "building-residual'' method of allocating value, and a compelling reason to use the wrong method that understates land value. Thus they convert non-depreciable land value into depreciable building value. It is the modern version of "competitive underassessment." In the process, they also convert the local property tax from a land tax into a building tax.
After a while B sells to C, who in turn sells to D, so each building is depreciated many times. So is a large part of the land under it, tame after time, although it should not be depreciated at all. This is carried so far that real estate pays no federal or state income taxes at all.
The solution to this lies with the U.S. Congress. The need is to limit depreciation to one cycle only. It is a most urgent problem for both federal and local treasuries. We all have Congressmen. Write to them and raise their consciousness. They are brokers who respond to public opinion. It is we who are derelict.
End of Part Four. Part Five will appear on Thursday, April 2.
This paper was originally presented at a property tax reform conference at the Jerome Levy Institute at Bard College, New York, November 3, 1995.