Property tax, or millage tax, is an ad valorem tax that an owner pays on the value of the property being taxed. There are three species or types of property: land, improvements to land (immovable man-made objects, namely, buildings), and personal property (movable man-made objects). Property tax is distinguished from land value tax, or the "single tax" proposed by Henry George, by taxing not only the land but also the property developed on that land. Real estate, real property, or realty are all terms for the combination of land and improvements. The taxing authority requires and/or performs an appraisal of the monetary value of the property, and tax is assessed in proportion to that value. Forms of property tax used vary between countries and jurisdictions.

Property taxes have problems in collection and assessment, with various methods of assessing property value in place in different parts of the world, and issues over whether to charge a single or variable rate on assessed values. They also suffer from the danger of being regressive, taking a higher proportion of income from poor individuals than from rich individuals, when they do not take into account the ability of owner of the property to pay. It is only when human nature changes from selfishness to caring for others and society as a whole that the problems inherent in taxation can be resolved, both by those designing the system and by those collecting and paying the taxes.

Role of property tax

Property tax is an ad valorem tax that an owner of real estate or other property pays on the value of the property being taxed. The revenue from this tax is used by the local governments in developed countries to supply public services. These services range from those that exhibit mainly private goods characteristics, such as water, sewers, solid waste collection and disposal, public transit, public recreation, to those that exhibit mainly public goods characteristics, including local streets and roads, street lighting, fire and police protection, neighborhood parks, and so forth (Kitchen 2003).

Historical overview

In the ancient world and parts of medieval Europe there were taxes on the land. However, these were based on the area of land rather than its value. Eventually, the output from the land, or the owner's annual income from the land, became the basis of taxation. Later, other forms of wealth including personal property as well as buildings, equipment, and animals, were included in assessing the owner's "ability to pay." Such assessment, even at that time, proved difficult since owners could easily hide valuable items.

Later, the New England colonies sought to tax all forms of property, both real and personal, in the "general property tax." By the middle of the nineteenth century, such property taxes had become the principal source of revenue for the states. However, when enforcement became problematic and double taxation on intangibles (which often were mortgages or claims on real or tangible property) became unfair, the base was changed to real estate alone.

Physiocrats' proposed property tax

The Physiocrats' credo in the eighteenth century, can be summarized as:

It is from the right of property, maintained in all its natural and primitive fullness, that all the institutions which make up the essential form of society necessarily flow: you can think of the right of property as a tree, and all the institutions of society are the branches which it shoots forth, which it nourishes, and which perish when they are detached from it (Schiatter, 1951).

The major tenets of Physiocratic ideology are the following two restrictions Quesnay (founder of the Physiocratic school) formulated on the use of property:

That a part of the sum of incomes not pass to a foreign country without returning, in money or in merchandise… and, that they prevent evite the desertion of inhabitants who would carry their wealth out of the kingdom (Oncken 1888, 233).

Quesnay also claimed in his Fourth Maxim:

That the ownership of the landed properties and the mobile wealth be assured to those who are their legitimate possessors; for the security of property is the fundamental essential of the economic order of society… Without the certainty of ownership, the territory would rest uncultivated. There would be neither proprietors nor tenants responsible for making the necessary expenditures to develop and cultivate it, if the preservation of the land and produce were not assured to those who advance these expenditures. It is the security of permanent possession which induces the work and the employment of wealth to the improvement and to the cultivation of land and to the enterprises of commerce and industry (Oncken 1888, 331-332).

But Physiocratic property theory also encompassed the reasoned modification-reconstitution of such rights necessary to maintain and strengthen the same social interest by which private property itself was sanctioned. The evidence recorded below suggests that the Physiocratic theory of property rights is more nearly a theory of “social utility” than a theory of exclusive or absolute private dominion.

Such a view was propounded by de Tocqueville, when he observed that the Physiocrats had neither concern nor respect for contractual and proprietary rights. Such claims are minor, compared with the social interest: "there are no longer private rights, but only a public utility" (de Tocqueville 1955, 159).

In the context of property (land) taxes the Physiocrats were not unduly hostile to taxation per se; rather they attributed to taxation (and government) considerable positive social significance. In short, taxation becomes less of a nemesis and more of an instrument of social utility. Indeed, a principle of Physiocratic tax theory was that:

Tax, if kept within its rational limits, is not a burden at all. On the contrary, it is a condition toward the maximization of the national dividend and… taxation for the Physiocrats was a problem not of a burden laid on individual producer's shoulders for the sake of keeping the consumptive governmental machine going, but… a problem of distribution between productive agents-the State being counted among them according to his (its) proper nature-of a total national dividend produced by the same agents (Einaudi 1933, 131-135).

It is also clear that the reconstruction of the tax system proposed by the Physiocrats would necessarily have involved the abrogation of valuable and privileged property rights of long standing:

The expenses of the government having for their object the interests of all, all ought to contribute to them; and the more one enjoys the advantages of the society, the more ought it to be held a matter of honor to participate in these charges… Taxation being subject to considerations of public utility, privilege would have to give way to a rational tax administration. That such a reconstruction involved a concomitant reconstitution of property rights goes without saying (Shepherd 1903, 108-109).

Thus, for the Physiocrats it was axiomatic that the state was responsible for the development of property, and that it was through the agency of the state that property was to be reconstructed continuously in the social interest. The role of the state was thus to manipulate property law, thereby manipulating the bundle of rights that constituted property. The use of a land tax as the chief source of revenue for the state was favored by the Physiocrats. They maintained that:

Society should be governed according to an inherent natural order, that the soil is the sole source of wealth and the only proper object of taxation, and that security of property and freedom of industry and exchange are essential (McLean 2004).

Another, slightly different, view was offered by Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, the eloquent popularizer of Physiocracy:

The tax is a kind of inalienable common property. When proprietors buy or sell land they do not buy and sell the tax. They can only dispose of that portion of the land which really belongs to them, after deducting the amount of the tax. This tax is no more a charge upon property than is the right of fellow proprietors a burden upon one's property. And so the public revenue is not burdensome to anyone, costs nothing, and is paid by no one. Hence, it in no way curtails the amount of property which a person has (Samuels 1961).

Thus, the Physiocrats almost exclusively tied the land tax-into which they sometimes included “the mobile wealth,” see Quesnay's Fourth Maxim above-to the “social and public interest” and left the rationalization of the tax (state) revenue and its partial return back to increase the poorer people's wellbeing to the state. As the state officials at the time were not, generally, up to the task, this was a clear invitation to a “wholesale” corruption, just as Henry George claimed in his treatise (George 1879).

Under these conditions, probably the best-known exponent of land-alone tax was the nineteenth-century American economist, Henry George.

Henry George's single tax

Henry George's solution lay in the taxation of the rent of land and natural opportunities. That is, the recapture of rent for public use, rather than the taxation of labor and capital:

We have reached the deplorable circumstance where in large measure a very powerful few are in possession of the earth's resources, the land and its riches and all the franchises and other privileges that yield a return. These positions are maintained virtually without taxation; they are immune to the demands made on others… The very poor, who have nothing, are the object of compulsory charity. And the rest-the workers, the middle-class, the backbone of the country-are made to support the lot by their labor… We are taxed at every point of our lives, on everything we earn, on everything we save, on much that we inherit, on much that we buy at every stage of the manufacture and on the final purchase. The taxes are punishing, crippling, demoralizing. Also they are, to a great extent, unnecessary (George 1879).

George, building on the economic analyses of those such as David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill in Great Britain, proposed the abolition of all taxes except that on land. This "single tax" was seen as a more equitable way of financing local governments while encouraging efficient use of land.

However, shortly after George's death, this viewpoint dropped out of the political field. Once a badge of honor, the title, "Single Taxer," came into general disuse. Except in Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and scattered cities around the world, his plan of social action has been neglected while those of Marx, Keynes, Galbraith, and Friedman have won great attention. Property tax based on real estate (land plus improvements in the form of immovable property) is now the chief source of revenue for local governments in the United States.

Evaluation of the property

Property tax today is generally based not just on the value of the land, but also on the improvements to that land. All taxable properties must be identified and described on the assessment roll (with each property assigned a roll number) and, above all: assessed. The roll number is important for linking assessment information with tax billing and property transfer records.

However, there is no uniform tax base that applies everywhere. In some countries, the property tax is based on property value as determined by:

  • market value,
  • site value, and/or
  • rental value.

In other countries, the tax is based on building area and property area-this is referred to as unit value. In a few countries, a mix of these approaches is employed. Each of these systems is briefly considered below.

Market value

Market value is the price that is determined between a willing buyer and a willing seller in an arms length deal. Market value estimates the value that the market places on individual properties. For properties that sell in any year, market value is the selling price. For properties that do not change hands in the year, market value must be estimated.

There are at least three estimation methods that may be used:

  • First, when markets are active and similar properties are being sold in the same or comparable neighborhoods, a comparative sales approach could be used. This assigns a market value to an unsold property by looking at valid selling prices of similar or comparable properties.
  • Second, a depreciated cost approach is sometimes used. This is most appropriate when properties are relatively new, there are no comparable sales, and improvements are relatively unique. Here, the property is valued by assigning a value to the land as if it were vacant and adding the cost of replacing the buildings and other improvements.
  • Third, a capitalized income approach may be used. This is primarily for properties that generate actual rental income. Here, the annual net rental income (gross annual rental income minus annual operating expenses) is estimated with this annual net income subsequently converted to a capitalized property value (market value) using a capitalization factor.

To illustrate, if net annual rental income from a specific property is $10,000 and if the current interest rate is five percent (current rate of return on a bond, for example), the capitalized value of the property would be $200,000 (net rent divided by interest rate or $10,000/.05). This is also the market value because an individual would be willing to pay $200,000 for a property that generates an annual net rent of $10,000-this is a five percent return and is identical to the return on bonds.

Site graded value assessment

Site value assessment (SVA) is a special case of market value assessment where only land is assessed. All capital improvements (buildings, for example) are excluded from the assessment base. Under a graded SVA system, capital improvements are included in the base and taxed at lower rates (sometimes significantly lower) than land, with the level of gradation varying according to the taxing jurisdiction's policies and practices. A form of site value assessment is used in New Zealand, Kenya, Jamaica, and South Africa (Bahl 1998).

There are two potential problems with site value assessment. Evidence is scarce on the effects of a system that taxes land more intensively than it taxes buildings. A study published in 1997 evaluated economic development in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania after the city's decision in 1979-1980 to adopt a graded system and apply a rate to land that was more than five times the rate on structures. The study concluded that Pittsburgh did experience a dramatic increase in building activity, one far in excess of any increases in other cities in the region, but it stopped short of concluding that the change in tax policy had caused the boom (Oates and Schwab 1997).

On the whole, it may seem that a graded system does encourage development, much of this development tends to be at the expense of neighboring communities that have not adopted a similar system and that replacement of the current property tax system with either a system that taxed land alone or a graded system would generate windfall gains and losses in the short run as tax bills rise for certain properties and fall for others (Bird 1993, 82).

Unit-value assessment

On the other hand, support for unit-value or area assessment (based on size of property and buildings) has emerged in a couple of instances. First, it would be superior to value based assessment systems in countries or areas of countries that do not have fully functioning and operational real estate markets. Estonia, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Russia, and Armenia use it for this reason.

Similarly, it may make sense to use it in parts of countries (Canada and Russia, for example) where there are isolated hamlets and no clearly functional market for property values because the government owns most of the housing and rents it to the occupants.

Single or variable tax rate?

The issue here is whether a local taxing jurisdiction should apply a single uniform property tax rate to all properties within its taxing jurisdiction or whether variable tax rates should be used; that is, tax rates that vary with the cost of servicing different properties by type or by location within a municipality.

Traditionally and historically, in Canada, as in most other countries with a history of property taxation based on property values, the practice has been to apply a single tax rate to all residential properties and a higher tax rate to all commercial and industrial properties. However, more recently, in Canada, but not everywhere, this practice has changed. All municipalities in the provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario are now permitted to use variable property tax rates. Other countries have also moved in this direction.

The taxation of business properties (commercial and industrial) at higher tax rates than residential properties is generally done in one of two ways (Netzer 1993):

  • either through the practice of assessing business properties at higher values than residential properties with the same tax rate applied to both property types;
  • or through the simple application of higher tax rates on business properties.

This over-taxation of the non-residential sector has been addressed in empirical studies in Canada and in the United States. Two Canadian studies compared the property tax paid by business properties with the cost of municipal services used by them. The first study included a number of municipalities in the province of Ontario in the early 1990s. It concluded that the residential sector when compared with the business sector is the recipient of proportionately more benefits from local government services (social services in Ontario, elementary and secondary education, libraries, recreational facilities, and so forth). When combined with higher effective property tax rates paid by the business sector, it concluded that the latter is over-taxed and the residential sector under-taxed (Kitchen and Slack 1993; Kitchen 2003).

A more recent study in the United States found similar results. Specifically, it was estimated that the “business related” share of combined state and local expenditures in the United States is about 13 percent, although there is considerable variation from state to state. These businesses, however, pay proportionately more of the state and local taxes (Oakland and Testa 1995; Kitchen 2003).

Spatial factors

In reality, the extent to which firms and businesses respond to property tax differentials depends on many factors. These include, for example, the importance of being in the core of the region or area for business reasons; the opportunity to shift the tax differential on to consumers (of the final service or product), employees and owners; and the enhanced amenities that may be offered by a 'downtown location'.

An extensive literature in Canada and the U.S. suggests that spatial factors do affect the costs of development (Marchand 1992). In particular, the density of development and its location with respect to existing services influence the costs of providing services. For example, “hard” services such as sidewalks, roads, and water and sewer mains cost less to provide in denser neighborhoods. With water, a pipe is laid down the center of a street and individual service lines extend from the water main to each building. In high-density neighborhoods, there are more dwelling units per kilometer of water main over which to spread the costs. Furthermore, increasing the distance from central infrastructure facilities such as water and sewage treatment plants will increase costs.

An efficient property tax would thus reflect the higher costs associated with providing services in less dense developments. This would generally mean that property taxes based on services received should be higher in suburban municipalities than in the core. If property taxes are higher in the core and service provision less costly, the property tax creates an incentive to move to less dense developments.

Danger of regressivity

Property tax revenues (in the U.S.) account for about 74 percent of local government revenues and 30 percent of combined state and local government revenues. This is down from 97 percent and almost 80 percent respectively in 1927. Notable declines in the relative importance of property taxes occurred:

  • In the 1930s and 1940s as result of the increases in state government aid for education, welfare, health, and highways (financed through taxes on income, sales, and highway users).
  • After 1965 because of a) increased aid through the state and federal governments, and b) the proliferation of non-property taxes and user charges.

This had an unfortunate impact on municipalities that have been steadily losing their share of taxes on income, either by corporate income shifting to lower-taxed sub-national jurisdictions and competition in this sphere, or by perceived political danger of adding extra taxes to already nationally over-taxed income (Kitchen 2003).

Hence, to find a substitute for the lost tax revenue, these sub-national tax jurisdictions, such as municipalities, shifted much of the financial burden from progressive income taxes to property taxes, thus creating a more regressive tax system and less equitable distribution of tax dollars across the states and provinces. As a result, seniors-and this is the fast growing segment of population in developed countries-who own their home are facing increasing property taxes (as their property, in some localities, tend to increases its value in time) without increasing income to pay those taxes. This is the danger of regressive taxation.

Property taxes in various countries


All but the most sparsely populated areas of Canada are governed by local municipal governments which, in most cases, exercise, through zoning and other controls, the most influential powers over land use. These powers are exercised in accordance with senior government policy and master policy plans as determined and laid down by the municipal council. These regulations are unique to each municipality, based on local preference. No generalizations can be made about the scope and nature of such local controls.

The Ontario Development Charges Act authorizes the municipalities to apply specific taxes or charges in order to pay for the infrastructure costs which the municipality might incur in any new development. These charges are intended to offset the additional costs and to ensure an adequate level of infrastructure and services for new developments.

Many provinces in Canada levy property tax on real estate based upon the current use and value of the land and this is the major source of revenue for most municipal governments in Canada. While property tax levels vary between municipalities in a province there is usually common property assessment or valuation criteria laid out in provincial legislation. There is a trend to use a market value standard for valuation purposes in most provinces with varying revaluation cycles. A number of provinces have established an annual reassessment cycle where market activity warrants while others have longer periods between valuation periods.

Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, there is a kind of tax named a property tax, but it is not an ad valorem tax; it is actually classified as an income tax.


Property tax (Dutch: Onroerend goed belasting or Onroerende zaak belasting (OZB) ) is levied on homes on a municipal basis in two parts: for the one who lives in the house, and for the owner of the house. As of 2005, there was a Parliament proposal to retain only the owner's part of the property tax, and to raise it annually not more than the inflation rate.

United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, rates on residential property were based on the nominal rental value of the property. This system had its origin in the Poor Law Act 1601, although parishes often adopted property rates to fund earlier poor law measures. Indeed, the Court of Appeal in 2001 called the rating an "ancient system," suggesting that it had medieval origins.

Whilst still levied in Northern Ireland, rates were generally abolished in Scotland in 1989 and England and Wales in 1990 and replaced with the "Community Charge" (poll tax), a fixed charge the same for everyone. This proved even more unpopular than the rates, and was replaced by a mixed Council tax which combines elements of property tax and a poll tax. Rates are still (2006) levied on business property, though some classes of business are exempt.

As of 2007, Northern Ireland had moved to a rateable value based on the capital value of properties (similar to the Council Tax). The Crown Estate Paving Commission still levies rates on residential property within its jurisdiction, in the area of Regent's Park, London, under the provisions of the Crown Estate Paving Act 1851. Rates on non-residential property (Business Rates) are still charged, at a uniform rate set by central government. Rates are collected by local councils, but the moneys collected are distributed nationally according to population.

Council tax

Council tax is the system of local taxation used in England, Scotland, and Wales to fund in part the services provided by local government in each country. It was introduced in 1993 by the Local Government Finance Act 1992, as a successor to the unpopular Community Charge. The basis for the tax is the estimated market value of residential property assessed in bands of value, with a discount for people living alone.

Each of the levying authorities independently sets a precept (total amount) to be collected for households in their area. This is then divided by the number of "nominal Band D" properties in the authority's area (county, district, national park, etc.) to reach the Band D amount. The "nominal Band D" property total is calculated by adding together the number of properties in each band-coded by letters A to H ( A to I in Wales)-and multiplying by the band ratio.

There may be further modifiers in certain circumstances, for example a discount for unoccupied property, a 25 percent discount for single occupants, or a total dispensation for diplomatic residences, and residences completely occupied by students. Individuals may apply to their local authority for council tax benefit, and subject to eligibility, will receive contributions to cover their tax liability.

Although it is the only tax which is set by local government, the Council Tax contributes only a small proportion (25 percent, on average) of local government revenue. The majority comes from central government grants and from business rates which are collected centrally and redistributed to local authorities.

Council Tax is criticized for perceived unfairness in not taking into account the ability to pay (see regressive taxation). This argument however ignores the fact that those on low incomes can apply for council tax benefits which can significantly (or totally) reduce the amount the applicant pays.

Critics also claim that Council Tax has a disproportionate impact on renters, or those occupying part-owned social housing. They are paying tax according to the value of a property that they may not have been able to afford. Equally, the tax is not actually particularly proportionate even to property values. A band H property will pay at most three times as a band A, even though the value of the property may be ten or more times higher.

Whilst the tax may have regressive characteristics, supporters point out that there is a significant means tested benefit regime in place which offers rebates to those on low incomes. This has the effect of making the tax less regressive.

An alternative scheme to the Council Tax would be to allocate all funding directly from central government finances-already around 75 percent of local authority income is from central budgets. The biggest argument against this is that it removes fiscal independence from local government, making them mere service providers.

United States

In the United States, property taxes are imposed by counties, municipalities, and school districts, where the millage rate is usually determined by county commissioners, city council members, and school board members, respectively. The taxes fund budgets for schools, police, fire stations, hospitals, garbage disposal, sewers, road and sidewalk maintenance, parks, libraries, and miscellaneous expenditures.

Property taxes were once a major source of revenue at the state level, particularly prior to 1900, which was before states switched to relying upon income tax and sales tax as their main sources of revenue (Fisher 2002). A very important benefit of a tax on property over a tax on income is that the revenue always equals the tax levy, unlike income or sales taxes, which can result in shortfalls producing budget deficits. The property tax always produces the required revenue for municipalities.

The assessment is made up of two components-the improvement or building value, and the land or site value. In some states, personal property is also taxed. The assessment of an individual piece of real estate may be according to one or more of the normally accepted methods of valuation (income approach, market value, or replacement cost). Assessments may be given at 100 percent of value or at some lesser percentage. In most if not all assessment jurisdictions, the determination of value made by the assessor is subject to some sort of administrative or judicial review, if the appeal is instituted by the property owner.

Ad valorem (of value) property taxes are based on fair market property values of individual estates. A local tax assessor then applies an established assessment rate to the fair market value. By multiplying the tax rate x against the assessed value of the property, a tax due is calculated. Some jurisdictions have both ad valorem and non-ad valorem property taxes (better known as special assessments). The latter come in the form of a fixed charge (regardless of the value of the underlying property) for items such as street lighting and storm sewer control.

In the United States, another form of property tax is the personal property tax, which can target

  • automobiles, boats, aircraft and other vehicles;
  • other valuable durable goods such as works of art (most household goods and personal effects are usually exempt);
  • business inventory;
  • intangible assets such as stocks and bonds.


From the above text it is apparent that the most efficient, uniform, accountable, and transparent property tax systems around the world exist where the following conditions are met (Kitchen 2003):

  • All taxable properties are identified, described and recorded on the assessment roll.
  • The property tax base, whether assessed value or area value, is determined in a uniform and consistent manner across a region (as opposed to local) if not across an entire country.
  • Assessment is updated as frequently as possible, ideally on an annual basis, so that the tax base is current, uniform, consistent and fair.
  • Property assessment (determination of property values or property area) is the responsibility of an arms-length regional assessment authority in order to avoid local distortions created by local pressure groups.
  • Each level of government using property tax revenues to fund expenditures is responsible for setting its own property tax rate(s).
  • Variable tax rates are used when the cost of providing municipal services varies by property type and location.
  • Variable rates, as opposed to a uniform rate, are more likely to discourage