15 Year-end Tax Tips That Can Save Real Estate Investors Thousands of Dollars!

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Condominium-690086_1920Real estate has long been a popular investment.  Rental properties, in particular, can be a source of income and has many income tax benefits.  In particular, real estate can provide a tax-deferred income stream due to the deduction of a non-cash expense called depreciation.  Additionally, real estate provides many methods of transferring income to family members who might be in a lower tax bracket.

Another reason real estate is loved by investors is that it has historically provided an inflation hedge.  Add real estate’s high potential for capital appreciation and ability to leverage your investment with financing, and it easy to see why so many taxpayers have real estate investments.

Unfortunately, very few taxpayers take advantage of many of the tax benefits that real estate offers investors.  Here is a list and brief description of the major tax benefits available to real estate investors:

  • Maximize the depreciation deduction.  Depreciation cuts taxable income from rental real estate by deducting the cost of your investment over a period of time.  Land is not depreciable but everything else is.  The building is deductible over 27.5 years for residential property and 39 years for non-residential (commercial) property.  Unless your losses are limited by passive activity limitations, it pays to maximize depreciation by allocating as much as possible in a way that depreciates the items more quickly.  Here is a four-step process to increasing your depreciation deduction for your rental property:
  • divide your land between items that are “land”, items that are “land improvements”, and the building structure.  Land that is not depreciated by land improvements will generally be depreciated over a 15-year life.  The following are examples of land improvements:

i.     Curbs/sidewalks
ii.    Driveways and parking lot paving
iii.   Landscaping
iv.    Lighting
v.     Site concrete
vi.    Site piping

  • Divide the building “structure” and “personal property”.  Personal property is generally deducted over five years.  The best way to document this is to have an engineering study called a “cost segregation study”.  The following are examples of personal property:

i.      Appliances
ii.     Cabinets/tops
iii.    Carpeting
iv.     Fire suppression
v.      PA/Sound system
vi.    Signage
vii.   Window treatments
viii.  Movable walls or partitions
ix.    Supplemental power

  • If you are doing any “land improvements” or adding “personal property” to rental property (as described in 1a and 1b above), you should try to do so before the end of the year.  For 2014, land improvements and personal property qualified for a 50 percent write-off in the first year.  This has been extended multiple times in past years but has not been extended for 2015 yet.  Be sure to check with your tax advisor for the status of this deduction.
  • Properly allocating expenditures between repairs and improvements can save real estate investors thousands in dollars of taxes.  Repairs keep your property in good condition but do not add to its value or extend the life of the asset.  These include things like painting the building, replacing broken windows, or repairing broken plumbing. Improvements add value to your property or prolong its useful life.  These include room additions, new appliances, new air conditioning, and landscaping.

    Repairs can be 100 percent written off in the current year; while improvements must be depreciated using the rules set out in #1 or #2 above.

    Planning tip:  There are tons of new regulations in this area.  Be sure to check with your tax advisor when repairing or improving any of your business or rental properties.      

  • Take advantage of tax credits that our available for real estate investors.  They include:
    1. The Rehabilitation Tax Credit is for the costs of rehabilitating certified historic buildings.  The credit can be up to 10 percent of what you pay to rehab commercial buildings placed in service before 1936, and 20 percent of what you pay to rehab certified structures.  Be sure to review this with your tax advisor ahead of time.
    2. The Disabled Access Credit can be claimed by small businesses to reduce their taxes by up to $5,000 for expenses used to improve access for the disabled.  Again, get with your tax advisor to learn all the rules and regulations related to this credit.
  • Hire your spouse to manage your rental property.  Hiring them allows you to set up benefits for them.  They must be an employee, which means you will also have to pay payroll taxes.  But paying them allows you to set up a pension plan, medical reimbursement plan, education benefits, and other employee benefits.

You should keep a time sheet for your spouse and follow all the required rules.  You will definitely need help from your tax advisor to run the numbers and make sure you follow all the rules and regulations.

  • Hire your children to manage or maintain your property.  Your child can earn up to the standard deduction ($6,300 in 2015) tax free.  The next $9,075 will only be taxed at 10 percent.  You should document their work, have them turn in a time sheet, and pay them a “reasonable” wage.  If you own the property personally, you will not have to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes until your child is 18.  You can also set up the same benefits discussed in #5 above for them.
  • Consider using your IRA, Roth IRA, or other retirement plan for real estate and related real estate investments (mortgages, notes, and tax liens).  The key is to find a trustee who offers true self-directed accounts and will ensure that all IRS rules and regulations are followed.
  • Don’t forget you and your spouse can exclude up to $500,000 in home sale gain.  You can qualify for this exclusion of gain when you sell your home if:
  1. you own it for two of the last five years
  2. you occupy it as your primary residence for two of the last five years
  3. you haven’t used the exclusion within the last two years

Many investors have used this exclusion multiple times by buying a distressed property, living in it for two years while renovating it, and then selling it at a gain.  This gain is excluded, and then the investor repeats the process.  Obviously, this assumes the willingness to move every two or three years.  But you can make a nice tax-free income every two or three years this way.

  • Don’t lose your $500,000 income exclusion on the sale of your home by renting your home when you “trade up” to a bigger home or move out of town.  Many investors break into the rental market by renting their old home when they buy a new one.  The problem is that you are losing the income exclusion explained in #8 above.  A better strategy is to sell the old home and use the proceeds to buy a different home that you can then rent.  You will also most likely get a higher depreciation amount since the cost of the new home will normally be higher than the old home that you purchased years earlier.
  • Plan to use installment sale status when you sell a property at a taxable gain.  An installment sale occurs when you receive the sales proceeds in more than one tax year.  This allows you to defer the tax into a future year, and since the tax rates are higher the more income you make, you will likely pay a lower tax rate on the total gain.
  • Explore using a Section 1031 exchange to defer taxes on the sale of property.  Section 1031 is basically a tax-free exchange of one piece of property for another.  These are complicated, so once again, I’m recommending that you get tax advice in advance.  The following are some key points to know about 1031 exchanges:
  1. “Like kind” is defined loosely in real estate.  You can trade raw land for developed acreage, and residential property for nonresidential property.
  2. You will need a qualified intermediary to arrange the transaction and hold the sales proceeds so that you don’t receive the actual proceeds and trigger a taxable event.  Many title companies can handle this type of transaction.
  3. You must roll all of the proceeds from the property you sell into buying the replacement property.
  4. You will have a taxable event if you receive cash, other non-like kind property, or mortgage relief in the exchange.
  5. The exchange doesn’t have to happen at exactly the same time.  You have 45 days from the date you relinquish your original property to identify the replacement, and an additional 135 days to actually close on your replacement.
  6. You can exchange properties as many times as you want, for a nearly unlimited tax deferral.
  • Rather than selling real estate, borrow and improve the property.  This strategy is based on the idea that borrowed money is not taxable.  In one recent example I helped with, the taxpayer took out a $100,000 loan on a property with a paid-off mortgage.  They used $40,000 to fix up the property.  They raised the rent enough on the newly renovated units to cover the loan payment, and pocketed the remaining $60,000 tax free.  Their monthly cash flow stayed the same and they are letting the tenants pay off the new loan.  It doesn’t get much sweeter than this in the tax law.
  • Pay your 2015 property taxes before December 31, even if they are not due until next January.
  • Consider using a charitable trust for appreciated properties.  Charitable trusts let you avoid tax when you sell appreciated assts such as real estate, a business, or securities.  This requires “splitting” the asset into two parts:  First, an income portion that is payable to you for up to 20 years or a lifetime and the second part that is the property that is transferrable to the charity when the income ends.  Yes, your right—this is advanced, so definitely get good tax advice in advance.
  • Consider making the election to treat yourself or your spouse as a real estate professional.  Doing so may be an excellent tax cutting option if you have real estate passive losses from rental properties and you can’t deduct the losses against ordinary income. 

You can only deduct the losses against other income if your adjusted gross income (AGI) is less than $100,000.  This deduction starts to phase out above that amount and is eliminated in total once your AGI exceeds $150,000

There are three tests you must meet in order to elect real estate professional status:

  1. You need to have at least 750 hours of real estate activities and more hours in real estate activities than in any other trade or business. You or your spouse must meet the test alone.  You cannot combine hours.
  2. You  must have material participation (You and your spouse can combine your hours for this one) defined as:
    1. 500 hours of material participation in the property,
    2. 100 hours of participation and more than any other person in regards to the property, or more than everyone else combined. 
    3. Each property must stand alone.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record—this area is very complicated filled with tons of rules and exceptions.  Be sure to check with your tax advisor to see if this is an advantageous strategy for you.

Like any good CPA, I need to add a disclaimer:  Unfortunately, it is impossible to offer comprehensive tax info over the Internet, no matter how well-researched or written.  And remember, I love my readers, but reading this article or watching this video doesn’t make you a client:  Before relying on any discussed here, contact a tax professional to discuss your particular situation.