One of the perks of the real estate business is that it lends itself to many tax-avoidance strategies. Here are some of the accounting tools that have recently been in news headlines because of this unusual presidential election and that property owners often employ to turn losses into tax savings.
Net Operating Losses
For many investors, buying income-generating real estate isn’t too different from buying corporate bonds or stocks. But there is one major advantage: losses on rental properties can be deducted from taxable income.
Getting that provision into the tax code was a rocky road. In 1986, Congress passed a law that treated virtually all investments in rental real estate properties as passive investments (much like stocks or bonds).
This meant property owners could no longer deduct any operating losses on their properties from their taxable income. In the following years, property prices went into a tailspin. Legislators blamed the 1986 law in part for causing the Savings & Loan crisis by discouraging investment in real estate, according to a 1994 Chicago Tribune report. So they changed the rules again.
Since 1993, rental property owners can deduct operating losses on their properties from their taxable income, provided they spend at least half their working hours and at least 750 hours a year as a “real estate professional.”
Other Mechanisms of Tax Reduction
Depreciation is the most famous — and counterintuitive — way real estate investors can shrink their tax bill. The IRS treats real properties as assets that lose value over time, along with cars, desks and refrigerators.
Property owners can deduct a certain portion of a property’s value every year until that value reaches zero. For residential rental properties, the typical depreciation period is 27.5 years, according to the IRS website.
As useful as depreciation is to property owners, it is a gradual process and rarely generates a sudden sizeable loss.
Another way developers can lower their tax exposure is through cancellation of debt, or outstanding debt that has been forgiven after negotiations. Typically, this kind of debt forgiveness is treated as income on a tax bill, but current laws allow taxpayers to deduct this debt if it is tied to Chapter 11 bankruptcy or if the taxpayer is insolvent — meaning their debt is greater than the total market value of all assets
Developers have long used these strategies. After a recent article in The New York Times about Donald Trumps reported losses — $915,729,293 — on his tax forms in 1995, tax services firms sought to seize the moment by sending out email blasts advertising their tax reduction services.
One email from South Florida-based Property Tax Appeal Group, titled “Donald Trump Knows How to Avoid Taxes in Real Estate,” urged investors to file property tax appeals and “take advantage of what the law allows.”
“This is truly a win-win situation,” the email read.