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Ask Millionacres - What Expenses Can I Deduct From My Vacation Rental?

[Updated: Jul 28, 2020 ] Apr 15, 2020 by Matt Frankel, CFP
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Q: I am a widowed senior who purchased a second home for rental purposes in 2019. I am preparing my taxes for 2019 and was told that "the nature of the costs in 2019 are going to be added into your cost basis and taken into consideration when you sell it thus reducing the profit and taxes you must pay when you sell. As for now, there seems to be no income to subtract these costs against." I don't understand why I can't deduct closing costs and remodel costs when filing taxes this year. -- Nancy

Hi Nancy,

There are two different concepts at play here.

First of all, there's the distinction between a capital expenditure and an operating expense. Operating expenses can be deducted in the year you spend the money. Common examples are property management fees and basic maintenance and repair costs that are necessary to keep the property livable.

On the other hand, capital expenditures are the major cost outlays involved with acquiring or adding value to a property and must be depreciated over time (along with the house itself). This is what was meant by added to your cost basis." In addition to your closing costs, this also includes remodeling and renovation costs as well as things like extensive landscaping projects, roof replacements, and other large and expensive projects.

While there are some expenses that have gray areas, asking these two questions can help you determine whether an expense is deductible or needs to be added to your cost basis:

  1. Was the expense a necessary cost of acquiring a property?
  2. Did the expense add significant value to the property?

If you can answer an easy "yes" to either of these questions, the expense is probably not deductible and needs to be added to your cost basis. If you aren't sure about an expense, ask a tax professional, although since you specifically mentioned closing costs and remodeling, those clearly fit into the capital expense category.

The second concept to know is that even deductible expenses of your rental property are typically only tax deductible to the extent of your rental income. In other words, if your property generated $4,000 in rental income and you had $2,500 in deductible expenses, your taxable rental income could be reduced to $1,500. On the other hand, if you had $6,000 in deductible expenses, you could only deduct $4,000 of that amount in most cases.

In short, most people (unless real estate is their primary business or they play an active role in the day-to-day operations of the property) cannot use rental property deductions to offset their other income, such as income from a job, Social Security, or retirement income. Since you acquired the property in 2019 and -- based on the wording of your question -- you likely had little or no rental income to report.

The good news is that even if you have deductible expenses that you can't use to offset your rental income, you can carry them over to future tax years when you do have rental income. However, this only applies to deductible expenses, not capital expenses like you seem to be asking about.

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