Top 5 Tax Advantages of Real Estate Investing

By: , Contributor

Published on: Dec 17, 2019

There are loads of advantages to investing in real estate, but these five tax advantages take the cake.

Owning real estate offers a number of benefits, but it's hard to beat the tax advantages of real estate investing. Real estate can be a great way to create residual income or diversify your investment portfolio, but many people aren't aware of the great tax benefits that come with it.

Take a look at the top five tax advantages of real estate investing to see how you (and your wallet) can benefit from these tax savings.

1. Deductions

One of the most basic tax advantages to investing in real estate is the ability to deduct certain expenses relating to an investment property such as a rental, which may include:

  • Property tax
  • Property insurance
  • Mortgage interest
  • Property management fees
  • Property repairs, capital improvements, or ongoing maintenance
  • Advertising expenses (like the cost to list a rental or market a property for sale)

Many real estate investors choose to own and invest in real estate with an entity, such as a limited liability company (LLC) or limited partnership (LP). Doing so opens up a number of additional tax deductions relating to the operation of the investment business like:

  • Advertising or marketing expenses such as mailers to find off-market leads, business cards, or a sign for your office
  • Legal and professional fees such as an accountant, attorney, or bookkeeper
  • Business equipment such as a laptop, printer, office desk, or phone
  • Office space, including a home office
  • Communication such as internet, a PO box, or phone line used for business purposes,
  • Travel expenses including your vehicle mileage and parking fees
  • Education and memberships such as the annual fee for a trade association or cost for a seminar, book, or course on a topic relating to your industry
  • Meals (as long as the meal is with a prospective or current client or partner and business is discussed)

Most of the property-related expenses can be deducted at face value, although some, like capital improvements, are depreciated over a period of time. Many business deductions are a portion of the expense. For example, you can only deduct 50% of your meal expense, or $5 per square foot of your home office, with a maximum of 300 square feet.

Keep good records of your expenses throughout the year so you can take advantage of the tax savings available through real estate deductions.

2. Depreciation

If you own a property that is being used for business or income-producing purposes (like a rental property) for a year or more, you can depreciate the cost of the property over time.

Depreciation is the method of deducting a property's loss in value over its expected life, which for residential property is 27.5 years, and commercial property is 39 years. In essence, it's accounting for a decrease in value from average use and wear and tear.

For example, if you purchased a single-family rental for $200,000, you could deduct an annual depreciation of $7,272 each year ($200,000/27.5 years). You can also depreciate certain capital expenses like replacing a roof or installing a new HVAC system over a period of years. This can help provide even greater depreciation deductions on your annual taxes.

Depreciation can only be used on investment properties, making it a huge tax advantage available only to real estate investors.

Unfortunately, depreciation doesn't last forever. When the property is sold, the depreciation is recaptured. The depreciated amount is then regained and taxed as ordinary income with a maximum tax rate of 25%. There are methods to avoid depreciation recapture, like a 1031 exchange.

3. Passive income and pass-through deduction

Real estate is frequently praised for its ability to produce passive income, which is cash flow that is earned without having to continuously work for it. But passive income is often confused with passive activity.

According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), passive income is any money that is earned from rental activity or business activity in which they don't materially participate in, yet it explicitly excludes residual income earned from a passive investment such as dividends or interest from a mortgage note. That means passive income in real estate is most commonly earned from rental income.

Before 2018, the only way to offset passive income was with passive losses. But when the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was passed, it allowed businesses who earns qualified business income (QBI) which includes rental income, to pass up to 20% of taxable income using a pass-through deduction. It's important to note that you can only take advantage of the pass-through deduction if your business is profitable and not all income types qualify for this deduction, which is currently available until 2025.

woman calculating taxes

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4. Capital gains taxes instead of income taxes

When you sell a property for more than you originally purchased it for, the profit will be taxed as a short-term or long-term capital gains, which is typically a lower tax rate than ordinary income tax.

Short-term capital gains, which are properties held one year or less, can range from 10% to 37% depending on your income bracket. Long-term capital gains, which are properties held a year and one day or more, are taxed more favorably, ranging from 0% to 20% depending on your tax bracket.

You can utilize certain tax-deferred or tax-free methods of investing in real estate to avoid paying capital gains. These methods are outlined below.

5. Invest tax-deferred or tax-free

1031 exchanges

Named after Section 1031 in the IRS tax code, a 1031 exchange is a legal transaction that allows real estate investors to swap an investment property for a like-kind property, thereby avoiding capital gains or depreciation recapture on the sale of the property.

Tax-free or tax-deferred retirement accounts

There are special savings accounts like a health savings account (HSA), or special individual retirement accounts (IRA) like a Solo 401(k), SEP IRA, or Self Directed IRA that act allows you to invest in alternative assets, including real estate, tax-free or tax-deferred. Annual contribution limits vary depending on the type of account you open, and there are different requirements prohibiting who and what you can invest in with each account, however, this can be a great way to avoid taxes but still invest in real estate.

Opportunity zones

Opportunity zones are over 8,700 designated census tracts making up some of the most rural and distressed areas of our country. To stimulate growth in these areas, a new tax incentive was rolled out as a part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act which allows investors to roll qualified capital gains into an opportunity zone fund, thereby deferring capital gains or paying no capital gains depending on how long the investment is held in the fund.

Since this is still a relatively new opportunity, changes and further clarification of the rules and requirements of this program are being made regularly.

Real estate tax advantages in action

To really show you how these benefits can add up, let's look at an example of a basic real estate transaction that utilizes a few of the real estate tax advantages available today.

You purchase a rental property for $150,000, putting 20% (or $30,000) down. The annual rental income is $16,000 with $13,000 in expenses, giving you a net income of $3,000. With the depreciation deduction, you are able to deduct an additional $5,454, producing a net loss of nearly $2,500. Essentially you get to earn $3,000 a year in passive income, yet pay taxes on none of it. If you have additional passive income that is not a net loss, you can use this passive loss to offset that income.

But that tax savings doesn't end there. Let's assume this is not your only real estate investment, and that you own this property and other real estate investments in an LLC, earning around $20,000 a year in qualified business income. You could utilize the pass-through deduction, reducing your net income by an additional 20% (or $4,000) to $16,000.

You decide to sell the property 10 years later for $200,000 using a 1031 exchange. This helps you avoid having to recapture $54,540 in depreciation and you are able to roll $50,000 of capital gains into a new investment property that produces a net cash flow of $9,000 a year instead of $3,000 a year.

Over the 10 years of ownership, you paid little to no taxes, collecting roughly $30,000 in passive income before converting it into a new investment that yields triple your original return.

While this is a basic illustration of how real estate tax advantages could work, it's not that far-fetched. Real estate is one of the most tax-advantaged investments compared to other investments. Not to mention, there are benefits of real estate that extend beyond this list, such as appreciation, equity build-up, or the ability to leverage your investment. Everyone has to pay taxes, but how much tax you pay can be reduced by utilizing certain tax laws available in real estate.

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