Thursday, December 17, 2009

Thank you, Internal Revenue Service

I decided to write this post yesterday after answering a reader's questions about the costs of ownership of a vacation condo. Back in June this year I wrote a post entitled "Positive cash flow. Does it exist?" In that post I explored a hypothetical case detailing expenses, income and other factors related to an investment condo and how they affected the chances of achieving positive cash flow. One factor I did not discuss was the contribution that favorable tax laws make to the overall picture of investment condo ownership. I will use another hypothetical weekly rental condo and explore the effect to overall return that tax deductions will make for an owner. (Disclaimer: I am not an accountant (not even close) and do not claim accuracy nor am I offering tax advice here. This is just a hypothetical case using my understanding of current tax laws. Please consult your accountant and/or tax lawyer before making decisions based on my writings.)

We'll use a $280,000 weekly rental condo in this scenario. We'll assume a 30% down payment (Fannie Mae requirements for 2nd home condos) on a 30 year mortgage at 5.5%. Our fixed monthly costs will be (estimates but close to reality);

property taxes__ 374
condo fees_____ 350
utilities________ 130
insurance_______ 70

Let's project a conservative average of $800 per week for our unit and a conservative 50% occupancy for the year. Management for weekly rental units runs from a low of 10% to a high of 40% in our area. Keeping our example conservative, I'll use the above-average 35% charged by the very efficient team at Cape Winds in Cape Canaveral for our example. That means that our 26 weeks at $800 will net the owner $13,520 after the 35% management fee, a shortfall of $10,912 to our annual expenses. Not looking so good at this point. Those two weeks a year of personal use are going to cost over $5000 each. Ouch! Not so fast. Let's look at the tax benefits. According to IRS publication 527 the following expenses are deductible.
  1. Advertising.

  2. Cleaning and maintenance.

  3. Commissions.

  4. Depreciation.

  5. Insurance.

  6. Interest.

  7. Legal fees.

  8. Local transportation expenses.

  9. Points.

  10. Rental payments.

  11. Repairs.

  12. Tax return preparation fees.

  13. Taxes.

  14. Travel expenses.

  15. Utilities.

[Edited: Thanks to Anonymous CPA for pointing out the math errors] All of our example monthly expenses of $2036 are included in the IRS allowed deductions except the mortgage payment. The interest part of that (average for the year of $892/month) is, however, included. That comes to a total of $21,792 of deductible expenses for owners with active participation. The IRS also allows for depreciation of investment property over a 27.5 year period. That means that for each year of ownership of our $280,000 condo, we will be able to deduct $10,181.82 as depreciation. In this example our investment condo will generate $31,973 of legal tax deductions ( expenses plus depreciation). After offsetting the deductions with the income of $13,520, we are left with $18,453 of net deductions saving the owner $4613 to $5166 in taxes assuming our condo owner is in the 25 to 28% tax bracket. [As pointed out by Anonymous CPA, the limit for deductions is $25,000 per year which would max out the savings for a 28% taxpayer at $7000.] Remember that this is using a conservative 50% occupancy unit with high management costs. In this example our unit does not achieve positive cash flow. I have used management charges at the high end of the scale (35%) and modest 50% occupancy as I prefer to project conservatively so that my surprises are good ones. Good management is available for considerably less than 35% and occupancies of more than 26 weeks a year are common.

But wait, there are other benefits and deductions. A well-informed and law-abiding owner can generate additional deductions including but not limited to some acquisition costs in the year of purchase and travel expenses to manage, conserve or maintain the property. In addition, with higher occupancy and/or lower management expense the numbers can look significantly better. Conclusion; a rental condo at today's prices can come close to paying for itself and, with good management, generate cash flow. Let's also not forget that an owner is allowed to use an investment property for the greater of "14 days or 10% of the total days it is rented to others at a fair rental price". [Edit: I didn't mention possible appreciation or mortgage principle paydown over time nor depreciation recapture taxes upon the sale. The combination of all three could be either a net positive or negative. No way to accurately project without a crystal ball.]

These same rules apply to units rented for longer than weekly periods. The overall numbers are generally less for units that rent for monthly or longer periods but the tax benefits still apply and will make the costs of ownership considerably less than at first glance. As always, do your homework and talk to your trusted expert before making a purchase. Non-American citizens, I have no idea how your tax laws treat your ownership of American investment property.

I hope this was helpful and not too confusing. I also hope my errors are minor. I expect to hear from readers more informed than I. Please contribute your thoughts, observations and experiences to the comments below. And to everyone reading this, I hope you have a happy, safe, rewarding holiday season filled with love and joy.

"Unless we make Christmas an occasion to share our blessings, all the snow in Alaska won't make it 'white'."
__________Bing Crosby