Do you own real estate that you rent out? Besides the potential for an ongoing income and capital appreciation, such investments offer deductions that can reduce the income tax on your profits. But first, what kind of real estate investor are you: a passive investor or real estate professional? In this article we'll show you how your classification could make a big difference in the number of tax breaks you get.

If you spend the majority of your time in the real estate business as a real estate professional, your rental losses are not passive. This means that your losses are fully deductible against all income, passive and non-passive. Otherwise, your losses are passive and only deductible up to $25,000 against your rentals' income (deduction phases out if your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is between $100,000 and $150,000). However, losses of more than $25,000 can be carried over to the following year.

The IRS defines a real estate professional as someone who spends more than one-half of his or her working time in the rental business. This includes property development, construction, acquisition and management. You must also spend more than 750 hours per year working on your real estate rental properties. (To find extra resources about owning rental properties, see Investing In Real Estate and Tips For The Prospective Landlord.)

Common Income Sources
Rental Income
Money you receive for rent is generally considered taxable in the year you receive it, not when it was due or earned; therefore, you must include advance payments as income.

For example, suppose you rent out a house for $1,000 per month and you require that new tenants pay first and last months' rent when they sign a lease. In this case, you'll have to declare the $2,000 you received as income, even though a $1,000 of that $2,000 covers a period that might be several years in the future.

Tenant-Paid Expenses
Expenses your tenant pays for you are considered income. This would include, for instance, an emergency repair on a refrigerator a tenant has to have done while you are out of town. You can then deduct the repair payment as a rental expense.

Trade for Services
Your tenant might offer to trade his services in exchange for rent. However, you must include a fair market value of the services as income. As an example, if your tenant offers to paint the rental house in exchange for one month's rent (valued at $1,000), you must include the $1,000 as income, even though you didn't actually receive the money. However, you will be able to deduct the $1,000 as an expense.

Security deposits
Security deposits are not taxable when you receive them if the intent is to return this money to the tenant at the end of the lease. But what if your tenant does not live up to the lease terms?

For example, suppose that you collect a $500 security deposit and then your tenant moves out and leaves holes in the walls that cost $400 to repair. You can deduct that amount from the security deposit during the year that you return it. At that time, though, you must include the $400 that you used to repair the wall as income. You will also be able to show the $400 as a deductible expense.

Repairs Vs. Improvements
Rental property owners may assume that anything they do on their property is a deducible expense. Not so, according to the IRS.

A repair keeps your rental property in good condition and is a deductible expense in the year that you pay for it. Repairs include painting, fixing a broken toilet and replacing a faulty light switch. Improvements on the other hand, add value to your property and are not deductible when you pay for them. You must recover the cost of improvements by depreciating the expense over your property's life expectancy. Improvements can include a new roof, patio or garage.

Therefore, from a tax standpoint, you should make repairs as the problems arise instead of waiting until they multiply and require renovations.

Common Deductions
Mortgage Expenses
Expenses to obtain a mortgage are not deductible when you pay them. These include commissions and appraisals. However, you can amortize them over the life of your mortgage.

Once you start making mortgage payments, remember that not all of the payment is deductible. Since part of each payment goes toward paying down the principal, this amount is not a deductible expense; the portion paid toward interest is deductible. Your mortgage company will send you a Form 1098 each year showing how much you've paid in interest throughout the year. This is deductible. Also, if a part of your payment includes money that goes into an escrow account to cover taxes and insurance, your mortgage company should report that to you as well.

Travel Expenses
Money you spend on travel to collect rent or maintain your rental property is deductible. However, if the purpose of the trip was for improvements, you must recover that expense as part of the improvement and its depreciation.

You have two choices on how to deduct travel expenses: the actual expenses or the standard mileage rate. You can read more about the IRS's requirements and current mileage allowance in Publication 463.

Other Common Expenses
In addition to repairs and depreciation, some of the other common expenses you can deduct are:

  • Insurance
  • Taxes
  • Lawn care
  • Tax return preparation fee
  • Losses from causalities (hurricane, earthquake, flood, etc.) or thefts

Condominiums and Cooperatives
If you own a rental condominium or cooperative, each has some special rules.

Condominiums
With a condominium you might pay dues or assessments to take care of commonly-owned property. This includes the building structure, lobbies, elevators and recreational areas.

When you rent out your condominium, you can deduct expenses, such as depreciation, repairs, interest and taxes that relate to the common property. However, just as with a single-family rental, you cannot deduct money spent on capital improvements, such an assessment for a cabana at the clubhouse. Instead you must depreciate your cost of any improvement over its life expectancy.

Cooperatives
Expenses you have for a cooperative apartment you rent out are deductible. This includes the maintenance fees paid to the cooperative housing corporation. Capital improvements are treated differently - you cannot deduct the cost of the improvement, nor can you depreciate it. You must add the cost of the improvement to your cost basis in the corporation's stock. This will reduce your capital gain when you sell the apartment.

Keep Good Records
Under the IRS's Schedule E there are spaces for numerous categories of expenses. Therefore, the IRS gives you flexibility in the items you can deduct. But be prepared to back up your claim, and be sure to break out expenses that are for repairs and maintenance from those that are capital improvements. Remember, money you spend on improvements could reduce your tax liability when you sell.

In addition, if you claim to be a real estate professional, you should keep supporting documentation (appointment books, diaries, calendars, logs, etc.) to prove your active participation and the time spent on your properties each year.

All in all, there are quite a few types of deductions available to real estate investors and it pays to know which ones you qualify for.

To read more about rentals, see Will Your Home Sale Leave You With Tax Shock?, To Rent or Buy? The Financial Issues - Part 1 and Part 2.

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