More and more Americans are looking overseas for vacation homes, rental income properties, and places to settle down during retirement—whether that’s five or 30 years away. The tax benefits of owning property abroad are similar to those of owning in the United States, with a few exceptions.
- If you own property overseas, then your U.S. tax benefits depend on how you use the property.
- You can deduct mortgage interest—but not property taxes—if the property is for personal use.
- If you receive any rental income, then the rules depend on how many days you use the home for personal versus rental use.
The benefits that property owners get from U.S. tax law depend on how they use the property. If you live in the home, for example, then you generally can deduct mortgage interest. If you use the property for rental income, then you can deduct mortgage interest and a number of other expenses, including property and liability insurance, repair and maintenance costs, and local and long-distance travel expenses related to maintaining the property.
Read on to see how U.S. tax laws treat foreign property ownership, as well as the tax implications of selling the property.
Property for Personal Use
If you use the property as a second home—not as a rental—then you can deduct mortgage interest just as you would for a second home in the U.S. For 2019, you can deduct the interest that you pay on the first $750,000 ($375,000 if married and filing separately) of qualified mortgage debt on your first and second homes (that’s the total amount). Note that if you bought your properties before Dec. 16, 2017, then you are probably given special legacy permission for the previous deduction limit of $1 million of qualified mortgage debt. Check with a tax expert to be sure where you fit in.
As with a primary residence, you can’t write off expenses such as utilities, maintenance, or insurance unless you’re able to claim the home office deduction.
While the mortgage interest deduction is the same whether the home is in the U.S. or abroad, property taxes work differently. Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), you can no longer deduct property taxes on foreign property.
Tax rules are more complicated if you receive rental income on the property. Different rules apply, depending on how many days you use the home for personal rather than rental use. In general, you’ll fall into one of two categories:
- You rent out the home for 14 days or fewer and use it for more than 14 days or 10% of the total days it was rented. You can rent the home to someone else for up to two weeks (14 nights) each year without having to report that income to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Even if you rent it out for $5,000 a night, you don’t have to report the rental income as long as you didn’t rent for more than 14 days. The house is considered a personal residence, allowing you to deduct mortgage interest under the standard second-home rules, but not rental losses or expenses.
- You rent out the home for 15 or more days and use it for fewer than 14 days or 10% of the total days it was rented. In this case, the IRS considers the home to be rental property, and the rental activities are viewed as a business. Keep in mind: If a member of your family uses the house (e.g., your spouse, siblings, parents, grandparents, children, and grandchildren), then it counts as a personal day unless you collect a fair rental price. You must report all rental income to the IRS, but the good news is that this permits you to deduct rental expenses, such as mortgage interest, foreign property taxes, advertising expenses, insurance premiums, utilities, and fees paid to property managers. One notable difference between a rental property at home and one abroad: Your property abroad is depreciated over a 40-year period, instead of the current 27.5 years for domestic residential properties. In either case, you depreciate the value of the structure (the building) only; the land is not depreciable.
Selling the Property
If you sell your home abroad, then the tax treatment is similar to selling a home in the U.S.—and it differs depending on how the property was used. If you lived in the home for at least two of the last five years, then it qualifies as your primary residence and you can exclude up to $250,000 of capital gains (or up to $500,000 for married taxpayers) from the sale. This primary-home sale exclusion does not apply if the home was not your primary residence, in which case you’ll owe the usual capital gains tax.
If you sell property in the U.S., then you may be able to make a 1031 exchange (also called a like-kind exchange), in which you swap one investment property for another “like-kind” property on a tax-deferred basis. Many investors use this strategy to defer paying capital gains and depreciation recapture taxes.
U.S. Code Section 1031 allows you to sell and replace a foreign property only with another foreign property.
A significant difference in the tax treatment of domestic property versus foreign property, however, is that property in the U.S. is not considered like-kind to any property overseas. U.S. Code Section 1031 allows only domestic-for-domestic and foreign-for-foreign exchanges.
The U.S. considers any property outside the U.S. to be like-kind with any other similar property outside the U.S., so it is possible to 1031 exchange a house in Panama for another in Panama—or in Ecuador or Costa Rica, for that matter. It just won’t be considered like-kind with any U.S. property.
If you operate your home abroad as a rental property, then you may owe taxes in the country where the property is located. To prevent double taxation, you can take a tax credit on your U.S. tax return for any taxes you paid to the foreign country relating to the net rental income. There is a maximum allowable tax credit, however: You can’t take a credit for more than the amount of U.S. tax on the rental income, after deducting expenses.
The Bottom Line
When you buy abroad, you need to take extra care with planning and details. Many countries have rules and regulations about who can own property and how it can be used. If you buy a home overseas, make sure the transaction is conducted so that it protects your property rights. In the U.S., homebuyers receive title to the property; this distinction is not as clear in other countries.
Also, be aware that as a foreign property owner, you may be required to file a number of U.S. tax forms, depending on your exact situation. For example, if you rent out your home abroad and open a bank account to collect rent, then you must file a Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR) form if the aggregate value of all your accounts is $10,000 or more “on any given day of the calendar year.”
Other forms include Form 5471, Information Return of U.S. Persons with Respect to Certain Foreign Corporations (if your property is held in a foreign corporation); and Form 8858, Information Return of U.S. Persons with Respect to Foreign Disregarded Entities and Foreign Branches (if your offshore property is held in a foreign limited liability company).
Because foreign property ownership and tax laws are complicated and change from time to time, protect yourself by consulting with a qualified tax accountant and/or real estate attorney both in the U.S. and abroad.