Year-End Real Estate Tax Tips

ByBetsy Schiffman,

Dec. 16, 2003 -- When man first came down from the trees and out of the caves and began to build his own home, the benefits were immediate and tangible: Shelter from the elements, safety from predators, a place to raise a family, a chance to become part of a society. What our ancestors probably didn't anticipate was what a great tax deduction a home would one day become.

As any smart American home owner knows, a home represents one of the best ways — if not the best — to keep your money in your bank account and not in Uncle Sam's.

But the Internal Revenue Service isn't exactly hanging bells around its neck to help you find these tax breaks. You have to look for them. Fortunately, some breaks are so significant that they are hard to miss — such as the mortgage interest deduction, whereby home owners can deduct from their income the interest they pay on their mortgages. Many other tax breaks, however, are frequently overlooked, which is a shame because they're often a simple matter of planning and timing.

We asked several tax attorneys for suggestions of what home owners can do right now to lighten their tax bills come April. We looked for suggestions that could be applicable to the amateur real estate investor, who may only be interested in the tax benefits he can gain from his primary house, as well as the serious investor, who may own many rental properties.

It's All In the Timing

Most of our tax experts' advice boiled down to one basic premise: Defer income on your real estate as long as possible, and accelerate expenses as quickly as possible.

"Most people have the idea that if they can get a bigger deduction now, they'll take it and they'll worry about next year when they get there," says Scott Estill, a tax attorney in Denver, Colo.

That said, Estill suggests that one simple way to lighten your tax burden in the coming year is to delay the receipt of payments on rental properties until after the first of the year.

"If you collect rent on Jan. 1, the income from that payment won't be taxed until next year," Estill says.

By the same token, if you make your mortgage or property tax payments early — payments which may not be due until after the new year — your mortgage interest deduction will be larger, or you can deduct the early tax payment from your current-year income.

Embrace The Holiday Spirit

There are a number of holiday activities that could and should be used to your tax advantage. Bill Bronchick, an Aurora, Colo.-based attorney and author suggests that you go ahead and splurge on holiday celebrations; after all, if you invite business acquaintances, the entire event may be tax deductible.

"It is certainly legitimate to take a deduction for a holiday party — if it's primarily for business," Bronchick says. "That means you can deduct any expense related to the party, whether that means you bought new wine glasses for it or paid to have a cleaning person come the next day."

And as the winter holidays are a time for giving, feel free to donate to charity any odd, old or unwanted items before the end of the year — and take a tax deduction for it in April. Although it may not amount to significant savings, most charities that accept donations will allow you to assess the value of your own donation, so you are essentially determining the size of the deduction you can take. (Remember when Bill Clinton donated his old underwear and then took tax deductions, valuing the underwear at $2 per pair?) If you donate real estate, you can take a larger deduction, but the size of the deduction is determined by the market value of the property, rather than your own assessment of its value. If you donate undeveloped land to a church, for example, you may deem the property to be worth $60,000, but if an assessor values it at $25,000, the size of your deduction will be $25,000 (see "Donation Motivation").

Pay Off Your Debt

All those Americans who took advantage of 40-year-low interest rates to take out equity loans on their homes, and who also have credit-card debt, may wish to pay off their credit-card debt with the equity loans before the year ends. The idea is that if you pay off your credit-card debt with your home equity loan, you can deduct the interest on the payment; the interest on your credit-card debt normally is not deductible, unless the expenses on your credit card are incurred for business purposes.

Another nifty tax break, which is often overlooked, according to Estill, applies to people who have sold their homes this year. The points paid on a mortgage on your primary home are deductible, but they are amortized over the life of the loan. For example, if you paid points on a 30-year mortgage, every year you would deduct one-thirtieth of the points you paid upfront. During the year that you sell, however, you can accelerate the amortization so that you can deduct the remaining value of the points you paid.

"A lot of people miss this, but it could put a thousand or a couple thousand dollars in your pocket," says Estill.

And a couple thousand dollars saved is a couple thousand earned — until the IRS makes a grab for it the following year.

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