Anyone who owns a vacation home -- a cottage at the beach, a ski condominium or a cabin in the mountains -- has an important stake in the current congressional maneuvering over a 1981 tax-cut bill.
The new law expected from Congress in the next six to eight weeks will either reform the controversial "family-rental" and vacation-home tax provisions of the Internal Revenue Code, or it will sidestep the issues entirely.
If the latter occurs, the Internal Revenue Service will have a green light to issue the harsh rules it first sought in 1980. And it could proceed with a series of taxpayer audits under the regulations later this year. p
Among the standards those rules could impose on vacation-home owners, retroactive to 1976, are the following:
Rentals of dwellings to relatives or business colleagues would always constitute "personal" use of the property by its owner, no matter how high or fair the rental charge, and despite the fact that the owner was not even present in the unit. Since current law limits owners' tax deductions severely once personal use exceeds 14 days a year (or 10 percent of total rental days), this rule could cost typical vacation-home owners thousands of dollars a year.
Vacation-property owners who visit their units for repair or maintenance would be charged with personal use unless they work on the house for a full eight-hour day, every day, and document it. Six or seven hours of painting walls or fixing the roof, according to the IRS's original draft rules, would count as a full day of personal enjoyment -- not as a day of work on one's investment.
Vacation-property owners who abided by the IRS's strict eight-hours-per-day work requirements on a maintenance visit to their unit, but happened to bring along members of the family -- like teen-age kids, a mother-in-law or a grandfather -- would be charged with personal use on audit by the IRS. Every day the family members are there, able-bodied but not working full-time on the property, would count against the owner's 14-day personal use limit.
When the Internal Revenue Service first issued its proposed vacation property rules last year -- and after the severity of the regulations was publicized nationally by this column -- the IRS received thousands of protest letters.
Senate and House members moved to prohibit the IRS from spending any of its budget dollars to implement the regulations. Finally, last December, the Treasury Department agreed not to issue the rules until after June 30, 1981, allowing Congress time to legislate on the matter.
Now, five months later, the vacation-home tax reform push appears to have stronger support than ever on Capitol Hill. But it could get left in the dust because of the Reagan administration's political strategy for its own major tax-cut bill.
Reagan's lobbyists on Capital Hill are insisting that action on smaller-scope issues -- like the vacation-home and family-rental tax problems -- be delayed until Congress passes legislation cutting individual tax rates and reforming business depreciation deductions.
After that, the White House has told Senate and House tax commitee leaders that it can deal with the other issues in a huge, second legislative package later in 1981.
Tax-reform proponents, however, say the odds on a second tax bill passing later this year are small, at best. So-called "Christmas tree" tax bills, loaded with special-interest amendments, traditionally take many months, and sometimes years, to squeeze through the congressional legislative process.
If the vacation and rental-home reform proposals offered by the legislators on both sides of Capital Hill are postponed for the "Christmas-tree" debate, there may be no action this year. The sponsor of the major Senate bill on this issue -- Sen. William L. Armstrong (R-Colo.) -- says such a delay could be "tragic" for thousands of property owners who face audits by the IRS under existing provisions of the tax law. One San Jose, Calif., homeowner was hit with an audit letter by the IRS in April because he's been renting a small house to his mother -- at the full-market rent he'd charge anyone else. The IRS wants to deny the owner several thousand dollars a year in routine deductions for depreciation, repair expenses, property taxes and utilities. The owner says he's "absolutely stunned that anyone could get penalized by the government simply for renting a second home to his mother at prevailing market rents."
The only remedy to this and other problems inherent in the vacation-home tax code, says Armstrong, is to include the necessary reforms with the tax bill emerging from Congress this spring or summer. Armstrong has 20 sponsors for his legislation, and may seek to tack it on the tax-cut bill as an amendment on the Senate floor. Staff members on the House Ways and Means Committee confirm that there's overwhelming support for the substance of the reforms on the House side.
In short, the vacation-home tax mess could be solved permanently in a matter of weeks -- if only the Reagan administration would go along.