As the Senate begins its marathon June debate on tax reform, owners of real estate are asking themselves the inevitable: Will I be hurt financially by the legislation taking shape on Capitol Hill? Are there any smart moves I can make before the tax-code revisions are signed into law? What types of real estate -- if any -- will prosper under tax reform? What types will be particularly hard hit?
In question-and-answer format, here's a practical guide to tax-reform tactics for first- and second-home owners, buyers, sellers and small-scale investors.
Q. Does it make sense to rush or delay a purchase or sale to beat tax reform?
A. With one big exception, the tax-bill writers have made their legislation tough to beat. Most of the House bill's provisions would cover transactions back to Jan. 1 of this year. The Senate bill's general effective date is next Jan. 1.
But to prevent a bulge in tax-motivated sales or purchases this summer and fall, the final bill is virtually certain to include language covering many 1986 transactions retroactively. Even if the new, less-generous depreciation write-off rules take effect in January, they may embrace real estate that was "placed in service" this spring. (Placed in service means rented out or put on the market.)
The Senate bill creates a 27 1/2-year standard depreciation schedule for residential rental investments and a 30-year schedule for non-residential investments. Both are considerably less favorable than the current 19-year write-off period. You're not likely to get in under the tax-bill wire, though, by rushing into a purchase now to lock in 19-year depreciation.
An important exception may arise from the Senate bill's capital-gains-tax provisions. It would eliminate cut-rate capital-gains taxation altogether. Whereas real estate sellers currently pay a maximum 20 percent tax on profits from property held more than six months, they would pay up to 27 percent under the Senate bill, beginning in tax year 1987.
For sellers who fear that the Senate plan will be enacted, it may make sense to sell capital-gains-laden real estate this year, rather than wait.
Q. What forms of real estate will fare relatively well under tax reform? Does it make sense to pursue them now?
A. Single-family homes used as first and second residences, land with either residential-subdivision or industrial-development potential, plus any form of net income-producing real estate fares well under tax reform. The name of the post-reform game will be "economics." If real estate generates net rental income, rather than tax losses, it will be more valuable after tax reform, not less.
Q. What about small-scale rental homes and condos?
A. They should still be attractive. Rents are likely to rise in most markets after tax reform. The higher apartment rents go, the higher the rents that small-scale owners of single-family rental properties will be able to charge. That, in turn, should benefit existing owners seeking to generate net, after-tax income.
Q. Will there be any change in the $125,000 tax-free exclusion available to home sellers 55 years or older?
A. No. With the possible curtailment of individual retirement accounts, the ability of homeowners to tap their properties for tax-free cash should be even more important than today.
Q. What should owners of interests in deep tax-shelter, limited real estate partnerships do?
A. Pray, write your U.S. senators, or both. In its current form, the Senate bill could render your present tax write-offs non-deductible, beginning in January. The House bill has no such provision.
Q. Are there any forms of real estate partnership investments that will make sense after tax reform?
A. Publicly offered, income-producing mortgage and real estate equity partnerships should be attractive after tax reform, particularly those with top-flight sponsors. So should real estate investment trusts.