22 December 2018
There are a multitude of TV shows these days dedicated to real estate flipping. Flipping, if you don’t know, is where you purchase a property, fix it up, and then sell it for a profit. I watch these shows from time to time. I notice they never talk about the tax implications of flipping houses. Probably because I might be the only person watching who would find a tax discussion interesting. That’s unfortunate, because the tax implications of real estate flipping have a significant impact on the flipper’s profitability - and I have found that most beginning flippers do not understand them.
Here’s the biggest tax issue with flipping houses (there are others, but this is the most misunderstood, and causes the most problems for new flippers): When you are in the business of flipping houses, the properties you are flipping are considered inventory. Selling inventory generates income taxed at regular income tax rates - not capital gains.
I think it is easy to understand why some people are not aware of this when they first start flipping houses. All their previous transactions with houses and property were treated as investments that generated capital gains or losses. If you buy a house to live in and then sell it, you can exclude the capital gain from the sale from your income. When you have a rental property for a few years, then sell it, you would have a capital gain or loss. Most beginning flippers have dealt with these scenarios, but have never dealt with a scenario where the house was treated as inventory.
In addition to being taxed as ordinary income, selling inventory also has two other attributes flippers need to know:
- The income produced from the sale of inventory is subject to self-employment taxes - Social Security and Medicare. Unlike rents and capital gains - which are not subject to Social Security and Medicare taxes - flipping income is subject to self-employment (SE) taxes. You should count on Uncle Sam taking about 15% of your profits in SE taxes.
- You deduct the cost of inventory from your taxes in the year the inventory is sold. That’s so important I’m going to write it twice, and underline it. You deduct the cost of inventory from your taxes in the year the inventory is sold. Let’s look at an example of how that gives some unsuspecting new flippers a horrible shock.
Jimmy finds a sweet flipping deal. There’s a property available for $100,000. With about $20,000 in basic remodeling Jimmy figures he can sell it for $185,000. He buys the property in July 2018 with the intent to complete the remodel and flip it by October. As often happens, Jimmy runs into time and cost overruns. By February 2019 he has spent $40,000 on repairs and remodeling, and the house is still not ready to put on the market. Being over budget, his cash flow is tight. It’s time to file his 2018 tax return. A big refund would surely be helpful. At least he can deduct all that money he has spent on this flip property, right?
This is where I gently tell Jimmy he cannot deduct the expenses from this flip on his 2018 taxes. His inventory has not sold, so he cannot yet deduct the cost of it.
There is one comparatively big tax benefit to getting inventory tax treatment of your real properties. Unfortunately, you have to lose a lot of money on your deal(s) to use it. Capital losses are limited to $3,000 per year. Capital losses in excess of $3,000 must be carried over to future tax years. But losses on inventory aren’t capital losses. Whatever you lose on the house in the year of the sale can be completely deducted from your taxes in that year.
You Probably do not Need an S-Corp.
Many flippers read somewhere they can save on taxes by electing taxation as an S-Corp, so they make that election prior to making their first flip. They’ve nearly always wasted more money than they’ve saved by doing so. Electing S-Corp tax treatment generates additional expenses for your business - payroll, additional tax filings, legal assistance, etc.. Unless your tax savings are more than those additional expenses, you’re wasting money.
The amount of flipping income you need to be earning each year to make having an S-Corp worthwhile varies. Tax pros use rules of thumb based on regional factors. Here in Virginia Beach I tell people they should be grossing no less than $40,000 annually from their flipping business before they elect S-Corp tax treatment. If you’re making less than that every year the additional cost of maintaining the S-Corp outweighs the tax benefits and you are wasting money. (Much of that wasted money would be going into my pocket, so you know I'm telling the truth!)
I Meant to Rent, but then I Flipped - Am I a Flipper Now?
Unexpected events happen to people. (They seem to happen to real estate investors at an alarmingly high rate!) Sometimes you get into a deal thinking you’re going to hold the property for a rental, but you end up selling it right after you fix it up. You make a bit of money on the deal. Is it taxed like a capital gain or as regular income? When you’re not sure if your activity makes you a flipper or a long-term investor, you should look at something called the Winthrop Factors.
The Internal Revenue Code does not specifically define when someone is a real estate investor (landlord) or when they are a dealer (flipper) in the trade or business of selling real estate. The courts have had to address this issue, and they have developed a set of guidelines known as the Winthrop Factors. These are the things to consider when determining the tax treatment of the activity:
- The nature and the purpose of the acquisition of the property and the duration of ownership.
- The extent and nature of the taxpayer’s efforts to sell the property.
- The number, extent, continuity, and substantiality of the sales.
- The extent of subdividing, developing, and advertising to increase sales.
- The use of a business office for the sale of a property.
- The character and degree of supervision or control exercised by the taxpayer over any representative selling the property.
- The time and effort the taxpayer habitually devoted to the sales.
A review of the Winthrop Factors indicates the courts are most interested in the intent of the taxpayer when the property was purchased. Absent any other proof of your intent, the courts are going to look at your prior real estate activities and will likely conclude that the sale in question fit the prior pattern. If you’ve been a landlord, they are likely to assume you intended the property as a rental. If you’ve been a flipper, they are likely to assume you intended to flip this property all along.
There are several ways to be profitable in real estate. Whatever your preferred approach to real estate investing, be clear on the tax implications of buying and holding rental properties vs. flipping. Do not let an unanticipated tax surprise ruin your margins. Educate yourself or hire a tax professional who can help guide you through the process. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.