I frequently encounter new landlords who are confused and/or frustrated by their tax situation. They decided to turn their house or condo into a rental business, but they didn’t fully understand the tax implications of doing so. Now they are paying both financially and emotionally.

In an effort to save at least a few people from this fate, I am providing you with this quick “Top 5” list of tax issues you should consider before you decide to become a landlord.

1. Your Mortgage is Not Deductible. If life (or being a landlord) were simple, the mortgage on your rental property would be deductible. This would give you a simple formula to figure your rental income.

You take in $1200/month in rent;

You pay the bank $1,000/month for your mortgage

You make$200/month or $2,400 for the year

Boom – you’d be done!

In reality it’s not even close to being that simple!

A mortgage is typically paying 4 different things in one payment: (1) principal on the loan, (2) interest on the loan, (3) real estate taxes, and (4) insurance. You have to break out each of those expenses separately on your tax return. Interest, insurance, and real estate taxes are all deductible expenses as paid. The principal, however, is deducted through a cost recovery system that we typically refer to simply as ‘depreciation’. More on that later. For now just be aware you cannot directly deduct your mortgage payments on your tax return. It’s not that simple.

2. You Must Track Everything. By renting your property you have opened a business. The IRS considers you to be operating a business. So does the Commonwealth of Virginia. If you aren’t treating it like a business, then you risk learning some expensive lessons down the road. Businesses need records, so get a record keeping system in place. (Hint: a box of receipts is NOT a record keeping system.) A spreadsheet will do if you just have 1 or 2 properties. More than that and you’re probably going to want some sort of accounting software.

Track all the expenses for the property. Once you’ve turned it into a business, everything you spend on the property is a business expense. Make sure it gets recorded in your spreadsheet (or bookkeeping system you adopt).

Get a separate bank account for your landlording activities. It’s a business, it deserves its own bank account. Don’t run personal expenses through the landlord account. Don’t run business expenses through your personal account. Keep them separate. It keeps the bookkeeping cleaner if you do, which makes it look like you’re treating your rental activities like a business.

3. You Can Be Creative with Expenses. Within reason, of course. You can’t take your kids to a Taylor Swift concert and then write it off as a business expense. There are, however, some reasonable ways to save on taxes and meet multiple goals. Here is one of my favorite examples.

The grass needs to be cut at the rental property. You have a 14-year-old son. Pay him $50/week to mow the grass. That’s what you’d pay a professional service to do it. Over the course of the mowing season your kid makes $1,200. You have to issue him a W-2. However, his income is below the threshold for paying federal or state income tax. Because he is your child and under the age of 18, he does not have to pay Social Security or Medicare taxes, either. (So you don’t have to bother with withholding these taxes.) He now has $1,200 of earned income tax free. You have a $1,200 deductible expense against your rental property business.

Open a  Roth IRA for him and put the $1,200 in it. He can contribute the entire amount of his earned income up to $1,200. When he is ready to go to college he can pull that $1,200 out and spend it on college with no tax consequences. Long story short – you just got a $1,200 tax deduction for saving money for your kid’s college.

If you think you have a creative idea on how to get the most out of the tax benefits of being a real estate investor, it’s probably best to get a professional opinion on them first. Creative is good, until it crosses the line into illegal. Nobody wants that.

4. If You Earn Over $150K, Your Losses are Suspended. Our beloved government has classified rental activity as passive activity. (Which I find ironic, because most landlords I know are working their tails off!) When you lose money at a passive activity it is known as passive activity losses (PAL). PAL are only deductible against passive incomes….UNLESS the PAL is from residential real estate and your modified adjusted gross income is less than $100,000. If that is the case, then you are able to deduct up to $25,000 of PAL against other income (like your wages from a job). If your income is above $100,000 then the amount of PAL you can deduct is reduced. At $150,000 of modified adjusted gross income you can not deduct any PAL against other (non-passive) sources of income. However…

The PAL isn’t lost if you can’t deduct it. It is suspended. Suspended passive losses are carried over to future years. You can use the suspended passive losses against future passive income, or you can use them when you sell the property. I’ve written about this extensively elsewhere, but for now just be aware that your passive losses are suspended if your modified adjusted gross income is greater than $150,000 and that you still need to track those losses so that you can use them in the future.

5. Depreciation & Recapture. This is a very complicated topic, so I am just going to give you the two highest points in this article.

A. You must depreciate your rental property. I know you don’t want the value of your property to actually decrease, but that isn’t what depreciation means in this context. Depreciation is used to represent a method of recovery for the cost of your property. Instead of deducting the principal part of your mortgage, you deduct the cost of your property by taking a depreciation expense for it. Four things to remember about taking the depreciation expense:

(1) Only the building depreciates. The land does not depreciate. The land value must be removed from the overall value of the property when figuring your depreciation expense.

(2) If your building is residential rental property it depreciates in a straight line over 27.5 years. (Why 27.5 years? Because Congress says so.)

(3) If you make capital improvements to the building before it is placed in service as a rental property, the cost of those improvements is added to the basis of the building and depreciated over 27.5 years with the rest of the building.

(4) If you make capital improvements to the building after it is placed in service as a rental property, those costs are capitalized and depreciated separately over 27.5 years.

B. You must REPAY the depreciation expenses when you sell the property. Unless the property actually depreciated (which is rare). There are two things you should know about this:

(1) You can escape repaying the ‘depreciation recapture’ only if you die owning the property, or you do a 1031 exchange for another property.

(2) Even though repaying the depreciation is unpleasant in  the year it is repaid, it is rare that taxpayers are net losers at the depreciation game. If you take the long view, even though you pay it back, you got an interest free loan from the IRS. How cool is that?

Despite number 5 having multiple parts to it, I am still going to call this my “Top 5” list. Being a landlord can be profitable. A big chunk of those profits is tied to the tax breaks you get for investing in real estate. Know what those tax breaks (and pitfalls) are before you blindly leap into landlording. If you have any questions or want some assistance in developing a real estate investing tax strategy, please contact me.