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Why Real Estate Depreciation is a Rental Property Investor’s Best Friend

We have all heard about the tax advantages of owning rental real estate. However, most rental property investors do not understand many of the tax advantages, especially real estate depreciation. No discussion on real estate investing would be complete without a brief explanation of what real estate depreciation is and how it works.

What is real estate depreciation?

Real estate depreciation is an income tax deduction that allows a taxpayer to recover the cost or other basis of certain property placed into service by the investor. Depreciation is essentially a non-cash deduction that reduces the investor’s taxable income. Many investors refer to it as a “phantom” expense because they are not actually writing a check. It is merely the IRS allowing them to take a tax deduction based on the perceived decrease in the value of the real estate.

Real estate depreciation assumes that the rental property is actually declining over time as a result of wear and tear. But we know this is not typically the case. Not many other forms of investment offer comparable depreciation deductions. As a result of real estate depreciation, the investor may actually have cash flow from the property but may show a tax loss.

What is the benefit of showing an investment property tax depreciation?

The benefit of course is to lower the overall tax liability (subject to certain limitations). This can help real estate investors save hundreds to thousands per year on their taxes.

What investment properties can be depreciated for a tax deduction?

In order to be eligible for depreciation, the property must meet certain requirements. For real estate investors, meeting the following criteria should not be too challenging:

  • The taxpayer must possess the rental property and may also depreciate any capital improvements for property the taxpayer leases.
  • The property must be used in a business or income-producing activity. If a property is used for business and for personal purposes, the taxpayer can only deduct depreciation based only on the business use of the property.
  • The property must have a determinable beneficial life of more than one year.


A Closer Look

First of all, land is not depreciable. But assuming you have rental real estate, you can depreciate the building, significant improvements, and any equipment that is used in the operation of the property. Depreciation commences when a taxpayer places property in service and ends when the property is disposed of or otherwise retired from service. Any depreciation that was taken will reduce the investor’s basis in the property. Upon disposition of the property, this depreciation is essentially recaptured.

How to Calculate Real Estate Depreciation in 3 Simple Steps

The actual real estate depreciation calculation is not too difficult. Here’s how you would calculate it in 3 simple steps:

  1. Real estate value is made of land and building values, but depreciation only applies to the building. First step is to allocate the property’s purchase price should be allocated between land and building value.
  2. Since land is not subject to depreciation, the building would be depreciated over the IRS prescribed useful life. This life is designated as 27.5 years for residential rental property and 39 years for commercial property. Divide your building value by 27.5 to get your depreciation expense.
  3. Multiply the depreciation expense by your marginal tax rate to get your property tax savings from real estate depreciation.

Calculating Real Estate Depreciation Using an Example

We’ll apply the calculation using a $300,000 single-family home purchase.

  1. Separate your land and building values, which you can also get from a tax assessment. Here, land value is $100,000 and building value is $200,000.
  2. Divide your building value by 27.5, which is the number of years IRS has prescribed as the useful life of a residential property. This is your annual depreciation of your residential investment property.
  3. Multiply this annual depreciation by your marginal tax rate. If you need more information on the marginal tax rate, click here.

Real estate depreciation is a critical tax deduction for real estate investors and should not be overlooked. It is important for the real estate investor to understand the basics of depreciation. This will assist the investor with tax planning and help them understand after-tax investment returns.

About the Author

Paul B. Sundin is a CPA and tax strategist. He works with clients worldwide on real estate tax issues. You can find out more information on him by visiting www.sundincpa.com. Should you have any questions for Paul, you can reach him at 480-361-9400.  Use of any information from this article is for general information only, and does not represent personal tax advice — either express or implied.  Readers are encouraged to seek professional tax advice for personal income tax questions and assistance.

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