Sunday, April 21, 2019

Converting A Residence To A Rental


I have a client who owns a very nice house. Too nice, in fact, at least for its neighborhood. My client used to have a contracting business, and he used his business talents and resources to improve his residence. He is now thinking of moving to another city, and it is almost assured he will lose money when he sells his house.

He is quite creative in thinking of ways to make that loss tax deductible.

The first thought is to convert it to a rental. One can deduct losses on the sale of a rental, right?

There are two significant issues with this plan. One has to do with the amount of loss one can deduct when the rental is underwater – that is, when it costs more than it is worth. The second has to do with whether there actually is rental activity.

We have previously talked about the second point, especially when one rents to family. Doing so is not fatal, but doing so on the cheap (not charging rent or enough rent) is.

Consider the following:

The Langstons purchased a residence (75th Place) in 1997.

They lived there until 2005, when they moved to an apartment. They kept some of their possessions at 75th Place until they could move them to storage.

Renovations to 75th Place were completed in 2010.

In 2011 they received an unwanted telephone call from their insurance agent. Someone had to live at 75th Place or the insurance would be terminated.

In July, 2011 Mr. Langston rented the property to a fraternity brother for $500 a month.
COMMENT: The market rent was between $2,500 and $2,800 a month, but the fraternity brother would be home about five days per month. Mr. Langston prorated the rent accordingly.
In 2013 they finally sold 75th Place. They deducted a loss of over $400 grand.
QUESTION: Do you think they successfully converted the property to a rental?
Let’s consider a few factors.

·      What was their intent when they moved to an apartment?

If the intent was to renovate and sell, this would indicate an income-producing purpose. The problem is that the renovations went on forever.

·      They tried to rent the property

No, actually they did not. In fact, the Court thought that they rented the property only after the insurance company threatened to cut-off their insurance.

·      They actually rented the property

For much less than market value rent. The Court was not impressed by that.

·      They tried to sell the property

Eventually, after nearly a decade and after never marketing the property. They did not even seek an appraisal until a refinancing required them to do so.

The Court decided that they never converted the property to a rental. There was no deductible loss.

Zero surprise. I get the feeling that the taxpayers did whatever they wanted for however long, and near the end they wanted some tax leverage from the deal. It was a bit unfair to the tax practitioner, as some planning – any planning – might have helped.

Let’s go crazy with their planning. What can we do….? Let me think, let  me… I got it! How about actually renting the place before the insurance company is about to drop you? How about charging market rent – or at least close?  How about listing the house with a realtor? Shheeesssh.

I suspect my client is shrewder than the Langstons. He however cannot get past the second tax issue.

You see, when you have a personal asset (say your residence) which you convert to income-producing status (say a rental), you have to look at its basis and its fair market value when you convert.

Basis is a fancy word for what you paid to acquire or improve the asset. Say that my client has $1.5 million in his house.

Say he converts May 1st, when the house is worth $1 million.

He now has a “dual basis” situation.

His basis for calculating gain is $1.5 million.

But his basis for calculating loss is $1 million.

You see what happened? He was hoping to use that $1.5 million to calculate any loss on sale. Folks, the IRS figured out this gimmick ages ago. That is how we wound up with the dual basis rule.

I suspect the Langstons had a similar situation, but they never got to first base. You see, their activity had to qualify first as a rental before the Court would have to consider the dual basis rule. The activity didn’t, so the Court didn’t.

Our case this time was Carlos and Pamela Langston, TC Memo 2019-19.

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