The Real Property Business and the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act

January 16, 2018


The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017[1] went into effect only two weeks ago. Many of its provisions represent significant changes to the Code, and it will take most of us several months to fully digest them,[2] to appreciate their practical consequences, and to understand how they may best be utilized for the benefit of our clients.

Among the businesses on which the Act will have a significant and immediate effect is real estate. What follows is a summary of the principal effects of the Act on a closely held real estate business and its owners.[3]

There are many facets to a closely held real estate business, including the choice of entity in which to operate the business, the acquisition and disposition of real property, the construction or other improvement of the property, the financing of the foregoing activities, the rental of the property, the management of the business, and the transfer of its ownership.

The Act touches upon each of these activities. It is the responsibility of the business’s tax advisers to analyze how the changes enacted may affect the business, and to prepare a coherent plan that addresses these changes.

Individual Income Tax Rates

The Act reduced the maximum individual income tax rate from 39.6% (applicable, in the case of married joint filers, to taxable income in excess of $470,700) to 37% (applicable, in the case of married joint filers, to taxable income in excess of $600,000).

This reduced rate will apply to an individual owner’s net rental income. It will also apply to any depreciation recapture recognized on the sale of a real property.[4]

Income Tax

The Act did not change the 20% maximum rate applicable to individuals on their net capital gains and qualified dividends, nor did it change the 25% rate applicable to unrecaptured depreciation.

The Act also left in place the 3.8% surtax on net investment income that is generally applicable to an individual’s rental income, unless the individual can establish that he is a real estate professional and that he materially participates in the rental business.

Deduction of Qualified Business Income

The Act provides that an individual who owns an equity interest in a pass-through entity (“PTE”)[5] that is engaged in a qualified trade or business (“QTB”)[6] may deduct up to 20% of the qualified business income (“QBI”) allocated to him from the PTE.

The amount of this deduction may be limited, based upon the W-2 wages paid by the QTB and by the unadjusted basis (immediately after acquisition) of depreciable tangible property used by the QTB in the production of QBI (provided its recovery period has not expired).[7]

The issue of whether an activity, especially one that involves the rental of real property, is a “trade or business” (as opposed to an “investment”) of a taxpayer is ultimately one of fact in which the scope of a taxpayer’s activities, either directly or through agents, in connection with the property, is so extensive as to rise to the stature of a trade or business.

A taxpayer’s QBI from a QTB for a taxable year means his share of the net amount of qualified items of income, gain, deduction, and loss that are taken into account in determining the taxable income of the QTB for that year.

Items of income, gain, deduction, and loss are “qualified items” only to the extent they are effectively connected with the PTE’s conduct of a QTB within the U.S. “Qualified items” do not include specified investment-related income, gain, deductions, or loss. [8]

Excess Business Losses

The Act imposes another limitation on an individual’s ability to utilize a pass-through loss against other income, whether it is realized through a sole proprietorship, S corporation or partnership; this limitation is applied after the at-risk and passive loss rules.

Specifically, the taxpayer’s excess business losses are not allowed for the taxable year. An individual’s “excess business loss” for a taxable year is the excess of:

(a) the taxpayer’s aggregate deductions attributable to his trades or businesses for the year, over

(b) the sum of:

(i) the taxpayer’s aggregate gross income or gain for the year attributable to such trades or businesses, plus

(ii) $250,000 (or $500,000 in the case of a joint return).

In the case of a partnership or S corporation, this provision is applied at the individual partner or shareholder level. Each partner’s and each S corporation shareholder’s share of the PTE’s items of income, gain, deduction, or loss is taken into account in applying the limitation for the taxable year of the partner or shareholder.

The individual’s excess business loss for a taxable year is carried forward and treated as part of the taxpayer’s net operating loss carryforward in subsequent taxable years.[9]

Technical Termination of a Partnership

Prior to the Act, a partnership was considered “technically terminated” for tax purposes if, within a 12-month period, there was a sale or exchange of 50% or more of the total interest in the partnership’s capital or income. Upon a technical termination, the partnership’s taxable year closed, partnership-level elections generally ceased to apply, and the partnership’s depreciation recovery periods for its assets started anew.

The Act repealed the technical termination rule, which makes it easier for partners to transfer their partnership interests.

Profits Interest

A partnership may issue a profits interest (a “promote”) in the partnership to a service or management partner in exchange for the performance of services. The right of the profits interest partner to receive a share of the partnership’s future profits and appreciation does not include any right to receive money or other property upon the liquidation of the partnership immediately after the issuance of the profits interest.[10]

In general, the IRS has not treated the receipt of a partnership profits interest for services as a taxable event for the partnership or the partner.

By contrast, a partnership capital interest received for services has been includable in the partner’s income if the interest was transferable or was not subject to a substantial risk of forfeiture.[11]

In order to make it more difficult for certain profits interest partners to enjoy capital gain treatment for their share of partnership income, for taxable years beginning after December 31, 2017, the Act provides for a new three-year holding period.[12]

Specifically, the partnership assets sold must have been held by the partnership for at least three years in order for a profits interest partner’s share of such gain to enjoy the lower tax rate applicable to long-term capital gains.[13]

If the assets sold had not been held by the partnership for at least three years, the entire amount of any capital gain allocated to the profits interest would be treated as short-term capital gain and would be taxed up to a maximum rate of 37% as ordinary income.

An “applicable partnership interest” is one that is transferred to a partner in connection with his performance of “substantial” services in a trade or business that consists in whole or in part of (1) raising or returning capital, and (2) investing in, or disposing of, or developing real estate held for rental or investment.

This holding-period rule should not apply to a taxpayer who only provides services to a so-called “portfolio company.”

Real Property Taxes

Under the Act, State and local taxes are generally not allowed to an individual as a deduction[14] unless they are paid or accrued in carrying on a trade or business, or an activity for the production of income. Thus, for instance, in the case of property taxes, an individual may deduct such items if these taxes were imposed on business assets, such as residential rental property.

Additional Depreciation

Prior to the Act, the Code allowed an additional first-year depreciation deduction equal to 50% of the adjusted basis of “qualified property”[15] – including certain improvements to real property – for the year it was placed in service.

The Act modified the additional first-year depreciation deduction, expanded it to include the acquisition of used property, and increased the allowance to 100% for property placed in service after September 27, 2017, and before January 1, 2023.[16]

Election to Expense

Prior to the Act, a taxpayer could elect to deduct the cost of qualifying property, rather than to recover such costs through depreciation deductions, subject to certain limitations. The maximum amount a taxpayer could expense was $500,000 of the cost of qualifying property placed in service for the taxable year. This amount was reduced by the amount by which the cost of qualifying property placed in service during the taxable year exceeded $2 million. The $500,000 and $2 million amounts were indexed for inflation for taxable years beginning after 2015.

Qualifying property was defined to include, among other things, “qualified leasehold improvement property.”

The Act increased the maximum amount a taxpayer may expense to $1 million, and increased the phase-out threshold amount to $2.5 million. Thus, the maximum amount a taxpayer may expense, for taxable years beginning after 2017, is $1 million of the cost of qualifying property placed in service for the taxable year. The $1 million amount is reduced by the amount by which the cost of qualifying property placed in service during the taxable year exceeds $2.5 million. The $1 million and $2.5 million amounts are indexed for inflation for taxable years beginning after 2018.

The Act also expanded the definition of qualifying real property to include any of the following improvements to nonresidential real property placed in service after the date such property was first placed in service: roofs; heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning property; fire protection and alarm systems; and security systems.

Interest Deduction

The Act limits the deduction that a business may claim for “business interest” paid or accrued in computing its taxable income for any taxable year. In general, the deduction is limited to 30% of the adjusted taxable income of the business for such year. The amount of any business interest not allowed as a deduction for any taxable year may be carried forward indefinitely.

“Adjusted taxable income” means the taxable income of the business computed without regard to (1) any item of income, gain, deduction, or loss which is not properly allocable to the business; (2) any business interest or business interest income; (3) the amount of any NOL deduction; (4) the 20% of QBI deduction; and (5) certain other business deductions.[17]

The limitation does not apply to a business – including a real estate business – if its average annual gross receipts for the three-taxable-year period ending with the prior taxable year does not exceed $25 million.

In addition, a real estate business may elect that any real property development, redevelopment, construction, reconstruction, acquisition, conversion, rental, operation, management, leasing, or brokerage trade or business in which it is engaged not be treated as a trade or business for purposes of the limitation, in which case the limitation would not apply to such trade or business.[18]

Like-Kind Exchange

For years, the Code has provided that no gain or loss is recognized if property held for productive use in a trade or business or for investment is exchanged for property of a “like kind” which is to be held for productive use in a trade or business or for investment.

Over the last few years, several proposals had been introduced into Congress to eliminate the favorable tax treatment for like-kind exchanges.

The Act amended the tax-deferred like-kind exchange rules such that they will apply only to real property.

Corporate Tax Changes

Real property should rarely be held in a corporation, yet the fact remains that there are many such corporations.

In the case of a C corporation, or in the case of an S corporation for which the built-in gain recognition period has not yet expired, the Act provides some relief by reducing the corporate income tax rate from a maximum rate of 35% to a flat rate of 21%.

Although this reduction is significant, it likely is not enough to cause investors to contribute their real property to a corporation, or to “check the box” to treat their partnership or single-member LLC as an association (i.e., a corporation) for tax purposes. The benefits of ownership through a partnership are too great.

Moreover, the Act also takes away a benefit from certain corporate real estate developers. Specifically, these corporations may no longer exclude from their gross income any contribution of cash or property from a governmental entity or civic group.[19]

Estate Planning

Although the Act did not repeal the federal estate tax, it greatly increased the exemption amount, from $5.6 million to $11.2 million per person for 2018. It also left intact the portability election between spouses, and the exemption amount remains subject to adjustment for inflation.[20]

Importantly, the beneficiaries of a decedent’s estate continue to enjoy a stepped-up basis in the assets that pass to them upon his death, thereby providing income tax savings to the beneficiaries in the form of reduced gain or increased depreciation.[21]

For a more detailed discussion, click here.

A foreign individual investing in U.S. real property will often do so through a foreign corporate parent and a U.S. corporate subsidiary. The stock of the foreign corporation will not subject the foreigner to U.S. estate tax upon his demise. The U.S. corporation will be subject to U.S. corporate income tax – now at a 21% federal rate (down from a maximum of 35%) – and its dividend distributions, if any, will be subject to U.S. withholding at 30% or at a lower treaty rate. The disposition of the real property will be subject to U.S. corporate tax, but the subsequent liquidation of the U.S. subsidiary will not be subject to U.S. tax.[22]

Will the reduction of the federal corporate tax rate cause more foreign corporations to invest directly in U.S. real property, or through a PTE, rather than through a U.S. subsidiary? In general, no, because such an investment may cause the foreign corporation to be treated as engaged in a U.S. trade or business[23], and may subject the foreign corporation to the branch profits tax.

How about the limitation on interest deductions? The exception for a real estate trade or business should alleviate that concern.

Will the deduction based on qualified business income cause a foreign individual to invest in U.S. real property through a PTE?[24] Probably not, because this form of ownership may cause the foreigner to be treated as engaged in a U.S. trade or business, and an interest in such a PTE should be includible in his U.S. gross estate for estate tax purposes.

Where Will This Lead?

It’s too soon to tell – the Act has only been in force for just over two weeks.

That being said, and based on the foregoing discussion, there’s a lot in the Act with which the real estate industry should be pleased.[25]

Notwithstanding that fact, there are certain questions that many taxpayers are rightfully starting to ask regarding the structure of their real estate business. To give you a sense of the environment in which we find ourselves, I have been asked:

  • Whether an S corporation should convert into a C corporation (to take advantage of the reduced corporate tax rate);
  • Whether a C corporation should elect S corporation status (to enable its individual shareholders to take advantage of the 20%-of-QBI deduction);
  • Whether a partnership/LLC should incorporate or check the box (to take advantage of the reduced corporate rate);
  • Whether a corporation should convert into a partnership or disregarded entity (to enable its individual shareholders to take advantage of the 20%-of-QBI deduction)?

In response to these questions, I ask: who or what are the business owners, what is its capital structure, does it make regular distributions to its owners, what is the appreciation inherent in its assets, does it plan to dispose of its property in the relative short-term, etc.? The point is that each taxpayer is different.

I then remind them that some of the recently-enacted provisions are scheduled to expire in the not-too-distant future; for example, the QBI-based deduction goes away after 2025.

Generally speaking, however, and subject to the unique circumstances of the business entity, its owners, and its property, a real estate business entity that is treated as a partnership for tax purposes should not change its form; an S corporation should not revoke its “S” election; a C corporation should elect “S” status (assuming it will not be subject to the excise tax on excess passive investment income), and a corporation should not convert into a partnership.

[1] Pub. L. 115-97 (the “Act”).

[2] Do you recall the history of the TRA of 1986? Committee reports beginning mid-1985, the bill introduced late 1985, the law enacted October 1986, lots of transition rules. Oh well.

[3] Some of these provisions have been discussed in earlier posts on this blog. See, for example, this post and this post.

[4] For example, personal property identified as part of a cost segregation study that benefited from accelerated depreciation.

[5] A sole proprietorship, partnership/LLC, or S corporation.

[6] A QTB includes any trade or business conducted by a PTE other than specified businesses that primarily involve the performance of services.

[7] Query how much of a benefit will be enjoyed by an established real estate business which may not have many employees, and the property of which may have been fully depreciated.

[8] Investment-type income is excluded from QBI; significantly, investment income includes capital gain from the sale or other disposition of property used in the trade or business.

[9] NOL carryovers generally are allowed for a taxable year up to the lesser of (i) the carryover amount or (ii) 80 percent of taxable income determined without regard to the deduction for NOLs. In general, carrybacks are eliminated, and carryovers to other years may be carried forward indefinitely.

This may be a significant consideration for a C corporation that elects to be an S corporation, and vice versa, in that “C-corporation-NOLs” will not expire until they are actually used.

See the discussion of the recently enacted “excess business loss” rule applicable to individuals.

[10] The right may be subject to various vesting limitations.

[11] A capital interest for this purpose is an interest that would entitle the receiving partner to a share of the proceeds if the partnership’s assets were sold at fair market value (“FMV”) immediately after the issuance of the interest and the proceeds were distributed in liquidation.

[12] This rule applies even if the partner has made a sec. 83(b) election.

[13] It is unclear whether the interest must have been held for three years by the partner.

[14] There is an exception under which a joint return may claim an itemized deduction of up to $10,000 for the aggregate of (i) State and local property taxes not paid or accrued in carrying on a trade or business, or in an activity carried on for the production of income, and (ii) State and local income taxes (or sales taxes in lieu of income taxes) paid or accrued in the taxable year.

[15] Among other things, “qualified improvement property” includes any improvement to an interior portion of a building that was nonresidential real property if such improvement was placed in service after the date such building was first placed in service.

Qualified improvement property does not include any improvement for which the expenditure is attributable to the enlargement of the building, any elevator or escalator, or the internal structural framework of the building.

The Act also provides a 15-year MACRS recovery period for qualified improvement property.

[16] The allowance is phased out through 2025.

[17] Among these deductions is depreciation. Beginning in 2022, depreciation is accounted for.

[18] An electing business will not be entitled to bonus depreciation and will have to extend, slightly, the depreciation period for its real properties.

[19] Such contributions may be made in order to induce a business to move to, and establish itself in, a particular jurisdiction, the idea being that its presence would somehow benefit the public.

[20] Unfortunately, the exemption amount returns to its pre-Act levels after 2025.

[21] In the case of a partnership interest, the partnership must have a Sec. 754 election in effect in order to enjoy this benefit.

[22] Thanks to the so-called “cleansing rule.”

[23] Or it may elect to be so treated.

[24] Other than an S corporation, of course.

[25] Our focus has been on the tax benefits bestowed upon a closely held real estate business. Of course, there are other, non-business provisions that apply to individuals that may have some impact on the real estate market and real estate businesses generally.

Obviously, I am referring to the limitations on itemized deductions for real property taxes imposed on a personal residence and residential acquisition indebtedness, both of which may adversely affect higher-income individual taxpayers.

Against these changes, one must weigh the alternative minimum tax (which often reduces the benefit of deducting property taxes anyway), and the elimination of the so-called “Pease limitation” (which reduced the benefit of itemized deductions for higher-income individual taxpayers).