Listening to an experienced accountant explain a tax situation sounds like easy work even when the words and numbers sound strange. It is rarely so easy connecting the dots, however.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) passed December 22, 2017 changed how you are taxed in ways we haven’t seen in over a generation. New opportunities to reduce your tax liability were opened, but the real advantages are hidden from plain view. It takes an experienced hand to ferret out the unexpected connections that can make or break your financial condition.
Today we are going to explore a thought experiment where we outline how the TCJA can super charge your tax savings. But first we have to tell a story.
A Chance Encounter
I spend my days researching the tax code for ways to help clients (that’s you, kind readers) reduce or even eliminate their tax liability. Some ideas are old and well-known. Others are somewhat unique in their application to the specifics of a client’s needs.
Our story starts with a longtime client and a real estate agent.
In my office there is a family limited partnership with several pieces of commercial property. One of their leases was coming up and I was unable to determine an accurate lease rate. Market rates are changing as real estate values climb.
Since it was my job to advise my client on an accurate lease rate I had my assistant call multiple sources around town to get an appraisal. My client was also interested in selling if the price was right.
After serious vetting we settled on a real estate agent with a history of success in the local commercial real estate market.
I was pleased the agent was wiling to provide a market analysis (a quasi appraisal) without fee. The agent provided the service and hoped to get the business if he did a good job.
My client also had a mini-mall with a vacancy. The current listing agent wasn’t able to sell or lease the unit in years. I convinced my client to get an assessment on this property as well.
The agent preparing the market analysis was fast, efficient and informative. The tenant of the first building we needed to update the lease with also wanted to buy. There was no need for the agent (or the fee) to sell or lease this property.
As luck would have it the tenant of the first building wanted to buy. My client was happy.
I felt it was fair to list the second property with the agent as a gesture of goodwill for his work assessing both properties. The agent did good work, followed up and was professional.
My client dragged his feet. The second building had one vacant unit with nobody working it now. I had to light a fire under my client.
After weeks (it was really a few months) of pleading my client finally relented and decided to let the agent offer the property for lease and sale.
The agent sent his assistant to pick up the paperwork the same day it was signed.
It Pays to Talk with People
It was getting to be 4:30 when the agent’s assistant showed up. I explained we sold the first building and didn’t need his services for that building. The assistant was good with that and understood our reasoning.
I then explained a unique tax strategy (a cost segregation study) that I shared with the buyer of said property. I mentioned to the assistant the buyer would save over $100,000 in taxes even though he was closing on the last business day of the year. These tax saving would be the result of a $300,000 first year deduction for owning the property a single day of the year!
People who know me understand how quiet I tend to be (dad, stop laughing). You can’t pry a word out of me.
Okay, I enjoy deep conversation that leads to massive results.
As I talked with the assistant I explained how the TCJA made it easier than ever to never pay income tax again. As we talked I kept building a bigger and bigger pyramid of tax savings strategies involving real estate. Many of these strategies would help the agent’s clients.
Needless to say, he took several of my cards. I reduced taxes for local businesses by several million dollars in less than one and a half hours. That short conversation opened a can of worms that will benefit this accountant’s communities for years to come.
And it was only possible because of the chance encounter with the agent. I knew all these things, but until that moment I hadn’t put the pieces together. Months of relentless research gave me the tools to excel at helping my clients in their tax matters as it pertained to the new tax laws.
And this is where you come in, kind readers.
The Gift that Keeps Giving
What I am about to share is merely a thought experiment. I will use large and round numbers because it is easier to understand that way. Many of these ideas will work for people with lower incomes. But in the end I will show you how you can have a million dollars in gains, pay no tax on said gain and end up with a $400,000 loss on your tax return you can use to offset other income.
Do I have your attention yet?
I hope so. This is new; this is novel, but it will work. The tax law is clear. What I am proposing can reduce your income tax to zero with extra deductions is case you have other income you need deductions against!
You will also seriously consider selling income properties you currently own to use this information. In fact, you may want to pass on like-kind exchanges (the old, and still usable, way to defer taxed on real estate) in the future. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The best way to understand my strategy is see it in action step-by-step. Because there are several ways to apply this strategy I will provide multiple solutions to the word problem.
Before we start I need share a few things that have changed in the tax code. Like-kind exchanges are a way to defer the gain on business or income property you sell by transferring the gain to a replacement property. While this tax strategy is still available for real estate, it is nixed in 2018 and after for business property. Capital gains from other investments are always taxable, until this year.
I sometimes get complaints that my tax strategies don’t apply to everyone. This is true. Not everyone can benefit from every strategy. The goal is to provide a framework that is understandable and modifiable for personal needs. While this works best for property owners with large gains, it can be tailored to lower incomes as well. It also assumes you have capital gains as that is our starting point. Wages and business income are not the driver of this strategy. If you want to reduce business income taxes you can read this. Wage earners should probably focus on retirement plan first as these provide significant deductions.
We start with capital gains since real estate and the stock market have been climbing for a good decade now. The gains in these investments are huge and a real problem to diversify without incurring a large tax bill.
Real estate might seem easier since like-kind exchanges (sometimes known as 1031 exchanges) are still available. But a like-kind exchange requires a replacement property be identified within 45 days and closed within 180 days. And all your money stays in the replacement property to receive the tax benefit. (You can borrow against the equity of the replacement property after closing, but this costs you interest.)
With this in mind we need to deal with either large unrealized stock market gains or a piece of real estate with a large gain over basis (purchase price plus improvements minus depreciation).
For our example we will consider a stock investment (mutual fund, ETF, index fund, individual stock or other asset with an unrealized gain) with a $1 million unrealized gain and/or a piece of real estate with a large gain if sold.
The good news is that ALL capital gains are now super easy to avoid with a Qualified Opportunity Fund. I will not get into all the details of Opportunity Funds since I published recently on the topic in detail, available through the link.
For our thought experiment we can realize a capital gain from a real estate or investment sale and avoid reporting of the income currently. A million dollar gain can be deferred to 2026 and only 85% is taxed at that time with deflated dollars.
But Opportunity Funds are more than deferred taxes with a small tax reduction enhancer! All the gains within the Opportunity Fund (not the original gain, but gains on the capital gains invested in the Fund) are tax-free if held for 10 years or more.
Another benefit of Opportunity Funds over a like-kind exchange is how much needs to be reinvested. With the like-kind you need to buy a replacement property of equal or greater value to defer tax on all gains. Under the new rules only the GAIN needs to be reinvested in the Opportunity Fund within 180 days. The basis you can do whatever you want with.
Example: You have a duplex you bought for $200,000 and depreciated $50,000. You sell the property for $500,000. You can pocket your remaining basis ($150,000) and invest the taxable gain of $350,000 in an Opportunity Fund, avoiding any tax on the gain until 2026. (We will disregard depreciation recapture in this discussion so the examples don’t get muddy.)
Example: You bought $100,000 of Apple stock and now want to diversify without tax implication. Your Apple stock is now worth $1,000,000. You sell the stock, invest the capital gains in an Opportunity Fund and use the original $100,000 for whatever you want. Only 85% of the $900,000 capital gain will be taxed after 7 years and all the profit the $900,000 generates is tax-free after 10 years in the Opportunity Fund.
A Better Idea:
Selling your appreciated assets (investments or real estate) is only the starting point on your journey to tax-free freedom. Remember, you only deferred most of the gain. And if you have other income (business income, wages, dividends, interest or rental income) in need of deductions to avoid income taxes currently, you need another step.
Enter, real estate.
I assume you are not adverse to income property ownership in this stage of our game.
In our above examples we have large capital gains we deferred gains on and either $100,000 or $150,000 of basis we could do whatever we want with. I suggest buying a good piece of income property.
By good income property I mean a property that cash flows. You may need to buy something further from home base and utilize a property manager. This is probably a good thing regardless.
Without the necessity of replacing a property with an equal or greater value you have more choices. A half million dollar property doesn’t need to be replaced. Instead, with your basis from the sale, you can buy an income property that cash flows right out the gate and get more tax benefits.
Let’s jump to the cost segregation study again. You can read more with the link, including who I refer my clients to for a cost segregation study.
For a cost segregation study to work the property involved needs to have an original basis (generally the purchase price) of $300,000 without considering the value of the land.
The basis from the original sale in your pocket is perfect for a down payment on the property we are eyeing.
Example: Assume we buy a new income property (or properties) for $700,000. Under current tax rules a cost segregation study will turn approximately $300,000 of the purchase price of the building into a deduction the first year!
What this means: Think about this for a second. You sold a stock or rental property with a massive gain. You deferred/avoided tax on the complete capital gain by investing said gains in an Opportunity Fund. Then you decide to use the basis from the original investments as a down payment on an income property and conduct a cost segregation study. This equates to a $300,000 deduction on your tax return while avoiding tax on the capital gains! If you are a real estate professional or use grouping you can use this deduction against other income still being taxed.
If you buy right now we will include this free pocket calculator. Keep it even if you return the product. It’s our way of saying. . .
Okay, I got carried away.
But I’m not done. there is even more!
Why You Want to Sell NOW!
Up till this point we played with big numbers with a focus on real estate. Deferring capital gains from any source is simple under current tax rules. A $30,000 mutual fund gain is easily deferred/avoided just as easily.
But what about landlords. If you own real estate now you might want to consider selling!
Remember our thought experiment above where we defer gains and apply cost segregation studies on new properties? If you already own real estate with gains you have an additional tax planning tip.
Cost segregation studies are possible on properties you held for years. The tax benefits are still tremendous.
However, unleashing gains on existing properties is a powerful way to spike cash flow!
More isn’t always better so I always recommend property managers for the day-today tasks of property management. Your job is to buy the right properties at the right price. Rinse and repeat. The manager/s should handle the rest.
Example: In this example we will start with three income properties you owned for 10 years. We’ll assume you have a combined basis of $500,000 on these properties with a market value of $1 million. A cost segregation study on each of these properties is inadvisable (each property is less than $300,000).
If you keep the properties your cash flow grows only as fast as market rates for the three properties. You pay tax on all the profits after expenses.
Unless you sell!
That’s right. Sell the three properties. Invest the capital gains in a Qualified Opportunity Fund and use the $500,000 basis as the down payment for a larger value property where a cost segregation study will work well.
Assume we find a multi-unit complex for $1,000,000. The half million capital gain is in Qualified Opportunity Funds avoiding tax while the other half million is available for any use you want. Whether you use all the excess money from the previous sale or borrow more funds to purchase the complex, you will realize around a $400,000 deduction under current tax rules due to the cost segregation study. This massive deduction is available to reduce your other income property profits or income from other sources in many cases.
If the three income properties were throwing off $4,000 a month, the complex should be doing the same or more and the cost segregation study will generate a deduction to eliminate the tax on these profits. (Your taxes would be low or zero in this example if you had no other reportable income so other factors must be considered before you proceed.)
Example: Here is another example worth considering. Let’s say you’ve owned a property for decades and depreciated the property to the land only. The property is throwing off oodles of cash flow, but it is all taxed because there are few deductions (mortgage is paid off,too) and no remaining depreciation.
Capital gains from the sale would go to a Qualified Opportunity Fund to defer/avoid taxes once again. Buying another property to replace the lost cash flow opens the opportunity for a cost segregation study.
I didn’t use numbers in the last example for a reason. The idea is to provide a framework you can tweak to your personal needs. The idea is to keep cash flow pouring in while reducing or eliminating income taxes from any and all sources. The only way to do that is with a new piece of property.
Taxes are complicated and getting worse. Today’s thought experiment is not meant as a definitive guide to eliminate taxes. Rather, my goal was to help you think differently about taxes and strategy.
The tax code may seem straight forward, but the real benefits come from putting the pieces together. I asked my Facebook followers if they would like a program to reduce their taxes to zero. The response was overwhelming. I asked the same group what taxes they wished they could avoid taxes on this year. Capital gains came up often.
We didn’t cover every type of income or every income level. The idea is to plant a seed in your brain so it can grow.
The TCJA is a massive piece of legislation. The advantages are hard to grasp in the basics and putting the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together in a way that benefits you is even more difficult.
What I provided above should have been a pleasant exercise. You can see how the new puzzle pieces have increased the opportunities to reduce your tax liabilities.
It might be a good idea to read this a few times and even save it. Share it with friends (enemies don’t deserve this level of tax savings). You might even want to use a highlighter on key points:
- Sell with no current capital gains tax using Qualified Opportunity Funds and
- Buy quality real estate where a cost segregation study works well to eliminate all other income taxes.
Below I include the regular list of additional Wealth Building Resources I attach at the end of posts over the last half year or so. You can find cost segregation links easily there from all current posts.
Finally, don’t be afraid to think outside the box when it comes to taxes. Now is the easiest time to reduce your tax liability in over 100 years. Use this opportunity to fuel your net worth.
These good times are unlikely to last forever.
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