A common question my clients ask is “Should I buy a house?” A logical extension of the question is “Should I live in the house, or would I be better off renting it out?”
Actually, the question is more often phrased “What are the tax benefits of buying a house?” This can result in a barrage of technical information that doesn’t answer the real question.
THE TAX STUFF
Let’s get the technical tax stuff out of the way:
– The interest portion of your mortgage payment and your property taxes are tax deductible
– If you rent out the property, you can also deduct operating expenses like repairs, utilities and management fees
– If you rent out the property, you can also deduct depreciation. The house itself is depreciated over 27.5 years. Improvements, furnishings and appliances are depreciated at faster rates
– If you live in the house for more than 2 years, you don’t have to pay tax on the first $250,000 of capital appreciation – the exemption is $500,000 if you’re married and file a joint return
– If you make under $100,000 you can deduct rental losses on your tax return. But if you make between $100,000 and $150,000, the deduction phases out to zero. The good news is you can deduct the disallowed losses when you sell the house
– If you rent the property, your gain on sale is taxed at capital gains rates, which are lower than regular rates. Depreciation you deducted is recaptured at regular rates
– If you pay Alternative Minimum Tax, all bets are off…but if you live in the house, your mortgage interest is a deduction for AMT purposes
There’s the barrage of information. Do you know what you want to do now? I don’t think so.
WHAT YOU”RE TRYING TO ACCOMPLISH
Living in your house accomplishes three main objectives:
– You stop paying rent to somebody else
– Tax deductions for mortgage interest and property taxes make your monthly payments more affordable
– With a relatively small down payment, you get the benefit of the full amount of any gain on sale. It’s not unusual to make a gain as big as your down payment. That’s a 100% return on your investment – and $250,000 or $500,000 of the gain is tax-free
When you rent out your house, the objective is to bring in enough rental income to cover your cash payments for mortgage, property tax and operating expenses. Depreciation doesn’t affect your cash flow, but it can be used to create losses for tax purposes if you are in an income range to benefit from the deduction. I’m sure there are places where you can generate positive cash flow from a rental home, while paying no tax because of the depreciation deduction. A few years ago I worked with a Midwest homebuilder where we marketed houses for exactly that business model, but I now live in Southern California, and positive cash flow is only a dream.
Your income mostly comes from the gain you make when you sell the house. This gain is taxable, but it’s taxed at a lower rate than your regular income.
The downside of renting out your house is that you still have to live somewhere. Any profit you make will be reduced by the rent you pay. If you already own your home, of course, that’s not an issue.
RESIDENCE OR RENTAL – WHICH IS BETTER?
Here’s an example that compares the results of living in your home and renting it out.
I made a number of assumptions as the starting point. I’m sure you can poke holes in some of them, but bear with me.
– You are currently paying rent of $2,500 a month
– You have $150,000 for a down payment
– You buy a house for $600,000 and sell it 5 years later for $700,000
– You take a $450,000 mortgage at 4.0% interest, and pay 2.0% a year for property taxes
– You can rent the house to tenants for $3,600 a month
– Operating costs are $3,600 a year for your residence, and $5,000 for the rental
– Your selling costs are 6% when you sell the house
– Your regular tax rate is 30%
Option 1 – Don’t Buy the House
If you don’t buy the house, you continue to pay $2,500 a month in rent. After 5 years, you have spent $150,000. End of story.
Option 2 – Live in the House
Your mortgage payment is $2,170 a month, and your taxes are another $1,000. You’re now paying for repairs and maintenance, but the tax benefit of the interest and tax deduction means you’re only paying about $200 a month more than when you were renting.
You make $100,000 in profit when you sell the house (less $42,000 in closing costs) but you don’t pay tax on the gain. You also get your down payment back, plus you paid off $43,000 on your mortgage.
Over all, your total cost after 5 years is $63,000. This compares with $150,000 you would have spent on rent. Congratulations – by buying the house you saved $87,000.
Option 3 – Rent the House
You rent the house out for $3,600 a month, which is pretty much exactly the amount you pay out for mortgage payments, property taxes and operating costs. You get a tax deduction of $16,000 a year for depreciation, but if you make more than $150,000 it just adds to your deferred loss.
You make the same $100,000 profit when you sell the house. This is taxable at capital gains rates, but the $42,000 closing costs are deductible. As above, you get back your down payment and the $43,000 you paid down on your mortgage.
Your after-tax income from the rental property is $82,000. Nice, really nice. You’ve made a pretax return on investment of 11% a year. Compare that with the return on other investments.
BUT… not so fast.
You still have to live somewhere while you’re renting out the house. Right? Assuming you continue to pay $2,500 a month in rent, that turns your rental profit into a net cash cost of $68,000. The good news is that you’re still miles ahead of where you would have been if you hadn’t bought the house at all, and only about $5,000 behind using the house as your residence.
Do you think you could increase the rent on the house over 5 years? That would make the results of renting vs living in the house about the same, wouldn’t it?
Sorry, I’m not giving you a conclusion. This was just one example, and your situation is almost certainly going to be different. My assumptions are just assumptions, and you would have to do a careful analysis of the facts before you move forward.
There are a lot of subjective issues as well. Do you want the headache of being a landlord? And what about unforeseen problems like bad or unreliable tenants? But what about the upside gain if rents keep climbing the way they are in Los Angeles these days?
I would be happy to discuss your specific situation, and run my model with assumptions that apply to you.