Passive-Loss Rules Got You Trapped? You can Release Rental Property Tax Losses

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If you’re feeling the pain from calculating your rental property loss deductions and finding that you can’t get some of that money back, you can thank lawmakers from 1986. That’s when the passive-loss rules came into being. These laws really complicated matters for taxpayers, but this article can help you to understand the ins and outs.

How Passive-Loss Rules Work

Basically, lawmakers have given you three possible tax buckets for any given taxable activity:

  1. Portfolio of stocks and bonds
  2. Active business activities involving material participation
  3. Passive-losses for rentals and other activities you don’t materially participate in

We’ll primarily look at the last one with this article. You’ll be happy to know that you do have some options for getting around the passive-loss problem. With the right knowledge, you can see tax benefits from your rental losses.

Before we delve into the solutions, let’s get an understanding of why you may have issues deducting your rental property losses. In order to get the tax benefit from your rental property loss, you (or you and your spouse) have to meet one of two requirements. To meet the first requirement, you must have passive income, such as from other properties or another source. Otherwise, you have to qualify as a real estate professional and actively participate in your rental property business.

Given those requirements, here’s an example of how your rental property losses can end up trapped and unable to be deducted. For the example, you have only one rental property (i.e. you have no other passive income), and you do not qualify as a real estate professional for tax purposes. If your property has produced a tax loss of $10,000 each year for the past six years, and your taxable income is $180,000, you can’t deduct any of those $60,000 in losses because you don’t meet either of the above requirements, and they can’t be deducted from either of the other income buckets.

Your Options

Let’s take a look at the three options you have for navigating these passive-loss rules. It turns out that even if you don’t meet the above requirements, you may have an opportunity to deduct your losses in certain scenarios.

  • Get Full Loss BenefitsTaxpayers who have a modified adjusted gross income of up to $100,000 can deduct all of their rental losses up to $25,000.[1] As your income rises above $100,000, your deduction is reduced by 50 cents per dollar, and once you reach a modified adjusted gross income level of $150,000, you lose this ability to claim losses easily.[2] For a practical example of how this works, let’s say your modified adjusted gross income from your business was $85,000, and you had rental losses of $21,000. In this case, you would be able to deduct the full $21,000.
  • Waiting for the BenefitRemember the $60,000 that were trapped in the example above? It turns out that you don’t just lose all chance of benefiting from those accumulated losses. They are still tax-deductible, but you have to find a way to release their ability to be deducted. In fact, here are four possible ways to get that money out of waiting:
  1. Change the rental property from passive to non-passive. If you’re the sole owner of your business, and you also own 100 percent of the rental property, you can simply convert half the rental property for business use (such as office space). Now 50 percent of you trapped losses can be released ($30,000) for use against the business income bucket[3]. If you operate as an S corporation, you’ll have to make a self-rental election.
  2. Produce additional passive income. If you produce, for example, $6,000 in passive income, you can release $6,000 of the trapped $60,000. Now, you just have to wait to release the other $54,000.
  3. Qualify as a real estate professional and prove your material participation in your real estate business. This option cannot release funds that have been waiting to be released because your qualification as a real estate professional is evaluated on a yearly basis. However, by qualifying, you are able to release your losses for the current tax year. So, the $10,000 for the year you qualify as a real estate professional will be offset against your business and portfolio income buckets. Other losses will have to be released using one of the other solutions.
  4. Sell your property. This option is further explained below.
  • Releasing the Full AmountIf you don’t meet the modified adjusted gross income threshold to take full advantage of loss deductions, there’s actually a very easy way to release the full $60,000 of our example losses. All you have to do is sell 100 percent of the property. When you sell to a third party, you can deduct the entire $60,000 at once. Here’s how you might handle this on your tax return:[4]
  1. You list your capital gain or loss on IRS Form 4797. It will be listed with your other Section 1231 gains and losses. A net gain will be taxed at the tax-favored rates of up to 15 percent, and a net loss will be limited to $3,000. But, don’t worry—anything over that amount can be carried forward.
  2. You also list any gain that is attributable to real-property depreciation (Form 4797). This will be taxed at the real-property depreciation recapture rate on Schedule D (up to 25 percent).
  3. You put the $10,000 loss for the current tax year on Schedule E.
  4. And, here’s the best part. You put the prior $60,000 of tax loss (in addition to the current year’s $10,000) on Schedule E, which finally ends up on your Form 1040 and the entire $70,000 offsets all your income.

To break it down for you, when you sell your property, you get to snub the passive-loss rules and pretend like they don’t even exist!

Passive-loss rules are frustrating, but know that you can eventually deduct your losses. You can even elect to group together multiple properties and use these exact same solutions. Getting the most benefit from your tax return is all about planning ahead. Now that you know how to get around the passive-loss restrictions, you can start planning for the techniques that work right for you and your properties.

  1. IRC Section 469(i).
  2. IRC Section 469(i)(3)(A).
  3. Reg. Sections 1.469-9(e)(4), Example (ii); 1.469-1(f)(4)(iii), Example 4.
  4. Instructions for Form 8582 (2011), revised Jun. 8, 2012, ps. 7-8.