Maximize Your Tax Deductions on Business Repairs

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When you own business properties, they will occasionally require repairs; that’s just a fact of business ownership. So, whether you need to make repairs on your place of business or your rental buildings, keep these simple truths in mind:

  • You can either increase your net worth with tax-favored repairs.
  • Or, you can decrease your net worth with tax-impaired improvements.

Now, which would you prefer?

Boosting Your Net Worth with the Right Fixes

The fixes that you can label as repairs are vastly more valuable to you than those labelled improvements. That means you need to know the difference between the two so you can a real monetary difference. Of course, it’s important to note that this only applies to an office or rental building that you own.

Fortunately, the IRS released a guide on this subject titled Capitalization v Repairs[1]. Without this guide, some tax deductions linger in an indeterminate gray area, which can be infuriating when it comes time for tax preparation. If you don’t know how the IRS classifies a particular fix, you lose control of your money. However, with the right planning, you can classify particular fixes as repairs and regain that financial control.

Here’s an example of how tax-favored repairs work:

  • Scenario 1: You put an entirely new roof on your office building. Uh-oh! Now you have to depreciate that roof over thirty-nine years, which means you have lost quite a bit of money up-front.
  • Scenario 2: Instead of completely replacing the roof on your building, you replace thirty-five percent of the roof one year, twenty-five percent of the roof a couple years later, fifteen percent of it a few years after that, and then twenty-five percent the following year. Each of those repairs can be deducted immediately, leaving you with a hefty financial advantage.

Defining a Repair

Do you see the difference in the above scenarios? Repairing is maintaining or mending. It is a fix that keeps a property running in its ordinary and efficient operating condition. A repair[2] does not 1) add to a property’s value, or 2) prolong the life of the property by an appreciable measure. You see, a repair ensures that you can continue using a property for the purpose you obtained it for, as opposed to increasing the value for a possible sale in the future[3]. An improvement, on the other hand, is a fix that 1) increases the property’s value[4], 2) prolongs its useful life substantially[5], or 3) modifies the property for a novel use[6].

Take a look at this actual situation to get an idea of how these definitions might play out (numbers are not in today’s dollars). A man purchased a four-unit apartment building (with one tenant residing) that was in poor repair for $30,000 and spent $6,247 for a contractor to fix it up. The contract work included removing tree limbs that were rubbing the roof; repairing water damage; repairing electrical wiring; cleaning the carpets, floors, and exterior; repairing the front porch; and, installing new cabinet doors and new countertops.

When the owner was audited, the IRS deemed the entire amount an improvement. The owner, however, disagreed, and the Tax Court allowed $5,000 worth of repair deductions[7]. The court only required the owner to capitalize $1,247 for the new cabinet doors and countertops.

Why did the court side with the building owner? First, the court noted that a tenant was living in the building. This meant the property was commercially active at the time of the fixes. If you’re repairing a rental property, having tenants in the building is beneficial to your claim of making repairs. Second, the $5,000 in repairs was not considered a large amount of money compared to the initial $30,000 spent to purchase the property. That is, the court could justify the expense as repairs rather than improvements to increase the property value.

Note: There is no defined amount of money that distinguishes a repair from an improvement. Two people could make the same fixes for the same amount of money and get differing tax results. That is why it is important for you to document the facts surrounding your repairs and present those facts when making a case with your tax preparer.

Tips on Making a Case for Repairs

By following a few best practices, you can make it easier on yourself to get the right tax deductions. A good way to get a favorable result for deductions on repairs is to get separate invoices for repairs and improvements[8]. This is especially important when you are carrying out a large renovation project. The IRS specifically states in its audit technique guide that repairs are not considered repairs when they are made as part of a general rehabilitation project[9]. So, keep those invoices separate! In fact, you’ll give yourself a lot fewer headaches if you just hire different contractors to do the repair work at different times from the improvements.

Here are some additional tips:

  • Always Document the Reasons for Your Repairs—Repairs, by their nature, are preceded by an event that indicates their need. For instance, you repair a water pipe because it begins to leak, or you repaint an exterior because the weather has faded it. Record these reasons as evidence of the need for repairs.
  • Fix Only Small Parts at a Time—This is pretty self-explanatory. When you replace something in its entirety (i.e., putting on a new roof, replacing an entire wall, installing new flooring), you are making an improvement[10]. When you focus on simply fixing a part of that roof, wall, or floor, you are making a repair[11].
  • Use Comparable Materials—If you want your claim for tax deductible repair work to be accepted, you should replace worn materials with those of similar, or even less expensive, quality[12]. If you’re using higher quality materials, the work may be considered an improvement[13].
  • Consider the Reason for the Repair—Another aspect to consider when making a case for fixes to be considered repairs for tax purposes is the condition of part being fixed up. A repair can only be made to something that is worn out, deteriorating, or broken[14]. If you’re not restoring or replacing a damaged part of the property, or if work expands to parts of the property that are not damaged, it becomes an improvement.

What’s the Main Concern?

Why is the IRS so particular about whether you are making repairs or improvements? They suspect you may buy a property to renovate, and then write off the renovation as repair costs. In its audit technique guide, the IRS distinguishes between money used to “put” or to “keep” the property in efficient operating condition[15]. Simply stated, if improvements need to be made in order to put the property in efficient operating order, then they are capital improvements. But, if they are only made in order to keep the property in efficient operating order, then they are repairs and are tax deductible.

This is not to say that you should not consider making improvements to your properties. Indeed, if you plan to sell, improvements may be exactly what you need. However, this article is a helpful guide for how to get the most out of your tax deductions when you are attempting to repair the buildings you still use. With proper documentation, you can designate whether the work you have done on your buildings is considered a repair or an improvement, and that means you have the power to take control of how much of your money goes to taxes.

  1. IRS Audit Technique Guide, Capitalization v Repairs, LB&I-4-0910-023.
  2. Reg. Section 1.162-4.
  3. Illinois Merchants Trust Co. v. Commr., 4 B.T.A. 103, 106 (1926), acq.
  4. Reg. Section 1.263(a)-1(a)(1).
  5. Reg. Section 1.263(a)-1(b).
  6. Also see Reg. Section 1.263(a)-1(b).
  7. Roger Verl Jacobson v Commr., TC Memo 1983-719.
  8. E.g., Allen v Commr., 15 T.C.M. 464 (1956).
  9. IRS Audit Technique Guide, Capitalization v Repairs, LB&I-4-0910-023.
  10. Reg. Section 1.162-4; e.g., Ritter v Commr., 47-2 USTC Section 9378 (6th Cir. 1947) (new roof).
  11. E.g., Kingsley v Commr., 11 B.T.A. 296 (1928) (patching roof), acq.
  12. E.g., Illinois Merchants Trust Company v Commr., 4 B.T.A. 103 (1926).
  13. E.g., Abbot Worsted Mills, Inc. v Cagne, 42-2 USTC ¶ 9694 (D. N.H. 1942).
  14. Sanford Cotton Mills v Commr., 14 B.T.A. 1210 (1929) (portion of decayed floor replaced).
  15. IRS Audit Technique Guide, Capitalization v Repairs, LB&I-4-0910-023.