The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) provides for a new 20% tax deduction on “qualified business income” (QBI). Under Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 199A, income from rental real estate businesses qualifies as QBI if the business and related rental income qualifies as trade or business income under IRC Section 162. It is important for taxpayers who own real estate to demonstrate that they are operating a real estate business as a trade or business and not holding real estate purely for investment. In early 2019, the IRS issued Notice 2019-7. This notice provides a safe harbor for landlords to qualify for the IRC Section 199A deduction. There are three requirements that must be met in order to qualify for the safe harbor:
- Separate books and records must be maintained to reflect income and expenses for each rental real estate enterprise.
- At least 250 or more hours of rental services must be performed by the taxpayer or other individuals (i.e., plumbers, landscapers, contractors, property managers) per year with respect to the rental enterprise. The activities that count towards the 250-hour requirement include landlord-related duties such as repairs and
maintenance, collecting rent, reviewing tenant applications, spending time with tenants, etc.
- The taxpayer must maintain contemporaneous records of relevant items, including time reports, logs, or similar documents. This requirement applies to tax years beginning after December 31, 2018. Relevant items for recordkeeping include hours of all services performed, description of all services performed, dates on which such services were performed, and who performed the services.
The safe harbor does not apply to triple-net leases. In a typical triple-net lease arrangement, the tenant is responsible for all costs relating to the property being leased. This includes the payment of property taxes, insurance, and repairs and maintenance on the property. Since the tenant is responsible for the costs that would otherwise be the responsibility of the owner, the IRS has taken the position that the rental income from a triple-net lease does not qualify as trade or business income and is merely investment income. In renegotiating lease agreements, owners should make sure the landlord’s responsibilities and services will qualify for the safe harbor so they are able to claim the 20% deduction on the rental income. Alternatively, another planning opportunity is to evaluate using a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) to hold rental property with triple-net leases, since REIT dividends qualify for the deduction.
If a taxpayer does not qualify for the safe harbor as outlined above, business income could still qualify as trade or business income. Taxpayers should work closely with their advisors to review their situation and ensure that appropriate documentation is maintained to substantiate the trade or business requirement.
After concluding that the rental activity qualifies for IRC Section 199A, there are some additional hurdles to overcome before the 20% deduction may be claimed. For real estate investors earning over $315,000 for married filing jointly, and $157,500 for single filers, the deduction is limited to a percentage of wages paid with respect to the trade or business, or the combination of a percentage of wages paid, plus a percentage of the unadjusted basis of the property. When an investor owns multiple rental properties, there are additional planning opportunities to maximize the IRC Section 199A deduction under the aggregation rules.
There are a number of strategies that can help real estate owners maximize their potential qualified business income deduction and navigate the wage-and-property-test constraints.