Tag: passive activity losses

Can Real Estate Professionals Pay No Income Taxes (a la Donald Trump)?

real estate professionals can deduct tax losses resulting from their real estate activities

As a CPA with a substantial real estate practice, I found the recent controversy regarding Donald Trump’s tax losses and the possibility that he paid no federal income tax to be quite interesting.  Although we do not know what part, if any, of the losses arose from Mr. Trump’s real estate activities, it is not unusual or illegal for real estate professionals to deduct tax losses resulting from their real estate activities.

News reports indicate that Donald Trump’s 1995 federal income tax return reflected a tax loss of approximately $916 million dollars, which may have been carried forward to offset income and reduce Trump’s taxes in succeeding years. As this revelation appears to be the source of public outrage, I wanted to explain taxation of rental real estate and how owners and investors may legally benefit from losses.

Trump most likely operates many of his business ventures as “pass-through” entities, such as partnerships and limited liability companies. Pass-through entities pass through all of their earnings, losses and deductions to their owner, for inclusion on their personal income tax returns. In the case of losses, the owner or member can use these losses to offset other income and carry forward any excess to future years. As with all things taxes, there are requirements that must be met (see Passive Loss Limitations in Rental Real Estate).

Owners of rental real estate are not only allowed to deduct for mortgage interest, real estate taxes and other items, but also depreciation. The Internal Revenue Code allows for depreciation of assets used in a trade or business, which include rental real estate. This is an allowance for the wear and tear of the building and astute taxpayers can further benefit from depreciation by accelerating their depreciation deductions (see my blog, The Tax Benefits of Cost Segregation in Real Estate). While many properties are increasing in value, the owners are receiving an income tax benefit in the form of an annual tax deduction for the wear and tear of the building.

If certain requirements are met, a real estate professional, as defined by the Internal Revenue Code (there is no reference to “Mogul” in the Code) can offset other items of income with losses generated by their real estate activities. I have more details on the income tax advantages of being a real estate professional in a previous blog posting, Passive Activity Loss and the Income Tax Puzzle for Real Estate Professionals.

Donald Trump invested in many business ventures during the 1980s and 1990s and real estate may have only been a small part of the substantial loss reflected on his 1995 tax return. Without Mr. Trump’s tax returns, we will never know. As an accountant, I’m more curious about the transactions that gave rise to the loss and the application of the specific tax law provisions permitting deduction of these losses.

What are your thoughts regarding the ability of real estate professionals to offset other items of income with their losses from real estate activities?

Passive Activity Loss and the Income Tax Puzzle for Real Estate Professionals

Does being a real estate professional have income tax advantages?

real estate professionalsIt all comes down to passive and non-passive activities related to property.

As  discussed in a previous post, the IRS recognizes two types of passive activities as they relate to investment real estate, one of those being “trade or business in which the taxpayer does not materially participate.” The other passive activity being rentals, including both equipment and rental real estate.

Generally, rental real estate activities are passive regardless of one’s participation but there is an exception for real estate professionals.

For most taxpayers, income and loss from real estate is considered passive, with passive activity losses generally limited to passive activity income. However, real estate professionals must treat rental real estate activities in which they materially participate as non-passive activities. Therefore, a real estate professional can deduct rental real estate losses from other non-passive income.

How the real estate professional designation affects income taxes

For income tax purposes, the real estate professional designation means you spend a certain amount of time in real estate activities. According to the IRS, real estate professionals are individuals who meet both of these conditions:

1) More than 50 percent of their personal services during the tax year are performed in real property trades or businesses in which they materially participate and  2) they spend more than 750 hours of service during the year in real property trades or businesses in which they materially participate.

real estate professionalsAny real property development, redevelopment, construction, reconstruction , acquisition, conversion, rental, operations, management, leasing or brokerage trade or business qualifies as real property trade or business.

It is important to note that services performed as an employee in real property trades or businesses do not count unless the employee is at least a 5% owner of the employer.

Once it is determined a taxpayer qualifies as a real estate professional (by meeting both of those criteria), non-passive treatment is available only for rental real estate activities in which the taxpayer materially participated. To meet the material participation standard, a taxpayer can elect to treat all interests in rental real estate activities as a single activity. If the election is made, material participation is determined for the combined activity as a group. Since these decisions have implications for one’s income tax liability and potential deductions, it is important to review these guidelines with your accountant and/or trusted tax adviser, and to gain a full understanding of the differences between passive/non-passive income and expenses.


David owns a real estate brokerage firm. He works full time as a broker and also owns three rental properties. David  materially participates in his rental properties and does not employ any management company. HIs material participation comprises finding tenants for his rentals, overseeing repairs, and approving all leases.

Let’s assume that David’s income is $200,000 from the brokerage firm and rental losses associated with the properties he owns are $30,000. David would be able to deduct the $30,000 in full from his gross income because he is a real estate professional and materially participates in the rental properties. If he was not a real estate professional, the $30,000 of losses would be suspended until he had passive income from the properties.

Are you puzzled about whether or not you qualify for these deductions?

Need some help understanding how these passive or non-passive activities might relate to your income tax puzzle, as a real estate professional? I’m here to help; contact me at [email protected] for a consultation. You may also want to check out New Tax Law Explained! For Real Estate Investors.