In the last issue of the Funeral Business Advisor, we talked about stuff. Specifically, we acknowledged that as the owner of a funeral home, you’re constantly buying stuff for various reasons and among your considerations in choosing what stuff to buy are the tax implications. Will buying this stuff lower my taxes? The answer was (surprise!) “It depends”. In our previous article, we dealt with the small stuff; i.e. inventory, supplies, furniture, equipment and vehicles. In this issue, we’re going to focus on the big stuff: real estate.

Buying real estate will be one of the largest investments you’ll make as a business owner. Even with bank financing, you’ll likely need to make a substantial down payment to acquire a desired property. You would think that, having drained your bank account to make that big investment, there has to be some large tax write-off that goes with it, right? “WRONG!” Despite the big investment required to buy real estate, the annual write-off you get from real estate under the tax code is small in comparison. It all has to do with depreciation. Let me explain.

Generally under the tax code, property that you use over a number of years is not expensed immediately when it is purchased. Rather, you deduct the property’s cost over its depreciable life. The property’s depreciable life is determined under the tax code, and the annual deduction is called depreciation expense. For example, if you purchase a hearse (which has a depreciable life of 5 years) for $60,000, the annual deductible depreciation expense is $12,000 ($60,000 ÷ 5 years). As explained in our previous article, there are provisions in the tax code that allow you to immediately expense personal property rather than having to depreciate it over several years, but those exceptions rarely apply to real estate. As you’ve probably guessed by now, your depreciation deduction depends heavily on the depreciable life of the asset and therein lies the problem. Under the tax code, the depreciable life of a funeral home building is 39 years! Furthermore, if you make substantial capital improvements to your property, those improvements also need to be depreciated over 39 years. Considering you probably have a 15 or 20 year mortgage, you can see that your building will be paid off long before you will have completely written it off for your taxes. So what can you do to accelerate the deductible cost of your property? Here are some options.

Consider a Cost Segregation Study
One of the key strategies in maximizing and accelerating the depreciation deduction for your property is in the allocation of its cost. The cost of a property must first be allocated between land and building. Allocation here is important because land cannot be depreciated, so you will receive no tax benefit from the land cost until later when the property is sold. So it’s important to be aggressively reasonable when allocating a portion of your purchase price to land.

Once you’ve carved out the cost of the land, what remains is the building which, as previously mentioned, must be depreciated over 39 years. However, the tax regulations allow you to break out your property into various components which can be depreciated over shorter lives, thereby increasing and accelerating your depreciation deduction. To do this, you need to have a cost segregation study (CSS) performed on your property. The CSS is performed by engineers who will examine your property and provide you with a report which breaks out the cost of your property into several “asset classes” of varying depreciable lives. The result is that rather than having to depreciate the cost of your entire building over 39 years, portions of it will be depreciated over 5, 7 or 15 years thereby increasing and accelerating your depreciation deductions in the earlier years of ownership. By way of example, a client of mine purchased a property for $2.5M. By having a CSS performed on the property, my client was able to claim additional depreciation expense of approximately $330,000 over the first five years the property was owned thereby significantly reducing his tax liability during that time.

Although performing a CSS on your property sounds like a great idea, there are a few considerations to keep in mind. First, a properly done CSS will set you back $5,000 to $7,000 depending on the property. As such, it doesn’t make economic sense to do a CSS if the cost allocated to your building is less than $800,000. Second, a CSS only allows you to depreciate portions of your building faster. Once your building has reached the end of its depreciable life, the total depreciation you will have taken on that property will be no different regardless of how it was written off. If you paid $750,000 for your building, that’s all you’ll get to depreciate. The CSS just allows you to write off that $750,000 at a faster rate, and because a deduction today is worth more than a deduction five years from now, the CSS could be worth doing. Third, work closely with your tax advisor to ensure the accelerated depreciation will provide you the intended tax benefits. There are various other provisions within our complicated tax code that can lessen the tax benefits coming out of a CSS, so best to know those before you spend the money on a CSS.

Repairs vs Capital Improvements
So you are now the proud owner of a beautiful funeral home. For obvious reasons, funeral home owners are well known for meticulously maintaining their stuff, especially their properties. But that gets expensive. Whether all those costs are tax deductible depends on what you’re doing to the property and as you would expect, the IRS doesn’t make that easy. There are hundreds of pages of regulations which deal with this (known as “the repair regs”), but we’ll stick to the basics.

First, a repair is deductible immediately while a capital improvement needs to be depreciated. That makes a repair more tax advantageous than a capital improvement. So what’s the difference between a repair and a capital improvement? It really depends on nature of the “improvement” and here’s how it works.

The tax regulations require you to look at your building as a structure with a collection of “systems.” Examples of these systems are HVAC, electrical, plumbing, elevator, etc. If you restore or improve a substantial portion of the building structure or any of these systems, that will be a capital improvement which will need to be depreciated. If it’s not a substantial improvement, then it’s a repair that can be expensed immediately. I know what you’re asking; what does “substantial” mean? The IRS provides no clear definition of what substantial means, but the rule of thumb appears to be 30% of the repaired property. For example, your funeral home has thirty windows. You replace four windows. Since four windows comprise less than 30% of all your windows, you would treat the window replacement as a repair. But suppose you replace 20 windows. You’ve now replaced 66% of your windows, so the replacement cost would be a capital improvement which would need to be depreciated over 39 years.

What do we learn from this? For one thing, proper planning and timing of your building repairs can significantly affect your ability to expense the repair, so plan ahead. Spread projects out over time so you fall below the 30% repair threshold. Secondly, talk to your tax advisor when contemplating large repair or improvement projects. They can work with you to maximize possible write-offs associated with such projects. Finally, ensure your contractor will provide you detailed billing statements for your repair project so as to maximize possible write-offs.

Partial Asset Dispositions
So you’ve concluded that your project is indeed a capital improvement and you are now stuck depreciating it over the next 39 years. However, all hope may not be lost. There is another opportunity to possibly get a substantial write-off associated with a large improvement project. However, it applies only to a refurbishment or improvement of a currently existing property; it does not apply to a building addition or expansion. In tax jargon it’s called a “partial asset disposition” and it’s a relatively new option under the tax code. Here’s how it works.

Suppose you decide to renovate the inside of your funeral home to expand viewing rooms, add bathrooms, etc. You are not expanding your facility, you are simply renovating the current structure. Obviously, such a large project is a capital improvement that must be depreciated. However, what about the structures and systems that you have removed from the building? When you purchased the building, you paid for all those former walls, flooring, electrical systems and other portions of the building. Granted you were depreciating them along with the rest of your building, but they no longer exist. Seems unfair that you would be forced to continue depreciating something that no longer exists, doesn’t it? Furthermore, you should be able to write off the remaining undepreciated portion of the building that has been replaced by the renovation. That’s exactly what you can do through a partial asset disposition (PAD).

A PAD allows you to write off the undepreciated portion of property that has been replaced through a renovation or refurbishment. The amount of the write off will depend on the age and cost of your property. It is unlikely that the write-off will equal the cost of the renovation, but it could be substantial nonetheless and is certainly worth investigating. Finally, demolition costs can be expensed immediately, so be sure your contractor bills you separately for demolition.

Section 179 Election
In our previous article on the tax treatment of stuff (see July/August edition of Funeral Business Advisor) we talked about the Section 179 election. This provision of the tax code allows you to immediately expense the entire cost of property that would otherwise need to be depreciated. It normally doesn’t apply to real estate. However, the recent tax law changes expanded Sec 179 to allow the immediate write-off of certain real estate improvements such as roofs, HVAC property, security systems, etc. It’s important to remember that Sec 179 cannot be used for rental activities. So if you own your building in a separate entity and rent it to your funeral home business, you may not be able to claim an immediate write-off using Sec 179. It’s worth discussing this with your tax advisor.

Of all the stuff you will ever buy, it’s likely that real estate will be your biggest investment. How profitable it may be depends on many factors including the tax benefits or ramifications of owning real estate. As with all investment decisions, knowledge is power so be smart and always speak with your tax advisor before you invest in real estate. FBA

This article is meant to provide general information and should not be construed as legal or tax advice or opinion and is not a substitute advice of counsel, CPAs or other professionals.

Raymond L. Bald, CPA, CFE is a funeral home tax accountant and consultant with Cummings, Lamont & McNamee, PLLC. He can be reached at 603-772-3460, or at [email protected]

Ronald H. Cooper, CPA is a funeral home accountant and consultant with Ronald Cooper, CPA, PLLC. He can be reached at 603-671-8007, or at [email protected]