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Real Estate Tax Reform Hacks: Renting, Buying, And Investing

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Last week I posted on how the new tax reform law has increased the attractiveness of renting a home vs. buying a home because of the increase in the standard deduction and the $10,000 limit on the deductibility of state and local taxes. As I pointed out in a November 2017 post the real problem for homeowners with the new tax law is that it has created an asymmetry between landlords and homeowners. Landlords can fully deduct property taxes and probably itemize while many homeowners won’t.

But you can make this assymetry work in your favor if you are adventurous enough. I’m about to propose some pretty far out strategies for capturing the full benefit of property tax and mortgage interest deductions so I should state a few caveats here. First, don’t do anything without first consulting a tax professional. Second, I am not a tax professional so take whatever I say with a grain of salt. Third, these ideas are just directional. In other words, you could tweak them endlessly to suit your own needs.

I actually referenced this first strategy in my November 2017 post: the sale/ lease back. The idea here is that you sell your home to a “friendly” investor – could be a relative, neighbor, or a friend – who will let you rent the home back from them at a rate that basically covers their net carrying costs. Since, as an investor, they can take deductions that you can’t their carrying cost should be lower than yours – i.e. they will be able to pass their tax savings onto you. Now, I wonder if you could combine the sale/ lease back with seller financing or does that just get too weird for the IRS?

Hacking tax reform

Yeah, that’s how taxes feel.

If you are worried about the optics of this arrangement or the financial risk of a relative/ friend/ neighbor owning your home there is actually at least one company out there that will do the same thing for you. (Interestingly, I actually predicted the formation of these companies in my November 2017 post). EasyKnock will buy your home, lease it back to you for up to 5 years, and then you can either buy your home back or let them sell it for you. If they sell it you take the gains or losses upon sale as if you had owned it all along.

What I don’t know about this alternative is how the economics work out. EasyKnock is obviously in business to make money and I don’t know if they set up their company to explicitly leverage the asymmetry in the tax laws or not. However, it’s probably worth investigating.

Of course, you could also just rent if the math works out better for you – and that just might be the case since a landlord’s carrying cost is lower than a homeowner’s now. However, the main downside of renting, and this is one of the main reasons that people buy, is that your rent will go up over time whereas mortgage payments will stay flat. Well, it turns out that you can offset rising rents by buying an equivalent rental property and using the rent from that property to cover the rent on your home.

OK, that might have just left your head spinning so let me explain what I’m proposing here without throwing a lot of numbers around (If you really need the numbers I can certainly provide them but I would probably lose a lot of readers). Picture a couple renting a condo that they really like and an identical condo comes on the market that they are interested in buying. Well, from a purely financial perspective they would clearly be better off buying the other condo as an investment property, and continuing to rent their current home, instead of buying the other condo to live in.

There are a couple of ways to think about this. One way is to simply recognize that if you are going to own a condo it is cheaper to own it as an investor than owning it as a homeowner. The other way to think about it is that the investment property rent eliminates the rent on your home in perpetuity – they rise in tandem. So in the end you are living in the condo of your dreams and paying a mortgage with the tax benefits of owning an investment property. You have essentially converted your rental property into an owner occupied property.

In reality it doesn’t matter if you buy an investment property identical to the one you are renting or not. It just needs to be close in value, carrying costs, and rental income.

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New pandemic protocols will change Quebec’s real estate business

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Quebec real estate brokers got some good news Monday when COVID-19 restrictions were lifted.

For the husband and wife real estate duo of Daniel Arsenault and Jennifer Smith of Royal Lepage Village in Pointe-Claire, it means they’ll be able to once again visit a potential client at their home, albeit two metres apart.

But it’s not completely business as usual as new pandemic protocols must be observed in the buying and selling of properties.

The traditional practice of holding open houses, in which properties for sale are showcased to the general public, will undergo tweaks.

“For example, if a family of five visits a home, only one person at a time is allowed inside,” Arsenault noted. “Given proper social distancing and limited numbers of people in a house at any time, proper sanitation, we’re pretty well back to business.”

In the new normal, virtual tours, or online visual tours of properties, will likely grow in popularity among both buyers and sellers looking to reduce person-to-person contact.

“We were doing it already, but more people will probably do it (now) is drone photography and 3-D virtual tours and floor plans,” Arsenault said. “That will become more of the norm because we want to make sure the people are qualified before visiting.

“In real estate, as in any sales business, you should qualify to lead. Now it’s much more so the case. We need to qualify that the buyers are financially prepared, that they’ve worked for a bit to decide what locations they want to go to.”

The onus on prospective buyers will be to filter info such as location, proximity to transportation lines and schools.

“So it’s a much more detailed analysis or qualification prior to committing to a visit,” Arsenault said.

Montreal’s red-hot real estate market has chilled like the rest of the economy since the city went into COVID-19 lockdown in mid-March. After 61 consecutive months of increases, the Montreal Census Metropolitan Area reported a 68 per cent decrease in residential sales transactions in April 2020 compared with the year earlier period.

“(The pandemic) is going to affect economy in ways we can’t even imagine,” Arsenault said. “Where there were 10 buyers before, now there might be five, so supply and demand might force prices down a bit.”

Arsenault said homes under $500,000 will likely remain attractive in a sagging economy.

“The low end of the market, in good locations, is insulated from (a downturn) … because if you’re in a bigger house and you need to downsize you’re going to go to the lower end. It’s more frugal.

“On the other hand, houses in a fringe location or are outliers in terms of size … is going to be a challenge. In other words, the house that was harder to sell before will be harder to sell now.”

Arsenault speculates that other factors, such as the type of housing and proximity to others, could affect the real estate market going forward.

“If you’re an elder person and planning to go into a retirement home, you’re holding off for now,” he said. “We have clients who are doing exactly that.”

Arsenault said the Montreal condominium market could also take a hit if buyers start looking for single-family homes with backyards and more space between neighbours.

“If people were on the fence, this will be a catalyst,” he said.

But other factors, such as proximity to medical services, must also be weighed if people move farther away from the city.

“We’re going to see fear of proximity,” Arsenault said. “No matter what the government is telling them, there is going to be a vast portion of the population that is going to be afraid to be around other people.

“Historically, after every major economic crisis, one of the trends was more people moving into smaller properties closer to major cities. So reduce your financial footprint.

“And now we have both happening at the same time. We have the financial crisis but we also have fear of proximity.”

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What Will Happen to the Real Estate Market in Calgary?

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The City of Calgary has been weathering its own storm, long before the COVID-19 public health crisis roared into the spotlight. The city is heavily reliant upon the energy sector, and as a result, the local economy has been suffering from the fallout of sinking oil prices. Investment levels have been weak within the city, and Calgary’s construction sector has been dealing with a downturn of its own.

On the flip side, 2020 brought a promise of change for Calgary. The city’s GDP was expected to expand by 2.4% over the next three years as the energy sector started to show signs of stabilization. There was hope that this economic boost would help to lift demand within the city’s housing market, which has struggled with a surplus of real estate inventory. According to Calgary Real Estate Board (CREB) statistics, there was a year-over-year increase in sales of 4.35% in the first quarter of 2020, setting the Calgary housing market up for the best first quarter in years!

Unsurprisingly, the spread and implications of the COVID-19 crisis has derailed some of this optimism. The Calgary housing market has had to forfeit the gains it had made earlier in the year as many realtors, buyers, and sellers have had no choice but to press pause and stay home. Below, we dive into how the pandemic has impacted the Calgary real estate market, and what we can expect to see in the months to come.

The Impact of COVID-19 on the Calgary Real Estate Market

In early March of 2020, Calgary businesses and residents adjusted to a new normal amid social distancing measures to contain the spread of the COVID-19. While the real estate industry, deemed an essential service, was continuing to operate, REALTORS® were forced to pivot, forgoing open houses for virtual home tours and 3D 360-degree imagery.

The full impact of these measures and business closures were most felt by the Calgary economy and real estate market over the month of April. Overall home sales plummeted almost 63%, new listings were down 54%, and the average price of a Calgary home fell more than 8%. These trends were mirrored in the communities surrounding Calgary; over April only 60 sales were reported in Airdrie, and 17 homes were sold in Okotoks.

Amid an environment of business closures, social isolation and depressed consumer confidence, it comes as so surprise that demand within the market is falling, and that sales activity is on the decline. Chief economist for the Calgary Real Estate Board (CREB) Ann-Marie Lurie commented in the CREB market update for April: “Demand is also falling faster than supply. This is keeping the market in buyers’ territory and weighing on prices.”

In April of 2019, the average price of a home was $460,953 – by the end of April 2020, the average home price was sitting at $422,655. The steepest price plunge has been seen in homes priced over $600,000.

Reignited demand in the Calgary market will help to re-balance the market and flatten the curve in terms of dropping real estate prices. The question remains as to when those waiting out the pandemic will feel safe enough, and financially ready to return to the market.

Calgary’s Return to Business-as-Usual

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has already announced a multi-stage rollout for the province to emerge from its COVID-19 lockdown, with some businesses given the green-light to open as early as May 14th. The success of this plan, Kenny comments, will depend on the capacity of Albertans to continue to heed rules put forth by public health officials, including limiting public gatherings of over 15 people.

With the local economy and daily life within Calgary already on the path to recovery this month, there is much hope that by summer, there will be enough of a climb in demand within the housing market to start reversing some of the dips caused by the public health crisis.

Hope for the Calgary Real Estate Market

Mid-way through April, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the federal government would be pledging $1.7 billion to clean up orphan wells across the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. As well as providing environmental relief, this move will bring a much-needed boost to the struggling prairie provinces.

Effective immediately, this incentive will help to provide thousands of jobs within the receiving provinces, also helping large corporations (some of the region’s main employers) avoid bankruptcy in the midst of the public health crisis and the plummeting oil prices. With this investment helping to maintain 5,200 jobs in Alberta, there is optimism that this will also provide a modest boost for real estate within the province’s major markets, including Calgary.

Prior to the outbreak, despite its high unemployment rate, the city of Calgary continued to grow in population, attracting residents from other areas of Alberta. As the city maintains its reputation as one of Canada’s top 10 affordable real estate markets, it will continue to pull homebuyers in, who will be even more keen to take advantage of low prices and low interest rates post-crisis.

Other financial incentives and programs introduced since the onset of COVID-19 will also help to soften the economic blow to homeowners in Calgary. Mortgage deferral programs will also prevent spikes in new listings which can further imbalance the market during periods of high unemployment. With listings declining proportionately with sales over the second quarter, says Lurie, this will make the market less competitive for those selling their homes in Calgary. “Given the nature of this crisis, the situation is evolving rapidly. If additional government policies and programs are enacted, it could help soften the economic burden faced by Albertans”, Lurie says.

While so much uncertainty remains regarding the economic, political, and real estate climate within Calgary, hope and a spirit of resilience remains strong.

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Edmonton’s real estate market looks to bounce back after sales drop due to COVID-19

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As much of Alberta tries to recover from the economic impacts of COVID-19, Edmonton’s real estate sector is among the industries hoping to bounce back.

After facing a major decline in home sales in April, many realtors say they are looking forward to a relaunch of their own.

“Mid-March we got that announcement that everybody needed to stay and work from home and that sort of dropped off, and then we really saw the effects of that impact happening in March in April,” Jennifer Lucas, chair of the Realtors Association of Edmonton, said.

Buyers and sellers started expressing safety fears about touring homes. In the latest report released by the Realtors Association of Edmonton, sales of single-family homes were over 55 per cent in April, compared to the same period last year.

The average sale price of single family homes is $410,200 — a drop of just over 4.14 per cent from last year.

With no exact timeline for a market rebound, there has been some indication that things are changing.

“We’re starting to see now that the government has introduced their phase-in plan for the economy, that people are starting to feel comfortable with the protocols we’ve put in place… they’re starting to get their houses back on the market and we’re getting a lot more calls from buyers to start looking at houses,” Lucas said.

“There’s no question this last week, week-and-a-half we’ve had tons of conversations with buyers and sellers that are definitely looking to get going,” realtor Ryan Boser with Sarasota Realty said.

While many realtors switched to virtual showings and assessments during heightened COVID-19 restrictions, they said making such a large transaction could benefit from a more personal approach.

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