Rental Income and Expenses at Tax Time

House for rent in the middle of winter.

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The key to mastering the Internal Revenue Service's (IRS) Schedule E for landlords—"Supplemental Income and Loss"—is to organize your income and expenses using a spreadsheet or personal finance software program. Landlords who keep detailed summaries of their rental property expenses are the ones who benefit the most at tax time. IRS rules regarding rental income are pretty generous so you'll want to take advantage of them.

Schedule E Tax Tips

Landlords must keep excellent records regarding cost basis, income, and expenses. The best way to track these items is to create a spreadsheet—your tax accountant may even have a template you can use. Here are the items you'll want to track:

  • Purchase price of the house, condo, or apartment building you are renting out
  • Accumulated depreciation, and current annual depreciation on your property
  • Rental income
  • Security deposits you received

In addition to tracking income, you'll want to track expenses. Many expenses related to maintaining a rental property can be deducted from your rental income. These expenses include:

  • Commissions or property management fees
  • Advertising costs
  • Cleaning, maintenance, and repair costs
  • Homeowners insurance and HOA dues
  • Real estate taxes and mortgage interest expenses
  • Utilities

If you track these expenses using personal finance software or a computer spreadsheet, your monthly and year-end reports will be right at your fingertips and you can easily print them.

Take Advantage of Passive Activity Loss Limitations 

If one of your rental properties has a net loss for the year, that loss can be netted against the losses and profits of all your other rental properties.

Now here's the maybe-not-so-good news: If the total for all your properties is negative—a net loss—that loss cannot usually be deducted from the rest of your annual income (but there are exceptions). That's because renting out real estate property is generally considered a passive activity, even if you devote a substantial amount of time to selecting the right tenants, repairing the rental unit, and inspecting the property for routine maintenance. Losses from passive activities are limited to offsetting passive profits.

If you actively participate in the rental activities, any rental losses can potentially be deducted up to $25,000 per year in aggregate across all your rental properties. Married persons who file separately have a rental loss limit of up to $12,500 provided the person lived apart from their spouse at all times during the tax year. The amount of the rental loss allowed for active participants in a rental property varies based on your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI):

  • For MAGI of $100,000 or less ($50,000 or less if married filing separately), rental losses can be deducted in full, up to the $25,000 limit ($12,500 for those married and filing separately).
  • For MAGI between $100,000 and $150,000 (between $50,000 and $75,000 if married filing separately), rental losses can be deducted up to a limit of 50% of the difference between $150,000 ($75,000 if married filing separately) and MAGI.
  • For MAGI over $150,000 ($75,000 if married filing separately), none of the rental losses can be deducted against other income.

You Can Carry Losses Forward

Rental losses that are limited by the passive activity loss limitations can be carried forward to the subsequent tax year when they can offset rental profits. The passive activity loss limitations are applied each year, but rental losses continue to carry forward year after year until the losses are either used up by offsetting rental profits or by being deducted against other income.

Form 8582 is used to calculate passive activity loss limitations and to keep track of rental losses that accumulate each year for each property.

Tax Planning for Landlords

Landlords can profit when the rental income is sufficient to pay the mortgage as well as property taxes, insurance, and repairs. However, landlords get to depreciate the purchase price of the rental property, and this can often turn an economic profit into a tax loss—expenses may exceed income after depreciation is taken into consideration.

Every so often, however, landlords face major expenses, such as replacing a roof or gutting an apartment after a long-term tenant vacates. In these circumstances, the landlord may have a loss greater than $25,000, but the passive activity loss rules limit the loss to exactly $25,000. The remainder will be carried over to next year. At that point, the landlord will hopefully have more of a profit and will be able to absorb the excess tax losses.

Selling Rental Properties

Selling a house, apartment building, or another rental property is not the same as selling your primary residence. Just as when you're calculating capital gains, the formula for calculating the gain or loss of rental property involves subtracting your cost basis from your selling price.

Adjusted Cost Basis for Rental Property

To calculate your cost basis on a rental property, add together the following amounts:

  • Purchase price
  • Purchase costs (title and escrow fees, real estate agent commissions, etc.)
  • Improvements (replacing the roof, new furnace, etc.)
  • Selling costs (title and escrow fees, real estate agent commissions, etc.)
  • Accumulated depreciation (as reported on your tax forms)

Once you know your cost basis, you can subtract that from your selling price. If the resulting number is positive, you made a profit when you sold your rental property. If the resulting number is negative, you incurred a loss. Gains on rental property sales can be taxed partly as depreciation recapture (at a maximum 25% tax rate) and partly as capital gains (which has a tax rate that depends on your overall income bracket). Rental property sales are reported on Form 4797, and any capital gain calculations are reported on Schedule D.

Real Property and Limited Liability

Many landlords consider forming corporations, limited liability companies, or partnerships to own their rental properties. A corporation might be disadvantageous because favorable long-term capital gains rates only apply to taxpayers, not corporations.

A limited liability company would be able to pass long-term gains through to its members. Since the gains are taxed on the members' personal tax returns, they're eligible for the preferred 15% rate on long-term gains. Landlords should discuss this and other legal aspects of forming a company for rental properties with an attorney to understand the legal and financial implications of such a strategy.