Whenever you fix or replace something in a rental unit or building you need to decide whether the expense is a repair or improvement for tax purposes. Why is this important? Because you can deduct the cost of a repair in a single year, while you have to depreciate improvements over as many as 27.5 years.
For example, if you classify a $1,000 expense as a repair, you get to deduct $1,000 this year. If you classify it as an improvement, you'll likely have to depreciate it over 27.5 years and you'll get only a $35 deduction this year.
That's a big difference.
Unfortunately, telling the difference between a repair and an improvement can be difficult. In attempt to clarify matters, the IRS has issued lengthy regulations explaining how to tell the difference between repairs and improvements. Implementation of these rules was delayed but they became effective on January 1, 2014.
For more details on current vs. capital expenses refer to the article Current vs Capital Expenses.
Maximize your tax deductions, including how to deduct repairs and losses, depreciate improvements.
Under the new IRS regulations, property is improved whenever it undergoes a:
Think of the acronym B A R = Improvement = Depreciate.
If the need for the expense was caused by a particular event--for example, a storm--you must compare the property's condition just before the event and just after the work was done to make your determination. On the other hand, if you’re correcting normal wear and tear to property, you must compare its condition after the last time you corrected normal wear and tear (whether maintenance or an improvement) with its condition after the latest work was done. If you’ve never had any work done on the property, use its condition when placed in service as your point of comparison.
An expenditure is for a betterment if it:
An expenditure is for a restoration if it:
You must also depreciate amounts you spend to adapt property to a new or different use. A use is “new or different” if it is not consistent with your “intended ordinary use” of the property when you originally placed it into service.
To determine whether you’ve improved your business or rental property, you must determine what the property consists of. The IRS calls this the “unit of property” (UOP). How the UOP is defined is crucial. The larger the UOP, the more likely will work done on a component be a deductible repair rather than an improvement that must be depreciated.
For example, if the UOP for an apartment building is defined as the entire building structure as a whole, you could plausibly claim that replacing the fire escapes is a repair since it doesn’t seem that significant when compared with the whole building. On the other hand, if the UOP consists of the fire protection system alone, replacing fire escapes would likely be an improvement.
New IRS regulations require that buildings be divided up into as many as nine different UOPs: the entire structure and up to eight separate building systems. An improvement to any of these UOPs must be depreciated. As a result, more costs will have to be classified as improvements, rather than repairs.
The entire building and its structural components as a whole are a single UOP. A building’s structural components include:
For example, replacement of a building’s roof is an improvement to the building UOP.
In addition, the following eight building systems are separate UOPs. An improvement to any one of these systems and must be depreciated:
Example: A landlord purchased an apartment building five years ago for $750,000. This year he spends $5,000 to fix wiring in the electrical system. Under the old IRS rules, the $5,000 likely would be considered a repair because it is relatively small compared to the overall cost of the building, which was treated as a single UOP. Under the new rules, the electrical system is a separate UOP. This means that the $5,000 must be compared with the cost of the electrical system alone, not the cost of the whole building. This makes the expense seem much more significant and likely to constitute an improvement.
For the latest IRS rules on repairs and improvements, see IRS Bulletin 2012-14, Guidance Regarding Deduction and Capitalization of Expenditures Related to Tangible Property.