The Real Estate Agent's Tax Deduction Guide

The Real Estate Agent's Tax Deduction Guide

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The Real Estate Agent's Tax Deduction Guide

, J.D.

, 3rd Edition

Learn about the most important deductions and how to plan and track your expenses all year so you avoid problems with the IRS. The information is organized into categories that explain the rules for each type of deduction, including:

  • operating expenses
  • home and outside office
  • vehicles and travel

See below for a full product description.

Real estate agents and brokers: Reduce your taxes


Real estate agents and brokers are entitled to many valuable tax deductions—from travel expenses to wages for employees. But all the deductions in the world won’t do you any good unless you know how to take advantage of them.

Here is all the information you need to maximize your deductions and avoid common tax deduction mistakes.
Learn how to properly deduct:

•  car and local travel expenses

•  your home and outside office

•  meal and entertainment expenses

•  rental property losses (the passive loss rules exemption)

•  health care expenses
•  and much more

Whether you are an independent contractor or employee, just starting out or well established, this book provides everything you need to know to make sure you aren’t paying too much
to the IRS at tax time.


“In Nolo you can trust…"   The New York Times

Number of Pages


Your Tax Deduction Companion
for Real Estate Agents


Chapter 1

Tax Deduction Basics for Real Estate
Agents and Brokers

How Tax Deductions Work

The Value of a Tax Deduction

What Real Estate Agents and Brokers Can Deduct

Real Estate Agents Who Lose Money


Chapter 2

Choosing the Legal Form for Your Business

What Are Your Choices?

The Four Ways Business Entities Are Taxed

Comparing the Types of Tax Treatment

What About Limiting Your Liability?


Chapter 3

Are You Really in Business?

How to Prove You Are in Business

What If Your “Business” Is a Hobby?

Real Estate Investing


Chapter 4

Getting Around Town:
Deducting Local Travel Expenses

Deductible Local Transportation Expenses

The Standard Mileage Rate

The Actual Expense Method

Other Local Transportation Expenses

Reporting Transportation Expenses on Schedule C

Real Estate Professionals With Business Entities


Chapter 5

Leaving Town: Deducting Travel Expenses

What Is Business Travel?

What Travel Expenses Are Deductible

How Much You Can Deduct

Maximizing Your Business Travel Deductions


Chapter 6

Romancing the Client:
Deducting Meal and Entertainment Expenses

What Is Business Entertainment?

When Entertainment Expenses Are Deductible

Calculating Your Deduction—The 50% Rule

Reporting Entertainment Expenses on Your Tax Return


Chapter 7

Deducting Your Home Office

Qualifying for the Home Office Deduction

Special Requirement for Employees

Calculating the Home Office Deduction

New Simplified Home Office Deduction Method

How to Deduct Home Office Expenses

Audit-Proofing Your Home Office Deduction


Chapter 8

Deducting Your Sales Office

If You Rent Your Office

If You Own Your Office

If You Lease a Building to Your Real Estate Business


Chapter 9

Deducting Cars, Computers, and
Other Long-Term Assets

What Are Long-Term Assets?

Methods for Deducting Property

Rules for Deducting Any Long-Term Asset

Section 179 Expensing

Bonus Depreciation

Regular Depreciation

Special Rules for Deducting Automobiles and Other Vehicles

Tax Reporting and Record Keeping for Section 179 and Depreciation

Deciding Between Leasing and Buying


Chapter 10

Getting Going: Deducting Start-Up Expenses

What Are Start-Up Expenses?

Starting a New Real Estate Business

Buying an Existing Real Estate Business

Expanding an Existing Business

When Does a Real Estate Business Begin?

How to Deduct Start-Up Expenses

Organizational Expenses


Chapter 11

If You Get Sick: Medical Deductions

The Health Care Reform Act (“Obamacare”)

The Personal Deduction for Medical Expenses

Deducting Health Insurance Costs

Tax Credits for Employee Health Insurance

Adopting a Health Reimbursement Plan

Health Savings Accounts


Chapter 12

Deductions That Can Help You Retire

Why You Need a Retirement Plan (or Plans)

Individual Retirement Accounts—IRAs

Employer IRAs

Keogh Plans

Solo 401(k) Plans


Chapter 13

Business Operating Expenses and Other Deductions


Broker Fees Charged to Agents

Casualty Losses

Charitable Contributions


Dues and Subscriptions

Education Expenses

Franchise Fees


Insurance for Your Real Estate Business

Interest on Business Loans

Legal and Professional Services

Multiple Listing Service Fees

Taxes and Licenses

Website Development and Maintenance


Chapter 14

Independent Contractors and
Employees in Real Estate

Employee or Independent Contractor: What’s the Difference?

Special IC Status for Real Estate Agents

The Standard Test—Right of Control

Worker or IC—Who Decides?

Tax Reporting for ICs

Hiring Employees

Employing Your Family or Yourself


Chapter 15

Real Estate Professionals Who Own Rental Property

Limits on Deducting Rental Property Losses

Real Estate Professional Exception to Passive Loss Rules

Putting All Three Tests Together

What Happens If You Qualify for the Exemption

Record Keeping for the Real Estate Professional Exemption


Chapter 16

Staying Out of Trouble With the IRS

What Every Real Estate Agent Needs to Know About the IRS

You Are a Prime IRS Target

Ten Tips for Avoiding an Audit


Chapter 17

The Boring Stuff: Record Keeping and Accounting.

What Type of Bookkeeping and Accounting System Do You Need?   

Basic Record Keeping for Tax Deductions

Records Required for Specific Expenses

How Long to Keep Records

What If You Don’t Have Proper Tax Records?

Accounting Methods

Tax Years




Chapter 1
Tax Deduction Basics for Real Estate Agents and Brokers

How Tax Deductions Work

Types of Tax Deductions

You Pay Taxes Only on Your Profits

You Must Have a Legal Basis for Your Deductions

You Must Be in Business to Claim Business Deductions

The Value of a Tax Deduction

Federal and State Income Taxes

Social Security and Medicare Taxes

Total Tax Savings

What Real Estate Agents and Brokers Can Deduct

Start-Up Expenses

Operating Expenses

Capital Expenses

Real Estate Agents Who Lose Money

Figuring a Net Operating Loss

Carrying a Loss Back

Carrying a Loss Forward


The tax code is full of deductions for real estate agents and brokers —from automobile expenses to wages for employees. Before you can start taking advantage of these deductions, however, you need a basic understanding of how businesses pay taxes and how tax deductions work. This chapter gives you all the information you need to get started. It covers:

how tax deductions work

how to calculate the value of a tax deduction, and

what real estate agents and brokers can deduct.

How Tax Deductions Work

A tax deduction (also called a tax write-off) is an amount of money you are entitled to subtract from your gross income (all the money you make) to determine your taxable income (the amount on which you must pay tax). The more deductions you have, the lower your taxable income will be and the less tax you will have to pay.

Types of Tax Deductions

There are three basic types of tax deductions: personal deductions, investment deductions, and business deductions. This book covers only business deductions—the large array of write-offs available to business owners, including real estate agents and brokers.

Personal Deductions

For the most part, your personal, living, and family expenses are not tax deductible. For example, you can’t deduct the food that you buy for yourself and your family. There are, however, special categories of personal expenses that may be deducted, subject to strict limitations. These include items such as home mortgage interest, state and local taxes, charitable contributions, medical expenses above a threshold amount, interest on education loans, and alimony. This book does not cover these personal deductions.

Investment Deductions

Many real estate professionals try to make money by investing money. For example, they often invest in real estate or play the stock market. They incur all kinds of expenses, such as fees paid to money managers or financial planners, legal and accounting fees, and interest on money borrowed to buy investment property. These and other investment expenses (also called expenses for the production of income) are tax deductible, subject to strict limitations. Investment deductions are not covered in this book.

Business Deductions

Because a real estate agent’s sales activity is a profit-making enterprise, it is a business for tax purposes. People in business usually must spend money on their business—for example, for office space, supplies, and equipment. Most business expenses are deductible, sooner or later, one way or another. And that’s what this book is about: How real estate professionals (agents and brokers) may deduct their business expenses.

You Pay Taxes Only on Your Profits

The federal income tax law recognizes that you must spend money to make money. Virtually every real estate agent or broker, however small his or her business, incurs some expenses. Even an agent or broker who works from home must pay for business driving and insurance.

If you are a sole proprietor (or owner of a one-person limited liability company taxed as a sole proprietorship), you are not legally required to pay tax on every dollar your real estate sales business takes in (your gross business income). Instead, you owe tax only on the amount left over after your business deductible expenses are subtracted from your gross income (this remaining amount is called your net profit). Although some tax deduction calculations can get a bit complicated, the basic math is simple: the more deductions you take, the lower your net profit will be, and the less tax you will have to pay.

Example: Karen, a sole proprietor real estate broker, earned $100,000 in commissions this year. Fortunately, she doesn’t have to pay income tax on the entire $100,000—her gross business income. Instead, she can deduct from her gross income various business expenses, including a $10,000 office rental deduction (see Chapter 8) and a $5,000 deduction for insurance (see Chapter 13). These and her other expenses amount to $20,000. She can deduct the $20,000 from her $100,000 gross income to arrive at her net profit: $80,000. She pays income tax only on this net profit amount.

The principle is the same if your business is a partnership, limited liability company, or S corporation: Business expenses are deducted from the entity’s profits to determine the entity’s net profit for the year, which is passed through the entity to the owners’ individual tax returns.

Example: Assume that Karen is a member of a three-owner real estate brokerage organized as a limited liability company (LLC), and is entitled to one-third of the LLC’s income. She doesn’t pay tax on the gross income the LLC receives, only on her portion of its net income after expenses are deducted. This year, the LLC earned $400,000 and had $100,000 in expenses. She pays tax on one-third of the LLC’s $300,000 net profit.

If your business is organized as a C corporation, it too pays tax only on its net profits. (See Chapter 2 for details on choice of business entity for real estate agents.)

You Must Have a Legal Basis for Your Deductions

All tax deductions are a matter of “legislative grace,” which means that you can take a deduction only if it is specifically allowed by one or more provisions of the tax law. You usually do not have to indicate on your tax return which tax law provision gives you the right to take a particular deduction. If you are audited by the IRS, however, you’ll have to provide a legal basis for every deduction the IRS questions. If the IRS concludes that your deduction wasn’t justified, it will deny the deduction and charge you back taxes, interest, and, in some cases, penalties.

You Must Be in Business to Claim Business Deductions

Only businesses can claim business tax deductions. This probably seems like a simple concept, but it can get tricky. Even though you might believe you are running a business, the IRS may beg to differ. If your real estate business doesn’t turn a profit for several years in a row, the IRS might decide that you are engaged in a hobby rather than a business. This may not sound like a big deal, but it could have disastrous tax consequences: People engaged in hobbies are entitled to very limited tax deductions, while businesses can deduct all kinds of expenses. Fortunately, this unhappy outcome can be avoided by careful agents. (See Chapter 3 for a detailed discussion on how to beat the hobby loss rule.)

The Value of a Tax Deduction

Most taxpayers, even sophisticated real estate professionals, don’t fully appreciate just how much money they can save with tax deductions. A deduction represents income on which you don’t have to pay tax. So the value of any deduction is the amount of tax you would have had to pay on that income had you not deducted it. A deduction of $1,000 won’t save you $1,000—it will save you whatever you would otherwise have had to pay as tax on that $1,000 of income.

Federal and State Income Taxes

To determine how much income tax a deduction will save you, you must first figure out your marginal income tax bracket. The United States has a progressive income tax system for individual taxpayers, with six different tax rates (often called tax brackets) ranging from 10% of taxable income to 39.6% (see the chart below). The higher your income, the higher your tax rate.

You move from one bracket to the next only when your taxable income exceeds the bracket amount. For example, if you are a single taxpayer in 2013, you pay 10% income tax on all your taxable income up to $8,925. If your taxable income exceeds that amount, the next tax rate (15%) applies to all your income over $8,925—but the 10% rate still applies to the first $8,925. If your income exceeds the 15% bracket amount, the next tax rate (25%) applies to the excess amount, and so on until the top bracket of 39.6% is reached.

The tax bracket in which the last dollar you earn for the year falls is called your marginal tax bracket. For example, if you have $150,000 in taxable income, your marginal tax bracket is 28%. To determine how much federal income tax a deduction will save you, multiply the amount of the deduction by your marginal tax bracket. For example, if your marginal tax bracket is 28%, you will save 28¢ in federal income taxes for every dollar you are able to claim as a deductible business expense (28% × $1 = 28¢).

The following table lists the federal income tax brackets for single and married individual taxpayers.

2013 Federal Personal Income Tax Rates

Tax Bracket

Income If Single

Income If Married Filing Jointly


Up to $8,925

Up to $17,850


$8,926 to $36,250

$17,851 to $72,500


$36,251 to $87,850

$72,501 to $146,400


$87,851 to $183,250

$146,401 to $223,050


$183,251 to $398,350

$223,051 to $398,350


$398,351 to $400,000

$398,351 to $450,000


All over $400,000

All over $450,000


Income tax brackets are adjusted each year for inflation. For current brackets, see IRS Publication 505, Tax Withholding and Estimated Tax.

You can also deduct your business expenses from any state income tax you must pay. The average state income tax rate is about 6%, although seven states (Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming) don’t have an income tax. (New Hampshire residents pay tax on gambling winnings and income earned through interest and dividends only.) You can find a list of all state income tax rates at the Federation of Tax Administrators website at

Social Security and Medicare Taxes

Everyone who works—whether a business owner or an employee—is required to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes. The total tax paid is the same, but the tax is paid differently depending on whether you are an employee of an incorporated real estate business or a self-employed owner of a partnership or LLC. Employees pay one-half of these taxes through payroll deductions; employers must pony up the other half and send the entire payment to the IRS. Self-employed professionals must pay all of these taxes themselves. These differences don’t mean much when you’re an employee of a business you own, since the money is coming out of your pocket whether it is paid by the employee or employer.

These taxes are levied on the employment income of employees, and on the net self-employment income of business owners. Self-employment taxes consist of two separate taxes: the Social Security tax and the Medicare tax.

Social Security tax. The Social Security tax is a flat 12.4% tax on net self-employment income up to an annual ceiling which is adjusted for inflation each year. In 2013, the ceiling was $113,700 in net self-employment income. Thus, a self-employed person who had that much in net self-employment income or more would pay $14,099 in Social Security taxes.

Medicare tax. Medicare taxes, which are used to fund the Medicare system, underwent significant changes in 2013 as part of the implementation of Obamacare, the health care reform legislation enacted in 2010. In the past, the Medicare tax consisted of a single 2.9% flat tax with no annual income ceiling. Starting in 2013, however, there are two Medicare tax rates: a 2.9% tax up to an annual ceiling—$200,000 for single taxpayers and $250,000 for marrieds filing jointly. All income above the ceiling is taxed at a 3.8% rate. Thus, for example, a single taxpayer with $300,000 in net self-employment income would pay a 2.9% Medicare tax on the first $200,000 of income and a 3.8% tax on the remaining $100,000. This 0.9% Medicare tax increase applies to high-income employees as well as to the self-employed. Employees will have to pay a 2.35% Medicare tax on the portion of their wages over the $200,000/$250,000 thresholds (their one-half of 2.9% (1.45%) plus the 0.9%). In addition, starting in 2013, Medicare taxes must be paid by high-income taxpayers on investment income. (See “When Real Estate Investing Is an Income-Producing Activity” in Chapter 3.)

For both the self-employed and employees, the combined Social Security and Medicare tax is 15.3%, up to the Social Security tax ceiling.

However, the effective self-employment tax rate is somewhat lower because (1) you are allowed to deduct half of your self-employment taxes from your net income for income tax purposes, and (2) you pay self-employment tax on only 92.35% of your net self-employment income. But taxpayers who earn more than the $200,000/$250,000 threshold, can’t deduct the 0.9% increase in Medicare tax from their income. Like income taxes, self-employment taxes are paid on the net profit you earn from a business. Thus, deductible business expenses reduce the amount of self-employment tax you have to pay by lowering your net profit.

Total Tax Savings

When you add up your savings in federal, state, and self-employment taxes, you can see the true value of a business tax deduction. For example, if you’re single and your taxable business income (whether as an employee of an incorporated real estate business or a self-employed owner of a partnership or LLC) is $100,000, a business deduction can be worth as much as 28% (in federal income tax) + 15.3% (in self-employment taxes) + approximately 6% (in state taxes—depending on what state you live in). That adds up to a whopping 49.3% savings. (If you itemize your personal deductions, your actual tax savings from a business deduction is a bit less because it reduces your state income tax and therefore reduces the federal income tax savings from this itemized deduction.) If you buy a $1,000 computer for your business and you deduct the expense, you save about $493 in taxes. In effect, the government is paying for almost half of your business expenses.

This is why it’s so important to know all the business deductions you are entitled to take and to take advantage of every one.



Don’t buy things just to get a tax deduction. Although tax deductions can be worth a lot, it doesn’t make sense to buy something you don’t need just to get a deduction. After all, you still have to pay for the item, and the tax deduction you get in return will only cover a portion of the cost. For example, if you buy a $3,000 computer you don’t really need, you’ll probably be able to deduct less than half the cost. That means you’re still out over $1,500—money you’ve spent for something you don’t need. On the other hand, if you really do need a computer, the deduction you’re entitled to is like found money—and it may help you buy a better computer than you could otherwise afford.

What Real Estate Agents and Brokers Can Deduct

Real estate agents and brokers are business owners, and as such they can deduct three broad categories of business expenses:

start-up expenses

operating expenses, and

capital expenses.

This section provides an introduction to each of these categories (they are covered in greater detail in later chapters).



You must keep track of your expenses. You can deduct only those expenses that you actually incur. You need to keep records of these expenses to (1) know for sure how much you actually spent; and (2) prove to the IRS that you really spent the money you deducted on your tax return, in case you are audited. Accounting and bookkeeping are discussed in detail in Chapter 17.

Start-Up Expenses

The first money you will have to shell out will be for your business’s start-up expenses. These include most of the costs of getting your business up and running, like advertising costs, attorney and accounting fees, and office supplies expenses. Start-up costs are not currently deductible—that is, you cannot deduct them all in the year in which you incur them. However, you can deduct up to $5,000 in start-up costs in the first year you are in business. You must deduct amounts that exceed the first-year threshold amount over the next 15 years. (See Chapter 10 for a detailed discussion of deducting start-up expenses.)

Example: Cary recently obtained a real estate broker’s license and decides to open his own real estate office. Before Cary’s office opens for business in August 2013, he has to rent space, rent office furniture and equipment, and create a website. These start-up expenses cost Cary $10,000. Cary may deduct $5,000 of this amount the first year he’s in business. The remainder may be deducted over the first 180 months that he’s in business—$417 per year for 15 years.

Operating Expenses

Operating expenses are the ongoing day-to-day costs a business incurs to stay in business. They include such things as rent, utilities, salaries, supplies, travel expenses, car expenses, and repairs and maintenance. These expenses (unlike start-up expenses) are currently deductible—that is, you can deduct them all in the same year in which you pay them.

Example: After Cary’s brokerage office opens, he begins paying $5,000 a month for rent and utilities. This is an operating expense that is currently deductible. When Cary does his taxes, he can deduct from his income the entire amount he paid for rent and utilities for the year.

Capital Expenses

Capital assets are things you buy for your business that have a useful life of more than one year, such as buildings, equipment, vehicles, books, and office furniture. These costs, called capital expenses, are considered to be part of your investment in your business, not day-to-day operating expenses.

Large businesses—those that buy at least several hundred thousand dollars of capital assets in a year—must deduct these costs by using depreciation. To depreciate an item, you deduct a portion of the cost in each year of the item’s useful life. Depending on the asset, this could be anywhere from three to 39 years (the IRS decides the asset’s useful life).

Small businesses can also use depreciation, but they have another option available for deducting many capital expenses. They can currently deduct a substantial amount of long-term asset purchases in a single year under a provision of the tax code called Section 179. Section 179 is discussed in detail in Chapter 9.

Example: Cary spent $5,000 on a computer system for his office. Because the computers have a useful life of more than one year, they are capital assets that he will either have to depreciate over several years or deduct in one year under Section 179.

Certain capital assets, such as land and corporate stock, never wear out. Capital expenses related to these costs are not deductible; the owner must wait until the asset is sold to recover the cost. (See Chapter 9 for more on this topic.)

Real Estate Agents Who Lose Money

Unfortunately, real estate agents and brokers don’t always earn a profit from their business. This is particularly common for part-time agents and brokers. If you’re in this unfortunate situation, you may be able to obtain some tax relief. This could provide you with a refund of all or part of previous years’ taxes in as little as 90 days—a quick infusion of cash that should be very helpful.

If, like most real estate agents and brokers, you’re a sole proprietor, you may deduct any loss your business incurs from your other income for the year—for example, income from a job, investment income, or your spouse’s income (if you file a joint return). If your business is operated as an LLC, S corporation, or partnership, your share of the business’s losses are passed through the business to your individual return and deducted from your other personal income in the same way as a sole proprietor. However, if you operate your business through a C corporation, you can’t deduct a business loss on your personal return. It belongs to your corporation.

If your losses exceed your income from all sources for the year, you have a “net operating loss” (NOL for short). While it’s not pleasant to lose money, an NOL can provide important tax benefits: It may be used to reduce your tax liability for both past and future years.

Figuring a Net Operating Loss

Figuring the amount of an NOL is not as simple as deducting your losses from your annual income. First, you must determine your annual losses from your business (or businesses). If you’re a sole proprietor who files IRS Schedule C, the expenses listed on the form will exceed your reported business income. If your business is a partnership, LLC, or S corporation shareholder, your share of the business’s losses will pass through the entity to your personal tax return. Your business loss is added to all your other deductions and then subtracted from all your income for the year. The result is your adjusted gross income (AGI).

To determine if you have an NOL, you start with your AGI on your tax return for the year reduced by your itemized deductions or standard deduction (but not your personal exemption). This must be a negative number or you won’t have an NOL for the year. Your adjusted gross income already includes all the deductions you have for your losses. You then add back to this amount any nonbusiness deductions you have that exceed your nonbusiness income. These include the standard deduction or itemized deductions, deduction for the personal exemption, nonbusiness capital losses, IRA contributions, and charitable contributions. If the result is still a negative number, you have an NOL for the year. You can use Schedule A of IRS Form 1045, Application for Tentative Refund, to calculate an NOL.

Carrying a Loss Back

You may apply an NOL to past tax years by filing an application for refund or amended return for those years. This is called carrying a loss back. (IRC § 172.) As a general rule, it’s advisable to carry a loss back, so you can get a quick refund from the IRS on your prior years’ taxes. However, it may not be a good idea if you paid no income tax in prior years, or if you expect your income to rise substantially in future years and you want to use your NOL in the future when you’ll be subject to a higher tax rate.

In addition, the carry-back period is increased to three years if the NOL is due to a casualty or theft, or if you have a qualified small business and the loss is in a presidentially declared disaster area. (A qualified small business is a sole proprietorship or partnership that has average annual gross receipts of $5 million or less during the three-year period ending with the tax year of the NOL.) The NOL is used to offset the taxable income for the earliest year first, and then applied to the next year or years. This will reduce the tax you had to pay for those years and result in a tax refund. Any part of your NOL left after using it for the carry-back years is carried forward for use for future years.

There are two ways to claim a refund for prior years’ taxes: You can file IRS Form 1040-X, Amended U.S. Individual Income Tax Return, within three years, or you can seek a quicker refund by filing IRS Form 1045, Application for Tentative Refund. If you file Form 1045, the IRS is required to send your refund within 90 days. However, you must file Form 1045 within one year after the end of the year in which the NOL arose.

Carrying a Loss Forward

You have the option of applying your NOL only to future tax years. This is called carrying a loss forward. You can carry the NOL forward for up to 20 years and use it to reduce your taxable income in the future. You elect to carry a loss forward by attaching the following written statement to your tax return for the year you incur the NOL:

 Tax Year:  Taxpayer Name:   ______________________                                                   

Taxpayer Identification Number:  _____________________                                               

Taxpayer elects to waive the carry-back period under IRC Section 173(b)(3).

Your signature    _____________________________                                                                        


Need to know more about NOLs? Refer to IRS Publication 536, Net Operating Losses, for more information. You can download it from the IRS website at

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