The Role of Capital Gains in Commercial Real Estate

Investing in commercial real estate is a famous avenue for building wealth and diversifying one’s investment portfolio. Beyond the rental income generated by these properties, capital gains are another significant factor that plays a pivotal role in the financial success of commercial real estate investments. Capital gains in commercial real estate are not only a measure of investment growth but also a taxable event. 

This comprehensive guide will delve deep into capital gains in commercial real estate, exploring what they are, how they are calculated, and strategies to optimize tax liabilities. Whether you’re a seasoned real estate investor or just venturing into this lucrative market, understanding capital gains is crucial for making informed investment decisions.

What Are Capital Gains in Commercial Real Estate?

Capital gains in commercial real estate refer to the profits earned when a property is sold at a price higher than its original purchase price. It is the difference between the property’s cost basis (the actual purchase price plus any acquisition costs, improvements, and depreciation) and the final sale price. 

Capital gains can be realized in both short-term and long-term scenarios, depending on the duration the property is held before it is sold. Understanding the distinction between short-term and long-term capital gains is fundamental for investors looking to optimize their tax liabilities.

Short-Term vs. Long-Term Capital Gains

The duration you hold a commercial property significantly impacts the taxation of your capital gains. Short-term capital gains arise when a property is sold within one year of acquisition. These gains are typically taxed at ordinary income tax rates, which can be considerably higher than long-term capital gains tax rates. On the other hand, long-term capital gains occur when a property is held for more than one year before being sold. The tax rates for long-term capital gains are generally lower than those for short-term gains, making them an attractive option for investors seeking to minimize their tax obligations.

To illustrate the difference between short-term and long-term capital gains, let’s take a look at a hypothetical example:

Example 1: Short-Term Capital Gains

Imagine you purchased a commercial property for $500,000 and sold it after just eight months for $600,000. Your short-term capital gains in this scenario would be calculated as follows:

Capital Gains = Sale Price – Cost Basis Capital Gains = $600,000 – $500,000 Capital Gains = $100,000

In this case, the $100,000 capital gains would be taxed at your ordinary income tax rate, which could be as high as 37%, depending on your tax bracket.

Example 2: Long-Term Capital Gains

Now, let’s consider a different scenario where you held the same property for three years before selling it for $600,000:

Capital Gains = Sale Price – Cost Basis Capital Gains = $600,000 – $500,000 Capital Gains = $100,000

Since you held the property for more than one year, these gains would be categorized as long-term capital gains and taxed at the lower long-term capital gains tax rates, typically 0%, 15%, or 20%, depending on your taxable income and filing status. This results in significantly lower tax liability compared to short-term gains.

The key takeaway is that the duration of property ownership can significantly impact the amount of capital gains tax you owe, making it essential for investors to consider their holding period when planning their real estate investment strategies.

The Impact of Depreciation Recapture

Depreciation allows real estate investors to deduct part of a property’s value over time for tax benefits. However, when the property sells for more than its depreciated tax basis, depreciation recapture occurs. The IRS mandates that the previously deducted depreciation be taxed when the property is sold, negating some earlier tax benefits.

To compute depreciation recapture, sum up the depreciation deductions taken during ownership. This is added to your taxable income for the sale year. The tax rate for recapture is usually 25%, lower than short-term capital gains tax rates. Any other capital gains are taxed at either short-term or long-term rates.

For example, if you buy a property for $500,000, claim $100,000 in depreciation, and sell for $600,000, you must tax the $100,000 depreciation at 25%. The extra $100,000 gain is taxed as capital gains. Knowing about depreciation recapture helps investors gauge tax implications when selling a property.

Calculating Capital Gains Tax on Commercial Properties

Calculating capital gains tax on commercial properties can be complex, as it involves various factors, such as the property’s cost basis, holding period, depreciation recapture, and applicable tax rates. To help investors navigate this process, it’s essential to break down the calculation step by step.

Step 1: Determine the Cost Basis

The cost basis of a commercial property includes the following components:

  1. The original purchase price of the property.
  2. Any additional acquisition costs (e.g., legal fees, closing costs).
  3. The cost of any improvements or renovations made to the property.
  4. Minus any depreciation claimed during ownership.

Step 2: Calculate Capital Gains

Once you’ve determined the cost basis, you can calculate the capital gains by subtracting it from the sale price of the property:

Capital Gains = Sale Price – Cost Basis

Step 3: Identify the Holding Period

Determine whether the property was held for a short-term or long-term duration. If held for one year or less, it’s considered a short-term capital gain; if held for more than one year, it’s a long-term capital gain.

Step 4: Calculate Depreciation Recapture

If you’ve claimed depreciation deductions during ownership, calculate the amount of depreciation recapture. This is the total depreciation deducted from your taxable income during ownership, subject to a 25% tax rate.

Step 5: Apply Applicable Tax Rates

Finally, apply the relevant tax rates to your capital gains and depreciation recapture:

  • Use your ordinary income tax rates for short-term capital gains, ranging from 10% to 37%.
  • For long-term capital gains, use the appropriate long-term capital gains tax rates (0%, 15%, or 20%), depending on your taxable income and filing status.

Tax laws can change, so it’s advisable to consult with a tax professional or accountant when calculating capital gains tax on commercial properties. They can guide the most up-to-date tax rates and deductions available.

Strategies to Reduce Capital Gains Tax

While capital gains tax is an inevitable part of selling commercial real estate, there are several strategies that investors can employ to minimize their tax liabilities legally. These strategies are designed to optimize the timing of property sales, leverage tax-deferral mechanisms, and take advantage of tax incentives provided by the government. Here are some effective strategies to consider:

1031 Exchange (Like-Kind Exchange)

A 1031 exchange, also known as a like-kind exchange, allows investors to defer paying capital gains tax when selling one investment property and reinvesting the proceeds into another property of equal or greater value. By doing so, investors can continue to grow their real estate portfolio without immediate tax consequences. It’s crucial to follow strict IRS guidelines and timelines for 1031 exchanges to qualify for tax deferral.

Opportunity Zones Investment

Investing in Opportunity Zones is a government-backed initiative designed to encourage economic development in low-income areas. Investors can benefit from tax incentives, including the potential for deferring and reducing capital gains tax on profits reinvested in designated Opportunity Zones. Careful research and due diligence are essential when considering Opportunity Zone investments.

Long-Term Holding

Opting for long-term holding of commercial properties can lead to lower capital gains tax rates. As previously discussed, long-term capital gains are typically taxed at lower rates compared to short-term gains. Investors can strategically plan their exit strategies to meet the long-term holding criteria.

Tax Credits

Explore available tax credits that may offset capital gains tax liabilities. These credits can vary by location and property type but may include historic preservation tax credits, energy efficiency credits, or renewable energy credits. Tax credits can significantly reduce your overall tax burden.

Consult a Tax Professional

Engaging a tax professional or accountant with expertise in real estate taxation can be invaluable. They can help you navigate the complex tax regulations, identify potential deductions, and devise a tax-efficient strategy for your specific real estate portfolio.

Estate Planning

In cases of inherited commercial properties, estate planning can play a crucial role in minimizing capital gains tax. Proper estate planning can help heirs benefit from a stepped-up basis, reducing their tax liability when they decide to sell the property.

Each of these strategies has its advantages and considerations, and the choice of which to implement depends on individual financial goals, investment horizon, and property types. Investors should assess their specific circumstances in consultation with financial advisors or tax professionals to make informed decisions.

Bottom Line

Capital gains are an integral part of commercial real estate investment, impacting property sales’ profitability and tax liability. Understanding the difference between short-term and long-term capital gains, depreciation recapture, and effective tax-reduction strategies is essential for investors seeking to optimize their real estate portfolios.

By carefully considering the duration of property ownership, leveraging tax deferral options like 1031 exchanges and Opportunity Zones, and consulting with tax professionals, investors can make informed decisions to minimize their capital gains tax and maximize their returns. Ultimately, a well-thought-out tax strategy can be a significant contributor to the success of your commercial real estate investments.

FAQ Section

How does depreciation impact capital gains tax in commercial real estate?

Depreciation offers tax deductions during property ownership. However, upon selling, claimed depreciation is “recaptured” as taxable income, typically at a 25% rate, potentially raising the capital gains tax.

Can I offset my taxes using capital losses from commercial real estate?

Yes, capital losses can offset capital gains from other investments. Excess losses can reduce taxable income, but there are limits. Consulting a tax professional is advised.

How is capital gains tax determined for inherited commercial properties?

Inherited properties receive a “stepped-up basis” to their market value at inheritance time. Capital gains tax is based on the difference between this value and the selling price, often reducing tax liability.

Is capital gains tax applicable if I sell my primary residence within a commercial property?

Selling a primary residence may qualify for the Home Sale Exclusion, allowing exclusion of some capital gains. However, commercial use within the property may affect this. It’s recommended to consult a tax expert.

What benefits do Opportunity Zones offer for capital gains tax?

Opportunity Zones provide tax deferral on reinvested gains, potential reduction in capital gains tax after a set period, tax-free appreciation for investments held for ten years, and contribute to community development. Proper guidance and research are essential.

Remember, always consult a tax or financial professional for tailored advice.

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