The Impact of Tax Reform on The Real Estate Sector

photo by Sergiu Bacioiu

Congress passed the tax reform act on December 20, 2017 and President Trump is supposed to sign it by the end of the week. A lot of ink has been spilled on the impact of tax reform on homeowners, but less on real estate as an investment class. It will take lawyers and accountants a long time to understand all of the in ands outs of the law, but it is pretty clear that commercial real estate investors will benefit significantly. Most of the provisions of the act are effective at the start of the new year.

Homeowners and the businesses that operate in the residential real estate sector will be impacted in various ways (the net effect on any given taxpayer will vary significantly based on a whole lot of factors) by the increase in the standard deduction; the limits on the deductibility of state and local taxes; the shrinking of the mortgage interest deduction; and the restrictions on the capital gains exclusion for the sale of a primary residence. There are tons of articles out there on these subjects.

The impact on real estate investors has not been covered very much at all. The changes are very technical, but very beneficial to real estate investors. There are a couple of useful resources out there for those who want an overview of these changes. The BakerBotts law firm has posted Tax Reform Act – Impact on Real Estate Industry and the Seyfarth Shaw law firm has posted Tax Reform for REITs and Real Estate Businesses.

To understand the impacts on the real estate industry in particular, it is important to understand the big picture.  The new law lowered the highest marginal tax rates for individuals from 39.6% to 37% (some individuals will also need to pay unearned income Medicare tax as well). The highest marginal tax rate applicable to long-term capital gains stays at 20% for individuals. The other big change was a reduction in the corporate tax rate to 21%. Because qualified dividends are taxed at 20%, the effective tax rate on income from a C corp that is distributed to its shareholders will be 36.8% (plus Medicare tax, if applicable).

Benefits in the new law that particularly impact the real estate sector include:

  • REITs and other pass-through entities are eligible for as much as a 20% deduction for qualified business income;
  • favored treatment of interest expense deductions compared to other businesses;
  • Real estate owners can still engage in tax-favored 1031 exchanges while owners of other assets cannot; and
  • Some types of commercial real estate benefit from more favorable depreciation provisions.

While it is clear that real estate investors came out ahead with the new tax law, it is not yet clear the extent to which that is the case.

The Impact of Tax Reform on Real Estate

Cushman & Wakefield have posted The Great Tax Race: How the World’s Fastest Tax Reform Package Could Impact Commercial Real Estate. There is a lot of interesting insights in the report, notwithstanding the fact that ultimate fate of the Republicans’ tax reform is still a bit up in the air. Indeed, C&W estimates that there is a 1 in 5 chance that a bill will not pass this year.

Commercial Real Estate

C&W states that history

suggests that tax law changes by themselves are often not key drivers for transactions or for investment performance. However, there is likely to be a period of transition and market flux as investors restructure to optimize tax outcomes with implications for the underlying asset classes. Corporations are likely to separate the real estate aspects of their businesses. (2)

The commercial real estate industry is largely exempt from the biggest changes contained in the House and Senate bills. 1031 exchanges, for instance, have not been touched. C&W sees corporations being big beneficiaries, with a net tax cut of $400 billion over the next 10 years; however, they “anticipate that the tax cut will be preferentially used to return capital to shareholders or reduce debt, rather than to increase corporate spending.” (2)

Residential Real Estate

C&W sees a different effect in the residential real estate sector, with a short-term drag on home values in areas with high SALT (state and local tax) deductions, including California, NY and NJ:

The drag on home values is likely to be largest in areas with high property taxes and medium-to-high home values. There is also likely to be a larger impact in parts of the country where incomes are higher and where a disproportionate proportion of taxpayers itemize. Both versions of the tax reform limit property tax deductibility to $10,000. While only 9.2% of households nationally report property taxes above this threshold, this figure rises to as high as 46% in Long Island, 34% in Newark and 20% in San Francisco according to Trulia data.

The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) estimates that 22% of mortgages in the U.S. have balances over $500,000, with most of these concentrated in high costs areas such as Washington, DC and Hawaii—where more than 40% of home purchase loans originated last year exceeded $500,000. This is followed by California at 27%, and New York and Massachusetts at 16%. (6)

C&W also evaluated tax reform’s impact on housing market liquidity and buy v. rent economics:

The median length of time people had owned their homes was 8.7 years in 2016—more than double what it had been 10 years earlier. Now that interest rates have begun to tick upward from their historic lows, the housing market may face a problem called the “lock-in” effect, where homeowners are reluctant to move, since moving might entail taking out a new mortgage at a higher rate. This leads to the possibility of decreasing housing market liquidity in high-priced markets.

All things considered, the doubling of the standard deduction and the cap on the property tax deduction is likely to have the largest impact on the buy vs. rent incentive, especially as it seems likely that there will be minimal changes to the mortgage interest deduction in any final tax reform bill. (7-8)

Republicans and the Mortgage Interest Deduction

photo by Nick Youngson

There is a lot to hate in the Republican tax reform plan contained in the proposed Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. (click here for a summary and here for the text of the bill itself). Overall, the bill is extraordinarily regressive, heavily favoring the wealthy. There will, of course, be all sorts of compromises to this proposal as Republicans work to get it passed. But it is worth highlighting what is good about the bill as it would be a shame to lose sight of it while the sausage is being made in Congress.

The best real-estate related provision from a policy perspective is the reduction of the mortgage interest deduction. In a section of the summary with the Orwellian title, Preserving the Mortgage Interest Deduction, the Republicans outline how they will slice the deduction in half:

For so many Americans, buying a home is often the largest investment – and perhaps most important – investment they will make in their lifetime.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act will continue to support the American dream of homeownership by preserving the Mortgage Interest Deduction.

This ensures that hardworking families can continue to access this important tax relief as they buy, own, and maintain their home.

Policy Specifics

• Increasing the standard deduction means a simpler, fairer, and flatter tax code in which fewer taxpayers need to go through the trouble of determining whether they should itemize.

• Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, taxpayers will still be able to deduct mortgage interest in excess of the standard deduction, in combination with other remaining itemized deductions, including charitable contributions and property taxes.

• The mortgage interest deduction would be available for interest paid on new mortgages for up to $500,000 in home acquisition indebtedness on principal residences.

• For existing mortgages, the plan allows for current law deduction on indebtedness of up to $1,000,000 and up to $100,000 in home equity to help taxpayers who may have relied on the current mortgage-interest deduction.

How This Policy Helps the American People

Preserving the home mortgage – and the deduction for state and local property taxes – will help more Americans of all income levels achieve the American dream of homeownership. (15-16)

This plan would cut the principal amount of a mortgage that would be eligible for the mortgage interest deduction from the current maximum of $1,000,000 to $500,000. Given that wealthy households generally take the mortgage interest deduction more often and get more bang for their buck from it, it is a regressive aspect of the tax code.

It is striking that a provision with such broad support such as the mortgage interest deduction is actually on the table. It will be interesting to see how special interests in the real estate industry will respond. My bet is that at the end of day the deduction will remain mostly untouched, even though this particular Republican proposal makes good policy sense.