December 23, 2019

How was Real Estate Affected by the Tax Cuts And Jobs Act?

Downtown main street large buildings Tax & Business

The most common form of ownership of real estate is as a pass-through entity, typically a Limited Liability Company (LLC) or  a  Limited Partnership (LP). The Tax  Cuts  and Jobs Act (“TCJA”) created the widely discussed Internal Revenue Code Section 199A, Qualified Business Income Deduction.

For commercial real estate, the threshold to be able to receive the benefit of the 20% Qualified Business Income (QBI) deduction is that the activity must constitute a trade or business. The basic definition used for a trade or business under the proposed and final regulations is a trade or business under Internal Revenue Code section 162, other than the trade or business of performing services as an employee.

In most non-real estate circumstances, it will be clear whether the activity being considered is a trade or business (e.g., attorney’s office, retail store, and manufacturer). However, the issue is less certain when it comes to real estate rental activities. This was a significant issue raised at the hearing on the proposed regulations held in October 2018. The real estate industry requested a safe harbor as well as other guidance.


The IRS issued a notice that proposes a safe harbor under which certain real estate enterprises will be treated as a trade or business under IRC section 199A. The Service notes that failure to satisfy this safe harbor does not prevent the taxpayer from establishing, under other tax analysis, that the real estate activity constitutes a trade or business.

For purposes of the safe harbor, a “rental real estate enterprise” is defined as an interest in real property held for the production of rents. This may consist of an interest in multiple properties which can be aggregated for applying this safe harbor. However, the individual or entity relying on this safe harbor must hold the interest directly or through a disregarded entity. This means that properties held in different LLCs taxed as partnerships, or through separate S corporations, cannot be aggregated for this safe harbor rule.

Additionally, commercial rental properties cannot be combined with residential properties.

The safe harbor permits treatment of the tested real estate (or combined real estate activities) as a trade or business where:

  • Separate books and records are maintained to reflect the income and expenses of each rental real estate enterprise (or combined real estate enterprises);
  • For tax years beginning before January 1, 2023, 250 or more hours of “rental services” are performed per year with respect to the rental real estate For tax years beginning after December 31, 2022, 250 hours or more of “rental services” must be performed per year in any three of the five consecutive tax years ending in the current tax year. If the enterprise was held for less than five years, then this latter test is satisfied by 250 hours or more of “rental services” with respect to the rental real estate enterprise; and
  • The taxpayer must maintain a contemporaneous record (including time reports, logs or similar documents), regarding: (i) hours of all services performed; (ii) description of the services performed; (iii) dates on which such services were performed; and (iv) who performed the services. However, this contemporaneous records requirement will not apply to taxable years beginning prior to January 1, 2020.
  • If a  taxpayer is taking the position that a  rental activity is a trade or business for section 199A purposes, there will be a requirement to file Form 1099 where applicable.

For purposes of the safe harbor, “rental services” exclude: financial or investment management activities (e.g., arranging financing, procuring property); studying or reviewing financial statements or reports on operations; planning; managing or constructing long-term capital improvements; or hours spent traveling to and from the real estate.

“Rental Services” include: (i) advertising to rent or lease the real estate; (ii) negotiating and executing leases; (iii) verifying information in prospective tenant applications; (iv) collection of rent; (v) daily operations, maintenance and repair of property; (vi) management of the real estate; (vii) purchase of materials; and (viii) supervision of employees and independent contractors. The rental services can be performed by owners or by employees, agents and/or independent contractors.

The major problem with utilizing the safe harbor is that certain real estate operations are excluded:

  • Property used as a residence for any part of the year under IRC sec 280A (e.g., more than 14 days for the year)  is not eligible for the safe harbor.
  • Real estate rented or leased under a “triple net lease” is This includes a lease agreement requiring the tenant or lessee to pay taxes, fees and insurance and to be responsible for the maintenance activities in addition to rent and utilities. It also includes a lease agreement that requires the tenant or lessee to pay a portion of the taxes, fees and insurance and to be responsible for maintenance activities allocable to the portion of the property rented by the tenant. This would include many commercial leases.

It is important to reiterate that although a “triple net lease” property is ineligible for the safe harbor, not having the safe harbor election does not bar the taxpayer from utilizing the benefit of the 199A deduction.

Anyone using the safe harbor is required to attach a statement to the return, subject to penalty of perjury, that these requirements have been satisfied.

The final regulations maintain the special rule for commonly controlled entities, which provides that the rental of real estate to a commonly controlled entity (based on 50% or more common ownership) is automatically deemed to be a trade or business (so there is no reason to satisfy either the safe harbor or the section 162 standard). However, unlike the proposed regulations, the final regulations use attribution rules to determine constructive ownership.


While there has been focus on many aspects of the TCJA, the interest expense limitation under IRC Section 163(j) may have the most effect on the real estate industry. More than any other new or changed code section. In many ways, the leasing of real estate is simply off balance sheet financing for many companies. The multi-family market is an “off-balance” sheet approach to an individual’s shelter, rather than having to use one’s own balance sheet to own a home. Leverage is very common to real estate companies, and this leverage was under attack by the TCJA. IRC Section 163(j) limited the interest expense deduction for business interest expense (“BIE”) to the extent of the sum of the following:
+30% of adjusted taxable income (‘ATI)
+100% of business interest income (“BII’)
+100% of the taxpayer’s floor plan interest.

There were two major exemptions to the disallowed BIE; one was for small businesses under $25 million and the other was for Electing Real Property Trade or Business companies. At first glance, it would seem that most real estate entities would be covered by the $25 million exemption, and they could deduct all of their interest expense. However, the $25 million exemption has two catches. First are the complex series of aggregation rules that require entities with common ownership to aggregate their receipts. This has created a significant practical issue, i.e., what  happens if multiple accounting firms prepare tax returns for partnerships that are related; how does each firm determine if the $25 million threshold is crossed?

The second hurdle in the $25 million gross receipts exemption is that it does not apply to tax shelters. In general, the term “tax shelter” includes:

  1. Any enterprise, other than a C corporation, if at any time interest in such enterprise has been offered for sale in any offering required to be registered with any federal or state agency having the authority to regulate the offering of securities for sale.
  2. Any syndicate (within the meaning of certain Internal Revenue Code sections); a partnership or S corporation in which more than 35% of the losses of such entity during the taxable year are allocable to limited partners or limited entrepreneurs.

Any tax shelter is  defined as  any partnership or  other entity, or any plan or arrangement, if a “significant purpose” of such partnership, entity, plan or arrangement is the avoidance or evasion of federal income tax. This is also potentially problematic, but we would hope it does not apply merely because the taxpayers chose to organize an entity as a flow- through entity rather than a C corporation, assuming the business was formed to make an economic profit and not to create inflated tax losses.

Thus, if a real estate entity had losses allocated to its limited partners and was deemed to be a tax shelter, the entity had one final solution to having its BIE not limited. The entity can be an Electing Real Property Trade or Business. This is applicable to any taxpayer who is engaged in a “real property trade or business” (RPTB), who may file an irrevocable election to not be subject to the section 163(j) limitation. The definition of a RPTB is as follows:

  1. “The term ‘real property trade or business’ means any real property development, redevelopment, construction, reconstruction, acquisition, conversion, rental, operation, management, leasing or brokerage trade or business.”
  2. Proposed regulations define “real property operation” and “real property management” but do not provide a detailed definition for other “flavors” of These proposed definitions are limited to rental real estate operations – real estate that is used by “customers.” The proposed regulations allow for “incidental personal services” to be provided to customers so long as they are insubstantial in relation to the customer’s use of the real property and are not a significant factor in the customer’s decision to use the property.

In the case of a partnership business, the election must be made on the partnership’s return, not on the partner’s return. If the election is made, the electing RPTB must depreciate its nonresidential real property, residential real property and qualified improvement property using the alternative depreciation system (ADS). The electing RPTB will not be able to claim bonus depreciation under section 168(k). 

The change in use rules must be used to compute depreciation for assets placed in service in prior years (to change the method of depreciation from MACRS to ADS).

There is a safe harbor rule for REITs.


Businesses may take 100 percent bonus depreciation on qualified property both acquired and placed in service after September 27, 2017, and before January 1, 2023. Full bonus depreciation is phased down by 20 percent each year for property placed in service after December 31, 2022, and before January 1, 2027.

So what is Qualified Property? Under TCJA, qualified property is defined as tangible personal property with a recovery period of 20 years or less. TCJA eliminates the requirement that the original use of the qualified property begin with the taxpayer. This “new to you” rule for the inclusion of used property is a significant, and favorable, change from previous bonus depreciation rules.

The bonus depreciation rules for qualified improvement property (QIP) took a less favorable turn due to a drafting error.  The act removed QIP from  the definition of qualified property for bonus depreciation purposes, but the intent was to make QIP bonus-eligible by virtue of a 15-year recovery period. In the end, the 15-year recovery period for QIP (as well as the 20-year alternative depreciation system (ADS) recovery period) was omitted from the final legislation.

TCJA increases the maximum amount of assets a taxpayer  may expense under section 179 to $1 million. TCJA expands the definition of section 179 property to include any of the following improvements made to nonresidential real property: roofs; heating, ventilation and air-conditioning property; fire protection and alarm systems; and security systems, as  long as the improvements are placed in service after the date the building was first placed in service. This was not available to real estate entities in the past.


The IRS has issued guidance that allows taxpayers to make a late bonus depreciation election, or to revoke an election, for certain property acquired after September 27, 2017. Under TCJA, taxpayers can:

Elect out of 100% bonus depreciation;

  • Elect to take 50% bonus depreciation (instead of 100%) for qualified property acquired after September 27, 2017, and placed in service during the tax year that includes September 28, 2017; or
  • Elect to deduct bonus depreciation for any specified plant that is planted or grafted after September 27, 2017, and before 2027.

Taxpayers that failed to make these elections for the tax year that includes September 28, 2017, can make late elections  by filing an amended return or a Form 3115 for a limited period of time. If elections were made, taxpayers can revoke the elections under the same terms.

Changes to Rehabilitation Credit

The TCJA limits the rehabilitation tax credit for certified historic structures for amounts paid or incurred after 2017. Although the credit for certified historic structures remains at 20%, it must be claimed ratably over a five-year period beginning in the taxable year in which the qualified rehabilitated structure is placed in service. The TCJA includes a transition rule that applies to all properties (whether historic, or not) owned or leased by the taxpayer as of December 31, 2017, if the month period selected by the taxpayer to cover expenses by the credit (or the 60-month period, if applicable, under the statute) begins no later than 180 days after date of enactment of the TCJA. Because of the net present value of the tax credit being spread over five years and the lower corporate income tax rate, the value of the rehabilitation credit has been reduced for many investors.

The above summarizes some of the many challenges faced by real estate businesses under the new law.

Related Industry

Real Estate