The home office tax deduction is a tricky area of the tax code. Some taxpayers are so wary of the deduction that they simply opt not to take it. If you’re in this group, read the common mistakes and then get help. Don’t miss out on this tax benefit if it applies to you.
If you operate a business out of your home, you may be able to deduct a wide variety of expenses. These may include part of your rent or mortgage costs, insurance, utilities, repairs, maintenance, and cleaning costs related to the space you use.
It can be a tricky area of the tax code that’s full of pitfalls for the unwary. Here are some of the top mistakes people make:
Not taking it. This is probably the biggest mistake those with home offices make. Some believe the deduction is too complicated, while others believe taking a home office deduction increases your chance of being audited. While the rules can be complicated, there are now simple home office deduction methods available to every business.
Not exclusive or regular. The space you use must be used exclusively and regularly for your business.
Exclusively: If you use a spare bedroom as a business office, it can’t double as a guest room, a playroom for the kids, or a place to store your hockey gear. Any kind of non-business use can invalidate you for the deduction.
Regularly: It should be the primary place you conduct your regular business activities. That doesn’t mean that you have to use it every day nor does it stop you from doing work outside the office, but it should be the primary place for business activities such as recordkeeping, billing, making appointments, ordering equipment, or storing supplies.
Mixing up your other work. If you are an employee for someone else in addition to running your own business, be careful in using your home office to do work for your employer. Generally, IRS rules state you can use a home office deduction as an employee only if your employer doesn’t provide you with a local office to work at.
Unfortunately, this means if you run a side business out of your home office, you cannot also bring work home from your employer’s office and do it in your home office. That would invalidate your use of the home office deduction.
The recapture problem. If you have been using your home office deduction, including depreciating part of your home, you could be in for a future tax surprise. When you later sell your home you will need to account for this depreciation. This depreciation recapture rule creates a possible tax liability for many unsuspecting home office users.
Not getting help. There are special rules that apply to your use of the home office deduction if:
You are an employee of someone else.
You are running a daycare or assisted living facility out of your home.
You have a business renting out your primary residence or a vacation home.
The home office deduction can be tricky, so be sure to ask for help, especially if you fall under one of these cases.
Things to remember
Recognizing the home office deduction complexity, the IRS created a simplified “safe harbor” home office deduction. You simply take the square footage of your office, up to 300 square feet, and multiply it by $5. This gives you a potential $1,500 maximum deduction. However, your savings could be much greater than $1,500, so it’s often worth getting help to calculate your full deduction.
Finally, if you are concerned about a potential future audit, take a photo or two of your home office. This is especially important if you move. That way if you are ever challenged, you can visually attempt to show your compliance to the rules.
Planning for emergencies is like buying insurance: you pay into an account and hope you’ll never have to use it. But life happens. Cars break down. Roofs leak. Kids get injured. Having money in the bank to cover those unexpected expenses can reduce stress and keep you from relying on credit cards and loans to make ends meet.
Here are four easy and effective ways to establish and maintain an emergency fund.
Start small. Many financial planners advise setting aside enough money to cover at least six months of expenses. That’s a worthy goal. But for many people it’s also a daunting task, an objective that will take years – not months – to achieve. So set a realistic and achievable amount for your emergency fund, and then get in the habit of contributing regularly. Then don’t touch the account except for real emergencies. Leave it alone and it will grow.
Pump it up. When you get a bonus, cost-of-living adjustment, tax refund, or windfall, consider using a portion of that money to bolster your emergency account. Fight the temptation to increase spending with every new dollar that comes along.
Make it automatic. With online banking, it’s easy to set up routine transfers from your regular checking account to a separate savings account. If allowed by your employer, allocate a portion of each paycheck to an emergency fund. Consider establishing the account at a financial institution other than your regular bank. As the saying goes, “Out of sight, out of mind.” If the money never shows up in your regular checking account, you’ll be less likely to use it for everyday spending.
Sell stuff and slash expenses. Think about selling some of your unused stuff through yard sales, online auctions, or consignment shops. This can generate cash to bolster your emergency fund. Take a hard look at your budget and consider everything fair game: expensive dinners, vacations, cable television, and so on. You may find that a surprising number of dollars can be freed up and stashed away in savings. The key, of course, is to direct those savings – immediately, if possible – away from regular spending and into your emergency account.
If you’d like more ideas for setting financial goals or building up an emergency fund, give us a call.
You may receive correspondence from the IRS that contains an error. What should you do?
Quotes from actual IRS correspondence received by clients:
“Our records show we received a 1040X for the tax year listed above. We’re sorry but we cannot find it.”
“Our records show you owe a balance due of $0.00. If we do not receive it within 30 days, appropriate collection steps will be taken.”
“Payment is due on your account. Please submit payments on or before June 31 to avoid late payment penalties and interest.”
It’s pretty tough to pay a balance due of $0.00 or submit a payment on June 31 when June has only 30 days. The message should be clear. If you receive a notice from the IRS, don’t automatically assume it is correct and then submit a payment to make it go away. The same is true for errors in any state tax agency notices. They are often in error. So what should you do?
Stay calm. Try not to overreact to the correspondence. This is easier said than done, but remember, the IRS sends out millions of notices each year. The vast majority of these notices attempt to correct simple oversights or common filing errors.
Open the envelope. You’d be surprised how often clients are so stressed by receiving a letter from the IRS that they cannot bear to open the envelope. If you fall into this category, try to remember that the first step in making the problem go away is to open the correspondence.
Review the letter. Make sure you understand exactly what the IRS thinks needs to be changed and determine whether or not you agree with their findings. Unfortunately, the IRS rarely sends correspondence to correct an oversight in your favor, but it sometimes happens.
Respond in a timely manner. The correspondence received should be very clear about what action the IRS believes you should take and within what timeframe. Ignore this information at your own risk. Delays in responses could generate penalties and additional interest payments.
Get help. You are not alone. Getting assistance from someone who deals with this all the time makes going through the process much smoother.
Correct the IRS error. Once you understand the problem, a clearly written response with copies of documentation will cure most IRS correspondence errors. Often the error is due to the inability of IRS computers to conduct a simple reporting match. Pointing the information out on your tax return might be all it takes to solve the problem.
Certified mail is your friend. Send any response to the IRS via certified mail. This will provide proof of your timely correspondence. Lost mail can lead to delays, penalties, and additional interest on your tax bill.
Don’t assume it will go away. Until you receive definitive confirmation that the problem has been resolved, assume the IRS still thinks you owe the money. If you don’t receive correspondence confirming the correction, send a written follow-up.
Getting audited by the IRS is no fun. However, your chances of being audited are probably lower than you think. A look at the latest IRS statistics for 2016 reveals some interesting and reassuring facts about the risk of an IRS audit.
Audits are becoming less common. The number of individual tax returns the IRS audited fell to a 12-year low last year, to just above 1 million. Audits have been steeply declining over the last five years, a trend which the IRS commissioner said was due in part to declining budgets and a smaller workforce.
Audits target the rich. It’s a fact: IRS audits target the super-rich. The statistical chance of being audited increases dramatically for people of higher income levels.
Missing data can get you audited. High income isn’t the only thing that gets you audited. Any missing data on your return can also trigger an audit.
Standing out gets you audited. The IRS takes a close look at business expenses, charitable donations, and high-value itemized deductions. They have statistical data on what amounts are typical for various professions and income levels. If your return stands out from what is “normal,” it may be flagged for review by the agency’s computer system.
More audits are done by mail. If you face an audit, most likely it will be done by mail. Only about one in four IRS audits are field audits conducted in person by an IRS agent. The most common issues, such as math errors or missing data, are done through mail correspondence.
If your issues are more complicated, you may face a field audit – and you may owe more to the IRS. The average field audit recommended the individual pay an additional tax of nearly $19,000, while the average correspondence audit recommended a payment of less than $7,000.
Few entrepreneurs launch their small business as an incorporated entity. That’s fine while you’re just getting started, but a year or two down the road it’s often wise to incorporate. Here are some reasons you may want to consider incorporating your growing business.
Protect your personal assets from creditors. When you operate your business within a corporation, creditors are often limited to corporate assets to satisfy a debt. Your home, savings, and retirement accounts are no longer fair game.
Provide a personal liability firewall. The corporate form can help protect you against claims made by others for injuries or losses arising from actions of your business.
Issue shares of stock. You can help build your business by issuing shares to new investors, or by offering stock options to key employees as a form of compensation.
Gain tax flexibility. A corporation can provide you with more tax flexibility. Deliberate planning can help optimize the taxable division between corporate income, dividends, and your personal wages.
Enhance your business presence. Being incorporated sends a signal that your business is a serious enterprise and it could open doors to opportunities not offered to sole proprietors. Consumers, vendors, and other businesses often prefer to do business with incorporated companies.
If you are still going over the pros and cons of incorporating your business, pick up the phone. Together, we can complete a thorough tax review that will help shed light on the impact such a move will have on your business situation.