U.S. Tax and Transactional Issues Relevant to Foreign Owners of U.S. Real Estate and Parties to The Sale Thereof; Part II – What Are the U.S. Tax Implications?

By Mark Wisniewski
April 15, 2016
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Part II -- What Are the U.S. Tax Implications?

Prospective foreign purchasers of real estate situated in the U.S. should pay careful attention to the U.S. tax ramifications of their acquisition. In particular, the manner in which rental income or sale proceeds are taxed, the impact of repatriation of those profits, and transfer tax consequences, e.g., taxes on the transfer of property to heirs, warrant special consideration.  In addition, there is a somewhat onerous tax withholding requirement imposed on buyers when U.S. real estate is acquired from sellers who are foreign persons, which withholding requirement is elaborated on in Part I of this article.

In many ways the tax consequences of the ownership of U.S. real estate hinge upon the manner in which the real estate is held, i.e., titled in the individual name of the foreign person or owned indirectly by the foreign person through some form of business entity or trust. In addition, the U.S. taxation of foreign persons may be modified by an applicable bi-lateral treaty between the applicable foreign jurisdiction and the U.S.

Depending on the manner in which the foreign person owns the real estate, tax planning in this area generally implicates a combination of some or all of the following goals:

  1. An attempt to minimize taxation of operating income;

  2. The avoidance of a double tax on corporate profits;

  3. To ensure sale proceeds qualify for long-term capital gains tax treatment;

  4. The avoidance of transfer taxes, e.g., estate and gift taxes;

  5. An attempt to minimize withholding;

  6. To avoid taxation of the same income by both the U.S. and foreign tax authority; and

  7. An attempt to minimize tax reporting in the U.S.

In most cases it is impossible to achieve all of these objectives, so the planning needs to be specifically tailored to the particular facts and circumstances of each case.

For example, if a foreign person owns U.S. real estate directly in his or her individual capacity, then the gross rental income attributable to such real estate is subject to a flat 30% tax via withholding unless the foreign person elects “net basis” taxation, in which latter case the graduated income tax rate brackets for individuals apply (up to 39.6%) to net rental income taking account of certain expense deductions allowable depending on the use of the property (personal or business).  If the U.S. real estate is held by the foreign person for more than one year, then the long-term capital gains tax rate (20%) is applicable to the gain on sale. In the case of personal use property, the foreign person and family members can enjoy the use of the property without imputation of rental income but if the “net basis” election is made then deductions are limited to real property taxes and qualified mortgage interest. The big disadvantages of direct ownership by a foreign person are (i) exposure to U.S. estate tax (applies at 40%) in the event of the death of the foreign owner; (ii) that a gift of U.S. real estate by a foreign person is subject to U.S. gift tax without the benefit of the lifetime gift tax exemption available to U.S. persons; and (iii) to ensure the collection of U.S. tax upon the sale of the U.S. real estate, the foreign owner will be exposed to the Foreign Investment in Real Property Tax Act (“FIRPTA”), which, subject to certain exceptions discussed in Part I of this article, requires the buyer to withhold an amount generally equal to 10% of the gross sale price at closing (“FIRPTA Withholding”).

By way of comparison, if a foreign person owns U.S. real property through a foreign corporation, then both U.S. estate tax and U.S. gift tax can be avoided.  This structure also provides the advantages of limited liability and anonymity for the foreign shareholder(s). If shareholders or officers of the corporation will enjoy ‘personal use’ of the U.S. real estate, then a major disadvantage of this structure is the imputation of rental income to such persons; that is, unless the foreign corporation charges fair market value rent to such persons, such rent is imputed to the corporation and will trigger income tax. Another major disadvantage is exposure to the “branch profits tax”, subject to potential reduction via bi-lateral treaty. In lieu of withholding on dividends paid by the foreign corporation that owns the U.S. real estate to its beneficial owners that are foreign persons, the “branch profits tax” imposes a 30% tax on the operating profits of the foreign corporation attributable to the operations of its U.S. real estate that are “deemed” for this purpose to be repatriated to the applicable foreign country. It is important to note that this 30% “branch profit tax” is in addition to the corporate tax on the foreign corporation’s earnings in the U.S. (15% to 35% on net rental income or 30% on gross rental income via withholding by lessee), potentially resulting in an effective tax rate up to 54.5%.  Gain on the sale of U.S. real estate by a foreign corporation is taxable at a 35% rate, and FIRPTA Withholding is required. Thus, if income from the U.S. real estate is expected to be significant and there is no relief available from a bi-lateral treaty then this structure may not be the most attractive option.

There are additional alternative ownership structures that can be utilized, including (i) ownership through a U.S. corporation owned by a foreign corporation; or (ii) ownership through a partnership (U.S. or foreign) or a limited liability company taxed as a partnership; or (iii) ownership though a trust (U.S. or foreign trust, grantor or non-grantor trust).  Again, all of these structures are designed to achieve as many of the above-enumerated planning goals as possible, and the optimal structure always depends on the facts and circumstances of the particular case; that is, there is no ‘one size fits all’ structure.

At the end of the day, foreign persons intent on acquiring U.S. real estate should consult with tax advisors with knowledge of the legion of complex tax rules that confront the foreign owner of U.S. real estate. The failure to do so could easily result in dramatically higher than anticipated tax rates, an inadvertent but costly failure to comply with U.S. tax reporting and compliance rules, and exposure to U.S. transfer taxes as a result of the untimely death of a foreign owner or a gift of the U.S. real estate without proper planning. If you would like to discuss any of these issues, please feel free to contact our firm and we will be happy to evaluate your options.