The Book on Tax Strategies for the Savvy Real Estate Investor
This is not a rags-to-riches real estate story. We were not poor growing up, and we did not become the next Donald Trump.
Real estate is not our passion. Let us say that again—real estate is not our passion. So if you have picked up this book to learn the ins and outs of how to invest in real estate, this book may not be what you are looking for. This is just a story by two accountants who want to share their personal experiences with tax strategies for real estate investors Money, on the other hand, is our passion. Helping people keep more of their hard-earned income is definitely our passion. Although this book is about real estate, it just may be a little different from the usual real estate books you have read. This book explains why we invested in real estate, how we use it to save on taxes, and how you can do the same.
Actually, we never cared too much about our own taxes. Shocking to hear from two certified public accountants (CPAs) who specialize in taxes, right? In fact, not only did we not pay attention to our own taxes, but we had even less knowledge about money, investing, and wealth building. Working for over half a decade at one of the largest and most prestigious accounting firms in the world, we—along with several of our colleagues—had no knowledge of these “things”—the very “things” people paid us a lot of money to advise them on. It took several years but we did finally learn how to use the tax code to save on taxes for ourselves and how to best build our own wealth.
We wrote this book to share with you the inside secrets that may help you keep more of your hard-earned money. These are secrets your CPA may not have told you or may never tell you, such as the most common and costly tax mistakes you may be making as a real estate investor and why your CPA may be costing you more money than you think. We also wanted to expose some of the common and costly tax myths we hear about year after year.
This book is not about how to invest in real estate. It is about how to use real estate to shelter your taxes and accelerate your wealth building. If you are an experienced investor, you will learn about tax strategies designed especially to help investors like you keep more of your bottom line. And if you are new to real estate investing, even better! These strategies will help you plan your future so you don’t make the tax mistakes many others do.
Through stories based on those of actual clients with various types of real estate businesses, from rental to wholesale to fix and flip, our goal is to share the strategies we believe can help you
keep more of your money from Uncle Sam.
What You Will Not Find in This Book
What you will not find in this book are tax code citations, regulations, or references to court cases. If you want those, you can get a copy of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax code and the thousands of pages of its related regulations. Our goal was to write a tax strategy book that would not put you to sleep.
When we teach tax classes for investors all over the United States, the most common and consistent feedback we receive is that we make our presentations easy for the average investor to understand. To break away from the usual boring tax book, we set out to write a tax book in plain English instead of in “tax code.”
What You Will Find in This Book
In this book, you will learn about everyday investors who make small changes that have a dramatic impact on their taxes and finances. You will hear real stories of clients we have worked with and the actions they have taken to supercharge their wealth building.
Now let us warn you, it is not all pretty. You will laugh, you will sigh, and you may even cry at some of the painful mistakes that cost people lots and lots of money. Why? Because these are real-life stories, and real life is not always magic fairy dust and happy endings. But within every story lies a lesson or strategy that may help you reduce your tax burden and keep more of your money.
Amanda: Growing Up as the Landlord’s Grandchild
Amanda’s grandparents emigrated from Taiwan to the United States in the 1970s. They settled in Las Vegas and bought some land and rental properties—and by “some,” we mean roughly 40 condo units. Amanda and her parents arrived in the United States a few years later, and boy, did Amanda have fun living there! At that point, Amanda was in the second grade, and she started school in the middle of December, which was great. Between Santa Claus, reindeer, and candy canes, Amanda’s first two weeks of school were heavenly.
The other thing Amanda loved about her new home in the United States was that she was living with a lot of people. To say it was a large family in a small space would be an
understatement. In their single three-bedroom condo resided Amanda, her mom and dad, her grandparents, and her uncle and cousin. For Amanda, living there was great. One of her favorite things she and her cousin did while growing up was help clean the rental units after tenants moved out.
Amanda would always be so excited when tenants moved out, because she knew that soon, she would get to sweep the floors and paint the walls. She thought growing up in the condo complex was wonderful. There was something special about being “the landlord’s grandkid.”
There was always something to do, and everyone was nicer to her—or at least it seemed that way.
But being the landlord’s grandkid was not all fun and games; Amanda also learned some things about real estate investing that were not so pleasant. For example, sometimes you can have bad tenants—ones who don’t pay and then move out in the dark of night, taking everything with them. And sometimes you get the complainers—people who call you every other day asking you to fix one thing or the next.
So for these reasons, Amanda never thought she would invest in real estate herself when she grew up. It was more of a headache than it was worth. Not until many years later, when Amanda was working as a CPA in corporate America, did she finally learn that real estate is one of the best-kept secrets to wealth building.
Matt: Growing Up as the Doctor’s Child
Matt also grew up in a large family. Matt’s parents divorced when he was young, so he and his brother were used to splitting time between their parents and stepparents. Matt’s stepfather was a pediatrician, and his mom worked both morning and night shifts as a nurse so she could spend more time with the boys.
Matt recalls that when he was growing up, people would always talk about how wonderful it would be if Matt became a doctor like his stepfather Jerry. Matt was great with little kids, and he excelled in math and science at school. It seemed like a great plan for him to get into the medical field—that is, until he and his family learned of his fear of blood and needles.
Growing up with parents and stepparents who all worked full-time as professionals, Matt was brought up to be conservative with his finances. His parents taught him the value of a dollar and the importance of saving money for a rainy day. Matt recalls having very little exposure to ideas of how to invest and grow money. The only recollection he has from his childhood of what an investment property could do for you is actually pretty horrific.
You see, in the ’70s and ’80s, the tax code was somewhat different from how it is today.
Some of the loopholes still exist, just in a different form. Back then, many doctors would invest
in certain real estate partnerships in hopes of taking large tax deductions and striking it rich at the same time. Financial regulations were much more lax, and many investors lost significant amounts of money in these partnership investments that went very bad very quickly.
As you may have guessed, Matt’s stepfather was one such doctor. After investing several years’ worth of hard-earned money in these real estate partnership deals only to lose a large portion of it, his stepfather was done with real estate forever. Even though Matt was too young at that time to really understand the investment side of things, he did understand that his family had lost a good chunk of money to “bad real estate.” In Matt’s mind, real estate was something very risky that he should stay far away from. It would take several more years to change Matt’s perspective on real estate. However, he would one day realize all the benefits of being a real estate investor with the help of a little-known book.
Amanda and Matt: The Traditional Route
Over the next several years after graduating from high school, we both did exactly what our parents taught us to do: go to school, get good grades, and get good jobs.
We were both always great with numbers and naturally excelled in college in business and accounting. After graduation, we were ecstatic when we received offers to work as tax advisors at one of the largest international accounting firms in the world. And by happenstance, we were both assigned to the real estate specialty group. So, as you may have guessed, we had arrived!
We had fulfilled our parents’ wishes to go to college and get a good job.
Over the next few years, we both obtained our CPA licenses and dated in secrecy while working at the same firm. Several years later, we got married and made a home together.
What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You
Ever hear the phrase “What you don’t know can hurt you”? Well, that basically described our situation. You see, we were stuck in the rat race. Together, we were making a little over $200,000 a year at our jobs. We put a good chunk of our income into our 401(k)s each year, and money was never an issue for us. But after about two years of marriage, we realized that we hadn’t accumulated as much money as we thought we should have, based on our earnings. So of course, as accountants, we took the time to look at our numbers, and what we found was shocking.
After analyzing our finances, we realized that we were losing roughly $50,000 per year to Uncle Sam in federal income taxes. In addition, we were paying roughly $16,000 each year in state income taxes. The payroll taxes withheld from our paychecks each year totaled about $14,000. And last but not least, the property taxes on our modest three-bedroom home were
roughly $3,000 each year. Adding all this up, we realized we were paying close to $90,000 in taxes each year. Almost one-half of our annual income was being lost to taxes before we even spent a dime of it. Plus, from household items to groceries, even more of our money was lost to sales taxes.
This finding surprised both of us. We had not realized that so much of our money was being lost to taxes. If you think about it, one of us was working mainly to pay our taxes, right? We found out early in my career that there is a day called Tax Freedom Day, and contrary to popular belief, it is not the day your taxes are due. Tax Freedom Day generally occurs sometime in April, and it is the day when the nation as a whole has theoretically earned enough income to pay its taxes for the year. For example, if Tax Freedom Day were April 30th, then all the money you had earned from January 1st to April 30th would be paid toward taxes. Then, May 1st would be the first day you got to keep your earnings free from taxes (see Appendix A for details).
We were distraught after learning about our massive tax bill and shocked to see the real reason we had been slow to build our wealth. Now, given that we are two CPAs who specialize in the tax field, you will find what we did next shocking!
What Do Most Americans Do About Taxes?
What we did next was nothing. That’s right! After finding out that we lose roughly 50% of our earnings each year to taxes, we did nothing! Sure, we moaned and groaned about it for a few days and complained about how unfair the U.S. tax system is, but we did absolutely nothing to change anything.
Why, you may ask? Well, for the same reason most Americans ignore their taxes. April is the one time each year that we as Americans collectively complain about taxes and our taxation system. Then, life happens, and we forget all about our tax gripes and move on with our daily lives until the next tax season.
We were no different. After working twelve- to fourteen-hour days to resolve financial and tax issues for our clients, the last thing we wanted to do at the end of our busy day was look over our own finances. Funny, right? It’s just like how you hear that doctors make the worst patients. I guess in our situation, CPAs make the worst taxpayers. Besides, we were also busy with other stuff, such as making improvements to our new house and spending time with family and friends. Heck, we were even starting to have conversations about starting a family sometime soon.
The Book That Opened the Door to a Whole New Way of Looking at Wealth Building
So life went on as before—no more complaints about taxes or our finances. It was a problem we both knew we had but were almost afraid to address. It wasn’t until we read the book Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert T. Kiyosaki that we started to look at our personal wealth building through a different set of eyes. Matt actually read the book first, which piqued his interest and curiosity about how this could help improve our situation. In the beginning, we were not on the same page when Matt announced that we should buy one or two rental properties to begin building our wealth.
“Have you thought about the headaches of rental real estate?” Amanda asked. “Are you prepared to deal with crazy tenants who don’t pay or having to get out of bed in the middle of the night to unclog toilets? I bet not. Trust me, we should definitely not buy rental real estate. It requires a ton of work and a ton of time, time that we don’t have. I grew up in my grandparents’
condo rentals, remember? Trust me, I know all about the nightmares of real estate investing, and that is definitely not what we want to do.”
“I think you are looking at this the wrong way,” Matt responded. “I think we need to look at this from a wealth-building and tax perspective. Tell me, who are your highest-income clients, and what do they do?”
Amanda thought about it for a brief moment, and a name immediately popped into her head: Jim Wellington. Jim used to be an engineer by trade. Once he and his wife had their first baby, they bought their first rental property. That property was intended to generate college money for their baby. Then Jim had a few more kids and bought more rentals, each intended as a tool to pay for the kids’ college tuition. Over the years, he traded his rentals up and got into apartment investing. Today, he owns most of the apartments for rent in the Westwood, California area. In fact, he liked it when Amanda once told him they should rename Westwood Wellington. The truth was, Jim did not deal directly with any of his tenants. He had property managers who did all that for him. He worked very little and was able to travel and enjoy time with his family and children.
Amanda also knew that Jim made roughly $500,000 a year in rental income, on which he paid little to no taxes, thanks to depreciation, legal entity structures, and various other tax strategies he used each year.
“So you mean to tell me that Jim, one of your clients, works very few hours, makes roughly $500,000 per year on his rentals, and pays zero taxes. Is that right?” Matt asked.
The answer had been right in front of us the whole time. Day in and day out, we worked with clients who had similar situations. Looking back on all our truly successful clients, most were either real estate investors or business owners, and much of the time, they were both. There was no reason we shouldn’t follow that same path: make money, invest money, and minimize
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