Many people whose small businesses qualify them for a home office deduction are afraid to take it because they've heard it will trigger an audit. But if you deserve it, take advantage. These tips can help you determine if you qualify and rest easy when you do.
Take the deduction, carefully
Will a home office deduction trigger an audit? The answer is generally "no." Changes in the rules in the late 1990s made it easier for people who work out of their homes to qualify for these write-offs. So if you qualify, by all means, take it.
NOTE: If you use TurboTax software to prepare your taxes, we'll ask you a few simple questions to see if you qualify, then calculate this deduction for you.
The biggest roadblock to qualifying for these deductions is that you must use a portion of your home exclusively and regularly for your business. The office is generally in a separate room or group of rooms, but it can be a section of a room if the division is clear—thanks to a partition, perhaps—and you can show that personal activities are excluded from the business section.
The law is clear and the IRS is serious about the exclusive-use requirement. Say you set aside a room in your home for a full-time business and you work in it at least ten hours a day, seven days a week. Let your children use the office to do their homework, though, and you violate the exclusive-use requirement and forfeit the chance for home-office deductions.
The rule doesn’t mean you’re forbidden to make a personal phone call from the office, or that you have to rush outside whenever a family member needs a moment of your time. Although individual IRS auditors may be more or less strict on this point, some advisors say you meet the spirit of the exclusive-use test as long as personal activities invade the home office no more than they would be permitted at an office building. (Two exceptions to the exclusive-use test are discussed later.)
There’s no specific definition of what constitutes regular use. Clearly, if you use an otherwise empty room only occasionally and its use is incidental to your business, you’d fail this test. But if you work in the home office a few hours or so each day, you’d probably pass. This test is applied to the facts and circumstances of each case the IRS challenges.
Principal place of business
In addition to passing the exclusive- and regular-use tests, your home office must be either the principal location of that business, or a place where you regularly meet with customers or clients. If you are an employee and have a part-time business based in your home, you can pass this test even if you spend much more time at the office where you work as an employee.
There is, though, the question of what constitutes a business. Making money from your efforts is a prerequisite, but for purposes of this tax break, profit alone isn’t necessarily enough. If you use your den solely to take care of your personal investment portfolio, you can’t claim home office deductions because your activities as an investor don’t qualify as a business.
Taxpayers who use a home office exclusively to actively manage several rental properties they own, though, may qualify for home office tax status—as property managers rather than investors. As with the regular-use test, whether your endeavors qualify as a business depends on the circumstances. The more substantial the activities, in terms of time and effort invested and income generated, the more likely you are to pass the test.
What if your business has just one office—in your home—but you do most of your work elsewhere? First, remember that the requirement is that the office be the principal place of business, not your principal office.
As long as you at least use the home office to conduct your administrative or management chores and you don’t make substantial use of any other fixed location to conduct those tasks, you can pass this test. This rule makes it much easier to claim home office deductions for individuals who conduct most of their income-earning activities somewhere else (such as outside salespersons, tradespeople, or professionals).
If your home office is in a separate, unattached structure—a loft over a detached garage, for example—you don’t have to meet the principal-place-of-business or the deal-with-customers test. As long as you pass the exclusive- and regular-use tests, you can qualify for home business write-offs.
Day care facilities and storage
The exclusive-use test does not apply if you use part of your house to provide day care services for children, the elderly or handicapped individuals. If you care for children in your home between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. each day, for example, you can use that part of the house for personal activities the rest of the time and still claim business deductions. To qualify for the tax break, your day care business must meet any applicable state and local licensing requirements.
Another exception to the exclusive-use test applies to a portion of your home used to store product samples or inventory you sell in your business. Assume your home-based business is the retail sale of home-cleaning products and that you regularly use half of your basement to store inventory. Occasionally using that part of the basement to store personal items would not cancel your home office deduction. To qualify for this exception, your home must be the only location of your business.
Business percentage of house or simplified square foot calculation
Your home office business deductions are based on the percentage of your home used for the business or a simplified square footage calculation.
Percentage of your home method:
The most exact way to figure this proportion is to measure the square footage devoted to your home office and find what percentage it is of the total area of your home. If the office measures 150 square feet, for example, and the total area of the house is 1,200 square feet, your business percentage would be 12.5% (150 ÷ 1,200).
An easier way is acceptable if the rooms in your home are all about the same size. In that case, you can figure the business percentage by dividing the number of rooms used in your business by the total number of rooms in the house.
Special rules apply if you qualify for home office deductions under the day care exception to the exclusive-use test. Your business-use percentage must be discounted because the space is available for personal use part of the time. To do that, you compare the number of hours the day care business is operated, including preparation and cleanup time, to the total number of hours in the year (8,760).
Assume you use 40% of your house for a day care business that operates 12 hours a day, five days a week for 50 weeks of the year. That’s 3,000 hours out of the total of 8,760 hours in the year. That’s 34% of the available hours, so your business write-off percentage is 13.6% (40% of 34%).
Simplified square footage method:
Beginning with 2013 tax returns, the IRS began a simplified option for claiming the deduction. This new method uses a prescribed rate multiplied the allowable square footage used in the home. For 2015 the prescribed rate is $5 per square foot with a maximum of 300 square feet. The space must still be dedicated to the business activity as described above.
With the simplified method, if the office measures 150 square feet, for example, then the deduction would be $750 (150 x $5).
NOTE: With either method the qualification for the home office deduction is made each year. So you might qualify one year and not the next, or vice versa.
If you are eligible for home office deductions, the tax savings can be well worth the additional work required to qualify. And remember, TurboTax makes it easy to determine if you qualify and how much you can write off.
Here are some examples of key home office deductions using the percentage of your home method:
Money spent to repair or maintain the business space is deductible. If you paint the room that is your home office, for example, the entire cost can be deducted. Although no part of the cost of the firs telephone line on your home can be deducted, the full cost of a special line for your business and other direct expenses—such as the cost of long distance business calls—can be written off.
These will probably be your most fruitful home office deductions. Because part of your home qualifies as business property, part of the costs of running it can be converted from non-deductible personal expenses to business write-offs. If your office space takes up 20% of the house, you can deduct 20% of your bills for utilities, homeowners insurance, homeowners association fees, security, and general repairs and maintenance.
Interest and property taxes
Mortgage interest and property taxes are deductible expenses if you qualify for home office deductions. But with a home office you convert part of those expenses from personal itemized deductions to business write-offs. Because business expenses reduce self-employment income, they can also trim what you owe in Social Security taxes.
Deducting rent, or depreciating
If you rent the home where your office is located, this computation is easy: You deduct the same percentage of your rent as the percentage of your home devoted to your business. If you own your home, you depreciate the business part of the house. Figuring the right amount to deduct is complicated (TurboTax will help) but you only have to do it once; then you’ll enjoy the savings year after year.
- If you generally have to pay the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) when you itemize deductions, a home office deduction may be a factor contributing to your AMT status. If so, you may want to forego the home office deduction. This consideration is only relevant if you are an employee and not a self-employed person.
- If you include home depreciation as part of the home office deduction and eventually sell your home at a profit, you will have to pay a capital gains tax on the total amount of depreciation deductions you took while you were living there, assuming you sold the home for a profit.
- Limit on write-offs - the law puts a cap on how much you can deduct for the business use of the home. Basically, your home office deductions can’t exceed your home-based business income. In other words, home office expenses can’t create a tax loss to shelter other income.
The bottom line
- The home office deduction is not a red flag for an IRS audit.
- Whether you qualify for this deduction is determined each year.
- Deducting a home office is treated differently depending on your business type.
- The simplified method can make it easier for you to claim the deduction but might not provide you with biggest deduction.
- TurboTax Home & Business can help you figure out if you qualify and calculate all your home office deductions.
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