The incorporation of buy-to-let businesses remains a hot topic given the many changes to the tax treatment of residential lettings. I have previously discussed the potential tax charges arising on the incorporation of an existing buy-to-let business, but am revisiting them here as this is one of the questions I get asked most frequently at the moment.
There are many landlords now sitting on mature investment portfolios and are asking themselves the questions of whether they should be moving that into a corporate structure. The tax issues to consider are Capital Gains Tax, Stamp Duty Land Tax, Inheritance Tax and in some instances VAT.
Capital Gains Tax (CGT)
Transferring a property to a company can create a tax point for Capital Gains Tax purposes. The disposal will be deemed to take place at market value. In some instances it may be possible to roll over the capital gains, however to do so you need to be able to take advantage of business roll over relief.
HMRC do not generally accept that passively owned property is a “business” for these purposes, but it appears that size does matter, as was borne out in the upper tribunal case of Ramsey v HMRC. In this case Mrs Ramsey owned a block of 15 flats. The case turned on the amount of activity that Mrs Ramsey spent in managing the “business”. This turned out to be around 20 hours per week plus she had no other occupation during that period. The tribunal ruled in her favour confirming that she was running a business.
I take from this that it is not the quantity of properties that any landlord owns that determines whether a business is being pursued but rather the active participation they take in running the business. As always with such matters the details will be important.
Stamp Duty Land Tax (SDLT) and incorporating via a partnership
As with all property transactions, SDLT has become a major factor. A corporate buying property would be subject to the higher rate of SDLT on residential property.
The reason why this may work is that special rules apply to the transfer of properties into and out of partnerships. The incorporation of a partnership owning property would be such a transfer. Broadly, provided the ownership of the corporate matches the ownership of the partnership prior to incorporation, and provided all qualified conditions apply the value of the transaction for SDLT purposes would be nil.
The problem being encountered by landlords attempting this route is that establishing an effective partnership is not necessarily so straight forward. If partnerships are to exist there must be a business being carried on. This brings us back to HMRC’s view that the passive ownership of property does not constitute the business. Arguably using a Limited Liability Partnership may be a more robust route for incorporation, but this creates an additional degree of complexity. Also it should not be overlooked that there is general anti-avoidance legislation for SDLT purposes which may be brought into play if it is considered that the introduction of a partnership as a route to incorporation is purely an SDLT avoidance mechanism.
Inheritance Tax (IHT)
Quite often overlooked in the context of transferring property to a corporate structure is that in certain circumstances this can constitute a transfer of value for Inheritance Tax purposes. As such there is a risk that an immediate lifetime chargeable transfer may take place which would give rise to a 20% Inheritance Tax charge.
VAT will only be an issue for incorporation of a buy to let business where there is commercial property involved on which an option to tax had been made. It is likely that this could be dealt with by way of a transfer of a going concern; however this is something that would need consideration before an incorporation would take place.
In my previous article I said that the incorporation of a buy-to-let business was most likely to suit a business which had low borrowing requirements, low turnover of properties and can afford to roll up profits to take advantage of low corporate tax rates. My view is that this remains the case. The route to incorporation is alive with complexity and potential tax traps for the unwary, but in the right circumstances incorporation could be the best route. As always, each person’s circumstances will be different and you should take full advice before taking any action.