Summer has arrived, and for many families, that means getting away for a few weeks. While enjoying beautiful surroundings, warm sun or cultural enrichment, it’s easy to imagine how nice it would be to own a home that would let you do so whenever you wanted.
But don’t let your imagination run away with you. Before you snap up a beach house or a mountain cabin, give the same thought to the purchase as you would to buying your primary home.
The first question is whether you can afford a vacation home. Have you covered educational expenses for your children? Is your retirement secure? Is your emergency fund solid? Don’t rob yourself of essentials to cover a second home, no matter how great its potential as an asset. Even if you buy the property outright, you may not be able to access the equity for some time.
A second home entails more expense than you might imagine. Beyond the purchase price, you will need to consider maintenance, security or a caretaker, utilities, property taxes, furnishings, travel costs and other items. You may also need to pay association or assessment fees. And if you intend to rent your property, you will most likely need to pay for advertising, and possibly for a property manager.
Further, insurance can be a major expense. Property insurance for a second home often costs more than for a primary residence, and may be more difficult to obtain. The more the house will be vacant, the higher you can generally expect premiums to be. Insurers may also want you to pay more if you plan to rent the property. In areas where floods or hurricanes are possible, flood insurance generally must be added separately.
When considering how you will finance the home, remember that second mortgages are usually more expensive than primary mortgages, as banks tend to believe that they are assuming more risk. Lenders may look at an applicant’s income, rather than general assets, which can make approval harder for retirees or those approaching retirement. Some buyers consider taking home equity loans on their primary residences to fund second homes, but this puts your primary home at risk.
When deciding whether a vacation home is a practical purchase, estimate all these expenses to get an idea of the carrying costs for the property. If you plan to maintain the property mainly for your personal use, divide the costs by the number of days you plan to visit, so you can see whether renting a home or staying in a hotel might be sounder financially.
Some people do consider a vacation home a moneymaking vehicle, or choose to use it for both personal pleasure and to generate income. However, counting on rental income to net a profit after expenses may not always be realistic. In a high-demand locale, such as a ski resort or a desirable beach, your chances are slightly better, especially if your property is within a three-hour drive or so of a major metropolitan center. But the fact remains that, while 25 percent of vacation homeowners say they intend to rent their second homes, only 15 percent do so. Those who do so profitably form an even smaller group.
Perhaps the most important financial consideration is the tax implications of a second home. The primary factor affecting your personal tax situation for a vacation home is the property’s anticipated use. Will your second home be used only by you, your friends and your family? Is it practical to rent it to others seeking a vacation site? Specific tax rules for renting out your vacation home may help guide this decision.
You must first determine whether your vacation home is considered a residence or a rental property. The Internal Revenue Service considers your second home a residence if you personally use it for either 14 days a year or more than 10 percent of the number of days the home is rented out, whichever is more. Your use, a relative’s use or use by an unrelated party renting at less than fair price all count as “personal use” in determining the nature of the property.
If your vacation home is considered a residence, certain deductible rental expenses may be limited. Renting a property that the IRS considers a residence does not qualify as a “passive activity” for the purpose of income taxes. This matters because a loss incurred from one passive activity can be used to offset the income gained by another. Since renting a second residence is not a passive activity, you cannot use any rental expenses in excess of your rental income to offset income from other sources.
If the IRS considers your vacation home a residence and you rent the home out at least 15 days in a given year, you must characterize the division between rental use and private use. You must report all rental income in your gross income in addition to accurately dividing your expenses between personal use and rental use. Certain expenses, such as mortgage interest and property taxes, are usually fully deductible no matter how they are characterized, but are reported in different ways - to offset rental income if they are rental expenses or as itemized deductions if they are personal.
Other expenses, including maintenance fees, insurance, depreciation and other costs involved with renting out your vacation home are only used to offset rental income when they can be classified as rental expenses. (A complete list of deductible expenses can be found in IRS Publication 527, “Residential Rental Property.”) The allocation to rental use determines the amount of your expenses used to offset rental income. If you rent the home for half of the year, then half of your expenses may be deducted against your rental income. Given the complications of this division, it is probably wise to involve a tax professional if you intend to use your property for both personal and substantial rental activity.
If you do not want the burdens of allocating expenses and continually seeking renters, consider taking advantage of the preferential tax treatment the IRS offers for short-term rentals. The IRS permits you to rent your vacation home for fewer than 15 days annually without reporting any rental income in your total income, thus tax-free. Understandably, you may not deduct any expenses related to renting the home, as there is no reported rental income to offset. In this scenario, you would itemize all of your mortgage interest and property tax deductions on Schedule A.
If your second home will be primarily for personal use, be aware of residency rules in the states where both of your homes are located if they are not the same. Reestablishing your residency can be useful, but is sometimes challenging. New York, for example, is notorious for finding ways to keep its former residents on the tax rolls. A former New Yorker may want to take advantage of Florida’s preferable tax climate, but it isn’t simply a matter of deciding it’s a good idea.
While a timeshare may seem like a better idea on paper than buying a vacation home, the reality makes it unappealing for most people. In a timeshare, you pay a lump sum up front and maintenance fees thereafter. A traditional timeshare then guarantees you the use of a specific unit at the same time every year (typically for a week, though it varies). Some newer timeshares operate on a points system, which gives users more flexibility in when and where they vacation, but also leads to competition for the best units at the most desirable times.
Though a timeshare is cheaper at the outset than buying a vacation home, it does not offer the same equity or appreciation potential. In effect, you are simply paying for years of vacations in advance, not investing. Additionally, maintenance fees can increase, and most timeshares don’t have a built-in expiration date. Because timeshare property is notoriously hard to sell, this can leave you (and potentially your heirs) indefinitely paying fees on a property you no longer wish to use. You would likely do better to earmark a portion of your portfolio for an annual vacation rather than to purchase a timeshare. This would allow your assets to appreciate, and would avoid the risk of locking yourself into an agreement with no simple exit.
If you decide to purchase a vacation home, several considerations remain. Location is crucial. Choose a region where you will want to be often - once a year or more - and possibly to the exclusion of other travel, depending on your time and resources. Rural areas can sometimes increase expenses; for example, insurance may be more costly if you are far from the nearest fire station. In addition, many desirable vacation properties are at increased risk for floods or earthquakes, further driving potential insurance costs up. If your desired property is abroad, review that country’s ownership laws and its history of honoring ownership claims from noncitizens.
Finally, think ahead to the possibility of selling your vacation home one day. As soon as your use of the property declines, it is probably better to sell it to eliminate the carrying costs and free the capital for other purposes. You may use the house less than you expected, or you may have used it a great deal when your children were younger but less now that they have become adults. Regardless, getting the process under way as soon as you know you want to sell is important. The housing market is still relatively weak, so it may take longer to sell the property than you expect.
If you rent your vacation home enough for it to be characterized as a rental property, you will want to recover the cost of the home through depreciation. Recovery of the cost for residential rental property under the General Depreciation System (GDS) spans 27.5 years. This capitalized expense can be used to offset rental income, thus lowering your tax bill. Deducting depreciation may cause a net loss on your rental property; however, since your second home qualifies as rental property and not as a residence, you can reduce other income from passive activities with the loss. Remember, if you visit the home on vacation, you may only deduct depreciation allocated to rental days.
When the time comes to sell your vacation home, note that the IRS will treat the sale differently from that of your primary home. Your vacation home does not benefit from the $250,000 capital gains exclusion ($500,000 if married filing jointly) that your primary residence does. If you have owned the property at least 12 months, any profit from the sale will be taxed at the long-term capital gains rate.
In addition, if you claimed depreciation on the home due to rental use, you will need to refigure your cost basis to determine the gain. Even if you did not claim the depreciation deduction, you must still reduce the cost basis of the home by the amount of depreciation you could have taken. The portion of gain on the sale due to depreciation lowering your basis is considered depreciation recapture and will be taxed at 25 percent.
A lose-lose scenario arises when selling a vacation home; you do not receive any of the capital gains exclusion mentioned above, nor do you receive any tax benefit if you realize a loss on the sale. For this reason, consider converting your vacation home to a primary residence before selling. If you make your second home your primary residence for two of the five years prior to selling, you will qualify for the maximum capital gains exclusion.
If you want to keep the vacation home in the family rather than selling, it can cause some estate-planning complications. No matter how well your children get along, co-owning a property can lead to disagreements and hurt feelings, as can giving one child the home and another child an asset with less sentimental value. Even if your children share without issue, they may leave it to their children, resulting in a property split between eight or 12 cousins who may or may not know or like one another very well. Those who wish to keep the property may not be able to buy out those who wish to sell. All in all, it can create drama you may not foresee.
In the case where selling the home is too painful or impractical during your lifetime, you can direct your estate to sell it and divide the proceeds among your heirs. Alternately, you can set up a trust for the property’s operating expenses, then grant your heirs use of it under certain circumstances. Whatever you do, make your desires explicit, both in your will and by discussing them with your children or heirs. Ideally, involve a financial planner or an estate-planning attorney. Put everything in writing.
A vacation home can be a wonderful luxury, providing a place to get away from your day-to-day life and to build treasured memories with friends and family. As long as you think of it as a purchase rather than as an investment, you can make an informed decision about what’s right for you. Then, if you do buy a vacation home, you can approach it with realistic expectations and a good chance of enjoying it for years to come.