Why 'property flipping' is the next ATO target

December 2017

Australian tax law does not allow you to 'flip' a property tax-free, even if you are living in it.

It's a common assumption that people mistakenly make: Move into a property, renovate it, and then sell it without paying tax. The main residence exemption, which protects your family home from tax, does not apply if your primary purpose is to flip the property for profit.  The fact that you're living in it does not mean it's exempt from tax.

Most people think that they can move into a property, renovate it, and then sell it without paying tax. The main residence exemption - the exemption that protects your family home from tax - does not apply if your primary purpose is to 'flip' the property for a profit. The fact that you are living in the property does not mean it's exempt from tax.

Who's Going to Know…?

It's also a not uncommon attitude to think 'who's going to know?' Or 'How can the ATO really know what my intention is when I buy a property to live in?  And that's where it gets sticky.

The Australian Tax Office looks for patterns of behaviour or a declaration of intention. So, some examples of what they look for might be:

  • The owners are not employed and earn their income from moving in, renovating, and then selling property
  • There is a pattern of renovating then selling properties
  • Loan documents for your mortgage indicate that the property is for flipping but not for the long-term
  • Or they declare the intent alongside other wannabes on The Block and state that they're planning to move in, renovate, and flip.

The ATO's guide on property is clear:

"If you're carrying out a profit-making activity of property renovations also known as 'property flipping', you report in your income tax return your net profit or loss from the renovation (proceeds from the sale of the property less the purchase and other costs associated with buying, holding, renovating and selling it)."

Capital or Revenue? Living in the Property Doesn't = Tax Exemption 

Property owners often make the assumption that any gain from property flipping will be exempt from tax as long as it's their main residence for the entire ownership period, however this only applies if the property is held on capital account.  A property is generally held on capital account if the intention is to use it as a private residence or rental property for the foreseeable future – and there is evidence to back it up.

The ATO indicates that someone who is renovating a property with the intention of selling the property again at a profit could be taxed on revenue account in which case the main residence exemption does not apply.

What Type of Property Owner Are You?

The ATO's property guide identifies three main scenarios and the general tax implications:

  • Personal property investor – This is someone who purchases a property with the primary intention of using it as a long-term rental property or private residence. If this person undertakes renovations and then sells the property earlier than originally planned, then they should still generally be able to argue that the sale is dealt with on capital account, which means that the main residence exemption and/or Capital Gains Tax (CGT) discount could apply.
  • Isolated profit-making undertaking – This is someone who buys a property with the primary intention of carrying out renovations and then selling the property when the work is completed. Someone in this category is likely to be taxed on revenue account with no access to the main residence exemption or CGT discount.
  • Business of renovating properties – this is someone who undertakes property-flipping activities on a regular or repetitive basis and where the activities are organised in a business-like manner. As with the category above, there is generally no access to the main residence exemption or CGT discount.

Just because owners live in the property for all or part of the ownership period does not automatically mean that the profits from sale are exempt from tax. The main residence exemption can only reduce capital gains; it cannot reduce amounts that are taxed on revenue account.

What is the Main Residence Exemption?

Generally, taxpayers do not pay CGT on the sale of a private home. A full exemption should be available if the following conditions are met:

  • The owner is an individual who is selling a dwelling or an ownership interest in a dwelling;
  • The dwelling has been their home for the entire ownership period;
  • The dwelling has not been used to produce assessable income (i.e., rented out); and
  • The dwelling is situated on land that is 2 hectares or less.

In some situations, it is possible to apply a full exemption even if the owner has not lived in the property for the entire ownership period or where the property has been rented out for a period of time. However, the rules can be complex and need to be analysed in detail to confirm the position.

If a full exemption is not available, it may still be possible to apply a partial exemption. The general 50% CGT discount can also be applied if you have owned the dwelling for more than 12 months (subject to your residency status).

Non-Residents and Temporary Residents May No Longer Eligible

Earlier this year the Government announced that non-residents and temporary residents would no longer able to access the main residence exemption (existing properties held prior to 9 May 2017 will be able to access the exemption until 30 June 2019). However, these proposed changes are not yet law and the final version of the new rules are yet to be released.

Assessing the Main Residence

Whether a dwelling is the owner's main residence is a question of fact. The following factors are often taken into account to help determine the issue:

  • The length of time the owner has lived in the dwelling;
  • The place of residence of their family;
  • Whether the owner has moved personal belongings into the dwelling;
  • The address you have your mail delivered;
  • Your address on the Electoral Roll;
  • The connection of services such as telephone, gas and electricity; and
  • The owner's intention in occupying the dwelling. 

Other Tax and Renovation FAQs

The main residence exemption is not the only issue that comes up with property flipping.  Tax deductions for rental properties and renovating for profit inside an SMSF are common topics:

Can I claim a tax deduction for renovations on my investment property?

It is not generally possible to claim an upfront deduction for amounts spent on improving a property unless you are carrying on a business of buying, renovating and selling properties. If the property is held for long-term investment purposes then it is generally possible to claim a deduction for these costs over a period of time while the property is used to generate rental income.

Can I renovate a rental property owned by my SMSF?

An SMSF can renovate a property it owns as long as the money used to pay for the renovation is from money already within the fund. If the members pay for the renovation themselves (instead of using money in the fund), the renovation costs can create a contribution issue and the value could even be the improved value of the asset.

The usual restrictions around a SMSF acquiring assets from a related party should also be considered, so the SMSF should pay for all the required materials for the renovations directly (or under an agency agreement) rather than reimbursing a related party for the expense.

If You're Flipping Property, Get Advice

If your intent is to generate an income out of flipping property then there is value in speaking to your accountant before you embark on your epic flip. They will be able to guide you on the tax implications and whether there are any tax exemptions that are available to you.

Contact our team on 02 9957 4033 for more information.

Please note, we are closed for the Christmas & New Year break and will be back in the office from 9 January 2017.

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This article is provided for information purposes only and correct at the time of publication. It should not be used in place of advice from your accountant. Please contact us on 02 9957 4033 to discuss your specific circumstances.

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