Is Federal Tax Policy for Real Estate in the Public Interest?

Michael Hudson, July 1, 1996

The idea of reducing or abolishing capital gains taxes to encourage private investment and general economic growth often comes up in state and national political campaigns. Advocates of cutting these taxes argue that if investors could keep their gains, they would invest them in new enterprises, thereby creating new jobs and strengthening local economies.

The public discussion usually focuses on stock market investments, but most capital gains are generated in the real estate sector where most of the economy’s assets are based. In 1994, the Federal Reserve Board estimated that real estate accounted for 67 percent of the nation’s total economic assets, including land worth about $4.4 trillion, homes worth $5.9 trillion, and other buildings (stores, factories, office buildings) worth an additional $3.1 trillion.

There are no comprehensive national statistics on capital gains from real estate or other assets. But the most recent survey by the Internal Revenue Service, conducted in 1985, estimated that land and buildings accounted for at least 58 and perhaps as much as 70 percent of the total of $208 billion in capital gains that year.

Federal statistics also report that the annual cost of doing business in real estate often exceeds the taxable income generated from land and buildings. It follows that many real estate investors receive a net benefit only when they eventually sell their properties for more than they originally cost. In effect, they are willing to turn over most current income to their mortgage bankers, in the hope of reaping a capital gain at the end of the process.

How Much Total Income Does Real Estate Generate?

There are no adequate national statistics on how much real estate is worth or the total income it generates. It is possible, however, to estimate real estate cash flow by starting from the income reported by the owners of real estate and adding to that some of the major expenses they paid before paying taxes. In 1993, the owners of real estate reported receiving about $209 billion in cash flow (earnings plus depreciation), though the amount depreciated was not taxable. In addition, the real estate industry paid about $515 billion in a combination of mortgage interest and property taxes. Thus real estate generated at least $724 billion in total earnings in 1993 (see chart 1).

The portion of this total paid out as interest to lenders since the end of World War II has grown much faster than any other part of the total. Between 1945 and 1993, the share of real estate earnings paid out as interest grew from about 10 percent to about 50 percent. This reflects the fact that about 70 percent of private sector lending is committed to real estate mortgages. This two-way street—with money flowing from real estate into financial institutions, then back out into real estate loans—is one reason why federal statistics lump real estate and finance together as the “finance, insurance, and real estate” sector, or FIRE for short.

Who Receives Income Generated by Real Estate?

Federal income and tax statistics attribute income from real estate to three categories of owners: persons, corporate real estate and noncorporate real estate. These categories are not self-explanatory. They are based on the motives and behavior of real estate owners, and do not refer simply to individual people, partnerships and companies.

“Persons” receive some income from real estate, though it is not their primary way of earning a living. They may rent out an apartment in a two-family house or a second home during the off-season, for example; or, they may own an apartment building or small commercial property.

“Corporate real estate” is a relatively small category, consisting only of land and buildings that are owned and used for non-real estate business purposes. For example, manufacturing companies typically own their own corporate headquarters and industrial plants. To capture tax advantages, however, these companies may spin off their facilities as “noncorporate” real estate, then lease them back.

The “noncorporate real estate” category is the least obvious. Owners in this category participate either full- or part-time in real estate as a business, mostly through partnerships. The category includes a wide range of people and organizations, from professional developers or property management companies to doctors who own nursing homes.

In 1993, the annual earnings for these three categories were $86 billion for persons, $3 billion for corporate owners, and $120 billion for noncorporate owners (see charts 2-4).

How Is Real Estate Income Taxed?

Since 1970, when the federal government began separating real estate statistics from those for the finance and insurance sectors, real estate has shown little taxable income. Corporate and noncorporate real estate businesses enjoy several tax advantages that help to account for this seeming anomaly of the economy’s major asset generating such low reported earnings:

(a) Like other business owners, they can deduct the cost of maintaining their property (painting, landscaping, replacing a leaky roof, etc.) as an expense before paying taxes on their business income. The purpose of this spending is to preserve the value of their real estate.

(b) They can also claim depreciation (“capital consumption allowances”) for their buildings (technically land does not depreciate). In most businesses, this allowance is a way to compensate for wear-and-tear on machinery, which must be replaced when it becomes obsolete. In practice, real estate owners have often been allowed to depreciate their buildings even though their market value is not declining at all.

(c) When owners sell their properties, any positive difference between the depreciated price received and the price originally paid is taxed as a capital gain. Capital gains are taxed at a lower rate than other income. Thus, over-depreciation turns out to be a way of minimizing tax liability.

The combination of (b) and (c) raises what might seem like an obvious question: how can real estate depreciate, losing value and eventually needing replacement, yet end up selling for more than its purchase price, generating capital gains? Of course a given piece of real estate does not always do both. Some real estate is indeed sold at a loss–for example, if property values in a whole neighborhood or city decline. But land, unlike machinery or even buildings, cannot wear out. Since World War II, urban land in particular and real estate holdings in general have gained in value far more often than they have declined.

How Should Real Estate Income Be Taxed?

In a rising market, federal tax policy allows real estate investors to earn several times more than they could simply by making smart buying and selling decisions. Writing off maintenance expenses and the supposedly declining value of the property before calculating taxable income means that the same property can produce a steady income for realtors and potential investors, but appear to lose money as far as the federal tax collector is concerned.

A tax-smart investor in a rising real estate market will own a piece of property only until it has been fully depreciated. It then has a “book value” of zero—like a piece of machinery so worn out or outdated that it cannot be sold at any price. The owner of such a machine has to junk it and buy a new one. The real estate investor, in contrast, can sell the “zero value” property to new owners, who can depreciate it all over again starting from the new, higher price they paid.

The upshot of these tax policies is that an industry with large total earnings reports little or no taxable income. Charts 3 and 4 show that real estate businesses have reported a negative taxable income frequently since the mid-1980s, despite the fact that real estate values in many places were rising. Since the real estate industry pays hardly any income taxes on its rental income, the major federal tax it does pay is the capital gains tax—for that is where the accumulated rental earnings are taken, when the building is sold for its depreciated value.

Does such favorable tax treatment for real estate benefit the economy as a whole? That question cannot be answered from tax statistics alone. The answer depends in part on whether all real estate projects that are taxed the same way are equally good at generating public benefits, such as jobs in construction and property maintenance, or other needed goods such as housing, shopping, and manufacturing facilities. If the answer to that question is “no,” then the public interest might be better served if funds now invested in real estate for tax advantages alone were invested in new technologies or public infrastructure.


Michael Hudson is a research associate at the Jerome Levy Economics Institute at Bard College in New York. He is writing a book about how federal income and capital gains taxes on land and buildings affect national taxation and investment patterns, and he spoke on this topic at the Lincoln Institute in October 1995.