It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that legal and professional costs can be computed in calculating taxable profits if they are incurred wholly and exclusively for the purposes of the business; however this is only part of the story.  

Legal and professional fees – Capital or revenue?

At some point, a landlord is likely to incur legal and professional fees in connection with the running of their property rental business. It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that these costs can be computed in calculating taxable profits if they are incurred wholly and exclusively for the purposes of the business; however this is only part of the story. The landlord must also determine whether the costs are revenue or capital in nature. The rules also differ depending upon whether the accounts are prepared on the cash basis or using traditional accounting under the accruals basis.

The rule

The nature of the legal fees follow that of the matter to which they relate – so if the fees are incurred in relation to an item which is itself revenue in nature, the legal and professional fees are also revenue in nature. Likewise, legal fees that are incurred in connection with a matter that is capital in nature are also capital in nature.
Legal fees that are revenue in nature would include, for example, fees incurred to recover unpaid rent, while legal fees that are capital in nature would include fees incurred in connection with the purchase of a property.

Cash or accruals basis

Revenue items are deductible in computing profits regardless of whether they are prepared under the cash or accruals basis, although the time at which the relief is given will differ. Under the cash basis, the deduction is given for the period to which the expenditure relates, for the cash basis the deduction is given for the period for which the expenditure is incurred.
For capital expenditure different rules apply. No deduction is allowed for capital expenditure under the accrual basis, whereas under the cash basis, the treatment depends on the nature of the item – capital expenditure is deductible under the cash basis unless the expenditure is of a type for which a deduction is expressly forbidden. Items of the forbidden list include expenditure in or in connection with lease premiums and the provision, alteration or disposal of land (which includes property).

Example of allowable revenue items

A deduction for legal and professional fees will normally be allowed where they relate to:
• costs of obtaining a valuation
• normal accountancy costs incurred in preparing accounts of the rental business and agreeing the tax liabilities
• costs of arbitration to determine the rent
• the costs of evicting an unsatisfactory tenant to re-let the property

Example of capital expenses

The following are examples of legal and professional fees which are capital in nature:
• legal costs incurred in acquiring or adding to a property
• costs in connection with negotiations under the Town and Country Planning Act
• fees incurred in pursuing debts of a capital nature, such as the proceeds due on sale

Leases

Leases can be tricky. The expenses incurred in connection with the first letting or subletting for more than one year are deemed to be capital and therefore not deductible – this would include the legal fees incurred in drawing up the lease, surveyors’ fees and commission. However, if the lease is for less than one year, the associated expenses can be deducted. Normal legal and professional fees on the renewal of a lease are also deductible if the lease is for less than 50 years; although any proportion of the fees that relate to the payment of a premium are not deductible.
If a new lease closely follows the previous lease, a change of tenant will not render the associated fees non-deductible. However, if the property is put to other use between lets, or a long lease, say, replaces a short lease, the associated costs will be capital and non-deductible.

Partner note: HMRC’s Property Income Manual PIM 2120

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Renting out a property at a rate below the commercial level might sound like a great idea – but it might cost you dearly if you try to seek tax relief for your expenses!

Properties not let at a commercial rent

There may be a number of reasons why a property is occupied rent-free or let out at rent that is less than the commercial rate. This may often occur where the property is occupied by a family member in order to provide that person with a cheap home. For example, a parent may purchase a house in the town where their student son attends university and let it to the student, and maybe even his housemates, at a low rent to help them out. While the parents’ motives are doubtless philanthropic, their generosity may cost them dearly when it comes to obtaining relief for the associated expenses.

Wholly and exclusively rule

Expenses can only be deducted in computing taxable rental profits if they are incurred wholly and exclusively for the purposes of the property rental business. Unfortunately, HMRC take the view that unless the property is let at full market rent and the lease imposes normal conditions, it is unlikely that the expenses are incurred wholly and exclusively for business purposes. So, where the property is occupied rent-free, there is no tax-relief for expenses.

If the property is let at a rent that is below the market rent, a deduction is permitted, but this is capped at the level of the rent received from the let. This means that where a property is let at below market rent, it is not possible for a rental loss to arise, or for expenses in excess of the rent to be offset against the rent received from other properties in the same property rental business.
Periods between lets

Where there are brief periods where the property is occupied rent-free or let out cheaply, it may be possible to obtain full relief for expenses. For example, if the landlord is actively seeking a tenant and a relative house sits while it is empty, relief will not be restricted as long as the property remains genuinely available for letting. In their guidance HMRC state, that ‘ordinary house sitting by a relative for, say, a month in a period of three years or more will not normally lead to loss of relief’. However, if a relative takes a month’s holiday in a country cottage, relief for expenses incurred in that period will be lost.

Commercial and uncommercial lets

Where a property is let commercially some of the time and uncommercially at other times, expenses should be apportioned on a just and reasonable basis between the commercial and non-commercial lets. Any excess of expenses over rents in the period when commercially let can be deducted in the computing the profit for the rental business as a whole. However, an excess of expenses over rent when the property is let uncommercially are not eligible for relief.
Timing must also be considered – expenses relating to uncommercial lets cannot be deducted simply because they are incurred when the property is let commercially.

Partner note: HMRC Property Income Manual PIM 2130.

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