Starker Exchanges: A Very Useful Tax Tool

Yes, you can defer tax on the profit from selling an investment property, if you do it right!


Nobody wants to pay tax when they sell their investment real estate. If you sell your principal residence, and have lived there for two out of the past five years before it is sold, you can completely exclude up to $250,000 of any gain you have made ($500,000 if you are married and file a joint return).

But if you sell investment real estate, you will have to pay the capital gains tax – unless you engage in some creative tax activities. One such procedure is known as a Starker (or “deferred”) Exchange, named after Mr. Starker. Starker had to all the way to the Supreme Court, but he established a basic principle: if you exchange one property for another -- even if the replacement property is obtained at a later date -- under section 1031 of the Internal Revenue Code you do not have to pay tax on the sale. Instead, the basis of the old (relinquished) property becomes the basic of the new (replacement) property.

Congress did not like the fact that several years had elapsed between the time Starker sold the relinquished property and the time he obtained the replacement property. Thus, Congress set strict, non-waivable time limitations. You must identify the replacement property (or properties) within 45 days from the date you sell the relinquished property, and you must take title to that property within 180 days from the earlier sale.

If you sell your investment property and buy another one within the time frames spelled out by Congress, you will defer – not avoid – having to pay the capital gains tax now.

Some people just do not want to continue to be landlords, and may want to “bite the bullet” and pay the tax. But, in my opinion, the exchange provisions of the Internal Revenue Code are l an important tool for any real estate investor.

The law establishing this like-kind exchange can be found in Section 1031 of the Internal Revenue Code. The rules are complex, but here is a general overview of the process.

Section 1031 permits a delay (non-recognition) of gain only if the following conditions are met:

First, the relinquished property transferred and the replacement property must be "property held for productive use in trade, in business or for investment." Neither properties in this exchange can be your principal residence, unless you have abandoned the property as your personal house.

Second, there must be an exchange; the IRS wants to ensure that a transaction that is called an exchange is not really a sale and a subsequent purchase.

Third, the replacement property must be of "like kind." The courts have given a very broad definition to this concept. As a general rule, all real estate is considered "like kind" with all other real estate. Thus, a farm can be exchanged for a condominium unit, a single family home for an office building, or raw land for commercial or industrial property.

Once you meet these tests, it is important that you determine the tax consequences. If you do a like-kind exchange, your profit will be deferred until you sell the replacement property. However, since the cost basis of the new property in most cases will be the basis of the old property, you should review your situation with your accountant to determine whether the savings by using the like-kind exchange will make up for the lower cost basis on your new property.

The traditional, classic exchange (A and B swap properties) rarely works. Not everyone is able to find replacement property before they sell their own property. In a case involving Mr. Starker, the court held that the exchange does not have to be simultaneous. However, as discussed above, there are now strict time limitations imposed by law on when the exchange must take place. These are very important time limitations, which should be noted on your calendar when you first enter into a 1031 exchange.

In 1989, Congress added two additional technical restrictions. First, property located in the United States cannot be exchanged for property outside the United States.

Second, if property received in a like-kind exchange between related persons is disposed of within two years after the date of the last transfer, the original exchange will not qualify for non-recognition of gain.

In May of 1991, the Internal Revenue Service adopted final regulations which clarified many of the issues.

This column cannot analyze all of these regulations. The following, however, will highlight some of the major issues:

1. Identification of the replacement property within 45 days. 

According to the IRS, the taxpayer may identify more than one property as replacement property. However, the maximum number of replacement properties that the taxpayer may identify is either three properties of any fair market value, or any number of properties as long as their aggregate fair market value does not exceed 200% of the aggregate fair market value of all of the relinquished properties.

Furthermore, the replacement property or properties must be unambiguously described in a written document. According to the IRS, real property must be described by a legal description, street address or distinguishable name (e.g., The Camelot Apartment Building)."

2. Who is the neutral party?

Conceptually, the relinquished property is sold, and the sales proceeds are held in escrow by a neutral party, until the replacement property is obtained. Usually, an intermediary or escrow agent is involved in the transaction. In order to make absolutely sure that the taxpayer does not have control or access to these funds during this interim period, the IRS requires that this agent cannot be the taxpayer or a related party. The holder of the escrow account can be an attorney or a broker engaged primarily to facilitate the exchange, although the attorney cannot have represented the taxpayer on other legal matters within two years of the date of the sale of the relinquished property.

3. Interest on the exchange proceeds .

One of the underlying concepts of a successful 1031 exchange is the absolute requirement that the sales proceeds not be available to the seller of the relinquished property under any circumstances unless the transactions do not take place.

Generally, the sales proceeds are placed in escrow with a neutral third party. Since these proceeds may not be used for the purchase of the replacement property for up to 180 days, the amount of interest earned can be significant.

Surprisingly, the Internal Revenue Service permitted the taxpayer to earn interest -- referred to as "growth factor" -- on these escrowed funds. Any such interest to the taxpayer has to be reported as earned income. Once the replacement property is obtained by the exchanger, the interest can either be used for the purchase of that property, or paid directly to the exchanger.

There is an interesting loophole which may be attractive to many readers who currently own rental property. Let us assume that you have found your dream house in Florida, or in Delaware or anywhere in the United States for that matter. This is where you want to live after retirement. If you do a 1031 exchange now, and obtain title to the replacement property where you ultimately want to live when you retire, you can rent out that property until you decide to move. Then, once you have established the new property as your principal residence, if you live in it for at least two years – and more than two years have elapsed since you sold your last principal residence – once again you can exclude up to $250,000 (or $500,000 if married and you file jointly) of the gain you have made.

Although the IRS has given us no guidance as to how long you have to use the replacement property as “investment” property, the general consensus is that you should rent out the property for at least one complete tax year.

Thus, depending on the numbers and the facts, you may ultimately be able to avoid the capital gains tax which would normally be due when you sold your investment property.

The IRS has also authorized taxpayers to engage in “reverse Starkers”, where you buy the replacement property first and then exchange (sell) the relinquished property. This is much more complex, and you have to get specific guidance from your own tax advisors.

The rules for a “like-kind” exchange are not complex -- but must be strictly applied.. You must obtain competent, professional financial and legal assistance if you plan to go this route.

Authored by Benny L. Kass, Published by Realty Times

More Information and Definitions

Working Definition of 1031 Exchange: "Like kind exchange": the sale of property held for productive use in a trade or business or for investment ("relinquished property") and the purchase of like kind ("replacement property") intended by the Exchangor to be held for productive use in a trade or business or for investment.

Income tax implications: A like kind exchange allows the Exchangor to delay the payment of the tax normally due upon the sale of the relinquished property until a later sale of the replacement property. Generally, the tax basis of the replacement property is the tax basis of the relinquished property plus new cash paid at closing on the replacement property.

Timing: The exchange can be: (a) simultaneous closing; or (b) non-simultaneous. For examples of non-simultaneous, the sale of relinquished property can come first and the purchase of the replacement property later ("deferred exchange"); or the purchase the replacement property can come first and the sale of the relinquished property later ("reverse exchange").

Dates for Deferred Exchange: Identify replacement property on or before the 45th day after the earlier of the date of the sale of relinquished property or due date of tax return for year of sale, close on the replacement property on or before the 180th day after the sale of the relinquished property.

Dates for Reverse Exchange: Generally, identify the relinquished property on or before the 45th day after the date of purchase of the replacement property, and close on the sale of the relinquished property and acquire the replacement property on or before 180 days after the date of purchase of the replacement property.

Reverse Exchange: Owner "purchases" replacement property first in a "parking arrangement" and later sells the relinquished property. Recent "safe harbor” provisions from IRS are applicable. Replacement property must be “parked” awaiting sale of the relinquished property.

Practical Problems with Reverse Exchange: (a) requires cash to purchase the replacement property before the Exchangor has cash from the sale of the relinquished property, and (b) strict compliance with the deadline (180 days) for sale of the relinquished property.

New LLC Rule: IRS has ruled that the Exchangor can sell relinquished property in individual name and purchase replacement property in LLC (disregarded entity), and qualify for the like kind exchange.

Rod Rawlings

(941) 713-4446

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