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Navigate the Tax Rules for Boats and RVs

Posted on Mon, Apr 08, 2019

Will you be cruising the waters on your boat or camping out in your RV this year? Besides the pleasure you can enjoy through your personal property, you may also be eligible for tax breaks, if certain requirements are met.

Following is a brief rundown of four prime tax-saving opportunities.

1. Chartering activities. It's common for some boat owners to charter out their vessels for sightseeing or fishing excursions when they're not being used personally. In other words, this becomes a sideline business that allows you to recoup some of your expenses.

Notably, you can use expenses to offset the taxable income from chartering activities, including the cost of fuel, repairs, insurance, supplies, equipment, mooring and storage, and even fishing gear or binoculars. Plus, you're entitled to a generous depreciation allowance for the vessel itself.

Of course, your deductions are based on the percentage of boat use that's business-related. For example, if you charter out the boat 50% of the time, you can deduct 50% of the expenses.

Finally, be aware that you could run into troubled tax waters if the activity is treated as a hobby, rather than a business. Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), hobby expenses are generally disallowed for 2018-2025. Also, a business operation may trigger other tax consequences (for example, self-employment tax for a sole proprietor).

2. Mortgage interest. Typically, you can deduct mortgage interest on a qualified residence, like the main place where you live, but you're also entitled to interest deductions on a second home, like a vacation home. Surprisingly, the "residence" can also be a boat or a RV.

To qualify for this tax break under the tax code, the boat or RV must have sleeping, cooking and toilet facilities. So, if your boat has a galley, sleeping quarters and a head, you should be in the clear. You can't just barbecue on a boat's deck or throw a sleeping bag down below. Most RVs have the requisite facilities for this deduction.

Keep in mind that the TCJA imposes new limits on mortgage interest deductions for itemizers. It lowers the threshold for new acquisition debt from $1 million to $750,000, but prior loans are grandfathered. It also generally eliminates the deduction for home equity debt.

3. Charitable donations. Maybe you want to upgrade your boat or RV or your passion for boating or camping is waning. In any event, you might decide to donate the boat or vehicle to charity. Assuming certain requirements are met and you itemize deductions, this could provide a tax windfall.

As a general rule, you can deduct the current fair market value (FMV) of the boat or RV on the date of the donation. For instance, if you bought the RV for $80,000 years ago and it's now worth $50,000, you deduct $50,000 on your personal return.

But don't leave matters to chance. Obtain an appraisal from an independent professional. An appraisal is required anyway for property donations above $5,000.

Other special rules may come into play. For instance, the charity must use the boat or RV to further its tax-exempt function. Deal with a qualified charitable organization that is experienced with these types of donations.

4. Sales tax. Depending on your situation, you may be able to deduct the sales tax you pay when you purchase a boat or RV, although the rules have been complicated by the TCJA.

Previously, you could deduct all of your state and local property taxes, plus either your state and local income tax or sales tax. But now the total annual deduction for state and local tax (SALT) payments is limited to $10,000 for 2018-2025.

If you opt to write off sales tax instead of income tax as part of your annual SALT deduction, be aware that you can use either the actual tax paid, based on records, or an amount from a convenient IRS table. Generally, the actual expense method will produce a bigger deduction. Caveat: If you choose the table amount, you can add on sales tax from certain "big-ticket items" — like boats and vehicles!

To Summarize

These are just four ways you may benefit tax-wise from boats or RVs. At other times, you might use the property as transportation for hire or even claim home office deductions if you qualify under the strict letter of the law. Moral of the story: Be aware of all the tax-saving possibilities for these prized possessions.

Tags: Sales Tax, Tax Credit, Charitable Donations, Mortgage