Money Talk: Newer new rules for repair costs

IRS issues final regulations for builder expenses – 

– By Mark Battersby –

Since the inception of the Internal Revenue Code, the IRS and rural building businesses have been at odds over whether expenditures are deductible repairs or a capital expenditure. Now, after seven years of drafts and proposed rules, the IRS has issued final regulations addressing whether costs are currently deductible or whether they must be capitalized and recovered through depreciation over time.

The IRS has also released a long-awaited Revenue Procedure that details the procedures for obtaining the “automatic” consent of the IRS to change accounting methods as required by the new repair regulations.

The IRS’s newly released regulations provide guidance on a number of difficult questions, such as whether replacing a component of a building is a current deduction or whether it must be depreciated over 39 years. Expenditures that restore property to its operating state are, according to the IRS a deductible repair. However, expenditures that provide a more permanent increment in longevity, utility, or worth of the property are more likely capital in nature.

If, for example, a building business rebuilds a vehicle’s engine, the IRS usually considers that expenditure to be a capital expense. In the IRS’s view, rebuilding an engine increases the value of the vehicle (the unit of property) and prolongs its economic useful life. By comparison, the IRS views regularly scheduled maintenance repairs as currently deductible, since they do not materially increase the vehicle’s value or appreciably prolong its useful life.

In general, the new regulations distinguish between amounts paid to acquire or produce business property, equipment or machinery, and amounts paid to improve existing property. When it comes to “improvements” to business property, capitalization is required if the expenditure is a betterment, restoration, or adaptation of the unit of property.

A building business must generally capitalize amounts paid to acquire or produce tangible property unless the property falls into the category of materials and supplies, or qualifies for the so-called “de minimis” safe harbor.

Incidental materials and supplies may be deducted when purchased. Tax deductible materials or supplies are tangible personal property, other than inventory, that is used or consumed in the taxpayer’s operations. This includes fuel, lubricants, water, or similar items that can be reasonably expected to be consumed in 12 months or less. It also includes:

1. Other property with an economic useful life of 12 months or less

2. An item with an acquisition or production cost of $200 or less

3. A component acquired to maintain, repair, or improve a unit of tangible property that is not acquired as part of another unit of property

These are items for which records of consumption are not kept and where immediately deducting or expensing them will not distort the building operation’s income. Materials and supplies that do not fit these definitions are deducted when used or consumed.

Safe Harbors can best be compared to legitimate “loopholes” designed by our lawmakers to limit the full impact of a tax law or provision that might be harmful to a particular group of taxpayers. Under the repair regulations, some builders and contractors might benefit from Safe Harbors such as the following:

DE MINIMIS SAFE HARBOR ELECTION: A building business may elect a “de minimis” safe harbor to deduct amounts paid to acquire or produce property up to a dollar threshold of $5,000 per invoice (or per item in some cases), but only $500 for those without.

SMALL TAXPAYER SAFE HARBOR: The regulations add a new safe harbor for builders and contractors with gross receipts of $10 million or less. The safe harbor is intended to simplify small taxpayers’ compliance with the rules requiring capitalization of building improvements. Qualifying small taxpayers can elect not to capitalize building improvements with an unadjusted cost basis of $1 million or less if the total amount paid during the year for repairs, maintenance and improvements does not exceed the lesser of $10,000 or 2 percent of the unadjusted cost basis of the building. The safe harbor is elected annually on a building-by-building basis.

ROUTINE MAINTENANCE SAFE HARBOR: When it comes to expeditures for the routine mainteance performed by so many builders and contractors, there is another safe harbor. Routine maintenance includes the inspection, cleaning, and testing of the property, machinery or equipment and replacement with comparable and commercially available and reasonable replacement parts. Unfortunately, in order to be considered “routine” maintenance, the builder or contractor must expect to perform these services more than once during the class life (generally the same as for depreication) of the property.

The final regulations include an entirely new provision that allows a business to treat amounts paid for repairs and maintenance to tangible property as amounts paid to improve that property. Thus, if the building business chooses, the amounts paid as property improvements become assets subject to depreciation—as long as the expenditures are business-related and the amounts are treated as capital expenditures on the operation’s books and records.

Another significant change in the new regulations allows a building business to take “retirement losses” on components. If, for example, a building’s roof is replaced and the old roof disposed of, the operation now has the option of taking a retirement loss for the old roof. Of course, the replacement roof must be capitalized but while the replacement must be capitalized the retirement loss can be claimed on the roof replaced.

Much of the guidance provided by the IRS revolves around what constitutes a “Unit of Property” (UOP). In general, the smaller the UOP being placed in service, repaired or improved, the more likely that the UOP’s cost will have to be capitalized. For example, work on an engine of a vehicle is more likely to be classified as an expense that must be capitalized if the engine is classified a separate UOP. By contrast, if the UOP is the vehicle, the engine work has a better chance of passing muster as a repair.

The new repair regulations have been described as the most comprehensive changes to the issues of capitalization and write-off in more than 20 years. Some of the new regulation’s safe harbors and elections can be implemented on the building operation’s annual tax return. Unfortunately, since the IRS considers many of the provisions to be accounting methods, many builders and contractors will be required to file not one but numerous Form 3115s, Application for Change in Accounting Method.

A builder or contractor seeking to change to a method of accounting permitted under the final regulations must get the IRS’s consent before implementing that new method. Under the automatic consent procedures, the IRS will consent when a Form 3115, Application for Change in Accounting Method, is attached to the building business’s timely-filed tax return for the year of change (with extensions). A signed copy must also be sent to the IRS’s national office.

While the new repair regulations go a long way to answering the question of what is a repair and what is an expenditure that must be capitalized and depreciated, they also pose considerable compliance risks for every building business. However, many builders and contractors businesses will soon discover they need to elect new tax strategies that require an application for an accounting method change, professional assistance is almost mandatory.


Mark Battersby has more than 35 years experience in small business issues, tax and financial matters. Contact him at 610-789-2480 or

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