[This article has been updated to reflect the new tax law that went into effect on January 1, 2018]
Let’s talk about the home office deduction.
People ask me about it all the time.
“Can I take it?”
“Do I qualify?”
“Will it increase my chances of getting audited?”
All of these are reasonable questions — particularly nowadays, when the numbers of microbusinesses, home-based entrepreneurs, and freelancers have grown so much over the past few years.
Here’s the answer, in a nutshell: The home office deduction is perfectly legitimate for business owners, and you should absolutely consider it. Here are some important facts about this deduction—all sourced from the IRS’ summary, Publication 587 (Business Use of Your Home), and Form 8829 (Expenses for Business Use of Your Home). Of course, you should also check with your accountant.
As of 2018, whether or not your home office deduction is allowed will depend on whether you are someone else’s employee or you are a self-employed or freelance/contract worker. Under the new tax law that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2018, unreimbursed business expense deductions for employees (including the home office deduction for work-from-home employees) are no longer allowed. So, if you’re working from home as part of an employer-employee relationship (not as an independent contractor or freelancer), don’t expect to get a tax break for your home office.
Business owners, however, can still claim the home office deduction if they meet the following criteria.
1. To even consider getting the deduction, a part of your home has to be your principal place of business.
Your bedroom doesn’t count, and neither does your kitchen. It must be an area that is exclusively and regularly used for business — seeing customers/clients or storing stuff. There are different rules for rental properties. Publication 587 goes into more detail and provides specific case studies that may match your situation. If, for example, you’re operating a daycare facility from your home, Publication 587 has specific instructions for you, too. Sorry, Xanax is not deductible.
2. You must be filing either a Schedule C or a Schedule A with your personal tax return.
Schedule C is the form for an unincorporated business or sole proprietorship. This is the form where you list all revenues and expenses related to your business, including the home office deduction. Schedule A is the itemized deduction form and will include other items such as medical expenses, taxes paid, and charitable contributions. You will only use Schedule A if your itemized deductions exceed the standard deduction on your personal return.
A note about the standard deduction: Under the new tax law that took effect Jan. 1, 2018, the standard deduction has nearly doubled, in 2018, to $12,000 for single filers and to $24,000 for married filing jointly. This is one of the biggest changes in the new tax law for many taxpayers, because it means that it may no longer make sense for you to itemize your deductions on Schedule A. If your itemized deductions don’t add up to a number that’s bigger than the standard deduction, you will just take the standard deduction — which is good, if it helps you save on your taxes, yet can feel bad if it turns some of these longstanding “tax saving” strategic moves into an irrelevant waste of effort.
However, even if you end up taking the standard deduction, you should still crunch the numbers on your home office (along with tracking the numbers for all of your other possible itemized deductions) just to be sure. You always want to deduct whichever number is bigger.
3. You can make it complicated.
If you desire, you can submit a full detail of expenses related to your home office on Form 8829. You can calculate depreciation. You can list out your costs for insurance, repairs, telephone and internet services, rentals, taxes, and interest — so long as they’re all related to your business activities in your home. Some of these expenses are directly related; others you’ll need to allocate based on the percentage of space your office takes up in your home. Your deduction is limited, based on the income your home office is generating.
4. Or you can make it simple.
In 2013, the IRS recognized that many people are operating businesses from their home and don’t want to be bothered with the complexities of the detailed calculations above. So the agency is now allowing you to simplify the process. You can just take the square footage of the business use of your home and multiply it by a standard $5. The square footage is limited to 300 feet. Again, Publication 587 offers examples.
5. Having a home office doesn’t increase your chances of an audit.
The IRS doesn’t disclose how it determines who they pick for an audit. But relax. For starters, a small, small, small percentage of people and small businesses are picked by the IRS for an audit every year. Most of the IRS’s audit efforts go toward following the big money from large companies or high-net-worth individuals. That’s not to say that you won’t win (or lose) the audit lottery and be chosen. But it won’t be because of your home office, unless you’re claiming something so outrageous and so large that it causes the IRS computers to spit out their floppy disks and stop their reel-to-reel tape drives. Having said that, you still want to play by the rules because if you are unlucky enough to be chosen — even for a cursory review — you want to make sure your numbers add up.
The home office deduction may be a valid, valuable tax deduction for you if you’re a business owner (not an employee!) and you meet the requirements. Talk to your accountant. Don’t ignore this potential tax-saver.
Join writer and small business owner Gene Marks each Wednesday on the Small Biz Ahead podcast.