Under United States tax laws and accounting rules, cost segregation is the process of identifying personal property assets that are grouped with real property assets, and separating out personal assets for tax reporting purposes. According to the American Society of Cost Segregation Professionals, a cost segregation is "the process of identifying property components that are considered "personal property" or "land improvements" under the federal tax code."
A cost segregation study identifies and reclassifies personal property assets to shorten the depreciation time for taxation purposes, which reduces current income tax obligations. Personal property assets include a building's non-structural elements, exterior land improvements and indirect construction costs.The primary goal of a cost segregation study is to identify all construction-related costs that can be depreciated over a shorter tax life (typically 5, 7 and 15 years) than the building (39 years for non-residential real property). Personal property assets found in a cost segregation study generally include items that are affixed to the building but do not relate to the overall operation and maintenance of the building.
Land Improvements generally include items located outside a building that are affixed to the land and do not relate to the overall operation and maintenance of a building. Reducing tax lives results in accelerated depreciation deductions, a reduced tax liability, and increased cash flow. Land improvements include parking lots, driveways, paved areas, site utilities, walk ways, sidewalks, curbing, concrete stairs, fencing, retaining walls, block walls, car ports, dumpster enclosures, and landscaping. Landscaping itself can be separated into plants, trees, shrubs, sod, mulch, rock, and security lighting.
A Cost Segregation study allows a taxpayer who owns real estate to reclassify certain assets as Section 1245 property with shorter useful lives for depreciation purposes, rather than the useful life for Section 1250 property.
Recent tax law changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA) have given a boost to cost segregation. Bonus depreciation was increased from 50% to 100% on certain qualifying assets. Real estate investors will receive immediate expensing of certain 5, 7 and 15 year property. TCJA also allows used property that was acquired after Sept. 27, 2017 to qualify for this special depreciation treatment. A quality cost segregation will separate any costs that qualify under the new bonus depreciation rules.
Analysis of capital expenditures is used to determine appropriate asset classifications. Cost segregation identifies building costs that would typically be depreciated over a 27.5 or 39-year period and reclassifies them to permit a shorter, accelerated method of depreciation for certain building costs. Costs for non-structural elements, such as wall covering, carpet, accent lighting, portions of the electrical system, and exterior site improvements such as sidewalks and landscaping, can often be depreciated over five, seven or 15 years, rather than over 27.5 or 39 years.
Real property eligible for cost segregation includes buildings that have been purchased, constructed, expanded or remodeled since 1987. A formal engineering based study is typically cost-effective for buildings purchased or remodeled at a cost greater than $750,000. A cost segregation study is most efficient for new buildings recently constructed, but it can also uncover retroactive tax deductions for older buildings which can generate significant short benefits due to "catch-up" depreciation.
"A cost-segregation specialist can perform a nonintrusive yet detailed engineering study of a building's walls, flooring, and ceilings; and its plumbing, electrical, lighting, telecommunications, heating and cooling systems" (Money Doesn't Grow on Trees, But It Could be Hidden in the Walls By William J. Barnes, CPA).
Usually, a construction engineer will analyze architectural drawings, mechanical and electrical plans, and other blueprints to segregate the structural and general building electrical and mechanical components from those linked to personal property. The study also allocates “soft costs,” such as architect and engineering fees, to all components of the building.
"In general, a study by a construction engineer is more reliable than one conducted by someone with no engineering or construction background. However, the possession of specific construction knowledge is not the only criterion. Experience in cost estimating and allocation, as well as knowledge of the applicable law, are other important criteria. A quality study identifies the preparer and always references his/her credentials, experience and expertise in the cost segregation area" (www.irs.gov - Cost Segregation Audit Technique Guide - Chapter 4 - Principal Elements of a Quality Cost Segregation Study and Report).
In addition to providing lower taxes, cost segregation can benefit businesses in a number of ways:
Downsides to cost segregation studies include cost, the triggering of depreciation recapture and understatement penalties for taxpayers that use cost segregation too aggressively.