Friday, June 22, 2018

Character of Land Sale Gain – What is a Capital Asset?


When land is sold, is the gain on sale taxed as capital gain (preferential rate) or as ordinary income?  As with most answers to tax questions, the answer is that “it depends.”  Most of the time, when a farmer or ranchers sells land, the gain will be a capital gain.  But, there can be situations where the gain will be ordinary in nature – particularly when farmland is subdivided or sold off in smaller tracts.  That’s a technique, by the way of some farm real estate sellers, especially in the eastern third of the United States.  Does selling the land in smaller tracts, or subdividing it create ordinary gain rather than capital gain?

A recent case illustrated the issue of what a capital asset is and the safe harbor that can apply when land is sold that has been subdivided or sold off in smaller tracts.

The character of gain on sale of land and a possible “safe harbor” – that’s the topic of today’s post. 

What Is A Capital Asset?

I.R.C.§1221(a) broadly defines the term “capital asset” as all property held by the taxpayer.  Eight exceptions from that broad definition are provided.  The first exception, I.R.C. §1221(a)(1), states that property that is either inventory or like inventory cannot qualify as a “capital asset.” In particular, I.R.C. §1221(a)(1) says a capital asset does not include “property held by the taxpayer primarily for sale to customers in the ordinary course of his trade or business.”  Whether a landowner is holding land primarily for sale to customers depends on the facts. As the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit put in in the classic case of Mauldin v. Commissioner, 195 F.2d 714 (10th Cir. 1952), “There is no fixed formula or rule of thumb for determining whether property sold by the taxpayer was held by him primarily for sale to customers in the ordinary course of his trade or business. Each case must, in the last analysis, rest upon its own facts.”  The Fifth Circuit has said essentially the same thing in Suburban Realty Co., v. United States, 615 F.2d 171 (5th Cir. 1980)

Subdividing Real Estate

When property is subdivided and then sold, the IRS may assert that the property was being held for sale to customers in the ordinary course of the taxpayer’s trade or business.  If that argument holds, the gain will generate ordinary income rather than capital gain.  However, there is a Code provision that can come into play.  I.R.C. §1237 provides (at least) a partial safe harbor that allows a taxpayer “who is not otherwise a dealer”… to dispose of a tract of real property, held for investment purposes, by subdividing it without necessarily being treated as a real estate dealer.”  If the provision applies, the taxpayer is not treated as a “dealer” just simply because the property was subdivided in an attempt to sell all or a part of it.  But, the safe harbor only applies if there is a question of whether capital gain treatment applies.  If capital gain treatment undoubtedly applies, I.R.C. §1237 does not apply.  See, e.g., Gordy v. Comr., 36 T.C. 855 (1961). 

What is a “dealer”?  It’s not just subdividing land that can cause a taxpayer to be a “dealer” in real estate with gains on sale taxes as ordinary income.  That’s the result if the taxpayer is engaged in the business of selling real estate; holds property for the purpose of selling it and has sold other parcels of land from the property over a period of years; or the gain is realized from a sale in the ordinary operation of the taxpayer’s business.  In addition, it’s possible that a real estate dealer may be classified as an investor with respect to some properties sold and capital gains treatment on investment properties.  But, as to other tracts, the dealer could be determined to be in the business of selling real estate with the sale proceeds taxed as ordinary income.  See, e.g., Murray v. Comr., 370 F.2d 568 (4th Cir. 1967). 

The “Safe Harbor”

I.R.C. §1237 specifies that gain from the sale or exchange of up to five lots sold from a tract of land can be eligible for capital gain treatment.  Sale or exchange of additional lots will result in some ordinary income.  To qualify for the safe harbor, both the taxpayer and the property must meet the requirements of I.R.C. §1237 and make an election to have the safe harbor apply.  For the taxpayer to qualify for the election, the taxpayer cannot be a C corporation.  Presumably, an LLC taxed as a partnership would qualify.  For property to qualify, it must have not previously been held by the taxpayer primarily for sale to customers in the ordinary course of business; in the year of sale, the taxpayer must not hold other real estate for sale as ordinary income property; no substantial improvement that considerably enhances the property value has been made to the property (see I.R.C. §1237(b(3); Treas. Reg. §1.1237-1(c)); and the taxpayer must have held the property for at least five years.  I.R.C. §1237(a).

If the requirements are satisfied, the taxpayer can elect to have the safe harbor apply by submitting a plat of the subdivision, listing all of the improvements and providing an election statement with the return for the year in which the lots covered by the election were sold.     

Recent Case

In Sugar Land Ranch Development, LLC v. Comr., T.C. Memo. 2018-21, the taxpayers formed a partnership in 1998 to buy and develop land outside of Houston for the purpose of turning that land into housing developments and commercial developments. The partnership acquired various parcels of land totaling about 950 acres. The land had been a former oil field and so over the years the partnership cleaned up the land, built a levee, and entered into a development contract with the city of Sugar Land, Texas to set up the rules for developing the lots.  All of this sounds like the characteristics of a “developer” doesn’t it?

By 2008, the partnership had done a lot of work developing the land.  But, then the downturn in the real estate market hit and the partnership stopped doing any more work.  It wasn’t until 2012 that the partnership sold any significant part of the land. In that year it sold two parcels (about 530 acres) to a homebuilding company.  The homebuilding company paid a lump sum for each parcel, and also agreed to make future payments relating to the expected development.  A flat fee was paid for each plat recorded, and the homebuilding company paid two percent of the final sales price of each house developed on one of the parcels.

The partners entered into a “Unanimous Consent” dated December 16, 2008, declaring that the partnership would no longer attempt to develop the land but would instead hold the land until the real estate market recovered enough to sell at a profit.

The partnership reported an $11 million gain from the sale of one parcel and a $1.6 million loss on the other parcel. It took the position that the land sold was a “capital asset” and so the gains and losses were capital gains and losses.  The IRS disagreed.  After all, it pointed out that the partnership acquired the property to develop it and merely delayed doing so because of the economic downturn.

Ultimately, the Tax Court agreed that the partnership had successfully changed its operations after 2008 from “developer” to “investor” such that the land it sold in 2012 was a capital asset and the gain was a capital gain.  That made a big bottom-line tax difference.


The partnership in Sugar Land Ranch Development, LLC never actually subdivided the property at issue into separate lots, and the IRS still claimed it was acquired and held for development purposes.  While capital gain classification is based on a facts and circumstances test, subdividing land for sale doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s no longer a capital asset.  That’s the point of I.R.C. §1237 and the safe harbor.  In addition, the facts can cause the reason for holding property to change over time.  That, in turn, can change the tax result.

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