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Is Depreciation an Operating Expense?

Sophia Merton
October 12, 2022

Creating a rental property cash flow analysis is an important step to take when you’re investing in real estate. Understanding what is and isn’t an operating expense can be confusing, and it’s easy to make mistakes when determining whether a property is a good investment. One question new investors commonly ask is: Is depreciation an operating expense?

The short answer is: no. While depreciating your investment property is one of the biggest perks of owning rentals, it shouldn’t be included in your operating expenses.

Is Depreciation an Operating Expense For Rental Properties?

Depreciation is not considered an operating expense for rental properties. Other costs that are excluded from operating expenses include capital expenses and mortgage payments.

door of rental property with operating expenses
Operating expenses are the recurring costs of maintaining a property in good condition, and depreciation, therefore, isn't considered an operating expense.

Owners of residential investment properties are allowed by the IRS to claim an annual depreciation expense. This is to help compensate for normal wear and tear as well as obsolescence.

Operating expenses are the ongoing costs required to keep your property in good shape.

Depreciation isn't a direct or recurring cost; it doesn’t impact your rental property’s ability to create income and is, therefore, not an operating expense. That being said, depreciation is one of the major benefits of investing in rentals.

Understanding Depreciation

The idea behind depreciation is that tangible assets are depleted throughout their lifespan through decay or usage. This means that the value of the property is reduced as time goes on.

taxes sign on us cash for rental property
Depreciation is one of the major tax benefits of investing in real estate.

The assumption is that a property won’t be in pristine condition forever due to wear and tear.

For this reason, the IRS lets you claim depreciation during a set period of time known as the recovery period. Different assets have different recovery periods.

For example, less expensive purchases like furniture and office equipment have a recovery period that lasts seven years. Commercial properties, on the other hand, have recovery periods of thirty-nine years, while residential investment properties have a 27.5-year recovery period.

You can figure out the amount you can claim as a depreciation deduction every year by dividing the cost basis and value of the property over the number of years in the recovery period as indicated by the IRS.

It’s worth noting that the value of the land is not a part of your depreciation calculations, only the structures on the land. This is because the land is not considered a depreciating asset.

Understanding Operating Costs

Understanding operating expenses is essential for determining how much you should expect to profit from your rental and what kind of cash flow you should be bringing in. These are the costs that you need to pay in order to keep your property in good condition and ensure that it generates income. In short, operating expenses are costs that have an impact on the day-to-day operation of your rental.

rural rental property with operating expenses
Estimating your operating expenses before buying a rental is an essential key for ensuring you have positive cash flow.

It’s important to include the right costs when determining your operating expenses. Otherwise, you can be left with a skewed outlook of a particular rental property. This can mean you make an investment decision based on faulty information.

If you include the wrong elements in the operating expenses for a property you already one, it can be difficult to accurately understand how your property is performing.

Are You Eligible to Claim Depreciation For Your Rental?

Certain requirements need to be met in order to claim depreciation on rental properties. These are:

  • You must be the owner of the property, whether through a loan or outright
  • The property must be used as a part of an income-producing activity or in your business
  • The useful life of the property is expected to be longer than one year
  • There is a determinable useful life of the property

Are you wondering where you should buy your next property? Check out our list of the best places to buy rentals in the US.

What Costs Are Considered Operating Expenses For Rentals?

It can feel pretty confusing to understand what costs are considered operating expenses when you’re first starting out as a rental property owner. In general, you should only include costs that are ongoing and that go towards keeping the property in a good condition.

lawnmower outside rental property operating expense
A number of recurring costs are considered operating expenses when it comes to rental property ownership, including things like lawn care and snow removal.

It’s worth noting that operating expenses can vary depending on the property. Some of the common expenses that are considered operating expenses include:

  • Repairs and maintenance: Everything from plumbing repairs to tuning up the HVAC system fall into this category.
  • Leasing fees: If you use a property manager, leasing fees count as an operating expense
  • Tenant screening fees: The cost of running a background check, credit report, eviction report, and rental history report
  • Marketing and advertising costs: Fees for listing your rental online and in print, purchasing ‘For Rent’ signs, and creating a website for your real estate business or specific property
  • Pest control: The cost of periodic treatment for common pests like ants, termites, cockroaches, or spiders
  • Landscaping and snow removal: You might choose to have your tenant take care of the cost of landscaping and snow removal, but if not, these also count as operating expenses
  • Insurance: Even if your insurance premiums are included in your mortgage payment, they count as a deductible expense
  • HOA Fees: Annual dues and fees to HOAs are deductible expenses, if applicable
  • Property taxes: Even if your property taxes are paid as a part of your mortgage payment, they qualify as an operating expense
  • Professional service fees: If you pay professionals like attorneys, financial planners, or accountants as a part of your rental property business, you can deduct these expenses

To learn more about how you should report your operating expenses to the IRS as a part of filing your taxes, you’ll want to take a look at IRS Schedule E (Form 1040).

It's also worth noting that owning your rental properties through an LLC will change the way you do your taxes. You can learn about the disadvantages of using LLCs for rentals in this post.

What Else Isn’t Included in Operating Expenses For Rentals?

Mortgage payments, capital expenses, investor income taxes, and depreciation aren’t considered operating expenses. We’ve already talked about depreciation, but let’s take a quick look at why these other costs don’t qualify.

Mortgage Payments

One of the major components of your cash flow (whether it’s positive or negative) is likely your mortgage payment. If you didn’t buy the property in cash, you’re probably making monthly mortgage payments.

When you’re looking at the estimated operating expenses for a potential property, it’s important to understand that the mortgage payments aren’t included in this number. The reason for this is that different investors will have different financing terms.

Capital Expenses

The money that you put towards improvements and large repairs doesn’t count as operating expenses. For example, if you replace the roof on a property, this is considered a capital expense rather than a part of routine maintenance.

Investor Income Taxes

Income taxes aren’t included in operating expenses, but property taxes are. Since your income taxes aren’t directly related to your rental property’s ability to generate income, they don’t count as operating expenses.

Understanding the ins and outs of rental property investing can present a big learning curve for new investors, and even seasoned investors can find the whole process a bit confusing.

If you’re considering buying a rental and are trying to choose the right one, you’ll want to make sure that all of the numbers lean in your favor. Be sure to check out our rental property calculators to help you create a shortlist and select the property that best fits your investment needs.

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Written By:
Sophia Merton
Sophia received her BA from Vassar College and is a real estate investor and researcher. With more than ten years of experience owning and managing investment properties, she has gained valuable insight into the pros and cons of operating rentals. Sophia is dedicated to helping others create wealth through real estate and aims to provide straightforward information about every aspect of rental property ownership.
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