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As I understand it, in Canada (unlike the US) there is some freedom in how much depreciation expense you can claim for a rental property every year, from 0 all the way up to 4% of the yet-undepreciated cost (except land cost).

Assuming that I have a stable income, and that the property also produces a stable net positive income (above the max. depreciation amount), am I correct that it's basically always worth it to deduct the maximum allowed depreciation?

Here's my reasoning: If I deduct depreciation, it essentially reduces my net income, so I'm saving the marginal tax rate. However, it reduces the cost basis for the property, so when I eventually sell it, I will pay more in capital gains tax. However, since it's capital gains and not income, it will only be 50% of the marginal tax rate.

So, it seems like overall I'd be saving 50% of the marginal rate by deducting the depreciation. (I am assuming stable income, i.e. my marginal tax rate won't change between now and when I sell the property). And there's also the time value of money: I'd be getting the income deduction now, and the extra capital gains tax would be payable potentially many years down the line.

This seems too good to be true... Am I missing something in how this works? Or is it really overwhelmingly worth it to deduct depreciation?

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  • There is also the possibility that you never sell (die old and give it to your kids); or that you re-invest the sale price immediately into another property. Both make it even better...
    – Aganju
    May 2 at 5:48

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Yes, it is better to take depreciation most of the time, but not quite as much as you imply. Keep in mind the rules of depreciation in Canada:

  • Depreciation on rental properties reduces your rental income, but cannot create or increase a rental loss - so in years where you may lack tenants for some months and have less income, you may not be able to take much or any depreciation.

  • You cannot 'double-up' on untaken depreciation in future years. You have the ability to claim depreciation up to the fixed level for all combined assets you have in the same depreciation class. So pausing depreciation can't allow future 'catchup'. From a theoretical finance standpoint, if you had this rental property for 20+ years, pausing that tax-refund cash inflow for 1 year is nearly the same as eliminating it forever, given diminishing returns of the time value of money.

  • Taking depreciation [or, 'Capital Cost Allowance' for Canadian tax purposes] does not reduce the 'Adjusted Cost Basis' of an asset for capital gain purposes; instead it reduces the 'undepreciated capital cost' of that asset. When you sell the property down the road, if it is for more than your original purchase price [net other adjustments], you will pay the same capital gain amount regardless of how much depreciation ('CCA') you took. So, this does not 'convert' fully-allowed deductions into half-taxable capital gains.

  • When you sell your rental property, you will take additional income in that future year called 'recapture', which is basically the sum total of all historical depreciation taken, up to either the original price or the final sale price.

example: assume you buy a $150k house [and let's assume $50k of the value is in non-depreciable land, and $100k is allowed for the 4% depreciation on buildings], and you claim $2k depreciation in year one [1/2 depreciation in the first year], and 3,920 in year 2 [98k remaining * .04], and 3,763 in year three. This is 9,683 total reduction of income across 3 years. In year 4, if you sold for $200k you would take back the full 9,683 depreciation as 'recapture'. If you sold for $145k [let's assume $50k value in the land still, and $95k value in the building], you would take recapture of just 4,683 - reflecting that you sold the building for 5k less than you purchased, but had taken total depreciation of 9,683.

So in summary, as you state, depreciation taken today is an immediate reduction in your income, however you should be aware that there will be a pending 'hammer drop' of recapture income in the future when you sell.

If your marginal tax rate stays the same every year, it is a no-brainer - take every deduction as soon as you can. However if your marginal rate will go up (and stay up!) in the future, it may be worthwhile to hold back on taking full depreciation now, to reduce the impact of recapture income in the future.

Even if your marginal tax rate will be higher in the year that you face recapture [likely, given you will have recapture income, + possible capital gain from the sale], assuming it is far enough in the future, it can still be worthwhile to take CCA. Whether this would be exactly true for you, would depend on precise calculations.

Example: Assume you have a rental property with a simple 10k annual depreciation available to you, and you are in a 35% tax bracket today, and will be in a 40% tax bracket in 5 years, when you will sell your property for a gain. Assume your tax refund would otherwise be invested in a stock portfolio earning 10% return. 4 years of 10k deductions at 35% = 14k net savings the first 4 years, and 40k of income at 45% = 16k extra tax in year 5. However the 10% compounded earnings on the earlier deductions is itself worth about 4k combined, leaving a net benefit of taking the depreciation of 2k. HOWEVER! If you earn less on your investments, or sell more quickly, or move into an even higher tax bracket, things can become less clear - for example with the above numbers, if you move into a 45% tax bracket in year 5, your net benefit of 10% annual investment compounding almost exactly breaks even with the extra tax costs in year 5. It can be hard to tell the future so some doubt can exist here, but annually projecting these things for yourself can help you make the decision each year.

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  • Going beyond the written examples in my answer, you should consider for yourself what your plans for the property are [how long before you intend on selling], and what your taxable income situation would be now vs then. In some cases it can be quite simple to show that you shouldn't claim depreciation. Example - if you have a 35% marginal tax rate for 2021 based on your tax return you are going to file today, and you already sold your rental property in February 2022, and you project to be in a 40% tax bracket 2022, then the tax savings today would be worse than the tax bill in 10 months! May 2 at 14:12
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    Thank you very much for such a detailed answer! I guess it's the fact that this "recapture" is treated as ordinary income, and not as capital gains, was the main fact I was missing.
    – Eugene O
    May 2 at 19:07

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