Buying in the American Sun Without Getting Burned

Written by Posted On Monday, 14 November 2005 16:00

Experts project that increasing numbers of Canadians will join the more than three million others who currently escape our northern winter annually as Snowbirds or live in the US year round. Whether you want to move seasonally or permanently to the band of warm Southern US states known as the "Sun Belt," there are a few cold hard facts to consider first.

Successful cross-border real estate buying relies on up-to-date knowledge of continually changing border, legal and political issues.

Canadians are so immersed in American culture, that it's no surprise that we can be lulled into forgetting that the United States is a distinctly different country with very different laws and customs. When "Sun Belt" real estate salespeople from Florida to California encourage Canadian buyers to sign on the dotted line, these American professionals may not understand how little most Canadians know about the differences between buying real estate in the US and back home.

Research this and other issues thoroughly before you buy and save money and stress down the road, according to Bob Keats , author of The Border Guide: A Canadian's Guide to Living, Working, and Investing in the United States , and a senior financial advisor with designations from Canada and the U.S. Keats identifies one tax trap that many couples fall into -- buying in one spouse's name, believing they'll switch ownership later as easily as they can in Canada. However, in the U.S., this name change may be subject to gift tax which starts at about 18 percent and may go as high as 48 percent. This expensive mistake is one example of how, while buying seems easy, problems may materialize on selling or when the owner dies.

That's where good advice comes in. Suggestions from friends and family who own property in the States may be useful, but be careful. To avoid present and future problems with your American real estate, experienced professional cross-border advice is essential for navigating torturous US real estate, immigration, estate and tax laws.

"The complexity adds to your financial risk," explained Keats. "It's not like buying in Muskoka. This is a totally different jurisdiction, a different country. Buying in the U.S. is comparable to marriage and divorce. When you marry, that can be easy, but divorce is complex and takes time. It is easy to buy in the U.S., and several mortgage companies cater to Canadians, but to sell is not so easy as there are a myriad of federal and state laws to satisfy."

Before you dive into the search for your dream property, consider several key decisions which should be made in association with your purchase:

  • Is buying a better idea than renting?

This tenure choice must be looked at on the local level from a variety of view points, including financial commitments, investment returns and lifestyle choices. Does it make financial and practical sense to pay, in US dollars, for the annual upkeep on a property that you may only be able to use a few months of the year? Lawrence Barker, Executive Director of the Canadian Snowbird Association (CSA), cautions buyers to understand what they are buying: "Go and rent for a year; be sure the lifestyle is what you want to do consistently every year."

  • How important is making a profit when the property is sold?

Search out local real estate professionals who have the experience and training to help you make the best long-term real estate decisions while satisfying your present needs.

  • How much time do you want to spend in the US?

US immigration policies are changing quickly, so make sure you know what restrictions you'll face. Currently, Canadian citizens may spend up to 182 days in a twelve month period as visitors, but landed immigrants residing in Canada experience greater limitations. Longer stays involve a wide range of complications depending on the state involved.

  • How much should be spent on buying and maintaining a US property?

Not surprisingly, American governments tax non-resident Canadians more than they tax US residents. Explore the costs of health insurance beforehand. You may be shocked to find out that, if you are fortunate enough to qualify for it, over-wintering insurance can cost thousands.

  • What tax advantages may offset expenses?

According to Keats, tax advantages in the US may be significant: "For retired people, their tax expectancies in high tax brackets will be a fraction of what they are in Canada. For example, [money in an] RRSP can be withdrawn with zero tax, so you'll save [in the US] if you can get a US visa or green card."

  • What precautions should be taken against one owner dying in the U.S.?

Estate planning is an essential element in successfully buying and owning US real estate since it settles relevant complex cross-border legal and financial estate issues in advance, saving time, money and stress.

As if all these considerations are not enough, Keats emphasizes that individual state requirements compound the complexity. Selling real estate in Florida is easier than in North Carolina or Georgia since Florida has no state income tax. If you are a non-resident in Florida you may be subject to holding tax if the selling price is more than US$300,000. To pay this tax, each seller must file a US tax return -- another expense. Then there's capital gain on the profit you make. You'll pay tax on this to the US government in US dollars and also to the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), with a credit for US tax already paid.

"Most Canadians treat [buying in the US] as if they are buying a property next door," said Keats, explaining considerations for registering ownership. "They do not pay attention to how they take title to the property. Depending on which state is involved, there are about 6 ways to title property, each with different implications for taxes on sale or at death, and on how to go through probate. Many estate issues go into a decision of how to take title [when you buy]. In a state like Arizona there is common property, so that's two more choices for title."

'Forewarned is forearmed' is the best motto for cross-border buying since it ensures the only way you may get burned is by the sun.

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