Property Nightmare

A New Withholding Tax Nightmare on Property Purchases from 1 July 2016

Thinking about buying your dream home for $2million or more? Beware of the new tax rules required to meet your obligations and to avoid penalties below:

New rules to prevent foreign residents avoiding tax when they selling their Australian property will affect them from buying or selling property with a market value of $2 million or more from 1 July 2016.  Many transactions involving shares in a company or units in a trust will also be caught.

From 1 July, a 10% withholding tax will apply when foreign residents sell certain types of Australian property.  However, if you are selling Australian property, the new rules assume you are a non-resident unless you have a clearance certificate from the ATO.  Without this clearance certificate, the purchaser can withhold 10% of the purchase price and pay this to the ATO.  For purchasers, if you do not withhold the tax and do not have a clearance certificate, you are liable for the tax (on a $2 million property, that’s $200,000).

You can probably already see the problem here. Until everyone gets used to this new system there are likely to be quite a few issues where property contracts don’t mention the withholding tax, no clearance certificate is provided, and no tax is withheld on settlement.

The good news is that the withholding tax does not apply to real property that has a market value of less than $2 million.  This exclusion can apply to residential dwellings, commercial premises, vacant land, strata title units, easements and leasehold interests as long as they are below the $2 million market value threshold.

Where there is more than one purchaser, the market values of all of the interests to be acquired need to be aggregated to determine whether the $2 million threshold applies. For example, if mum and dad are buying a property as joint tenants with a total market value of $3 million, the rules could be triggered even though their individual interest in the property is only worth $1.5 million.

The $2 million exclusion does not apply to indirect interests in Australian real property such as shares in a company or units in a trust that hold real property in Australia.  However, the exclusion can apply to company title arrangements, where someone holds shares in a company which provides them with a right to occupy part or all of the property that is owned by the company.  This ensures that company title arrangements are treated in the same way as properties held under strata title.

The other main exception is when the foreign resident vendor is under external administration (for a company) or is bankrupt (for an individual). This is to ensure that the withholding tax rules do not disturb the priority of other creditors.

What ‘property’ is affected by the new rules?

The new withholding rules capture:

  • Taxable Australian real property – such as residential property, commercial property, land etc., situated in Australia as well as certain mining, quarrying or prospecting rights;
  • Indirect Australian real property interests (i.e., shares in a company or units in a trust where certain conditions are met). This is generally where most of the value of the company or trust relates to real property holdings in Australia; and
  • Options or rights relating to the points above.

I’m selling a property what do I need to do?

If you are selling real property affected by the new rules after 1 July and that property is likely to have a market value of $2 million or more, you need to apply for a clearance certificate from the ATO. Without this certificate, the purchaser of your property assumes you are a foreign resident and will be permitted to withhold 10% of the purchase price and pays it to the ATO.

When a certificate is issued by the ATO it remains valid for 12 months.  The ATO has been developing an automated process for issuing a clearance certificate.  The vendor (or an agent) will be able to complete an online application form. In straightforward cases the ATO expects that certificates will be issued within a matter of days.

I’m buying a property what do I need to do?

If you are buying real property affected by the new rules after 1 July and that property has a market value of $2 million or more, you need to ensure that you receive the clearance certificate from the vendor before settlement occurs.  While the tax rules allow you to withhold 10% of the purchase price if the clearance certificate is not provided, it might also be a good idea to have this built into the sale contract to avoid any uncertainty.

If the sale proceeds and you don’t have a clearance certificate and have not withheld the tax, the tax liability rests with you, the purchaser.

Penalties

If the purchaser fails to meet their obligations under these rules then they will be subject to a penalty being the amount that was required to be withheld and paid to the ATO – that is $200k on a $2m property. Bear in mind general interest charge will also be applied.

IF YOU WANT MY PERSONAL OPINIONS – WHAT A DUMB AND BAD POLICY!

If you would like to know more information for the above, please contact our office on 02 9299 4520 to speak to our experienced business and tax advisers at Linton Advisory Group.

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