Second Home vs. Investment Property: What’s the Difference?

second home investment property

By Sara Kuta

You hear these terms thrown around all the time: Second home, investment property, vacation home, rental property. But is there any real difference among them? And does it even matter what you call it?

As it turns out, there are some very big differences between second homes and investment properties, especially if you are financing it.

“Both are fantastic ways to build wealth over time by capturing the appreciation of a real asset,” says Tony Julianelle, CEO of Atlas Real Estate in Denver. However, “both come with inherent risks and expenses that should be carefully considered when making a purchase.”

As with any real estate transaction, you’ll want to do your homework and make a smart choice for your wallet, no matter which path you go down. We chatted with experts to get the scoop.

What is a second home?

A second home is just that: a second property where you and your family spend time, away from your primary home. You might also hear a second home referred to as a vacation property. You may rent it out for a few days each year on Airbnb or VRBO, but you primarily use it yourself.

Buying a second home makes financial sense if there’s one particular vacation spot you visit regularly. Why spend a fortune on hotels or Airbnb when you can own your own piece of paradise that will hopefully appreciate in value over time?

“Let’s say you live in San Francisco, but you are an avid skier in the winter and like to hike in the summer,” says Rachel Olsen, a real estate agent in California. “If you spend many weekends and vacations in Lake Tahoe, it may make sense to purchase a second home there.”

What is an investment property?

An investment property, on the other hand, is one that you purchase with the explicit intention of generating income. The investment property could be right next door to your own home, or it could be in another state—it doesn’t really matter. You’ll be playing the role of landlord, with long-term or short-term renters paying cash to stay in the home.

“Never forget that an investment property is all about the Benjamins,” says Lamar Brabham, CEO and founder of financial services firm Noel Taylor Agency. “The entire point is to turn a profit. No emotions, no affection.”

Before making an offer on an investment property, you’ll want to crunch the numbers to make sure it’s a solid investment. Similarly, consider what factors will be important to prospective tenants (e.g., access to public transportation, good schools, parking, and low crime rates).

How to finance a second home or investment property

If you’re paying cash, you can skip this section. But if you need a mortgage for your new property, you should know that financing a second home or investment property is very different from financing a primary residence. And, while mortgages on second homes and investment properties have some similarities, there are also some key differences.

  • Interest rate: You can expect to see a higher interest rate for both second homes or investment properties than for primary homes. Why? Because lenders view those transactions as riskier. If you get into a tight spot with money, you’re far more likely to stop paying the mortgage for your second/investment property than for your primary home.
  • Qualifying: Whether you’re buying a second home or an investment property, you might need to do some extra legwork in order to qualify for that second loan. Your bank may require you to prove that you have healthy cash reserves (so it knows you can afford both mortgages). It’ll take a long, hard look at your overall financial situation, so be sure everything is on the up and up before you apply.
  • Down payment: Depending on your situation and the lender, you might also need to bring a larger down payment to the table for an investment property or second home, typically 15% to 25%. Again, this is because the bank wants a bigger cushion to fall back on in case you default.
  • Rental income: If you’re buying an investment property, your lender might allow you to show that anticipated rental income will help cover the mortgage payments. However, proving how much rental income the home will generate can be complicated. Prepare to pay for a specialized appraisal that takes into account comparable rents in your area.
  • Location: Your lender may require a second home to be 50 to 100 miles away from your primary home. An investment property, however, can be anywhere in comparison to your primary home, even next door.
  • Taxes: Federal income tax rules are different for vacation homes and investment properties. Generally, you’ll treat your second home just as you would your first home when it comes to taxes—if you itemize, you can deduct the mortgage interest you paid up to a certain limit. (The rules vary if you rent out your second home for part of the year.) If you own an investment property, you get to deduct the mortgage interest, plus many of the expenses that come with operating a rental business, but you also have to report your rental income, too.

Why it’s important to not confuse the two

It’s important that you’re totally clear about the difference and not use the terms “second home” and “investment property” interchangeably. Some people try to pass off their investment property as a second home to get more favorable financing, but you should never do this.

If you lie on your loan application, you could be committing mortgage fraud, which is a federal offense.

Your lender’s underwriting team is aware of this possibility, so don’t try to pull the wool over their eyes. They’ll take the big picture into account when deciding what loan terms to offer you, says real estate attorney David Reischer.

“A single-family residence by a lake that is located in a completely different state from the borrower’s primary residence is much more acceptable to be categorized as a second home by a bank underwriter,” he says. “A multifamily-unit property with rental income in an urban area is likely to be treated as an investment property.”

Bottom line: Keep everything aboveboard, and you won’t have to worry about a thing.

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5 Tax Benefits of Owning a Second Home

By: Renee Morad

There are tons of benefits that come with owning a second home: novelty and adventure, a place to escape and unwind, an opportunity to create memories that last a lifetime, a valuable tool to make vacation-craving friends like you a whole lot (for better or for worse).

But there’s another benefit that’s often overlooked: the tax breaks.

You already know that owning a home usually offers some tax deductions. But what if you own two? Or three? What if you’re a regular Donald Trump (back in his real estate, meat magnate heyday, of course)?

Since we know you won’t mind a little extra cash to spend while soaking in your surroundings during your next getaway, we thought we’d tell you how to reap the fruits of your second-home purchase.

1. Mortgage interest—yes, again

When it comes to owning a second home, the interest on your mortgage is deductible. The same rules that come with writing off mortgage interest for your first home apply to your second.

In fact, you can write off as much as 100% of the interest you pay on up to $1 million of debt, which includes total debt taken on to pay for both homes, as well as money spent on improving the properties. (That’s not up to $1 million for each property—just up to $1 million in total.)

2. Home improvements

Is your second home a fixer-upper? If you want to spend the off-season making improvements to your hideaway, you can deduct the interest on a home equity loan or line of credit.

But there are a couple of exceptions.

For starters, there will be a limit on the amount you can deduct if the home equity loan on your main or second home is more than $50,000 if filing single or $100,000 if married or filing jointly.

Second, the amount you can deduct has a limit if the mortgage is more than the fair market value of the home, says Gil Charney, director of The Tax Institute at H&R Block.

For example, let’s say a taxpayer has a mortgage of $220,000 and takes out a home equity loan of $65,000. The property’s fair market value is $275,000. Since the difference between the fair market value and the mortgage is $55,000, then $55,000 of the home equity loan can be deducted, not the full $65,000.

3. Property taxes

You can also deduct your second home’s property taxes, which are based on the assessed value of the home. That’s good news. Even better news? Unlike the mortgage interest tax deduction, there’s no dollar limit on the amount of real estate taxes that can be deducted on any number of homes owned by the taxpayer.

But beware: Taxpayers who can afford two homes are likely to land in a higher tax bracket—which means slimmer pickings for tax savings. For example, in 2016, a married couple whose gross income exceeds $311,300 would have limits on the types of itemized deductions they could take.

4. Renting out your home

If you rent out your second home for 14 days or less over the course of a year, that rental income is tax-free—and there’s no limit to what you can charge per day or week. Score!

But if you’re hoping to put your secondary digs on Airbnb or another rental site for more than 14 days during the year, be prepared to do some heavy math come tax time.

5 Tax Benefits of Owning a Second Home – Real Estate News and Advice – realtor.com

You’ll want to figure out the number of days you rent your home and divide that by the total number of days your home was used—whether it was you or a renter staying there. (The total number of days that the home was vacant doesn’t fall into this equation.)

For instance, let’s say you rented out your vacation home for 30 days within a year, and vacationed in your home for 90 days.

We’ll divide 30 (the days you rented it out) by 120 (the total number of days the home was used). The result: 25% of your rental-related expenses—which could range from utilities to the cost of a property manager—can be deducted. Now, if your home is losing value, that same percentage (in this example, 25%) of depreciation costs can also be deducted.

Here’s the caveat, Charney explains: Depreciation costs can be deducted only if there is rental income remaining after taking into account other deductions, such as mortgage interest, property taxes, and direct expenses tied to renting your home—like agent fees or advertising.

5. When it’s time to sell

Maybe you bought a far-off hideaway that you’re lucky to visit a couple of times a year. Or perhaps your vacation home is just a quick drive away, and you spend every possible moment there.

If it’s the latter—and you don’t already know which of your homes is your primary residence and which is the second home—now’s the time to figure it out. Distinguishing between the two can have big tax implications when it comes time to sell.

That’s because a capital gain of up to $250,000 (or $500,000 for taxpayers who are married/joint filers) on the sale of the principal residence may be excluded from taxable income.

Your principal—or primary—residence is the home you used most during the five years prior to the sale. But other factors—such as your job’s location, voter registration address, and banking location—could also come into play. Among other requirements, you must own and use that principal residence for at least two of the five years before the home is sold.

We know—that’s a lot of heavy stuff to take in. But you knew your second home would pay off in more ways than one, right? Now, hurry up and file your tax return—so you can escape to your happy place and forget about burdensome things. Like taxes.

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