6 German tax law issues residential property owners should know about

Profile picture of article author
Stephan Raczak Sep 14, 2018
Header picture for mortgage tips

This expert interview features Timo Blum. Timo has been a tax consultant since 2009. He has gained extensive experience in a medium-sized tax consulting company and worked for an international commercial law firm and a boutique specializing in real estate.

In 2017, Timo and Eugen founded Startup und Tax where they advise national and international startups and expats in all tax-related matters. If you require professional English-speaking tax advise, send Timo an email at: timo.blum@startup-tax.de

1) When buying property in Germany, which tax do buyers need to pay?

First of all, the acquisition of property in Germany is subject to the Real Estate Transfer Tax (RETT). The RETT needs to be paid to the relevant tax office. The tax rate is set by the respective German federal state where the property is bought with rates varying between 3,5% and 6,5%:

Federal State RETT     Federal State RETT   

Baden-Wuerttemberg

5,00%

 

Lower Saxony

5,00%

Bavaria

3,50%

 

North Rhine-Westphalia   

6,50%

Berlin

6,00%

 

Rhineland-Palatinate

5,00%

Brandenburg

6,50%

 

Saarland

6,50%

Bremen

5,00%

 

Saxony

3,50%

Hamburg

4,50%

 

Saxony-Anhalt

5,00%

Hesse

6,00%

 

Schleswig-Holstein

6,50%

Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania    

5,00%

 

Thuringia

6,50%

The tax base for the RETT is the purchase price of the property. Basically, both buyer and seller are liable to pay RETT. However, in practice, the buyer usually must bear the full RETT and other transaction costs (e.g. notary costs). 

TIP: Expenses for movable assets are not subject to RETT. Therefore, it is advisable to include all movable assets (e.g. kitchen) and their purchase price in the purchase agreement. 

2) It is possible to sell property tax-free when the property is purely intended for own use. The law regarding this is quite ambiguous (§23 EStG). Can you explain what property owners need to pay extra attention to when selling their own use property?

In principle, the sale of any property is tax-free after a period of 10 years between the purchase date and the sale date of the property as long as the seller does not qualify as a commercial real estate trader but remains a private seller. As a basic rule, an individual is deemed a commercial real estate trader if he/she sells more than 3 properties over a period of 5 years.

Furthermore, a property which was purely used for own purposes can be sold tax-free independent of the holding period. In case a property was rented out and used for own purposes afterward, things are a bit more complicated. The sale is only tax-free if the property was used for own purposes in the year of the sale and the 2 prior years.

TIP: It is sufficient to use the property for own purposes on one day in the year of the sale and/or one day in 2 years prior to the sale. Only the middle year of the 3-year period needs to be a full year of own use. 

Example: Tenants move out on December 20, 2015. Own use starts on December 30, 2015. Property is sold on January 2, 2017. The sale will be income tax-free. 

3) As a property owner in Germany, it is mandatory to pay a property tax (Grundsteuer). Can you briefly explain how much property owners of an urban apartment should expect to pay on average?

Property Tax is based on a taxation value of the property which is set by the relevant tax office. This value depends on historical data for the property in question. The applicable tax rate may vary between different cities in Germany. 

For example, property tax for an 80 square meter apartment in Berlin (Altbau, located in a 1,500 square meter property and in good condition) amounts to 260 € per year.

4) As an own use property owner, are there any expenses that I can deduct from taxable income (§ 35a EStG Abs.3)?

As a rule, property-related expenses are not deductible for own use property owners. However, there is an exception for expenses for craftsman services which are related to the property. 20% of these expenses can be deducted from the income tax up to an amount of 1,200 € per year. Please note that only expenses for services (as opposed to material costs) can be deducted. Furthermore, it is mandatory to pay for the services via bank transfer (paying in cash will not be recognized).

5) Many Hypofriend clients decide to buy property to move in themselves. After several years they decide to move away from Germany and rent out their property. Is there anything that you would recommend to this group of people?

As stated before, there is a tax exemption for the sale of a property by individuals who do not qualify as a real estate trader. Therefore, I would recommend considering if a sale of the property is likely within the next years. In this case, it is advisable to sell at once to claim the tax exemption for property which was solely own used. Even a short period of renting will be harmful in this case. 

Another possibility for a tax-free sale of the property would be to wait until the holding period of 10 years is over. This should be decided in consideration of the general planning of the owners.

6) Your client base includes many expats living in Germany. Do you have any tax recommendations for expats who recently moved to Germany?

Most importantly: Do collect all receipts which are related to your income. This includes moving costs, flights, train tickets, hotel accommodation, and work equipment. We had several clients who lost more than 1,000 € because they were not able to prove their work-related expenses to the tax authorities. 

Use Hypofriend’s affordability calculator to see what you can afford based on your personal situation.