Differentiating Between Real & Personal Property

Guest Post by Dave LeVan

One challenge every property tax professional encounters is trying to determine if an asset should be classified as real or personal property. It’s important to properly classify the asset to avoid double taxation, where the asset is captured on both the real estate roll and the personal property assessment.  So, what is the difference between real and personal property?

Real property is described as the earth’s surface and all of the things permanently attached to it. Personal property is all of the remaining property not permanently attached to the realty.
Now, I know that might sound a little too general for differentiating between the two for specific assets but there are some basic checks one can use to determine if an asset should be considered real or personal property.  The first thing to review is the local statutes and assessor’s practices. Different states and counties categorize assets differently. For example, certain size tanks may be considered real property while others are considered personal property.

If there is still doubt on the classification of the asset, property tax professionals use the three-pronged test. The first prong is the manner of annexation. How is the asset attached to the property? Is the asset attached in such a way that removing the asset would cause damage to the real property? Is the cost to remove the asset greater than the value of the asset itself? If the answer to these questions is yes, then the asset is generally considered part of the real property.

The second prong of the test is determining the primary purpose. Is the primary purpose of the asset to support the general use of the real property? Then it should be considered real property. However, if the primary purpose is to support a specific process, then the tendency is to classify the asset as personal property. For example, cooling components for building or people comfort are generally considered real property while cooling components used to cool the process equipment is considered personal property.

The final prong is determining the owner’s intent for the asset. Was the asset to become a permanent part of the real estate or did the owner intend to remove the asset at a future time? Would the asset be left with the building or taken if the business was to move?

The most important reason for taking the time to review your assets and differentiate between personal and real property is to ensure they are not mistakenly counted as both. Using these tips and practices should help you determine if an asset is real or personal property.

Dave LeVan is the founder and CEO of Advantax Group, LLC.  Since its inception in 1994, Advantax has offered low-risk solutions for tax challenges including recouping past tax overpayments, minimizing future tax liabilities, or handling tax compliance. Their unique approach to problem solving has helped their client base grow to include some of the largest corporations in America.