Writing off a home computer used for business

If you use your home computer for business purposes, knowing that you can deduct some or all of its costs can help ease the pain of the large initial and ongoing cash outlays. However, there are some tricky IRS rules that you should consider before taking – or forgoing – a deduction for home computer costs.

Although the cost of computers and peripheral equipment has dropped significantly over the past year, a tax deduction for all or part of the expense can still help lower the bottom-line price tag of this major purchase. But despite both the widespread use of computers and the temptation to somehow “write them off” on a tax return, the IRS has remained surprisingly quiet. Rather than release any direct guidance on the issue, the IRS has chosen to rely on old rules that were established before the recent computer revolution. As a result, the business use of your home computer will need to fall within these standard rules if you want to take any related deductions.

Business reason must be present

In order to claim a deduction for your home computer and any peripheral equipment, you will need to prove that the expense occurred in connection with an active business – just as you would for any other business expense. An active business for purposes of a business expense related to a home computer will usually arise from one of two types of business activities: as a self-employed sole proprietor of an independently-run profit-making business; or as an employee doing work from home. Deductions from both types of activities are handled differently on an individual’s income tax return and there are separate conditions that must be met for either scenario.

Self-employed person. In order for you as a self-employed person to deduct computer-related costs on Schedule C – whether for a home-based computer or one in a separate business location – it is required that your expenses relate to a profit-motivated business versus a “hobby”. In the eyes of the IRS, a business will be deemed a hobby if there is no profit motive and the “business” is half-heartedly pursued simply to write off items or achieve some other personal purpose. If your Schedule C business shows a net loss year after year, you may be considerably more likely to have the IRS audit your return to inspect whether your purported business is actually legitimate under the tax law.

Employee. A miscellaneous itemized deduction on Schedule A is allowed for computer costs that are directly related to the “job” of being an employee. In order to claim a deduction for computer-related expenses as an employee, you must show a legitimate reason related to your employment for regularly using a computer at home. The availability of a computer in the office, the ability for you to keep your job without the home computer, the lack of telecommuting policy at work, or the lack of proof that your computer is used regularly for office work will make it more difficult to convince the IRS that a legitimate business reason exists for the deduction.

Some taxpayers have succeeded in writing off the expense of a computer as an educational expense related to business. For you to succeed in this deduction, you must carefully document that the education is undertaken to maintain or improve skills required in your current business or employment, or to meet specific educational requirements set by your employer. Computer expenses related to education that qualifies you for a new trade or business is not deductible.

Note to employees: computer-related business expenses taken as a miscellaneous itemized deduction are deductible only to the extent that your total miscellaneous itemized deductions exceed 2 percent of your adjusted gross income. For many taxpayers, a good strategy is to “bunch” purchases of computer equipment all in one year so that more of the cost will rise above the 2 percent floor.

Other IRS considerations

Aside from applying the general rules discussed above for a for-profit business and miscellaneous itemized deductions to determine if you are able to deduct business-related computer costs, the IRS is likely to dust off other standard tax principles in evaluating whether your computer expense write off is acceptable:

  • Depreciation. Business items that have a useful life beyond the current tax year generally must be written off, or depreciated, over its useful life. As technological equipment, computer equipment is assumed to have a 5-year life. Accelerated depreciation of those 5 years is allowed for all but “listed property” (see, below). An exception to the mandatory 5-year write off involves items that qualify for “Section 179” expensing (see below). Keep in mind that only the cost associated with the business-use portion of your computer can be expensed.
  • Section 179 deduction. Section 179 expensing allows you to deduct each year up to $250,000 in 2009 of the cost of otherwise depreciable business equipment, including computers. As with depreciation, keep in mind that only the cost associated with the business-use portion of your computer can be expensed.
  • “Listed property” exception. A “listed property” exception will deny Section 179 expensing if a home computer is used only 50% or less for business purposes. If so, you must depreciate the computer evenly over 5 years. For example, if the business-use portion of a $10,000 computer is 80%, then $8,000 of its cost qualifies for direct expensing. If 45% is used for business, no part of the cost may be immediately expensed.
  • Recordkeeping. Since most home computers are “listed property”, listed property substantiation rules apply. These rules require you to keep a contemporaneous log every time you use your computer to prove the percentage of your business use.
  • Internet connectivity. If you use a modem to connect your computer to the Internet, keep in mind that the first phone line to a home office is not deductible, even on a pro-rated basis. A second line, however, may be written off as a business expense. If you connect via DSL or incur other Internet-only access service costs, be aware that the IRS has not taken a position here but some experts predict that the IRS eventually may consider the potential for personal Internet use to compromise such a deduction.
  • Computer software. Computer software generally may be amortized using the straight-line method over a 36-month period if the costs are separately stated from the hardware.
  • Computer repairs. Repairs that don’t upgrade the useful life of the machine may be deducted immediately. However, making significant system enhancements, such as adding additional memory, would generally need to be added to basis and capitalized.

If you have any questions regarding writing off the business-related costs associated with your home computer, please contact the office for a consultation.

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