Introduction - What is Real Estate Assignment
Buying and Selling real estate assignments is a common form of transaction in the real estate market. An assignment is a transaction of the rights to a property before the legal ownership of the actual property is transferred. In the real estate context, the buyer of an assignment (the "assignee") would purchase the rights to a real estate property, typically but not always a condo, that is being built under a Purchase and Sale Agreement, between the assignment seller and the builder, from the seller of the assignment (the "assignor"). This transaction would take place before the closing date of the property, and the ownership of the property legally remained with a third party, the builder, throughout the assignment transaction. Hence only contractual rights to a piece of property were assigned from one party to another in an assignment transaction and not the property itself.
Tax Guidance to Reporting Profits from an Assignment Sale - Capital Gains and GST/HST
The two main tax issues associated with the assignor in an assignment transaction are whether the profits from the sales are to be characterized as business income or taxable capital gain and whether the sales of assignments give rise to the obligation for the assignor to collect and remit GST/HST.
While many assignors would report their profits as taxable capital gains as well as taking the position that assignors are exempt from collecting and remitting GST/HST for sales of the assignments, over the past few years, the CRA has been aggressively going after assignment transactions, often auditing Canadian taxpayers for both unreported taxable business income and unremitted excise tax.
Whether a particular assignment sale will give rise to taxable business income will depend on the facts involved in the case. Similarly, whether the assignor has an obligation to collect and remit GST/HST will also depend on the facts. In short, there is no single answer and simple tax guidance as to how to report your taxes on every assignment transaction. We will breakdown the relevant tax factors below
Taxable Capital Gain vs. Taxable Income
The determination of income versus capital gain is a complex tax topic in which the Income Tax Act itself provides no tax guidance. This means the Tax Court will look to case law for a holistic set of relevant tax factors to determine taxable income vs. taxable capital gains. Please see our article on this general topic for a detailed breakdown (https://taxpage.com/articles-and-tips/a-canadian-tax-lawyers-introduction-to-business-income-vs-capital-gains/).
In the leading case on this issue, Happy Valley Farms Ltd v MNR, the Federal Court chose a set of holistic factors based on the principle of circumstantially determining the taxpayer's intention at the time of the acquisition of the property. When a taxpayer acquired a property with the intention to resell at a higher value, such intention would strongly suggest the taxpayer has been carrying out business. Therefore, the taxpayer's income should be characterized as taxable business income.
However, the mere fact an assignor ended up selling his or her legal interest in a piece of real estate property does not evidence that he or she had an intention to resell when he or she initially acquired the property. Usually, CRA has to prove an intention to resell through circumstantial evidence to make an inference that the taxpayer had an intention to resell upon acquisition. In the Happy Valley Farm case itself, the Federal Court determined the intention of the taxpayer by looking at his conduct while holding the property as well as his relevant past conducts.
Factors such as frequency or number of other similar transactions by the taxpayer and circumstances that were responsible for the sale of the property are ultimately tools to help the court to determine the taxpayer's intention at the time of acquisition. No single Happy Valley Farms factor outside the motive factor is determinative, and the determination of taxable business income versus taxable capital gains in assignment transactions will depend on a holistic assessment of the facts.
GST/HST on Assignment Sales
Unlike the income tax implications of assignment sales, the GST/HST implication of assignment transactions is more clear. The seller in an assignment transaction can often be deemed as a "builder" under the Excise Tax Act, which gives rise to the obligation to collect and remit GST/HST upon the sales of the transaction.
However, even if the seller is not deemed to be a builder, an assignment sale is at the very least a transaction involving a "chose in action" which is considered an enforceable legal right in the property itself. A chose in action is specifically mentioned in the definition of "property" under section 123(1) of the Excise Tax Act. Property means any property, whether real or personal, movable or immovable, tangible or intangible, corporeal or incorporeal, and includes a right or interest of any kind, a share and a chose in action, but does not include money. On the other hand, the seller of an assignment transaction can also claim Input Tax Credits for his or her initial purchase of the assignment rights from the builder. Since many buyers and sellers of real estate assignments are likely unaware of the GST/HST implications of assignment transactions, a crucial issue to keep in mind is the deadline and extension mechanism for claiming Input Tax Credit under subsection 225(5) of the Excise Tax Act.
Pro Tax Tips - Prepare for Different Tax Implication for Each Assignment Transaction
The tax implication of an assignment transaction for the assignor will depend on whether the assignor was legally engaging in business activities in the course of buying and selling his or her real estate property interest. Such determination will involve holistically looking at all the relevant facts surrounding the transaction. The nature of an assignment sale itself does not determine whether the profit from such sales should be reported as taxable income or taxable capital gains.
As CRA has been going after assignment transactions aggressively and will likely to continue doing so in the foreseeable future, it is important for Canadian taxpayers to be aware of his or her rights to objection under the Income Tax Act in order to make sure his or her right to file a notice of objection is preserved upon being audited by the CRA.
If you have been contacted by the CRA regarding your past assignment transactions or you have questions regarding a specific assignment transaction that you are contemplating and whether (or not) it constitutes a business transaction, please contact our office to speaking with one of our experienced Canadian tax lawyers.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.