Tax Code Runs DeepPosted by Chad Bordeaux
Tuesday, August 7th, 2012
American capitalism has produced generations of great brand names, and Chevrolet is one of the most iconic. Swiss race car driver Louis Chevrolet founded his car company in 1911, then sold it to his partner just four years later. General Motors acquired the company in 1918, and positioned Chevrolet as an everyman’s car to compete with Ford’s Model T. The company prospered through the 1950s and 60s, producing the legendary Corvette among other models. More recently, Chevy was caught in the economic downturn of 2007-2010, leading to General Motors bankruptcy reorganization. But GM and Chevy rebounded quickly, and now actually are in one of the strongest periods in their history.
Right now, Chevrolet is running a truly bold marketing campaign for our era of skeptical consumers. Their “Love It or Return It” campaign lets you buy any new Chevy through September 4 — and, as the name implies, if you don’t love it, you can actually return it. There’s fine print, of course. You have just 60 days to decide, and you can’t drive it more than 4,000 miles. Oh, and — you knew the tax angle was coming, right — “you may be subject to federal, state, or local tax on any benefit paid.”
Huh? Tax on a benefit? What “benefit” is there in returning a car you decide you don’t like?
Well, as so often happens with a question like this, the answer is, “it depends.” Let’s say you take delivery of a new Corvette. (Red, of course.) The manufacturer’s suggested retail price on a base coupe is $49,600. You drive it off the lot, confident you’re behind the wheel of your dreams. But soon you get tired of the 430-horsepower V-8, the 4.2-second 0-60 acceleration, or the standard leather 6-way power seats. So after 60 days and 3,999 miles, you take it back.
You’ve always heard that cars lose half their value the minute you drive them off the lot, right? Well, that’s an exaggeration — but “your” Corvette is still probably worth $8,000 less than than what you paid for it. So if you get a full refund, have you just realized $8,000 in income? And if you used the car for business, do you have to recapture anything you depreciated?
Let’s take another example. You’re an environmentally responsible driver, but you can’t afford the sexy new Tesla Model S. So you settle for a $40,000 Chevy Volt. You gleefully claim the $7,500 plug-in motor vehicle credit. And again, after 60 days and 3,999 miles (but only a couple of tankfuls of gas), you return it and get your $40,000 back. Now what? First off, have you even kept the car long enough to claim the credit? And as with the ‘Vette, if you owe tax on the “benefit”… what is that benefit? That credit reduces your “basis” in the car to $32,500, so how much tax you owe on the difference depends both on what the car is worth and whether you get to keep the credit! (Oy!)
Washington knows how important the auto industry is to our economy, so the tax code is full of incentives to drive sales. This credit is just one example. Business owners have long known of another one — which is that buying a truck in December can make for some nice year-end planning. Then there was 2009, when we saw a limited-time above-the-line deduction for state and local sales and excise taxes on new car sales. And in that same year, the much-mocked “Cash for Clunkers” program generated $2.877 billion in rebates on 690,114 vehicles, too. So don’t be surprised if the IRS really does pay attention to these sorts of questions!
We want you to enjoy the freedom of the open road — especially if it means a sweet convertible with the wind in your hair. But — especially if you use your vehicle for business — we want you to make smart choices. So call us before you trade in your old ride, and let us help you get the most out of your wheels!Chad is a Charlotte CPA who works with small business owners and invidiuals on a monthly basis to provide them with proactive guidance and advice on how to grow their business, minimize their tax liabilities and grow their bottom line. You can find our more about Chad by visiting his profile here: Chad Bordeaux