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Tax 101: Understanding U.S. Taxation of Foreign Investment in Real Property - Part I

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U.S. real estate has been a popular choice for foreign investors, whether the property is held for personal use, rental or sale, or long-term investment. Since the passage of the Foreign Investment in Real Property Tax Act of 1980 (“F.I.R.P.T.A.”), the governing tax rules have developed and evolved, but have not succeeded in discouraging foreign investment. F.I.R.P.T.A. can be a potential minefield for those unfamiliar with U.S. income, estate, and gift taxation – all of which come into play. This article is the first of a series on understanding U.S. taxation of foreign investment in real property.


“A foreign person is subject to U.S. income tax only on income that is characterized as U.S. source income.”

As simple as the concept sounds, there are applicable nuances, caveats, exemptions, and exceptions. Therefore, several questions must first be answered to determine the U.S. income tax consequences for a foreign person engaged in U.S. economic activities, including ownership of real property:

  1. Is the income derived from a U.S. source and therefore potentially taxable?
  2. Is the income taxable or exempt from tax?
  3. Is the income passive or active, subject to a flat withholding tax on gross income or, alternatively, to graduated rates on net income?
  4. Is the income earned by an individual or corporation or other entity, each of which may have different rules and applicable tax rates?