“All forms of rental income must be declared to SARS … We are … determined to make it hard and costly for non-compliant taxpayers not willing to meet their obligations. We are working hard to improve system capabilities, in order to detect those taxpayers who do not comply by using data to identify risk” (extracts from SARS media statement 11 March 2021).

The Basics

Airbnb is an online app which allows homeowners to rent out their property to travellers on an ad hoc basis with very little admin from their side. Users of the app simply search and select properties that have been listed in the area they are visiting, then pay on the Airbnb platform. The owner is responsible simply for letting them in and making sure the property is as described in terms of quality and cleanliness. In return for this service Airbnb takes a percentage of the total rental charged as commission.

It’s a simple and clean system that to date has been extremely difficult for SARS to track. The recent announcement by the revenue service that it was aware owners were not declaring this income and thus underpaying owed taxes and that they are determined to tax this income does, however, suggest that things are about to change.

“We are determined to make it hard and costly for non-compliant taxpayers not willing to meet their obligations. We are working hard to improve system capabilities, in order to detect those taxpayers who do not comply by using data to identify risk,” SARS announced.

This in itself poses a problem for SARS as while it’s easy to see just who is renting their property out on Airbnb by looking at adverts and cross-referencing them with ownership records, it is more difficult to see just how much time was spent by guests in the property. Nonetheless, the announcement does seem to indicate a determination by SARS to put a stop to tax avoidance in this area and this could spell trouble for those who have been letting out their properties, most likely in the way of audits. But just what is owed by owners, and how would they correct this situation?

Income tax returns and registering for VAT

There is no doubt income derived from letting a property out on Airbnb must be declared on your income tax return. As SARS made clear, “This is the same principle that applies to any person who has rental income from letting out their property as a homeowner, placing them under the same obligation to declare such rental income to SARS”.

According to registered CA(SA) and Group Financial Controller for SYSPRO Louise Buchanan, “A property owner who hosts fee-paying guests like in the case of Airbnb, has to declare the rental income on their income tax return as it is considered gross income.” She warns that in addition to this, any property owner earning more than R1 million within a 12 month period would also need to register as a VAT vendor and charge VAT 15% on rental income.

What about deductions?

As always, any income that comes with costs can be reduced by a portion or percentage of certain of those costs allowable for tax purposes.

According to Buchanan only expenses which arise in relation to the production of rental income can be claimed as a deduction.

“These include levies, rates and taxes, electricity and water, home-owner’s insurance, advertising, bond interest and agent’s fees,” she says, cautioning that, “If only a portion of a property is rented out, then only pro-rata expenses related to that portion are deductible”.

What about Airbnb themselves?

Airbnb has a notice on its site which states that “In areas that Airbnb has made agreements with governments to collect and remit local taxes on behalf of hosts, Airbnb calculates these taxes and collects them from guests at the time of booking. Airbnb then remits collected taxes to the applicable tax authority on the hosts’ behalf.”

This can sometimes be confusing for the home-owner who may believe that tax has been paid on their behalf already. Unfortunately, South Africa is not one of the areas in which Airbnb has made an agreement with government to collect and remit taxes on its behalf. Owners with properties in other areas are, however, able to take advantage of this fact, and a full list of these areas can be found here.

What to do if you didn’t declare Airbnb income and owe back taxes

Homeowners who have not been paying taxes on their Airbnb income are still liable for those taxes and SARS has made it abundantly clear that they aim to find and crackdown on non-compliant owners.

“Taxpayers are reminded that failure to comply with their tax obligations may result in administrative penalties being imposed in addition to interest, or even criminal action being taken against them,” the revenue service said.

Buchanan explains that in practice what this means is that administrative penalties are likely to be imposed along with interest, but has also warned that it would not be unheard of for criminal action to also be taken against a defaulter. She therefore urges all Airbnb owners who may be in default to consider declaring their Airbnb income through the SARS voluntary disclosure programme, which offers more favourable penalty amounts and a significantly reduced chance of criminal procedures being instated.

If you are an Airbnb owner who has not declared this income, it would be wise to speak to your accountant to evaluate just how much you might owe in back taxes and to try clear up the situation before you are the subject of a tax audit.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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