If you think your Airbnb rental business needs an LLC, this post is for you.
If you’ve ever tried learning a subject in earnest, only to wind up more confused than when you started, again, this post is for you… So what exactly are the advantages of an LLC and how does this business construct work?
LLC stands for Limited Liability Company. We have three LLCs. One for the Chiropractic practice Mrs. Cubert manages, and two for the fledgling rental empire. In each instance, it seemed like a no-brainer to establish the LLC structure for our respective businesses.
If you go with what the packaging says, an LLC gives you rock-solid liability protection, plus some potential tax advantages. Good stuff! But it may not always be the right fit. Let’s explore…
Disclaimer: Please do your own follow-up research on this fairly complex topic. I am not a lawyer. I am not an accountant. This post is specific to our set up and it may not apply to your circumstances. The intent here is to provide you with a case study for considering whether an LLC could an appropriate option for your side hustle business.
What Are the Advantages of an LLC?
Without a doubt, there are a variety of small businesses that are perfectly suited for the Limited Liability structure. Our Chiropractic business is one of them. Imagine if someone gets treatment and all of a sudden suffers a herniated disc, unrelated to the treatment. That person could opt to sue us.
The LLC provides a shield that, in a perfect world, prevents us from getting sued in the first place. And even if the patient’s lawyer did choose to sue, only the practice is at risk. The LLC establishes “limited liability”, limited to the practice only, not our assets (which includes our house, investments, real estate, autos, the kids, etc.)
Aside from a chiropractic business, just about any small business that exposes you to potential lawsuits is worthy of LLC consideration. That would include real estate rentals, both long term and short term (Airbnb vacation rentals, for instance), a corner bakery, or even perhaps a dog walking service.
I mean, what if Fido went charging after a passerby and bit him on the leg? Or, what if Lucy decided to reroute that leash she’s on and trips up your friend, causing her to break her hip? Well, Mr. Dog Walker, what’s to say that passerby wouldn’t be inclined to sue you, as the dog walker in charge? sh*t happens.
Keep Your Airbnb Business and Personal Assets Separate
So far no one’s sued me. Which is great. But the way I had been running one of my LLCs, up until recently, probably left us exposed. With LLCs, you need to be mindful to avoid what’s known as “piercing the corporate veil.” Sounds pretty sweet, doesn’t it? Like a Pink Floyd album title.
All it means is you have to be super careful to avoid any commingling of personal transactions with transactions by your LLC. That can include some inane and innocent-seeming things, along with some obvious ones. Some examples:
- Using a personal credit card or personal check to pay for business expenses
- Receiving business payments to your accounts (or self, via say a check written out to you.)
- Endorsing a business payment check with just your name
- Using your business credit card to pay for personal expenses
- Failing to set up your LLC properly – e.g., setting yourself up as the “owner” (bad) vs. the “manager” (good)
- Keeping business assets in your name
Items one through four aren’t that hard to master. Just be diligent. I NOW make sure that all my rental deposits made through Venmo or via check are made out to my LLC. I deposit rent checks straight into my LLC checking account.
I use business checks when I need to write a check. And bonus, I get lots of points by using separate business credit cards for a variety of business expenses.
On that last one, number 6? Oh boy. With our Airbnb and rental properties, this gets sticky. Most of us aren’t in a position to just go out and buy rental houses with cash. And nor should we, unless it’s an auction property suited for a flip.
Applying the concept of “other people’s money”, we acquired our rentals with borrowed money from the bank. And the bank isn’t about to approve you for a mortgage in the name of a faceless LLC. Nope. It’s got to be tied to a person.
Moving a Rental Property Mortgage to an LLC
Picking up where we left off on item 6 above… There are a lot of different opinions and tactics for landlords looking to get their mortgages into the name of their LLC. One popular option is the “quitclaim deed.”
This accomplishes the objective of transferring ownership to the LLC, BUT… And man is it a big “BUT” here… The bank will then have the option of calling your loan due, meaning they can require you to pay your outstanding principal in FULL.
The other downside about this option is that immediately upon transfer, the quitclaim deed voids your title insurance. Trust me. You don’t want to lose this insurance or your a$$ could end up in a sling.
Some savvy real estate gods go a different route and transfer ownership via what’s known as a Warranty Deed. Much like the quitclaim deed, but you maintain your title insurance. Easy-peasy, right?!?
But Do You Need an LLC If There Are Better Alternatives?
Lucky for me, I have seasoned landlord friends who’ve charted their course before me. I simply get to ask questions and they give me their take. Experience is like gold. One of my real estate mentors says he avoids LLCs because they’re just another way for accountants to make more money come tax prep time. Ha!
Instead, he takes out an umbrella policy on every rental unit. Now if you’re not familiar with umbrella policies, and you’ve got a positive net worth, and have a side gig or small business, get on this. Umbrella policies are fairly cheap but cover you for $1M and higher in liability.
That’s just one take. Another is similar. My investment property realtor says you’ll get six different answers from six different lawyers as to whether you need to transfer the name on the asset to your LLC. He’s basically in the same camp as my first mentor. “Make sure you’ve got that umbrella policy first. Don’t worry about transferring the asset to the LLC.”
Finally, my third mentor (and colleague) is aligned with our realtor. He has two LLCs set up, one for the properties themselves, and one for property management. Clever, eh? This structure allows you to create even more of a shield around your business.
I’m still learning and researching all of this fascinating stuff. Not because I’m praying to be sued. On the contrary, I don’t want to expose my family unnecessarily just because I was derelict in doing my homework on this stuff.
Are There Tax Advantages?
The LLC construct is pretty useful from a taxation perspective. For one thing, an LLC doesn’t require a separate tax return. You can file with your personal 1040. Business losses under the LLC are factored in with your total income and taxes. This has helped me on a few occasions with the rentals.
Very basically, I take a hit the first year of a new rental property. The cost to buy and set up and improve the property generally means I’ll be taking a net loss that year. At the same time, I’m paying taxes throughout the year via my cubicle job. The LLC “pass-through” set up allows the rental losses to greatly reduce our tax burden. Slick.
LLCs can also be set up to take advantage of lower tax rates for your business income. This is where your mighty accountant can step in to point you in the right direction. Generally, for small businesses, the sole-proprietorship arrangement in the LLC is more favorable than a corporate taxation arrangement.
Here’s the biggie: An LLC allows you to set up retirement funds with higher contribution limits. Woohoo! This is a huge advantage over the traditional employer-based savings plans that limit 401K contributions to $18,500 (as of 2018.) As a business owner (i.e., employer) you could squirrel away as much as $55,000 in a solo 401K, or up to $62,000 if you’re 50-plus.
(Update 6/1/18: Thanks to some useful insight from Full-Time Finance below in the comments, it is possible to set up a solo 401K without an LLC. Thanks for keeping us honest, FTF!)
Granted, you’d have to be running a pretty successful business (or businesses) to be able to take advantage of this. This is not something the Cubert family can do today.
Conclusion: LLCs Are Worth It
At the end of the day, the best way to protect yourself (and your assets) is to avoid being negligent. I regularly come across headlines in our local rags about landlords who are absolute douchebags. They rent out units that are beyond being up to code. Tenants complain about mice, and the landlord tells them to get a cat.
The point is, you can avoid a lot of problems and drastically reduce your exposure if you simply follow the rules. Go above and beyond when it comes to safety.
Mrs. Cubert keeps up to snuff on her profession with continuing education courses. She cares enough about patients to send them off to specialists if a bigger medical problem is potentially there.
With the rentals (and now with the Airbnb), I make sure all of those smoke detectors and CO alarms are working. There are twice-annual inspections to check on that, among other things. And I don’t rent to idiots.
So yes, you can do quite a bit to limit your exposure, even in the absence of the LLC. But you can also do everything right, and follow the rules, only to find yourself in the courthouse.
Again, sh*t happens. That’s why I can’t recommend strongly enough that you take out a high dollar umbrella policy at a minimum. Think of this as malpractice insurance for any small business.
We’ve scratched the surface on “What is an LLC and how does it work?” but if you want to learn more, I suggest picking up a copy of Limited Liability Companies for Dummies, by Jennifer Reutlingen.
The book serves two purposes. One, it’ll teach you the basics and history of LLCs. A good way to get started. Two, it’ll help you zonk out right quick if you’ve been running a sleep deficit of late.
I’ve also spent a good chunk of time over at the Landlord’s Valhalla, better known as BiggerPockets.com. Good gravy. Just like my realtor mentor said, you’ll get fifteen different opinions from fifteen different real estate pros there. But you can at least try to discern and distill the key pieces that may apply to your situation.
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Tom from Dividends Diversify says
Nice review. I AM an accountant and the legal side of things confuses me so don;t feel bad. I’m sure some of the big blogs also operate under an LLC. And, does anyone really name their dog FIDO? Tom
That is really nice to hear, Tom. (that accountants are just as mesmerized by this stuff!)
Fido — you know, I never knew a single one of those growing up, even as far back as the good ol 70s. Where the heck did that dog name come from?!?
Mr. Freaky Frugal says
Hey, nice overview of LLCs. I used to have an S-Corp back in the day, but if I was doing it again I would get an LLC.
I don’t really have a need for an LLC now, but I do have an Umbrella Policy just in case of other non-business liability. You never know when someone is going to trip over our front door threshold, hit the ground face first, and knock out all their teeth! 🙂
Ouch! That hurt just reading! LOL.
Interesting – My wife has both the S-Corp (good tax avoidance strategy) PLUS the LLC. Coupled together, this model seems right for small practitioners, e.g., chiros.
Ms ZiYou says
I have the UK version that I freelance through, that we call a limited company. A great invention, but I also had the steep learning curve initially, and I do employ an accountant to deal with things. Tax rules seem to change each and every year, keeping on top of it is hard work!
Interesting! I learned in my research that the LLC originated from an old German model.
You have an accountant which is good, but much of this topic calls for an attorney $$$ 🙂
[email protected] says
We’ve owned properties for 25 years and we just have a large umbrella policy. It’s worked out fine for us, but we are slowly getting out of the rental business now too! But we will still likely keep a small umbrella policy. Way too cheap to not have that extra coverage!
Very smart. Vicki! It seems the most straightforward way to go, especially if you’re a mindful landlord who takes good care of your tenants. I might stick with the LLC for now, but will see if it makes sense long-term, as I learn more about them.
Mr Defined Sight says
Really nice post, Mr. Cubert. No rentals here but I did recently take out an umbrella policy for our place. We have a decent stretch of sidewalk and I don’t need Granny to slip on the ice and break a hip at our expense. Very inexpensive to add to the policy like you mentioned.
Thanks man! Great example. You just never know what could happen “on your watch” or “on your property!”
Those policies are pretty darn cheap as you state. I think a $2M one (recommended if you have a business or two and some decent savings) can run about $300 / year. Well worth it!
Great info on LLC. Studied about them in Corporate Finance, never got around to forming one. We used to have a rental, for about 2 years. Sold it off in 2016, even though we were CF positive, as it was too much of a hassle. Perhaps I should write about it someday!
You must have read about this Mahmoud Khan guy too. With 43 rentals he’s the very epitome of the slumlord!
You should DEFINITELY right about your landlord experience. That’s one of this blogger-voyeur’s favorite topics.
Mr. Khan’s got some explainin’ to do, without a doubt. I simply don’t understand how people can treat others with such disregard. Tear up that dude’s license, City of Minnie!
Tread Lightly, Retire Early says
Personal signatures really get people in trouble. In my career, it’s amazing to see how many contractors leave themselves exposed through a lack of an LLC (or an incomplete one). Same goes for the insurance that goes along with it.
Good grief. There’s so much risk to be had out there. Small business owner, beware! I’d argue Angela, that alongside grade school curriculum on personal finance, we practically need it on Legal Risk Avoidance too. Lawyers can do a jig to that idea…
Done by Forty says
I agree that LLCs can be a dry topic to work through. Maybe the lawyers & accountants made it that way, so we’d give up and hire them?
We’re proponents of the umbrella, FWIW.
But I’m lately thinking we’ll get out of landlording altogether. Though you’re tempting me with that increased tax-deferral option via LLC…
Soooooper dry…. Did you make it all the way through that post? Kudos if you did. 🙂
I’ll have to keep closer tabs on DonebyForty.com – landlording can be a royal PITA that’s for darn sure.
Troy @ Bull Market says
I get LLC’s primarily for the tax benefit. Income tax is the worst because you can’t write off any expenses, whereas with a legal structure like an LLC at least you can decrease your tax liabilities.
Right on, Troy. The tax write-off benefit of a legal structure like the LLC is key! I know we were able to use the write offs prior to setting up our real estate LLC, so I don’t believe it’s absolutely necessary.
Some things to be aware of: if your maintaining a rental property personally and not hiring a company the LLCs probably won’t help. Doing things yourself pierces the veil.
Also you don’t need an LLCs to get a solo401k. A sole prop works fine as long as you ask government for a tax Id.
Thank you, FTF! I think that’s why my accountant recommends a separate LLC for your self-run property management company.
Good call out on the solo401K- maybe the LLC would at least help protect those solo 401k assets?