A guide for non-UK resident clients on some of the key tax and other planning considerations.

The UK continues to be a destination of choice for people seeking to purchase residential property. With its depth of culture and breadth of business opportunities, plus its convenient time zone and fantastic education options, many seek properties as permanent homes, holiday or seasonal homes; others as places to stay whilst doing business, or as investment opportunities.

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford”, Samuel Johnson

As in many countries, in the past decade there have been numerous and significant changes to the way the UK government taxes residential property. The global trend has been for the tax burden on residential property to increase, and the UK is no exception. In the UK, broadly speaking the Government has used tax as a way to discourage indirect ownership and to increase transparency around who ultimately owns residential property. These trends are likely to continue.

“This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”, Act II, Scene I, Richard II, William Shakespeare

It is therefore as important as ever that you take both the right conveyancing and legal advice as well as tax advice in advance of your purchase.

This note highlights some of the basic tax and legal considerations that form part of residential property purchases in the UK. It should act as an introduction to the topic to help inform your detailed discussions with your independent tax and legal advisors.

The Legal Process

Once you have found a property you are interested in, the process of acquiring it can be exciting and it is certainly a process worth being prepared for.

There are three key moments in the process: 1. offer; 2. exchange of contracts; and 3. completion. If your offer is accepted this is often seen as the most exciting moment in the process, however, it is worth noting that having an offer accepted has no legal force: it does not bind the vendor to sell their property to you, or require you to purchase the property from them.

A key principle is ‘caveat emptor’, or ‘let the buyer beware’. This is the legal principle that it is your responsibility as the buyer to investigate and discover everything you need to know about the property before you purchase it. It is between your offer being accepted and key moment number two: exchange of contracts, that you will undertake due diligence on the property. This work is undertaken by your conveyancer/lawyer who will undertake pre-contract searches with, among others, the Local Authority, make enquiries of the vendor and investigate the property’s title. You will need to instruct a surveyor to undertake a survey of the property itself.

On the one hand this process provides you with the flexibility to change your mind about purchasing the property, say if you find something out about it that cannot be addressed as part of your commercial negotiations. On the other, it means that you will incur costs in learning about the property before you and the vendor are bound to transact. 

If you are satisfied with the property, you will exchange contracts with the vendor. This is the point at which you will pay the deposit and at which you and the vendor will become unconditionally bound to transact. This is the point of no return. 

The final key moment is completion: this is the point at which you will pay the vendor the balance of the purchase price and you will receive the keys to your new home. You will also need to pay the Stamp Duty Land Tax due. There is no set timeframe between exchange and completion, they can happen simultaneously or there can be a pause of weeks or months and this will be agreed between you and the vendor.

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Freehold or leasehold?

In the UK there are two main forms of home ownership, freehold or leasehold. If you own a freehold house you normally own the property and the land it sits on. You are responsible for all maintenance and can make alterations to the property as you wish (subject to any planning permissions required). 

If you own a leasehold, you do not own the land the property sits on. You will have to comply with any restrictions found in the lease (which is the agreement between you and the freeholder of the property). You are unlikely to be able to make structural alterations to the property and will likely have to contribute to the maintenance of the property, sometimes through a service charge. Flats are usually sold as leaseholds. The length of the lease is often 99 or 125 years and as this period reduces, the value of the leasehold is likely to reduce too. It is sometimes possible to extend a lease.

How will you fund the deposit?

Broadly, if you are moving to the UK but continue to consider another place to be your permanent and indefinite home, you are likely to become a UK resident ‘non-domiciled’ person (a status which has a number of tax implications which you should seek UK tax advice on alongside the advice you will receive in relation to the property purchase). You will need to consider with your UK tax advisors how best to fund the deposit due on your property purchase in an efficient way. Often UK resident non-domiciled individuals will have a pool of so-called clean capital that they can bring to the UK without a tax charge which they use to fund the deposit.

If you intend to remain non-UK resident there will be less complexity around how best to fund the deposit as there is unlikely to be a UK tax issue when bringing those funds here, albeit there will be UK tax consequences resulting from the purchase and future sale of the property and any rental income you might receive from your tenants if you rent it out.

How will you own the property?

Once you have found the property you were looking for and have commenced the preliminary work with your conveyancer, it is worthwhile taking tax and legal advice to decide the most sensible way for you to hold the property given your personal circumstances and the objectives you have for the property. In recent years we have seen an increasing trend towards direct ownership, rather than ownership through a company, particularly where the property is intended for personal use. There may remain some limited circumstances where corporate or trust ownership might make sense. 

What taxes apply to the acquisition and disposal of UK residential property?

Inheritance Tax

Non-domiciled individuals’ main exposure to UK inheritance tax will often be as a result of their ownership of UK residential property. This is often a key area that they wish to seek tax advice on.

Even if you do not intend to become resident in the UK, if you buy a residential property here it will be subject to inheritance tax. Inheritance tax is charged at 40% on death on the net value of all of a UK resident or non-resident’s UK situated assets. 

It should be noted that property passing between spouses is generally exempt from IHT (subject to certain limitations where the property passes to the surviving spouse and they are a non-UK domiciled individual).

Your exposure to inheritance tax in the UK can be mitigated by securing a mortgage against the property upon acquisition. In addition, you might consider life insurance to protect against the exposure to IHT the equity you own in the property brings.

Stamp Duty Land Tax (“SDLT”)

You will pay SDLT on the acquisition of UK residential property in your own name.  If you purchase a residential property between 8 July 2020 to 31 March 2021, you will only start to pay SDLT on the amount that you pay for the property above £500,000 if it is your first home (this is a temporary relief).

Additional 3% SDLT Rate

An additional 3% charge is added to the standard rate of SDLT if the UK property you are purchasing is in addition to another residential property you already own anywhere else in the world. 

The additional 3% rate applies on top of the revised standard rates for the period 8 July 2020 to 31 March 2021.

This additional 3% surcharge will not apply if you are replacing your main home on the same day.  

If you do not sell your former main home on the same day as you acquire your new UK property, you will be required to pay the additional 3% SDLT charge, but you will have up to three years to sell your former home if you wish to reclaim the additional tax.  Once it is sold, you can reclaim the additional 3% SDLT charge.

Spouses and civil partners are treated as one person, together with the purchaser, for the purposes of the additional 3% rate.  So if your spouse owns a property anywhere else in the world and you are purchasing the new UK property, you will be treated as one person and the additional 3% SDLT charge will still apply.

From 1 April 2021, the temporary reduction in SDLT will lapse.  We have assumed in the examples below that the rates will revert to the those in place prior to the temporary change:

2% non-UK resident surcharge

From 1 April 2021, an additional 2% SDLT surcharge on non-UK residents purchasing residential property in England and Northern Ireland will apply. This will in effect mean that if you are purchasing a UK property as a holiday home and you already own another property, you will pay the 2% non-UK resident surcharge plus the 3% SDLT charge on the purchase of additional homes. In this example the top rate of SDLT on the value of your property purchase above £1.5m will be 17%.

15% flat SDLT rate on corporate ownership

If you buy a property through a company, if that property is worth more than £500,000, a flat rate of 15% SDLT will apply. There are some limited exemptions from the flat 15% SDLT rate where, for example the acquisition is for the purpose of letting as part of a rental business or as part of a property trading or development business.

Purchase of shares in a property holding company

If you buy the shares in a property holding company, you will not pay SDLT. However, there are a number of potential downsides to acquiring the shares in a property holding company that you should explore with your tax and legal advisors, not least, the Annual Tax on Enveloped Dwellings (outlined below).

In addition, since 6 April 2017, holding UK residential property through a company provides no protection from UK inheritance tax.

Annual Tax on Enveloped Dwellings (“ATED”)

Broadly speaking, ATED is an annual tax payable by companies that own UK residential property valued at more than £500,000. 

Chargeable amounts for 1 April 2020 to 31 March 2021

There are a number of reliefs from ATED, with the two most common being where the property is let to a third party on a commercial basis (so long as the occupant is not connected to you, the owner) and where the property is part of a property trader or developer’s business. 

Capital Gains Tax (CGT)

Capital Gains Tax at 28% is payable by all UK residents and since 6 April 2015 non-UK residents, on the disposal of residential property.

Having said that, relief from CGT is available under the Principal Private Residence Relief (“PPR”) on gains arising on the disposal by gift or sale of your only or main residence. This relief is available to individuals but not to companies.

You are able to nominate which of your properties should benefit from PPR within two years of the date from which you owned more than one residence.

The period of ownership begins on date of acquisition (or on 31 March 1982 if that is later) and ends on disposal. The final 9 months of ownership always qualify for PPR regardless of use.

In practice, if you are non-UK tax resident, it may be difficult for you to benefit from PPR. This is because in order for a property to qualify for PPR you must have spent at least 90 midnights in the tax year in the UK property or in another UK property which you own. 

Income tax 

If you are intending to let the property, you will receive rental income in the UK which will be taxable at your marginal rate of UK income tax, regardless of whether you are UK resident or non-UK resident. A tax relief limited to the basic rate of income tax (20%) is available for landlords earning rental income. 

Final Thoughts

There is a lot to think about when purchasing UK residential property. There is a clear need to take early and detailed tax and legal advice from independent advisors. In the meantime, if you would like to discuss some of these concepts in more detail with our Wealth Advisory team or if you would like to explore your mortgage options with our Mortgage team, please do not hesitate to get in touch with your J.P. Morgan banker.