Over the last two years I have often been asked to answer the question of what the consequences will be if a client walks away from a property, letting the bank take it back. The previous decade of incredible real estate appreciation resulted in many people without previous real estate investment experience becoming real estate investors. The most common situation I see is the condo owner who had enough income to keep his condo as a rental and still buy himself a single family residence. Then the recession hit and both properties are now underwater. Now, he thinks he can walk away from the property thanks to the Mortgage Debt Relief Act. Unfortunately, that Act was put into place to help people who were losing their homes, not to help people with investment properties. Even more unfortunate is that a lot of these beginner real estate investors thought that they could handle their taxes themselves without an accountant.
California is now focusing on finding those people and making them pay tax on the cancellation of debt income they should have recognized on giving up their underwater investment property to the bank. According to Spidell's California Taxletter, (March 1, 2011, Volume 33.3), California is mailing letters for tax years 2007 and 2008 to taxpayers who had debt relief on properties that were reported on Schedule E and therefore, probably do not qualify for the principal residence exclusion. The letter calculates the potential additional tax owed as well as a 20% accuracy related penalty and interest on the unreported income.
If it is too late and you have already been given notice of an audit on cancellation of debt income, there are still some other exclusions that you may qualify for, such as business and farm indebtedness. If you are thinking of giving an investment property back to the bank, be sure to bring in a good accountant to analyze the tax situation for you first.