Primary, secondary, and investment properties explained

white and blue house beside fence

Understanding the different types of properties and what to expect from your taxes

When you apply for a mortgage, your mortgage lender will want to know whether you’re applying for a loan on a primary residence, secondary residence, or investment property. The interest rates and loan terms are different for each type of residence because the risk factor is different to your lender. Most home loans are for primary residences, but plenty of buyers are looking for vacation homes or even investment properties, too, and your rates and taxes will change depending on how you use the property.

In this article we’ll define each type of property and discuss what your loan options and tax implications will be depending on how you use your property. 

Primary residence

From the mortgage lender’s perspective, a primary residence carries the lowest risk to them and to you so, therefore, it usually has the best rates and lowest down payment options. 

For the property to be considered a primary residence by the lender, you must live there full, or near full-time. You can have a secondary residence like a vacation property or an investment property elsewhere, but your primary residence is the one you use to live in day to day. 

What your lender looks for in a primary residence:

  • You must live in the home for most of the year
  • It must be located reasonably close to your workplace 
  • You must move in within 60 days of closing 
  • You must not plan to convert the home to an income property within 12 months of closing

The type of home doesn’t matter, though. Your primary residence can be a house, a condo, a townhouse, a floating home, or any other type of home. 

When it comes time to refinance the mortgage on your primary residence, you’ll show your lender that you have lived there full-time through tax returns, voter registration, or other documents. 

Taxes on a primary residence 

The US Government encourages homeownership because mortgages are, generally, a solid investment and are a lower-risk part of the American economy. That’s why congress baked in tax incentives for middle-income buyers to take out mortgages. 

The interest you pay in any given tax year on the first $1 million of your mortgage loan is tax deductible for any primary or secondary residence bought before 2017. If you bought your home more recently, the deduction is available for the first $750,000. 

So keep good records on your mortgage payments. When tax season comes around, paying your interest on time can help lower your bill. But the IRS will only recognize one home as a primary residence, and you and your spouse must claim the same one. A mortgage lender will also only accept one residence as a primary residence. 

Note that a primary residence can also be an income property if you have a multi-unit property and live in one of the units. The one(s) you’re not occupying can be rented out. But in order to be able to deduct the interest on your mortgage payments, you’ll need to live on the property full-time, yourself. 

Secondary residence 

If you’re planning to buy a home for getaways or limited stays, it’s probably a secondary residence. Generally, a lender is able to offer a similar interest rate for a secondary residence but may require a larger minimum down payment or a higher credit score. You may also need to show that you have funds to make payments for a certain number of months. 

What lenders look for in a secondary residence: 

  • You must live in the home for some of the year 
  • No one else can claim the home as a primary residence
  • Generally, the home must be located more than 50 miles from your primary residence
  • The home can’t be under a rental, timeshare, or property management agreement 
  • The home should be available year-round for your exclusive use and enjoyment
  • Only 1-unit homes are eligible to be classified as secondary residences

If you purchase a secondary residence as a vacation home or getaway, you could find yourself on the hook for higher interest rates if it’s too close to your primary residence. Both the IRS and your lender could consider a property close to your primary residence as an investment property so a secondary residence should be seen as a vacation home—further than 50 miles from your primary residence. 

You might be able to rent your secondary residence out some of the time, but to avoid the higher tax bill and loan rates, you’ll need to make sure that the home is available to you, and you only, for the bulk of the year. 

Taxes on a secondary residence

Since an official secondary residence is still, primarily, enjoyed by you and you alone, the loan terms and taxes are very similar, though your lender may want to see a very high credit score and a large amount of cash on hand to handle two mortgages. 

Just like with your primary residence, your mortgage interest is deductible on your secondary residence up to the first $1 million or $750,000 depending on when you purchased it. 

Property taxes, meanwhile, are deductible from your federal tax return but only up to a total of $10,000 across all your properties. So what you may make up for in deductions on your mortgage interest, you may end up spending on property taxes if you pay more than $10,000 total across more than one property. That can really add up. Make sure you do those calculations when you buy to make sure that your total property tax bill won’t exceed your annual tax budget.

brown brick house near green trees under blue sky during daytime
Secondary residences are not the same as investment properties. They are still mostly used by you and not rented out for the bulk of the year.

Investment property 

An investment property is a home that you plan to use for income, whether through long-term leases, short-term vacation rentals, or planning to flip it and resell it quickly. Because they’re considered riskier than primary and secondary residences, they usually have the highest interest rates and down payments. You’ll also need to show your ability to pay for multiple months. 

Investment properties can be any type of home, including townhomes, condos, single-family, and more. Plus, investment properties can include commercial and residential hybrids. 

What lenders look for in an investment property:

  • You plan on having someone else occupy the home as their primary residence, such as a tenant or a family member; 
  • Or you plan on renting it as a short-term rental
  • You plan to flip it for a profit

Because you’ll be making income from the property, your lender may consider that when reviewing your loan and provide you with lower rates based on your projected earnings. 

Regardless of your rates, though, a lender will likely require a higher down payment of at least 20% for you to purchase an investment property, and investors won’t have access to mortgage assistance programs or private mortgage insurance. Basically, that means if you intend to purchase a property as investment, the upfront costs will be quite a bit more than when you bought your primary residence—but, you may be able to offset those costs in tax deductions. 

Taxes on investment properties

You must report any earnings you make on your investment property as income on your taxes, whether from the appreciated sale of your property or from rental income. But you’ll also be able to write off the cost of maintaining the residence since doing so is basically your job that requires materials and labor. So if you earned $50,000 in rental income, but you had to buy a $2,500 refrigerator, you can deduct that cost on your taxes. 

The mortgage interest deduction for primary and secondary residences doesn’t apply to investment properties. Nor are write-offs available to you on property taxes. 

green palm tree near swimming pool
An investment properties can be a condo, duplex, or single-family home that you own but don’t live in and, instead, make an income from through rent or flipping for a profit

Wrapping up

Each type of residence has its own benefits and drawbacks when it comes to how much you owe and how much you’ll earn. For example, a primary residence won’t (and, by definition, can’t) provide you with any income. But the deductions and write-offs for owning your own home are greater than if you use a home as an investment. Vice versa, you’ll have to claim any earnings from your investment property to the IRS and pay your higher taxes, accordingly, but the property will be providing you with income throughout the year. 

Knowing the differences between each type of residence and what you can expect to pay in taxes helps you understand your budget and financial future. Looking to buy your first home? Remember to try to keep the purchase under $1 million and your interest will be tax deductible. Buying a secondary home? Double check to make sure you can afford the property taxes. 

FAQs

Can you have 2 primary residences?

A homeowner can only have one primary residence. The IRS will apply taxes differently depending on which home is closest to your work, how much time you spend in one or the other, and some other verifiable criteria.

What is the difference between primary and secondary residence?

A primary residence is the home you spend more, or most, of your time in. It’s the home from which you commute to work, from which your child is registered for school, and which you live in, yourself. A secondary residence is similar in that it belongs to you and no one else lives there much of the time. It is a vacation or part-time residence available to you, and you alone, for the majority of the year—not renters. 

Can my wife and I have separate primary residence?

No. A spouses filing together may only claim one residence as their primary residence. 

Can you rent out your primary residence?

The short answer is yes, but you’ll need to be up front with your lender—especially if you plan to refinance. Refinancing rates will be different if the home isn’t owner occupied and, if you don’t let them know, you’ll be liable to commit occupancy fraud. Generally, give it a year before you change your ownership status as most loan contracts require you be the primary resident for the first year. 


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