Understanding the Complexities of Cost Segregation Studies

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Cost segregation studies and analyses can be an overwhelming and complex process for those unfamiliar with them. A cost segregation study is a financial analysis conducted by a professional tax accountant to identify and classify various building assets to accelerate depreciation deductions with the overall goal of reducing your federal income tax liability.

By understanding the complexities of a cost segregation study, you can maximize your tax savings and ensure that you are receiving all of the benefits of such a study.

What Is a Cost Segregation Study?

A cost segregation study (CSS) is a specialized tax planning strategy used by developers, property owners, and real estate investors to accelerate depreciation deductions on their commercial and residential properties.

We generally perform a cost segregation analysis on a property with a value of $750k or more to identify components that can be reclassified into shorter depreciation periods, accelerating your tax deductions. By segregating these components, such as electrical systems, plumbing, lighting, and more, we can help you unlock substantial tax benefits and boost your bottom line.

For instance, a commercial building might include assets such as the roof, HVAC systems, electrical and plumbing systems, flooring, walls, and landscaping. These components have different useful lives and recovery periods, ranging from 5 to 39 years. A cost segregation study enables a corporate taxpayer to identify the assets that have shorter useful lives, such as carpeting, light fixtures, and furniture, and allocate a higher percentage of the property’s cost to those items, resulting in a faster tax write-off.

The concept of cost segregation was first recognized in 1997 when the IRS issued guidance allowing taxpayers to reclassify certain property assets into shorter depreciable lives for tax purposes. Since then, it has become a popular tax planning tool among real estate investors, generating significant tax savings and cash flow benefits.

However, it is essential to note that conducting a cost segregation study requires a detailed analysis of the property and a thorough understanding of the tax laws and regulations. Hence, it is crucial to consult with a qualified tax professional before undertaking a cost segregation study. The guidance for cost segregation studies supplied by the IRS is more than 250 pages long!

Another caveat: each property owner can only perform cost segregation once during their period of ownership. If you own a building for 20 years, you get to declare cost segregation once over that period. Any new owner after that would also get one cost segregation report. This is because you can write off these costs just once as a property owner.

But the potential tax savings to your company are significant!

Why Are Cost Segregation Studies Important?

Cost segregation studies offer a vital tool to real estate investors, owners, and businesses that have constructed or acquired real property. It is essentially a way for businesses to pay less in taxes, while remaining compliant with tax regulations. 

Here are some reasons why cost segregation studies are an essential part of your finances.

A cost segregation study can help businesses to significantly reduce their tax liability. This step can result in more cash flow, and therefore, more available funds for investments, capital improvements, and other business expenses.

Cost segregation studies ensure that businesses remain compliant with IRS regulations, specifically related to the classification and depreciation of assets. By correctly categorizing and depreciating property assets, businesses can avoid costly audits, fines, and penalties if anything is misclassified.

Cost segregation studies can increase the value of the property by separating out and accurately depreciating individual components. This information can be used to make informed decisions about future capital improvements, lease agreements, and even potential sales when a cost segregation report, performed by an accountant or cost segregation expert, outlines what assets can be depreciated more quickly.

Cost segregation studies can provide a competitive edge to investors in real estate deals, allowing them to make more informed decisions regarding potential deals by creating a paper trail of the assets involved. The ability to accurately determine the value and potential tax savings of a property can provide an edge in negotiations.

Brand-New Commercial Building

Types of Property Eligible for Cost Segregation

Cost segregation studies are a powerful tool for accelerating the depreciation of commercial property. However, not all types of property are eligible for cost segregation studies. In general, eligible property includes any commercial real estate that has a depreciable life of 27.5 years for residential properties or 39 years for nonresidential properties. 

Some examples of eligible property include (but are not limited to):

  • Office buildings
  • Retail centers
  • Warehouses, storage, and distribution centers
  • Hotels and motels
  • Hospitals and medical facilities
  • Restaurants and fast-food chains
  • Manufacturing plants and factories
  • Indoor growing facilities/greenhouses
  • Casinos
  • Auto dealerships
  • Entertainment venues
  • Banks
  • Sports venues, including country clubs
  • Supermarkets (individual and chains)


It is important to note that certain components within these properties may be eligible for faster depreciation schedules, even if the property as a whole is not. For example, components such as lighting systems, plumbing, HVAC systems, and certain types of flooring and wall finishes may qualify for shorter depreciable lives under cost segregation.

In addition to traditional commercial real estate, there are other types of property that may be eligible for cost segregation studies because of assets that depreciate faster than the building as a whole. 

These include:

Leasehold improvements: Improvements made to leased space, such as walls, floors, and lighting systems.

Renovations and retrofits: When an existing property undergoes renovations or retrofits, certain components of the project may be eligible for faster depreciation.

New construction: New commercial construction projects may be eligible for cost segregation studies from the beginning.

Overall, the types of property eligible for cost segregation studies are broad and encompass a wide range of commercial real estate and construction projects. If you own or operate commercial real estate, it is worth exploring whether a cost segregation study could benefit your business.

Pro tip: The more property you own, or the more valuable the building is, the more you stand to gain (in general) from a cost segregation study. Owning one or two rental houses might not make this kind of study cost-effective. Having a 300,000-square-foot office building might well save you thousands in tax liability. Your individual results will vary.

Key Components of a Cost Segregation Study

When conducting a cost segregation study, you’ll need a comprehensive understanding of the property in question and the potential tax benefits that could be realized. 

An accountant will include these key components in any cost segregation study.

Will a cost segregation study benefit your firm? We’ll start with a feasibility analysis that weighs the costs and benefits of conducting such a study. An accountant will identify significant property characteristics to determine this.

Once you decide to have a cost segregation study done, the accountant and stakeholders will then go over relevant documentation as to the property’s value. The goal is to discover depreciation deductions that may be immediately expensed and those that cannot.

We will gather:

  • Property condition report
  • Professional appraisal
  • Site map or survey
  • Any purchase documents, such as a deed and agreements
  • Total project costs and expenses from start to finish for renovations or new construction
  • Contractors, vendor and subcontractor invoices
  • Construction drawings, architectural plans, and models
  • Costs for general contractors
  • Change order details
  • A complete inspection of the property, either in-person or virtually, to acquire images and a site map to compare to documentation, construction drawings, and architectural plans
  • Classification of all estimates and cost information, including any improvements made to the land around the property site and any assets that might depreciate faster than the building itself
  • Photos and a tour of the property itself, including fences, gates, parking lots, and outdoor lighting structures

This step is when the person spearheading the cost segregation study brings together all elements of the analysis into one comprehensive document, including all of the information gathered.

This full report will contain:

  • Executive summary
  • Results of the study
  • Methods used to conduct the study
  • Photos of the property taken during the study period
  • Relevant tax law supporting the classification of your assets
  • List of assets (buildings) and their value by depreciation class


The property owner and the person responsible for the tax liability for the commercial property must retain this report for the duration of the property ownership. It will support the new asset classifications. If you’re ever audited by the IRS, the agency may require the information in the report as evidence of your claims.

Architect and Engineer Consulting

Steps to Conducting a Cost Segregation Study

A cost segregation study is no small matter. It takes several qualified professionals to handle.

The team usually consists of a cost segregation specialist or an accountant, an engineer, and any property experts like a title company and property appraiser. Your cost segregation specialist should have experience in identifying and separating different assets within a property, while your engineer should have expertise in construction and building systems. The title company will research the deed while the appraiser will give you an estimate of the building’s value.

The next step is to gather all the necessary information about the property, such as the purchase price, the date it was acquired, the date it was placed in service, and any renovations or improvements made to the property since the purchase. You will also need to collect documentation of these expenses, including invoices and construction drawings.

After gathering property information, the engineer on your team will conduct a site visit to inspect the property alongside the cost segregation specialist. They will examine the property’s structural components, building systems, and other assets that may qualify for accelerated depreciation.

Using all of the information gathered from property documents and the site visit, your cost segregation specialist will classify each asset into its appropriate tax classification (e.g., personal property, land improvements, or real property). Each asset will be categorized based on its useful life and depreciation method, as determined by the IRS.

Once the assets have been classified, the cost segregation expert will allocate the costs of the property to each asset. This step is crucial. It will determine the depreciation expense for each asset and impact the tax benefits received.

Finally, we’ll create a detailed report outlining the results of your cost segregation study. This report should include a detailed asset list with allocated costs and tax classifications, as well as the estimated tax benefits from accelerated depreciation. Again, this report serves as the foundation of your tax reporting for depreciation.

Cost Segregation Methods and Approaches

Once you decide to undertake a cost segregation study, the next step is to determine the most appropriate method or approach to use. This will depend on a number of factors including the size and complexity of the property, the goals of the study, and the available resources.

Cost segregation falls into two main methods for conducting a study: the detailed engineering approach and the residual method. 

Detailed Engineering Approach

The detailed engineering approach is the most accurate and comprehensive, but it also requires the most time and expense. This method involves a thorough examination of the property to identify all the components and assets that can be reclassified for tax purposes. The components are then assigned to the appropriate MACRS asset class based on their useful life.

For example, let’s say that a commercial property was purchased for $10 million. The study using the detailed engineering approach identified $3 million in components that could be reclassified from 39-year real property to shorter-life personal property assets. The resulting tax benefit from this reclassification could be as much as $750,000 in the first year alone, depending on the tax laws in place.

Residual Method

The residual method is a less comprehensive approach that relies on certain assumptions and estimates to determine the allocation of costs to shorter-life assets. This method can be used when time and resources are limited or when the property is relatively simple.

For example, let’s say that a residential rental property was purchased for $500,000. Using the residual method, the study estimated that 20% of the cost could be reclassified from 27.5-year real property to 5-year personal property assets. This would result in a tax benefit of approximately $8,200 in the first year.

In addition to these two main methods, there are also hybrid and statistical sampling approaches that can be used in certain situations. The important thing is to choose the method that best fits the needs and goals of the particular property and study.

Regardless of the method used, it is important to ensure that the cost segregation study is performed by a qualified professional with expertise in both tax and engineering principles. The study should also be properly documented and supported to withstand scrutiny from the IRS.

Tax Benefits Concept

Potential Tax Benefits of Cost Segregation Studies

While cost segregation studies can be a complex and time-consuming process, the potential tax benefits are significant for property owners. By identifying and accelerating depreciation deductions, property owners can increase cash flow, reduce taxes, and improve overall financial performance.

Reclassifying your real estate assets to a shorter life property typically ranges from 10 to 40% of the overall depreciable cost basis. For example, multifamily properties and office buildings tend to have shorter life properties than industrial buildings and warehouses.

The main benefit of cost segregation studies is the ability to reclassify assets that can be depreciated at a faster rate. For example, the building itself might depreciate over 39 years. However, the HVAC system has a lifespan of just 25 years, meaning it depreciates faster. Lighting systems, flooring, walls, and ceilings may also depreciate faster than the building structure itself.

Cost segregation studies also offer the potential for additional tax benefits, including, but not limited to:

1. Increased first-year deductions

Property owners can reduce their tax liability and improve cash flow by accelerating depreciation deductions in the first year of ownership. 

2. Reduced taxable income

By reducing taxable income through accelerated depreciation, property owners could lower their tax bracket and pay less in taxes.

3. Lowered capital gains tax

By segregating assets and improving the basis of the property, property owners can lower capital gains tax liability if they sell the property.

4. Potential for amended returns

Property owners can amend prior tax returns to take advantage of missed deductions resulting from cost segregation studies, which can result in significant tax refunds.

5. Enhanced depreciation schedules

By improving the depreciation schedule of a property, property owners can maximize depreciation deductions and increase cash flow.

6. Audit defense

If the IRS audits your company, you can support documentation of the depreciation with the cost segregation study.

Your actual results may vary because every property is unique and every property owner is also unique.

Overall, the tax benefits of cost segregation studies can result in significant tax savings for developers and property owners. However, it is important to note that these benefits depend on a variety of factors, including the property type, cost of acquisition, and depreciation rates. Therefore, it is important to work with a qualified professional who can accurately assess these factors and perform a comprehensive cost segregation study.

Additional Savings Opportunities of Cost Segregation Studies

You might see additional savings opportunities with cost segregation studies.

  • Outdoor fixtures and structures might depreciate faster than the property itself, such as parking lots, outdoor lights, sidewalks, and fences.
  • Improvements for energy efficiency, like investing in LED lighting, an ENERGY STAR HVAC system, or LEED Certification can lead to tax deductions or even rebates. A cost segregation study can find these potential savings.
  • Renovations to the property must be taken into account when factoring in depreciation.


A cost segregation expert, such as an accountant familiar with tax laws and IRS filings, can outline these various savings opportunities during the process of a cost segregation study.

Challenges and Limitations of Cost Segregation Studies

While cost segregation studies can offer significant tax benefits for property owners, there are also challenges and limitations to consider.

An initial consultation with a cost segregation expert, such as The Whitlock Co., can determine if a cost segregation study is a feasible method of tax savings for your business.

Factors to Consider Before Undertaking a Cost Segregation Study

As with any complex accounting task, many aspects come into play when undertaking a cost segregation study. Consider a few factors before deciding to invest in this type of endeavor.

1. Property Type

Certain types of property are more likely to benefit from a cost segregation study than others. For example, commercial or industrial buildings tend to have a greater potential for cost segregation benefits than residential properties.

2. Age of Property

Newer properties are more likely to have higher initial costs, and thus may benefit more from a cost segregation study than older properties with lower initial costs.

3. Tax Situation

Taxpayers and property owners subject to higher tax rates are more likely to benefit from the accelerated depreciation deductions resulting from a cost segregation study.

4. Available Resources

Cost segregation studies require a significant amount of time, expertise, and resources to perform effectively. Taxpayers should carefully consider whether they have the necessary resources available to undertake a cost segregation study, or whether they should hire an external professional to perform the study.

5. Future Plans for the Property

If the property is likely to be sold in the near future, a cost segregation study may not be the most advantageous option. However, if the property is being held for a longer period of time, a cost segregation study could provide significant tax benefits over time.

Why Choose The Whitlock Co. for Your Cost Segregation Analysis?

Here’s what sets us apart when helping you with a cost segregation study:

Our team consists of highly qualified accountants and tax specialists who possess extensive knowledge of cost segregation studies. With years of industry experience, we understand the intricacies of tax laws and regulations, ensuring accurate and compliant results.

We recognize that every business is unique. That’s why we take a personalized approach to each cost segregation study we undertake. Our team will conduct a detailed assessment of your property assets, consider your business objectives, and customize a solution that maximizes your tax savings.

Our primary goal is to help you reduce your tax liability and increase your cash flow. By identifying components that qualify for shorter depreciation periods, we can accelerate your tax deductions and provide immediate financial benefits, freeing up capital for other business needs.

Our cost segregation studies go beyond simply identifying assets. We delve into the details, examining blueprints, construction records, and invoices to ensure that all eligible components are properly classified. Our meticulous approach ensures a thorough and accurate assessment.

As tax laws and regulations evolve, staying compliant can be challenging. At The Whitlock Co., we stay up-to-date with the latest changes, ensuring that our cost segregation studies adhere to all relevant tax codes. Additionally, our team is always available to answer your questions and provide ongoing support.

Don’t leave money on the table. Let the experts at The Whitlock Co. help you unlock the full tax-saving potential of your commercial property. Fill out our consultation request form or call (417) 881-0145 and learn how our cost segregation studies can make a significant difference for your business.

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