Monday, 19 March 2012

Stamp duty dodge

No one likes tax dodgers, especially if they're rich.

So the Coalition's rumblings against UK celebs and foreign tycoons using offshore companies to avoid stamp duty on their homes have got plenty of notice.

Which works well for Mr Osborne if, on the other hand, you are planning to do the wealthy a favour by cutting the top rate of tax.

But there seems to be a lot of confusion about what's being avoided and how much.

Just to be clear, the device of using, or setting up, an offshore company to buy a UK home would not normally get you out of paying Stamp Duty Land Tax.

Interestingly, the tax man will tell you that the very fact that the property appears in the Land Registry's records as owned by an offshore company means that stamp duty has been paid.

It is hardly surprising, then, that various well known people and Middle Eastern figures have told the newspaper that they haven't avoided the tax.

The tax benefit comes later on, because the offshore company can change hands without the duty being paid by the purchaser. In theory, then, the purchaser might be prepared to pay more to the vendor.

And the owner would probably be able to dodge inheritance tax, if everything was kept offshore.

There are three main scenarios to keep in mind:

1. You buy a home in the normal way and pay Stamp Duty Land Tax at the normal rate, which is what most people do.

2. You use an offshore company to buy it. You still pay stamp duty but the duty might be avoided by the person who buys it from you.

3. You buy the property in the normal way but use the name of an offshore company as the owner, to keep the ownership private. You pay stamp duty and the person you sell it to pays the duty as well.

Incidentally, the point about privacy is an important one, if you want to understand what is going on.

Solicitors involved in pushing these deals through are adamant that secrecy is the main motivation for the very wealthy buyers who use offshore companies.

Consider a Greek tycoon or a rich Syrian, keen to pull money out of danger and park it in London property -- currently viewed as an international safe haven and relatively cheap. They'd want to keep it all under wraps.

Having said that, it still seems likely that the Exchequer is missing out on many millions of pounds in stamp duty. The question is: how many millions?

The most headline-grabbing estimate is that £1bn is being lost, though it's not clear whether this is per year. Another number bandied about is £500m.

Tax officials at HMRC put the total Stamp Duty Land Tax gap at £250m for 2009-10, taking both residential and commercial property into account.

What I'm told by people involved in the transactions is that the yield from a clampdown would be at the lower end of these figures, though still - possibly - hundreds of millions.

Maybe you'd expect them to say that but the reasons are:

*The buyers tend to pay the initial stamp duty

*Then they tend to sit on the investment. There's not much trading which goes on afterwards.

So there's no doubt that action against this dodge is imminent, but there is doubt about how much the clampdown will yield.

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