Small Portfolio Landlords: Coming Out of the ‘Woodwork’

Small Portfolio Landlords: Coming Out of the ‘Woodwork’

Many accountants have had the experience of someone coming to see them out of the blue, and saying something like, I’ve never declared my rental income as I have a very small portfolio.  What should I do to get my affairs right, and what is my worst case scenario?’

Without condoning the suppression of income in this way, many accountants can understand the temptation.  Perhaps the individual concerned doesn’t even fill in tax returns, and the red tape involved in getting into the self-assessment situation is off-putting.  After a year or so, when the taxpayer is now definitely in default, it becomes a case of ‘I must sort the tax business out – some time.’  Others assume, actually wrongly, that turning a blind eye to the receipt of a small amount of rental income is part of the culture – what everyone does.  Another class assume that they would probably have enough expenses to offset, and so there’s no rental profit to pay tax on anyway.  Sometimes this is true in the earlier years, when a lot needs to be done to the property of properties concerned, but it becomes untrue at some definite point, which might slip by without the landlord really noticing it.

The trouble is, it all looks very different when the taxman knocks on the door.  HMRC tend to show a distinct lack of sympathy for the doubt and vacillations of taxpayers In this situation.  On the principle of getting the worst over first, let’s look at the bad news, and then the good news (or perhaps the no so bad news).


Probably the most frequent reason why undeclared income comes to light is because a malicious informant tells HMRC about it.  No doubt the most frequent sort of malicious informant, it has to be said, is a disgruntled spouse on a matrimonial break-up.  Former employees who have been sacked are also frequent informers.  We’re told, too, that all land registry transactions are notified to HMRC.  Sometimes (very occasionally, if truth were told) they seem to sue this information: usually for enquiring as to why capital gains have not been disclosed on disposal of a property.  But it’s also not beyond the wit o the taxman to start trying to build up a picture of a person’s financial life.  Why does someone apparently own two or three properties, but not receive any rents?

How far back can HMRC go?

Like every question involving HMRC and the statutory rules, the answer is a little bit complicated.

The basic time limit is four years.  If the taxman wants to go back more than this, and assess undeclared income that he’s discovered, he needs to show that: (a) the taxpayer has been ‘careless’ – in which case the four-year time limit becomes six years; or (b) he needs to show that the omission of the rents was deliberate.  In this case we have twenty-year time limit.

The following table is a handy ‘ready reckoner’ as to the kind of level of penalties someone can normally expect for arrears of income tax, with the percentage figures relating to a percentage of the tax previously lost:

                                                               Careless %                Deliberate but Not concealed %                 Deliberate and concealed £

Maximum                                                    30                                                70                                                                100

Minimum – prompted disclosure             15                                                35                                                                 50

Minimum – unprompted disclosure         Nil                                                20                                                                30


Having looked at worst case scenario, in answer to our landlord’s second question, now let’s look at the first question: how do we put things right, and as cheaply as possible?

Firstly, it is obviously if possible to get your disclosure in before HMRC have started making any enquiries.  Unprompted disclosure obviously reduces any potential penalties.

Secondly, we find it helpful to present HMRC with a complete ‘pack’ comprising calculations of the arrears of tax, with readily available supporting documentation, where possible, and clear explanations of where estimate had to be used.  If you do all of the bureaucrat’s work for him, he is likely to view your previous default with a mush less jaundiced eye.  This is particularly the case, of course, if you are able to send him a cheque for a reasonable amount, or even the whole, of the tax arrears along with the disclosure.

But putting the matter right isn’t all just a case of lying down and being kicked.  Here are a few principles which will help resolve the problem, it is to be hoped, as cheaply as possible.

  • Argue if possible if the omission is careless rather than deliberate.  It may genuinely by the case that a landlord was under the impression that his expenses exceeded his income; one common area of misunderstanding, for example, is that in making mortgage payments it is only the interest that is allowable, and not the capital, as some people seem to think.
  • Don’t forget to claim losses from earlier years, which can normally be brought forward and offset against current year rental profits.  Even if it means going back an awful lot of year and making your best fist at a rental income and expenditure account, these losses are well worth claiming – rather than simply starting for the first year in which profits are made.
  • Don’t forget to claim such things as wear and tear allowance in those past years, and adopt a reasonable approach to claiming expenses, including the expenses of substantial refurbishments where these are arguably ‘revenue’ in nature.


Finally, remember that you are allowed a deduction for expenses incurred.  This may seem too obvious to be worth mentioning, but sometimes investigating HMRC officers give the impression that you can’t claim an expense unless you can find a supporting vouchers or invoice.  Although they will say it with great confidence, the flaw in their argument is that the law doesn’t actually say this.  There are cased where you can show by basic reasoning, or other evidence than pieces of paper, that you must have incurred an expense.

For further information on how I can assist with your personal situation, please contact me (mailto: from 01270 626162 (