The expression “Moving House” is the sort of English up with which Winston Churchill would, famously, not have put. In point of fact, moving a house is exceptionally difficult and, other than in natural disasters, very rare. Believe me – I know. Every weekday evening for a year and a half I used to speed out of the office car park only to be halted by the horrendously slow traffic lights at the end of the street. As a matter of habit, I would turn my head and observe the snail’s pace progress in arranging the moving of a couple of remarkably unremarkable houses a distance of no more than twenty metres to permit the widening of the road that was the raison d’être for the traffic lights.They spent millions upon millions to dig under the foundations and put a few 100-year-old houses on rails. Preserving 100-year-old houses of the German Templars in Israel, a country that boasts its fair share of genuine antiquities (just last week I stood in the middle of a sea-front Roman Hippodrome imagining chariots racing around me) was undoubtedly an act of folly. Indeed the houses were (and, if you swing your gaze twenty metres, are) reminiscent of the sort of buildings on the other side of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate that a United Germany has not yet got round to demolishing.
Precisely because houses are so hard to move they are exceptionally popular when governments are, like now, looking to replenish the national coffers with giant helpings of taxes. After all, when was the last time you heard of a semi-detached in your neighbourhood disappearing overnight and turning up on a sand dune in the Cayman Islands? And what about all those nice tax planning devices to reduce profit or, indeed, induce losses? With real estate, even if you improbably find ways to avoid capital gains tax, there is always property transfer tax (under one of its many aliases) and annual property taxes that date from time immemorial when nobody worried about progressive tax rates and the redistribution of income.
Britain and Germany are taking part in the latest game of “Plug the Deficit with Bricks and Mortar”. This week sees the deadline for public comment on the British Treasury’s Consultation Paper “Ensuring the fair taxation of residential property transactions”. The proposal is aimed at nuking the ‘enveloping’ of high value residential properties in corporate structures so as to avoid Stamp Duty Land Tax on sale and, in the case of foreign residents – exemption from capital gains tax. The SDLT to be paid by a non-individual buying a residential property valued at more than £2 million is a whopping 15% of the value of the property. Meanwhile, wrapping such properties in an envelope will – from 2013 – attract an annual charge of between £15,000 and £140,000. In feeling the need to justify the imposition of capital gains tax on enveloped properties held by foreign residents (virtually every other country in the world already charges tax on the basis of where the property is situated) the paper seems to miss several beats – but it does not really matter. What is pretty clear is that, if this proposal becomes law, the days of non-commercial corporate ownership of residential properties are numbered and everybody is going to be paying 7% SDLT (up from 5%) which is quite a lot really.
The Germans are also at it. In between dealing with the woes of the Euro, they found time to come up with a series of proposals to close annoying tax loopholes that have been costing them a cent or two. Buried deep and largely out of sight is a suggestion to clobber an almost ubiquitous device to avoid Real Estate Transfer Tax (RETT). The transfer of properties in corporate structures by sale of shares has been widespread in Germany for some years and has traditionally succeeded in avoiding the RETT. However, the indirect transfer of at least 95% of a property also triggers the RETT . To avoid this, Germans started establishing RETT blockers – entities that facilitate a split in ownership 94.9:5.1 and avoided the problem. Well, it looks like that one may be on the way out if the Bundestag and Bundesrat can get their act together when Mrs Merkel returns from her Italian walking tour in September.
While abuses of language roll on unhindered, this year the Oxford English Dictionary, to my absolute chagrin, ditched the word “Growlery” from the English lexicon. The most famous Growlery was the wealthy, benevolent and cheerful John Jarndyce’s private room at Bleak House where he allowed himself to be angry and depressed. There will be a lot of wealthy people in England shutting themselves off in rooms in their mansions angry and depressed over their frustrated property tax avoidance schemes. What a pity that they will not have a name for the room. Mind you, at least they will be able to think about “Moving house”.