What are business assets, and how do you decide whether to lease or buy them?

In the context of the lease versus buy decision, "business assets" refers to fixed assets (such as buildings, machinery, and office equipment) that can usually be depreciated over time. Because these fixed assets are necessary to the operation of most businesses, a question often arises as to whether the business owner should purchase the assets outright or lease them from another party. There are advantages and disadvantages to both leasing and buying. Therefore, your decision should be an informed one, based on the needs of your business and your own preferences.

What is depreciation, and how can it influence your decision to lease or buy business assets?

The IRS assumes that certain tangible business property will decline in value over time due to wear and tear, exhaustion, or obsolescence. Consequently, each year, a portion of the property's value is subtracted (i.e., taken as an expense), based on how long it is expected to last. This is known as depreciation. The Internal Revenue Code specifies the types of business property that can be depreciated, as well as the amount of depreciation allowed each year and the overall depreciation time frame. Although the buildings, machinery, and office equipment you own can be depreciated, in most cases your land and personal assets cannot be depreciated.

Because depreciation expense helps to minimize your taxes, the ability to depreciate might be a major factor in your decision to lease or buy business assets. In general, you can depreciate only the business assets that you own; you cannot take a depreciation deduction for most business assets that you lease from another party. However, it is possible in some cases for you to deduct your lease payments as an operating expense.

Tip: Instead of claiming a depreciation deduction (or in combination with depreciation), you may elect to expense (i.e., deduct currently) the cost of certain tangible personal property placed into service in the current tax year. Section 179 of the tax code allows businesses to deduct immediately the full cost of qualifying machinery and equipment purchased and put into use, subject to an annual limit. The limit is $500,000, with a phase-out that starts when purchases exceed $2,000,000. (Note that the dollar limit and phaseout threshold have been indexed for inflation since 2016. In 2017, the dollar amount is $510,000 and the phaseout limit is $2,030,000.)

What are the advantages and disadvantages of leasing business assets?

A lease is a written contract to rent realty or personalty (tangible property). One party owns the property, while the other party uses the property and pays for its use. There are both advantages and disadvantages to leasing.

Advantages
Leasing can:

  • Improve your cash flow
  • Hedge against obsolescence
  • Provide fixed monthly payments that you can plan for
  • Allow for a smaller initial cash outlay
  • Generally provide easier credit terms than a bank loan
  • Possibly provide an operating expense deduction

Leasing has become increasingly popular in recent years. The main advantage of leasing is the reduced initial cash outlay. You can obtain the use of a business asset with a lower initial cash expenditure than you would if you had purchased the asset outright. In the manufacturing industry, in particular, this can be a big advantage because of the high cost of machinery. Cash flow may be improved because you pay for the machinery or equipment as you use it to generate income for your business. Leasing also acts as a hedge against obsolescence; it may help you to keep up with improving technology. For computers, communication devices, and other equipment that is subject to rapid technological improvement, you'll be able to update more quickly if you've signed a short-term lease or one that provides for upgrades.

Disadvantages

Of course, there are certain disadvantages to leasing as well. For one thing, leased assets cannot provide you with depreciation expense. In addition, leases can be risky. If you run into cash flow problems or if your business goes under, you may still be legally responsible for continuing the lease payments. Finally, of course, leases are more expensive in the long run because of the interest charged.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of buying business assets?

There are a number of advantages and disadvantages to buying business assets.

Advantages

Purchasing business assets instead of leasing them from another party provides your business with a depreciation expense opportunity, which can be a significant tax advantage. Moreover, although leases typically charge fixed interest rates, these rates are often significantly higher than the variable rates charged by banks for bank loans. Bear in mind, though, that most banks don't offer 100% financing for the purchase of business assets. Still, you'll end up paying less money in the long run when you buy instead of lease. Finally, purchasing assets is certainly less risky if you buy them outright instead of relying on a bank loan or a lease. If the business goes under, you won't have to worry about continued payments.

Disadvantages

The advantages of leasing constitute the disadvantages of buying. In particular, think about:

  • The larger initial cash outlay needed when you buy an asset
  • Cash flow difficulties
  • Technological obsolescence of your purchased asset

Your decision to lease or buy should be a careful one, made only after thoughtful consideration of the respective advantages and disadvantages of both leasing and buying.

IMPORTANT DISCLOSURES
Broadridge Investor Communication Solutions, Inc. does not provide investment, tax, legal, or retirement advice or recommendations. The information presented here is not specific to any individual's personal circumstances.
To the extent that this material concerns tax matters, it is not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, by a taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed by law. Each taxpayer should seek independent advice from a tax professional based on his or her individual circumstances.
These materials are provided for general information and educational purposes based upon publicly available information from sources believed to be reliable — we cannot assure the accuracy or completeness of these materials. The information in these materials may change at any time and without notice.