Buying Property from a Company – Should You Buy the Shares or the House?
"There is never a wrong time to buy the right home" (Anon)
You find the house of your dreams, agree on the price and get ready to put pen to paper. The house is in the name of a company, and you are offered a choice – either buy the house out of the company or take over the company (which owns the house and nothing else) by buying the shares and thus avoid the delay and cost of a normal property transfer and registration in the Deeds Office.
What should you do? There are a host of both practical and legal factors to consider before deciding. Holding property in a company can come with significant advantages, but there can also be major disadvantages, so professional advice specific to your own circumstances is a no-brainer here.
Some of the many factors you should consider are –
Tax and estate planning considerations. These are complex and no two cases will be identical, but consider the higher capital gains tax rates payable by companies (and the annual exclusion and “primary residence exclusion” of R2m for individuals), the differential income tax rates, possible VAT considerations, your own estate planning circumstances (including the estate duty angle) and the like.
Asset protection. Particularly if you run your own business or are in a profession at significant risk of litigation, it may be important to you to protect your major assets (like your house) from possible attack by creditors. Any assets held in your own name will be a natural target if you run into financial problems, whilst those held in another entity like a company or trust will generally be much harder to attack. Complicated multi-level structures such as having a trust owning your company’s shares have generally fallen out of favour for a variety of reasons, but you may still be advised to consider one in your particular situation.
Joint ownership. Joint ownership of property comes with its own set of risks and issues, and depending on your needs you might be advised to address them with a company/shareholder structure.
Costs and simplicity. Running a company comes with extra costs (accounting/auditing, statutory costs etc), formalities and responsibilities, getting a bond in your own name is likely to be a simpler process than taking it in a company, and so on.
The hidden risks. When you buy a company’s shares you get the company as it is, with all its assets and liabilities. If the seller is in any way unreliable, you could find yourself losing the house to an undisclosed company liability that suddenly crawls out of the woodwork. Suretyships are a particular danger here – there is no central register of suretyships you can refer to, and it is common for groups of companies and other entities in particular to sign cross-suretyships without necessarily keeping a record of them all. These are risks that can be largely managed with proper advice and due diligence, but a residual whiff of doubt is inevitable.
Other factors. There will be many other aspects to consider, depending on your circumstances and needs, and on the company in question.
Transfer duty - you pay it either way!
As a buyer you can never lose sight of all the costs you will incur in buying a house, and the “big one” is normally transfer duty. It’s essentially a government tax, payable by you as buyer (unless the property sale is subject to VAT), and it can be a lot of money.
Do not however fall into the old (and surprisingly still-common) trap of thinking that by buying the company you avoid paying transfer duty. That was indeed a commonly used loophole in decades past and it is still sometimes referred to. But in reality that all changed many years ago, and (subject to what is said below) you should budget to pay transfer duty as set out in this table -
Transfer Duty 1 March 2021 to 28 February 2022
Source: SARS “Budget Tax Guide 2021”
So for example if you buy a house for R3m you will pay R146k in transfer duty. Or R916k on a R10m house. Finding a way to avoid or reduce such a cost is an attractive proposition, and indeed until 2002 it was a common way for buyers and sellers to save transfer duty and to instead pay only ¼% “Securities Transfer Tax” – a huge saving.
That loophole closed however many years ago - on 13 December 2002 to be precise - and since then the sale of shares in a “residential property company” (a company with over 50% of its asset value in residential property) attracts transfer duty on the “fair value” of the property. No savings there!
What about “buying” a property-owning trust?
Similarly, before 2002 a common transfer duty avoidance strategy was to hold property in a trust, then to “sell” the trust to a purchaser by substituting him/her as a beneficiary of that trust. That loophole was also closed in respect of beneficiaries holding “contingent interests” in the property – the situation here is a bit more complicated than it is with companies as there are various types of trust you could be dealing with, so specialist advice is essential.