I’ve been housebound for nearly a week with the flu. While no one enjoys the flu, being stuck at home alone, when I already don’t feel well, is torture for an extrovert like me.

Of course, unless you already know Craig and I, most people don’t think of accountants as extroverts. No, the most famous extroverts of the small business world would probably be realtors.

But although realtors are known for being outgoing, high-energy, good-looking charmers, there is actually far more organization of paperwork and attention to detail involved in their job than most people realize. And though their bookkeeping can generally be fairly straightforward, there are always certain issues which can pop up to cause unexpected complications.

Needless to say, given our location in one of the most rapidly-growing metropolitan areas in the country, we work with a ton of realtors. Over the years, we’ve identified a few areas of their accounting which require a close eye.

Tracking Expenses

graph expensesThe real estate market giveth, and the real estate market taketh away. Few people can make money as quickly as a realtor in a booming economy. However, when times are slow, that fountain can dry up completely. That makes having a great system of tracking expenses of crucial importance.

Now, there are varying schools of thought on how one should go about paying for things but the argument largely boils down to: paper or plastic.

Since marketing and networking are two of the primary expenses in real estate, it can be easy to overspend, particularly as lunches, coffees, and referral fees add up. Those who study the psychology of spending advocate paying in cash or writing checks, as it has been proven that you spend less money doing so (because you physically observe the money leaving). However, cash and checks are an accounting nightmare.

Cash requires that you keep and organize receipts, which are prone to get lost, torn, smudged, or, in a best-case scenario, dumped in a box for your beleaguered accountant to sort through later.

Checks are not much better. For starters, realtors are busy people, and their handwriting reflects that. (I say this as someone whose own handwriting resembles an EKG readout.) It can be difficult for a bookkeeper to interpret to whom a check is made out (though you eventually learn how to translate your clients’ handwriting over time). Furthermore, both cash and checks come with 1099 implications (should the vendor meet the other criteria).

On the plastic side, debit and credit cards offer the benefit of easily tracking expenses, and cutting down on time and manual entry for bookkeeping purposes (without having to save stacks of receipts). Also, you get the benefit of avoiding the 1099 dilemma. However, for an undisciplined spender, swiping the card can be a far too easy, frequent reflex.

In my opinion, the best solution is to make use of debit cards, but to keep a close eye on your financial reports, and to analyze trends from month-to-month, so overspending can be corrected.

Paying Yourself

toy house and coinsAs we mentioned, the real estate market can be unpredictable, making it hard to pay your #1 employee (you). Many agents, particularly if they work independently, opt to structure their business as a sole proprietorship (sometimes with an LLC), and pay themselves only with Owner’s Draw. This works very well for simplicity’s sake, but you still have to pay quarterly estimated self-employment taxes (to avoid a hefty tax bill at filing). And these can be very hard to measure because, again, of the “estimated” part. Pay too little, and you’ll have to pay more at the end of the year. Pay too much, and you may be cash-poor until you get that tax return several months later (particularly if the housing market experiences a downturn).

To protect against this, some realtors establish an S-Corp and pay themselves as employees. This has the benefit of allowing you to pay in withholdings all year whenever you’re paid, and allows your salary to be treated as an expense of the company (as opposed to solely balance sheet activity). However, it does necessitate a payroll service (we strongly discourage filing your own payroll, for time and liability’s sake), and there is a balancing act in finding the right amount to pay yourself in salary as opposed to distributions (and different tax implications with both). It also means that, instead of a simple Schedule C, you’ll need a corporate return filed in addition to your personal return.

Generally, when your business begins to net roughly $50K per year, it’s wise to look into an S-Corp conversion.

Branching out in Real Estate

realtor giving keysProbably because so much “go-getter” spirit is required to succeed, most of the established realtors I know are entrepreneurs at heart. And since real estate is already in their blood, many try their hand at other areas of it, such as investment properties, property management, and land development.

The problem, of course, is that all of those have much more complicated accounting.

In particular, property management can be dangerous, as it involves trust accounts, and the strict rules which surround them. Not only must careful accounting be done to show proper revenue recognition and relief of trust liabilities, but the physical money itself can’t be left in interest-bearing accounts, nor co-mingled with other funds. (If you were to compare a real estate commission audit to a home inspection report, commingling of funds would be along the level of black mold.)

Obviously, I don’t say this to imply you shouldn’t expand your portfolio of services. However, it’s very important to understand the financials of the business you’re building in advance of building it, so you can have everything set up ahead of time. That way, you can protect what you have already worked so hard to grow.

Some of the most caring, hard-working people I know are realtors, and, like all business owners, it’s so very important that their financials are managed well. If you know of a realtor who could use some of this advice, please feel free to share it with them. (After all, who doesn’t know at least ONE realtor?)