In most states, if a contractor is performing work on real property, the contractor is deemed to be the final consumer, or the end user of the tangible personal property used to build the real property and, accordingly, must pay sales tax upon those purchases. Accordingly, in most states, as a purchaser of construction services, you would not owe any sales/use tax on the contract price.
In the beginning days of sales tax, states applied the tax to tangible personal property (because real property was already taxed with property taxes). Services were not taxed in the early days. Therefore, construction historically has generally not been taxed because it was deemed a service. However, for construction and other service providers, they still owe sales or use tax on the tangible personal property used in performing those services.
This seems rather clear on its surface. A contractor is the end user of the tangible personal property because when the contractor finishes the job, the tangible personal property (the nails, sheet rock, lumber, cement, iron, etc.) has transformed into real property.
Unfortunately though, just paying sales tax on purchases does not begin to cover all the multitude of activities performed by contractors. In addition to contract jobs on real property, contractors sometimes act as retailers of fixtures or other tangible personal property such as furnaces, water heaters, cabinets, and air conditioners. Construction contractors will usually have questions over the different sales tax treatment depending on the types of contracts, such as cost-plus, fixed-price, time and materials. There are further complexities regarding contract work with federal and state governments, churches, and not-for-profit organizations. And then the distinction between real property and tangible personal property contracts is not always clear.
Construction contractors face some of the most complicated sales tax questions of any industry especially if they do business in different states. A contractor must always consider the impact of sales tax on its purchases when making a bid. They can be caught between a rock and a hard place because they face constant competition and the bid price is a major criteria for who gets the contract. But they also have to be very careful to accurately estimate the tax cost of the materials incorporated in the job so they don’t end up losing money on a job. For sure they need to be careful to bill the sales tax on the overall job, if state law requires it.
While the guidelines just provided are applicable to the majority of states, it is important to remember that there are always exceptions. Arizona is one of those exceptions. Arizona has a gross receipts tax called the Transaction Privilege Tax. In many ways, it operates like a sales tax in that it is billed separately. But technically speaking it is a tax on the seller, not the buyer. The differences become very apparent when it comes to construction. In Arizona "Prime Contractors," who modify real property, which includes construction, improvement, removal, wreckage, or demolition activities, purchase their construction materials free of tax. Why? Because the Prime Contractor must pay a "Transaction Privilege Tax" (TPT) on 65% of the gross receipts on their contracts, a tax that is passed on to the building owner in much the same way a sales tax is passed on to a purchaser.
At first glance, the TPT on contractors may seem simple enough, but if a contractor performs maintenance, repair, replacement, or alterations (MRRA) work for the owner of real property, or the owners of improvements to real property, that contractor becomes a service contractor, not a prime contractor. As a consequence, instead of buying their building supplies free of tax like a prime contractor and paying tax on 65% of their gross receipts, a service contractor pays tax on the building materials when they buy them.
You can quickly see how this could be confusing. First, a contractor has to know what is included in MRRA and what is still modifications that are prime contracting. Second, contractors could be a prime contractor, or subcontractor to a prime, on one job and a service contractor on another job. In these cases, the prime contractor inventory and service contractor inventory must be accounted for separately.
Other states imposing special taxes upon contractors in addition to a general sales tax include Mississippi and South Dakota.
Check out this chart1 from CCH that indicates whether a contractor's purchases of materials or equipment are subject to tax when used in performing a construction contract that is billed on a lump sum basis. Special rules may apply when construction is performed for government or not-for-profit entities.
We Have a Chart for That -- You might call it a Taxability Matrix or a Taxability Chart, the name is not important. We have various tax matrices already put together based on survey questions made to the states each year. But remember, this chart is the result of a survey performed by the states and is research provided to us by CCH. The charts are fantastic resources, but cannot substitute for professional advice based on your specific facts and circumstances. By all means, have a look at the charts we can provide but then do your own research and consult an expert.
CALL THE STATE? -- This may not be the best thing to do. Clients frequently remark that when the call the state for guidance, they often get hazy and even conflicting answers. We usually say that it's not that people at the state don't know what they're talking about. In fact, if you get a hold of the right people with expertise in your industry, and they understand your question correctly, then you can almost always trust the answer you get from them. Just try to get the answer in writing, so you're protected in the event of a future audit.
But you have to get the right people and you have to phrase the question appropriately using correct terminology so that misunderstandings are avoided. Certain words carry meaning in the sales tax world that might not be immediately apparent to a non sales tax person. Sales tax is much more a "form over substance" type of tax than income tax and how things are worded in a contract or invoice can be crucial to the taxability. How a question is worded can also make a big difference. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying there's some sort of trick or code language that you must conform to or else, I'm just saying that you want to understand all the implications of the words you choose in asking for guidance so that you get the most accurate answer.
Plus, how do you know if you got the whole answer on your situation? You may have described your facts and circumstances accurately but left out something that you did not think was important. The answer you get would be dependent on the facts you presented. But in reality, the answer you get may not be appropriate when you consider all the relevant facts.
GOOGLE IT? -- With so much information available on the Internet these days, you can Google your question and chances are, you'll find something that seems to match your situation. The problem here, of course, is, does this answer really apply to your situation? Is there another contradicting ruling or law on this matter? Has this item you found been superseded?
GET A RULING? -- What if there is no law, regulation, court case or state ruling that addresses your exact situation? Yes, this does happen and quite frequently. State revenue departments have not produced answers to every possible question. This is in stark contrast to the IRS, where it seems that no matter what situation you face, there is a regulation or revenue ruling or court case that addresses it on point -- it's just a matter of finding it. At the state level, we frequently run into situations where there is simply no documented answer to your question. In this case, we usually recommend obtaining private letter rulings from the revenue departments. Each state has their own procedure. We usually recommend only seeking a letter ruling where you have already discussed the question with a subject matter expert at the state, and gotten a pretty good idea of what you're going to get in the ruling. It's not always possible to do, but you don't want bad precedent, if you can help it.
ASK THE EXPERTS? -- Have you tried calling the state or just searching the Internet and came away wondering if you got the right answer? Have you considered asking an expert? You probably have, but hesitated, considering the cost. Well, this is what we do -- We Solve State Tax Problems.
And, we don't always charge for this service. How can that be, you ask? We subscribe to just about every service available and can find just about any law, regulation or court case that would bear on your facts and circumstances. And more than that, we use our many years of experience to evaluate your facts to form the correct questions. With that experience we can draw conclusions you can rely on. And we maintain contacts with key state personnel that we can confirm how the state will treat certain transactions that fall in gray areas.
Sometimes we just flat know the answer to a question you have. We always tell our clients: "If you have a question, just call us or email us. If we can answer you off the top of our heads, we're not going to charge you. If we need to do some research, we'll tell you before we do the work and seek your approval before we do it." You can expect no surprise invoices from us.
So What Questions Do You Have?
Like we said earlier, we can deal with any state tax question you can think of. Of course, the answer to many questions we get is, "it depends!" And that may sound like a cop out, but it really does depend. The answer depends on which state we're talking about number one and then on other possible variances in the facts. One of the helpful resources we subscribe to is provided by CCH. And one of the resources they give us access to are certain charts or tax matrices.
CAUTION ON CHARTS --A big word of caution is in order when it comes to charts. A chart is just a starting place when you want to do some research, and not the final answer by any means, but it's still interesting and insightful. One particular chart they provide is unique in that it is based entirely on surveys of actual state tax departments and as such it is a good representation of state tax policy. But it is just state policy and this survey is not binding on them. Sometimes, a state's own policy is at variance with the law, so take this with a grain of salt. But, it still makes for good state tax conversation. We're here to help, give us a call.