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A Comprehensive Guide to Real Estate Accounting

10+ min read • Jul 05, 2021 • Derek Miller

Real estate agents deal with hundreds of tasks throughout the property buying and selling process. They have costs to market themselves, improve properties, pay a variety of fees, and split the commission.

By the time a property closes, there are dozens of transactions related to the realtor and their clients. This can be an accounting nightmare if you don’t have a clear system in place. 

Fortunately, you don’t need an accounting background to be successful in real estate—but you should have a general understanding to help you make the best strategic decisions for your real estate business.

Keep reading to learn more about real estate accounting. Even if you’re just starting out, you can create processes that help you to scale—and to keep as much commission as you can.

Categorize Your Expenses and Income

Clear organization is the foundation of good bookkeeping. As your real estate business grows, you’ll need healthy bookkeeping habits to forecast growth and understand your financial opportunities. Consider a few of the different types of expenses that come with operating a real estate business, along with the different sources of income you can expect. 

Expenses

  • Realtor association fees
  • Commission fees
  • Marketing costs
  • Administrative assistant services
  • Staging expenses
  • Photography and video costs for homes
  • Gas and wear on your car

Income

  • Commissions earned
  • Commissions from realtors you add to your team
  • Rental income or sales income from investment properties
  • Property management fees (if applicable)

With growth comes complexity. You may bring on an assistant or purchase an investment property to flip for a profit. To prevent confusion, establish clear accounting codes related to your business. Each purchase will have a category and a code number associated with it.

At Lendio, we create categories and code numbers for you to ensure that everything is sorted accordingly. You can also create your own categories and codes—and apply them automatically to your entries.

If your real estate business has multiple arms (like an agent arm and an investment property arm), you may want to consider establishing multiple LLCs or keeping the books for each business channel separate. This delineation can prevent confusion while helping you to manage each aspect of your business individually.

Understand Your Commission Model

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If you’re working with a real estate brokerage to build up your business and brand name, make sure you have a clear idea of your commission fees and opportunities. Each brokerage charges its own commission structure and creates opportunities for real estate agents to negotiate their percentages, signing bonuses, and other earnings.

Consider the commission systems of a few of the largest real estate brokerages in the country:

  • Keller Williams: This brokerage offers a 70/30 split with agents, where the brokerage takes a 30% cut of your commission. However, agents also pay a 6% franchise fee on their sales (up to $3,000). This means you actually have a 64/30/6 split until you pay $3,000 in fees. Additionally, each Keller Williams office has its own commission cap (typically around $28,000). Once you hit that cap in commission fees, you take home 100% of your commissions.
  • RE/MAX: this company has multiple commission plans that you can choose from: first, they have a 95/5 plan where realtors take home 95% of their commissions but pay a 5% desk fee each month. With this option, there’s no commission cap. Realtors at RE/MAX can also opt for a commission split range of 60/40 to 80/20 depending on their previous sales. Once they hit their commission cap, they move up to the 95/5 model. 

 

If you’re still deciding which brokerage to work for, consider their commission structure and their brand name in your area. You may be able to earn more money by working for a specific firm—even if you pay them more commission than another option.

A large part of real estate accounting is tracking what you earn in commissions and the fees you’re expected to pay over the course of the year. These numbers determine your take-home pay and your budget for marketing expenses and other investments.

Establish Your Operating Costs

The finances of a real estate professional can fluctuate significantly over the course of a year. You may experience a high number of expenses at the start of the year and then close multiple sales within a few weeks. This means that realtors need to balance their expenses so that they always have enough funds in the bank to cover basic expenses, regardless of the market. 

As you establish your accounting systems, start with your operating costs. Operating expenses (OPEX) are costs that aren’t directly tied to your services. They differ from your cost of goods sold (COGS), which are costs directly related to your services. 

For example, if you keep a marketing agency on a monthly retainer to maintain your real estate website, you will factor this expense into your OPEX. It doesn’t matter whether you sell a dozen houses this quarter or none—you’ll still need to pay the flat marketing fee. Additional OPEX listings include rent, a lease on a work vehicle, and utilities like internet fees or your electric bill. 

Meanwhile, if you hire a photographer to help you market a house on a per-property basis, their services are part of your COGS. If 10 new listings are added within a month and you need to photograph each of their homes, then your photography expenses will be higher than if you only have 2 clients another month. 

With the uncertain nature of the real estate business, you can use your OPEX to identify predictable costs related to your company. Your electric bill might fluctuate and gas prices might drive up your monthly bills, but you can anticipate costs related to those operating expenses every single month, regardless of your business.

Track All of Your Business Expenses

Once you have your operating costs sorted in your accounting system, you can take steps to track all of your business expenses. 

Real estate agents have some of the most diverse expenses in business. They face costs ranging from landscaping services that improve curb appeal to lunches for clients and gifts for buyers. Realtors’ expenses can reach a few hundred dollars a month or into the thousands, depending on their listings, marketing strategies, and many other factors. Real estate agents also accrue these business expenses daily—which means you can easily get overwhelmed if you don’t have a system in place. 

There are a few ways to keep your expenses in order as your real estate business grows. The first step is to get a business credit card. This card will separate your business expenses from your personal charges while keeping your monthly costs all in one place. You can also get a business bank account to isolate your business transactions. 

The next step is to look for software that can record your business expenses. With tools like BizXpense Tracker, you can upload receipts and track costs related to certain projects—even if you have to use your personal card. You can also download a gas mileage tracker to log how far your drive. This information will be essential when separating personal and professional gas costs, insurance payments, wear and tear, etc. 

If you set aside a few minutes each day (or an hour or 2 weekly) to evaluate your charges and business expenses, you can keep your accounts clearly organized. This practice prevents an end-of-month scramble to reconcile your business costs with your bank account balance.

Consider Cash- vs. Accrual-Based Accounting

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Once you have your categories determined and sorted, you can move on to establishing your accounting structure. You can choose between cash-based and accrual-based accounting to track your expenses and income. 

With cash-based accounting, you only record income when the cash hits your account. You also only record expenses when your business is billed for them. With this model, you can clearly see how much money you have within your organization.

With accrual-based accounting, you record income and expenses when they occur, not when money exchanges hands. For example, you can record the costs to stage a home even if you don’t pay the stager until the following month. Accrual-based accounting is a better option if you want more visibility into the finances of your business, including future expenses and revenue streams. 

However, many realtors prefer to use cash-based accounting for their firms. First, most expenses related to real estate are immediate. If you need to hire a photographer, you can cut a check for their services or request an invoice immediately. Because there isn’t a delay between the service and payment, the cash-based model works. 

Many realtors also prefer the cash model because of their income sources. Sales fall through, contracts are renegotiated, and renters cancel their leases. All of these changes can harm your cash flow, especially if you already recorded the income through your accrual-based system. With a cash model, you can record the income when the sale closes or when the renter’s check hits your account. The payment is a sure thing—and the money is yours to spend. 

Every business model is different, so consider your specific needs before selecting an accounting process.

Set Up Double-Entry Accounting

Regardless of whether you choose the cash or accrual model for your real estate bookkeeping, you’ll want to establish a double-entry system for your accounting materials.

A double-entry system is based on the idea that every credit has an equal and opposite debit. In accounting, a debit increases the value of accounts (a positive number) while a credit decreases the value of accounts (a negative number). 

For example, let’s say you order business cards and other giveaways to market your business. These cost $500. With a double-entry bookkeeping system, you’ll credit your cash account $500, because that is how much you paid while debiting your marketing assets $500—because you now own cards, magnets, koozies, and other fun items.  

The purchase of marketing materials is a simple example, but double-entry accounting also becomes valuable when you start adding assets to your real estate firm. For example, you can purchase a house to flip for $200,000. You now have $200,000 less in cash, but a significant asset worth that amount. If you flip the house for $350,000, then you can track your profits using the expense accounts in your double-entry recordings.    

Double-entry bookkeeping also provides a series of checks to ensure that each entry is correct. If the 2 lines of credits and debits don’t align, then something was recorded incorrectly. While it might not seem like a big deal if you mistype your electric bill or are off a few dollars on your commission income, these errors can add up—and might affect your taxes and cash flow. Plus, you will have to return to your books and redo them to ensure that they’re error-free. 

If double-entry accounting seems intimidating, keep in mind that many online systems will fill in the backup entry for you. Your accounting system will ask for a copy of the invoice and the expense category, then do the rest.

Evaluate Your Performance Monthly

The purpose of bookkeeping in real estate serves 2 benefits: improving your future performance and forecasting your upcoming costs and income. In both cases, you’ll want to evaluate your accounts monthly to make sure your business is operating at its best. 

First, review your expenses and income to understand your profit margins. For example, if you bought a property for $200,000 and sold it for $300,000, it looks like you made a nice profit. However, if you spent 12 months and $90,000 on renovations and marketing, then your $10,000 profit doesn’t seem as impressive. 

Evaluating your profit margins can help you to understand how much money you really make on the sale of homes and renovations of properties. You may decide to adjust your fees or focus more on investment rentals in order to grow your profits. 

Next, forecast your income and expenses for the future. This exercise isn’t always easy in the real estate field. Take your static expenses and OPEX estimates to get an idea of what you can expect to pay in the next few months. You can also use your pending listings to estimate your commissions and income. Depending on the market, you can also create forecasts for your COGS based on your average monthly leads.

Your forecast numbers aren’t meant to be exact figures. However, they serve as informed estimates on your future income and costs. These forecasts can help you understand whether the coming months will be ideal for making major investment purchases or if you’ll need to seek temporary funding sources to cover upcoming costs.

Prepare Early for Tax Season

Family looks around new modern home

You can benefit from healthy accounting practices throughout the year, but one of the main time-savers for your real estate firm is having your books in order for tax season. There are multiple reasons why your taxes may be more complicated as a real estate professional:

  • You will have to sort your business and personal expenses into 2 separate categories and may need to file taxes for both your business and personal arenas depending on your company’s structure. 
  • You will have multiple sources of income as you diversify your revenue streams: you’ll need to account for your commissions but also any rental fees or profits from the sale of renovated houses that you flipped. 
  • You will need to record your deductions and relevant business expenses. 
  • You may have to pay real estate taxes on any properties you own during the renovation process. Buying and selling homes as a business can make your taxes more complicated. 

If your business expenses aren’t clearly recorded and labeled, you may miss out on a significant amount of deductible income. If you lack clear balance sheets and P&L statements, it may take longer to file your business taxes. Good accounting habits can make the tax process easier and faster—while also optimizing your tax deductions.

If you want to streamline your tax filing, start reviewing your books in the fall. Make sure all expenses and sources of income are clearly recorded. Pull your receipts and relevant sales documents. Review your income statements. When your CPA or tax-prep service requests this information, you’ll already have it on hand. 

At Lendio, we also offer a tax assist service to get the right documents to your accounting team.

Use Your Accounting Know-How

The principles of accounting aren’t meant to confuse you or take time away from your clients. They’re meant to guide your decision-making with informed data and clear numbers. With your accounting systems, you can determine how much you can afford to invest this year and take steps to reduce your expenses, therefore growing your profits. 

If you’re just starting out in your career, look into a tool like Lendio’s software to categorize your expenses and income. Our services are free for realtors and other small business owners, and we also offer tax assist tools and personal bookkeeping services as you need them. We’ll be here for you as your real estate business grows.

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Derek Miller

Derek Miller is the CMO of Smack Apparel, the content guru at Great.com, the co-founder of Lofty Llama, and a marketing consultant for small businesses. He specializes in entrepreneurship, small business, and digital marketing, and his work has been featured in sites like Entrepreneur, GoDaddy, Score.org, and StartupCamp.