What, Exactly, Is a Capital Expenditure?

The most common type of capital expenditure occurs when you purchase or otherwise acquire any asset that will benefit your business for more than one year. New equipment, a car, computer, office furniture, or even business real estate are the things that most commonly come to mind when you hear the words "capital asset."

Expenses that add to the value or useful life of an item of property also are considered capital expenditures. If you have a capital expenditure that pertains to a particular asset in some year after the asset is purchased, you must treat the expenditure as a separate asset and depreciate it under the rules applicable to that type of asset in the year you place the expenditure into service.



In 200X, you purchase and begin using a business building which does not have central air conditioning. In 200Y, you install a new central air system, which increases the value of your property. You must depreciate the system over the course of 39 years from its installation, which is the same length as the recovery period that applies to nonresidential buildings in 200Y.

In contrast, an expense that keeps an asset in an ordinarily efficient operating condition and that does not add to its value or substantially prolong its useful life is generally considered a currently deductible repair or maintenance expense.

Deciding whether a particular item should properly be classified as a capital expenditure or as a currently deductible expense is not always easy, particularly if it's debatable whether the expense represents a repair, or an improvement to a capital asset.

However, over time, the IRS and the courts have classified, on a case-by-case basis, some categories of items commonly considered to be capital expenditures, which we provide as a guide.

Some special rules. In some cases, the tax laws depart from the general deduct-or-capitalize analysis by providing specific rules that govern how you may or must treat certain expenditures.

For small business owners, the most commonly applied of these rules are:

  • an expensing election that allows you to deduct rather than to capitalize a specified amount of your costs in acquiring certain business equipment
  • amortization of startup costs, including those associated with organizing a corporation or a partnership
  • an election to capitalize rather than deduct taxes and interest you pay to carry or develop real property or to carry, transport, or install personal property