I didn’t imagine that doing my taxes would make me grateful for a frozen pipe.
That pipe forced a bathroom renovation at our house. No, my wife and I didn’t enjoy the chaos — a sluggish contractor managed to stretch the repair over nearly six months.
But our excruciating plumbing experience was invaluable in showing me the strengths — and the limitations — of the leading online tax-return preparation programs.
Because I have a home office, all three — TurboTax, H&R Block and TaxAct — alerted me that the bathroom work was potentially deductible, which wouldn’t have otherwise occurred to me. Not one assured me the I.R.S. would approve, though, and they all left me with questions that I still haven’t resolved.
Until I ran into my bathroom dilemma, the online tax-preparation software lulled me into thinking I had a tiny accountant implanted in my computer. But it’s important to remember that the truth is more complicated.
The programs make the routine parts of doing your taxes — entering information and doing calculations — as easy as filling out an online survey. You just answer the questions posed in the programs’ interviews and type in numbers.
But when complexities arise, you can still find yourself fretting over Internal Revenue Service rules, as I did with the broken-pipe home-office deduction. The programs are like a global positioning system app on a smartphone — helpful but not perfect. Most of the time, the tax programs send you in the right direction, and if you know roughly where you’re headed, you’ll arrive much faster. If not, you can end up wandering hither and yon. And the Internal Revenue Code is scarier than a dark wood when you’re lost in it.
I’ve been reviewing tax software since 2010. When I started, TurboTax had the slickest technology, Block gave the best tax guidance and TaxAct was a bargain. These days, TurboTax and Block are mostly interchangeable — at least they were for my household’s return. They’re easy to use and give access to ample help options. Both also disappointed me in surprising ways this year: A document upload didn’t work with TurboTax, and a Block human helper failed to follow up. More on those problems below.
TaxAct is still a bargain, the cheapest of the three. While it’s a fine choice for a typical return, I find its technology a little less robust than that of TurboTax and Block. Another firm in this niche, TaxSlayer, is even cheaper — its top offering was $55 in February, compared with $59.95 for TaxAct Premium. Beyond the price, my tryout revealed no standout benefit; I couldn’t see a reason to switch to it from the better-known outfits, if you’re already satisfied.
This year, I opted to try TurboTax’s most expensive online offering, TurboTax Live, which was $149.99 for a federal return in mid-February. Prices from each of the providers can change throughout the tax season, and, for many filers, each state return is typically about $37. (All three offer free filing for folks with simpler returns. And some banks and brokerage firms offer credits toward the purchase of the programs.)
TurboTax Live gives access to human helpers while you’re working on your return and a review by a tax expert before you file. If you skip the help, TurboTax’s top-shelf online option for my situation is Self Employed, which cost $89.99 in February.
Almost as soon as I plunged into my return, TurboTax asked how I was feeling. The options I could click were “good,” “not so good” or “don’t ask.” I wanted to check “I’m not looking for therapy.” (Note to TurboTax: Better options for next year might be “ethical,” “angst-ridden” or “I’ve already set up a tax shelter in Panama.”)
One of my first substantive steps with the program was a stumble: I tried to upload a PDF copy of our previous-year return and failed. An error message said the file was either not a PDF or was corrupted. It was a PDF, and Block and TaxAct later pulled it in without problem.
That was a disappointment, as an upload fills in many of the entries on a return, saving time and toil. The problem might have been me. I’m the sort of simpleton who remains mystified by the controls of our car’s electronic displays, six months after my wife, Mary Ellen, bought it. I only recently figured out how to change the radio station.
The next step — electronic import of wages and investment income — worked as easily as ever. Mary Ellen’s W-2 data and our investment information flowed right in. Just out of curiosity, I deleted the W-2 and tried to import it via a smartphone photo. That worked, too.
I’m self-employed and must file Schedule C, where I tote up my business income and expenses. Entering income is just a matter of typing in the information from 1099 forms. Expenses — and the deductions they provide — are where a tax-preparation program really helps.
As do Block and TaxAct, TurboTax asks lots of questions about the likely outlays of a wayfarer in the gig economy — insurance, equipment, supplies, business use of a car and a home office. The program makes clear that, under I.R.S. rules, a home office must be used exclusively for business. But what does that mean for my bathroom?
TurboTax pointed out that, if you have a home office, a portion of repair and maintenance expenses can be allocated to it. My office accounts for 7 percent of the square footage of our house, which makes 7 percent of some expenses deductible.
That sounded straightforward. But then I started thinking. First, the bathroom isn’t attached to my office. It’s across another room. Second, it’s not just for my business. I don’t turn off the water at the end of the workday. After reading the guidance embedded in TurboTax, I wasn’t sure what to do, taxwise, about the frozen-pipe repair.
I tried checking the I.R.S. website, but to my untutored eyes, the instructions seemed to have been written in Sanskrit, a language that, sadly, I can’t read. I called TurboTax’s help line and was connected to a person who identified himself as Anthony. (I didn’t say that I was a reporter and didn’t insist on his full name.)
He asked a few questions and, within five minutes, advised me I could deduct part of the repairs — 7 percent of about $5,000, which comes to $350. Once I hung up, I found myself worrying — would the I.R.S. care that the bathroom isn’t exclusively used for my business? Then again, doesn’t an office have to have a bathroom?
I clicked through the rest of the return without trouble. I couldn’t actually file it, but that wasn’t TurboTax’s fault — Mary Ellen and I hadn’t received all of our tax documents. That also meant that I couldn’t try the expert review. I wondered whether it would be worth the money.
I called in my own expert for an opinion — Jennifer L. Blouin, a tax accountant turned accounting professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Blouin said she hadn’t tried TurboTax Live but couldn’t imagine that a review would give much benefit, beyond peace of mind, to many tax filers.
“If folks are rational, only the people with really complicated returns will use this service,” she said.
Many people just have wages and some interest and investment income, she said. Because the program can vacuum up much of that information electronically, there’s little need for a backstop.
Professor Blouin said she could see two groups — self-employed people and students — potentially benefiting from an expert review. They’re eligible for lots of deductions and tax credits, and the rules around those can be confusing, she said. “The education provisions, especially, can be complicated. There are multiple credits you have to wade through.”
For this year’s tryout, I opted for Block’s online Self-Employed program, which cost $74.99 in February. Block, too, offers tax reviews by its internal gurus. Its Tax Pro Review can be added to any return, with the price rising to $89.99 from $49.99 as returns become more complex. With review, our return would have cost a total of $164.98.
A PDF upload of last year’s return worked fine — which was a relief — and so did the import of investment information and taking a photo of a W-2.
The Schedule C slog was much like the one for TurboTax, a smooth ride until I reached the home office deduction. This time, I opted for help via electronic chat and was connected to Jay. The backing and forthing took longer — maybe it was the typing. Soon enough, he rendered his verdict: “You may deduct the repairs to the bathroom which is exclusively used by your home office.”
Damn — that vexing “exclusively” again. I’d probably confused Jay by mentioning that we had more than one bathroom and had renovated another while repairing the broken pipe. Still, he seemed to be suggesting that the repair was deductible only if I barred the bathroom door to everyone but me. Maybe I could install one of those coin-operated locks and increase my business income. But would Mary Ellen approve?
Once I completed the return, Block told me I could pick the pro who would review it. I loved that — it was like merging taxes and Tinder, the dating app. The program offered dozens of photos of tax preparers, beside brief bios.
I chose Kenneth Surabian, in nearby Burlington, Mass. Block said he was a “master tax advisor” with 36 years of experience and told me to watch my email because “Kenneth will contact you today.” I never heard from him. I considered calling the two Block offices listed next to his picture but decided he should be calling me. Plus, I wasn’t yet ready to file our return.
TaxAct Dashes Deduction Dream
TaxAct is the Henry David Thoreau of the online tax-preparation business — it marches to the beat of its own drummer.
It orders its interview differently than the competition, starting with health insurance questions and then asking about tax payments you’ve already made. It also drops in more questions that explicitly mention farming or farm-related businesses, perhaps because its maker is based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Otherwise, it works much as the others do: You chug through an online interview and plug in numbers. TaxAct offers the same timesaving features — upload of a PDF of a previous-year return and electronic import of wage, bank and investment information. It lets you take pictures of W-2s, too, though I couldn’t manage to snap one with my phone that the program would accept. I tried a couple of times.
Electronic import of financial data is a place where TaxAct falls short; it pulls in bank and investment information, reported on I.R.S. 1099 forms, from only 15 companies. Missing among these were some of the biggest names in the money-management business, including T. Rowe Price and Vanguard. TurboTax lists about 250 “import partners” on its website, including those two, and Block offers imports from about 70 companies, a spokeswoman said.
I tried my bathroom question on TaxAct’s help line, connecting by phone with Mark. He told me he didn’t think any of our repair was deductible because the bathroom didn’t meet the I.R.S.’s exclusive-use standard.
Mark said the tax agency emphasizes that a home office should be a separate space but the bathroom was part of the rest of the house and not connected directly to the office. He said some expenses, like replacing a roof, can be allocated partly to a home office because they’re not realistically teased apart; not even the I.R.S. expects you to replace the roof over your office separately.
I told Mark thanks and hung up, even though he may have flushed my dreams of a deduction down the drain.