The Difference Between Tangible & Intangible Personal Property

Personal property is anything you own other than land and buildings. Land and buildings are called real property or real estate. You can own tangible personal property and intangible personal property. Both types of property have economic value expressed in dollars. Both types of property can be used, bought, sold, given away, taxed and bequeathed to heirs even though their nature is very different.


Tangible Property

Tangible personal property is anything with physical existence -- things that can be felt or touched. Examples of tangible physical property include automobiles, furniture, jewelry, computers, machinery, art objects, rugs, dishes, curtains, household appliances and tools. Tangible personal property includes fixtures attached to real estate if those fixtures can be removed without damaging or changing land and buildings.


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Intangible Property

Intangible personal property consists of nonmaterial things such as copyrights, patents, computer software, franchises, bank accounts, stocks, bonds, trademarks, brand names, accounts receivable, customer lists, trade secrets or business licenses. Intangible property exists only as an intellectual concept. Much intangible property consists of the right to do something such as copy or perform someone's music, or the right to use something such as a restaurant chain's secret recipes. Although intangible property isn't something you can touch or pick up, it still has a quantifiable dollar value.


Valuing Tangibles

Most types of tangible personal property are relatively easy to value because the objects and their condition can be described exactly. There are well-established markets where most types of tangible property are frequently bought and sold, providing the basis for market-based price guides an owner can use to set value on an object such as an automobile. There also are hosts of professional appraisers who follow well-established principles for setting the potential market value of personal property such as fine art or antiques.


Value of Intangibles

It can be hard to set a value on intangibles because they are a concept, not a thing. To have value, says the Internal Revenue Service, an intangible must be specifically identifiable and have a legal existence. It must be subject to ownership and be transferable, and must provide actual or potential economic benefits. The IRS says market prices can be used to value intangibles such as stocks and bonds that are frequently traded. Value can also be based on the cost to re-create the intangible asset. Value may also be set by the income the asset produces now and in the future. These value bases would be modified by the hazards of ownership such as risks of obsolescence, expiration of exclusive rights or adverse laws or regulations,