Washington — Tax shelters. The phrase brings to mind a string of Conestoga wagons, circled to protect beleaguered dollar bills from marauding income taxes.
But for many investors, experts say, hiding income in tax-resistant investments is declining in importance, because the taxes themselves are becoming less dangerous.
''I don't have too many clients crying 'find me shelter!' '' says Harry Abel, tax partner with Seidman & Seidman, the accounting firm. ''It's really changed. The odds have narrowed.''
As of Jan. 1, the ''maxi-tax'' -- the top marginal rate on unearned income -- dropped from 70 to 50 percent. (Before 1964, the ''maxi-tax'' was 96 percent.) Straight income tax rates are scheduled to drop 23 percent by 1984. The highest rate on long-term capital gains for individuals has been reduced from 28 to 20 percent.
Investors in the old 70 percent bracket could afford to put their money in risky tax-free gold deals or film partnerships, since only 30 cents of each dollar invested was at stake. Now that the government takes less from your last dollars earned, the pure tax considerations of an investment are relatively less important.
''It's much more marginal across the board,'' says Ben Benson, tax partner with Laventhal & Horwath, another accounting firm. ''Below the 50 percent (tax) bracket, most people are better off not investing in shelters.''
Unanimously, experts say middle-income investors shouldn't bother thinking about tax shelters, with one exception: a home.
''I still think homeownership makes sense from the tax standpoint,'' says John Dorfman, author of ''The Family Investment Guide.''
The new individual retirement accounts (IRAs), often advertised as tax shelters, do make sense for almost everyone, accountants say. But an IRA's effect on your current tax situation isn't what's important, they say -- it's the account's role as an incentive for saving that will help you the most.
But suppose you are in the top 50 percent bracket, seeking a little shelter for your income. What should you look for?
Rule No. 1: Evaluate any tax shelter by its economic aspects first, and by its tax considerations second. You're after a solid investment with the potential of long-term capital appreciation.
That means no super-risky deals. No rabbit breeding (an exotic shelter actually offered at one time, according to an accountant). No film distribution companies. No gold exploration partnerships. The potential tax write-offs probably aren't worth the risk.
''Those gold, coal, and movie shelters have no economic sense,'' says Theodore Romak, regional tax director at Arthur Young & Co., accountants. ''And you're almost asking for an audit.''
But some traditional tax shelters will remain attractive. ''Certain types -- real estate and oil -- will continue to appeal to individuals who understand them,'' Mr. Romak says.
President Reagan's massive tax bill has also created some new tax sheltering opportunities. Individuals who buy public utility stock, for instance, can shelter up to $750 ($1,500 for a joint return) in dividends by reinvesting them in the utility. The tax bill opens up some new opportunities in real estate, and it has created a third type of appealing shelter - research and development investment.
Real estate: Real property is ''the king of shelters,'' according to one expert. Between interest and depreciation write-offs, you can deduct more than you invest up front, a leveraging effect you can't get with any other type of shelter. And, in the long run, real estate often promises a hefty capital gain.
For the individual investor, commercial real estate is a tricky tax shelter. True, the new tax bill has shortened the depreciable life of business property to 15 years -- but it takes a six-figure income to afford a substantial investment. And if accelerated depreciation is chosen, instead of straight line, a new ''recapture'' rule means that any profit you show after selling commercial real estate is taxed as straight income, instead of at the lower capital-gains rate.
Residential property is your best bet, experts say. Syndication deals investing in government-subsidized housing will be harder to find, because of the administration's position on federal financing for homes. But ''conventional multifamily housing offers great potential, if it can be bought right,'' says Mr. Benson of Laventhal & Horwath.
Warren Shine, tax partner at the Ernst & Whinney accounting firm, agrees. ''There will be a big market in garden apartments,'' he says. ''The old owners can sell and get better treatment of their capital gains, and the new owners can get better tax breaks.''
Investment in historic homes may also be a smart move: The new tax bill allows a 25 percent investment tax credit for expense incurred in rehabilitating a certified historic house.
But in general, be careful. The market is softening, and not all housing will automatically appreciate.
Oil and gas: If real estate is the king of shelters, oil and gas are the crown princes. With a correctly structured deal, up to 80 percent of your investment can be written off against taxes. Again, economic considerations are of primary importance; for oil and gas, that means avoiding wildcatters and investing in the development of proven reserves.
''The most important consideration is the quality of the people,'' says Benson. ''A lot of charlatans have been squeezed out, but there are still a lot of them around.''
Complicating any investment decision in oil and gas are the Page 1 issues -- the oil glut, OPEC pricing, and natural gas deregulation. Still, ''oil and gas have emerged as major shelters at this point,'' Benson says. No longer are they red flags waved in front of the IRS, almost begging for an audit.
Research and development: The trendiest investment for sheltering income may be research and development deals. If structured properly, R&D companies allow investors to take advantage of reduced capital gains and write off any losses up to $50,000. And President Reagan's Economic Recovery Tax Act provides for an income tax credit equal to 25 percent of any incremental increase in R&D -- a clause that existing syndicates may be able to use advantageously, though it expires Jan. 1, 1986.
''There have been an awful lot (of R&D tax shelters) lately,'' says Mr. Shine of Ernst & Whinney. ''The most you get is a 1-to-1 write-off. They only work if the people behind them are exciting.''
Shine says the De Lorean car and many agrigenetics concerns are good examples of ''exciting'' development shelters.
''It's a high-risk thing,'' says Mr. Abel of Seidman & Seidman. ''If a person can evaluate the field, you can retire at a very young age."