Will Your Home Sale Leave You With Tax Shock?

Investing News

For many people, their homes are their largest assets. At some point in life, many people decide to sell their homes to relocate to another part of the country, upgrade to a larger home, or help finance retirement.

There are significant tax code implications that could impact how much net proceeds you end up with after the sale and what your potential tax ability may be on the sale. Let’s take a look at how the newest tax laws will affect you if you decide to sell your home.

Key Takeaways

  • Selling your home is a major life milestone that may unfortunately be accompanied by a large tax liability.
  • In general, qualified single taxpayers can exclude $250,000 of profit when considering capital gains. Couples filing joint returns can exclude $500,000 of profit.
  • To qualify, the taxpayer must have lived in the home for at least two of the previous five years and have not taken the exclusion in the past two years.
  • There’s a number of exceptions to these qualifications, and taxpayers may also be eligible for a partial exclusion.
  • There are also opportunities to increase your cost basis to reduce your tax liability when you sell.

The Old Rules

In the past, sellers could defer capital gains taxes on all past profits. This deferral could be made on any size profit as long as they met the following two requirements.

  1. The seller purchased a replacement home that cost more than the amount received for the home that was sold.
  2. The seller purchased the replacement within two years before or two years after the date of the sale.

For instance, suppose you had bought a home for $200,000 and sold it five years later for $300,000. Under older rules, you would have a potential capital gains tax liability on the $100,000 profit.

Assume you used the profit to purchase a new house for $325,000 one month after the sale. Because your purchase price was greater than net proceeds and because your new purchase occurred within an acceptable timeframe, your tax liability would potentially be deferred and used to offset future returns.

Should you have passed away before realizing the deferred taxes, the gain could have been wiped out because of the step-up in basis provision for your beneficiaries. In addition, a seller who had reached age 55 could permanently exclude up to $125,000 in profits without buying another home.

A lot has changed since the 16th Amendment to the Constitution was enacted in 1913. This amendment provided Congress the power to levy taxes on income and capital gains.

The New Regulations

On Aug. 5, 1997, the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 took effect. The act did away with the continual unlimited deferral of profits and replaced it with capped exclusions. The current capital gains rules around the sale of your main home allow single taxpayers to exclude $250,000 in profits on their home’s sale. Married couples who file jointly can exclude $500,000 from their taxable income.

Age is not a factor, and you do not have to buy a replacement home. After you take the exclusion, you could buy a less expensive home or revert back to being a renter. Better still, the IRS will let you use the exclusion each time you sell your primary residence. To qualify for the current deferral rules, there are two rules:

  1. You must have owned and used the home as your primary residence for at least two out of the previous five years. These two years do not need to be consecutive.
  2. You cannot have used the exclusion during the preceding two years.

Examples of Capital Gains on Home Sale

Suppose a married couple had bought their home eight years ago for $200,000 and lived in it exclusively since its acquisition. Now, the couple is ready to move into a larger house in a less expensive part of the country. The couple sells their home for $450,000 and acquires a new home for $400,000. Because the couple files married filing jointly, they will qualify for the capital gains exclusion and have no tax liability on the $250,000 profit.

Assume the same situation above, but the couple is selling their home for $1,000,000. The couple will qualify for a $500,000 capital gains exclusion if they file jointly. However, total profit on the house is $800,000 ($1,000,000 sale price – $200,000 purchase price). Therefore, the couple will have to recognize capital gains taxes on $300,000 ($800,000 total profit – $500,000 exclusion).

Eligibility Requirement

What if this couple only lived in the house 1.5 years before selling it? Because the property does not qualify for capital gains exclusion, 100% of profits are taxable.

Special Considerations

Like many other pieces of tax legislation, there are many exceptions or considerations. If you’re unsure whether you qualify for capital gains deferral, consult a tax advisor.

General Qualification

Your home sale will not qualify for any exclusion if you acquired the property through a like-kind exchange within the past five years. In addition, you must have owned the home for at least two of the past five years leading up to the sale; for a married couple, only one spouse needs to have met this requirement.

The residence test is needed to determine whether the home qualifies as your primary place of residence. You must have used the residence in an aggregate of 24 months within the previous 60 months. Vacations or short absences away from the residence count as time lived in the house as does specific conditions around living in a care facility.

Exceptions to Eligibility

There is an extensive list of exceptions to the eligibility requirement for capital gains exclusions. These exceptions include but are not limited to:

  • Sales or ownership transfers as part of divorce settlements or separations.
  • Sales due to the death of a spouse during the ownership of the home.
  • Sales including vacant land.
  • Taxpayers whose previous home was destroyed or condemned.
  • Taxpayers who were service members during the ownership of the home.

Partial Exclusion

There are situations where a taxpayer is eligible for a partial exclusion if the home sale was related to work, health, or an unforeseeable event.

  • Work-related: The taxpayer must have transferred to a new job at least 50 miles farther from the home than your old work location. Partial exemption is also granted if the taxpayer did not have a previous work location but the new job was at least 50 miles from their home.
  • Health-related: The taxpayer must have moved to obtain specific medical care for themselves or a family member. Partial exemption is also granted if a doctor recommended a change in residence due to underlying health conditions.
  • Unforeseeable events: The taxpayer must have experienced an uncommon event during the time they owned and lived in the house. The list of eligible events includes but is not limited to the home being destroyed, a taxpayer passed away, a taxpayer giving birth to multiple children during the same pregnancy, or divorce.

Other Facts and Considerations

Publication 523 contains a section called “Other Facts and Considerations.” Even if you don’t meet some requirements above, the IRS has left the door open by noting that “even if your situation doesn’t match any of the standard requirements described above, you may still qualify for an exemption.”

Reducing Your Tax Liability

Although avoiding tax on a $250,000 ($500,000 for joint tax filers) profit is significant, it might not be enough to totally offset some sellers’ gains. There are a few things you can do to increase your cost basis and reduce your tax liability.

Go back through your records to find out if you had other allowed expenses, including:

  • Settlement fees or closing costs when you bought the home
  • Real estate taxes that the seller owed but for which you paid and were not reimbursed
  • Home improvements, such as a new roof or room addition

If your property simply does not qualify for capital gain exclusion as it was not your primary residence, there is also potential for tax savings through a 1031 exchange.

Do I Pay Taxes When I Sell My House?

If you qualify for a capital gains exclusion, all or a portion of the profit you make from selling your house may be tax-free. To qualify, you must have lived in your house for two of the past five years and meet other IRS requirements.

What Are Capital Gains?

Capital gains is income earned not through ordinary income like salary or wages. Capital gains is the profit generated by the sale of an investment greater than the cost basis of that investment. The IRS has many rules around how capital gains are tax, which capital gains are exempt, and what different tax rates are.

How Can I Avoid Capital Gains?

The most strategic way to avoid capital gains is to increase you cost basis. Sometimes, the IRS has specific rules that benefit taxpayers (i.e. some inherited investments have a cost basis of fair market value at the time of receipt). Alternatively, make sure you are accounting for all allowable costs as part of your acquisition. This includes allowable fees, taxes, or commissions.

What Are Capital Gains Tax Rates?

Capital gains tax rates depend on whether the profit is classified as short-term or long-term. Short-term capital gains are always taxed at your ordinary tax income level (i.e. the same rate as your salary or wages).

In 2022, the capital gains tax rate for single taxpayers earning up to $40,400 or couples filing jointly earning up to $80,800 was 0%. Single taxpayers earning up to $445,850 or couples filing jointly earning up to $501,600 may be taxed at 15%. The highest earners are taxed at 20%, though specific assets like collectibles may be assessed even higher rates.

The Bottom Line

Selling your home is a major life milestone. It will likely have a major impact on your finances, and it may result in a larger-than-expected tax liability. Though the rules have changed around capital gains recognition, there are plenty of opportunities to capitalize on tax exclusions, deferrals, or exemptions in the process of selling your home.

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