Of all the reasons to downsize your home — like having less wasted space, less junk that you never use anymore, less maintenance to do, fewer home repairs to make, fewer rooms to clean, and more time to enjoy yourself — there’s one upside that nearly everyone gets excited about: saving money.
If you’ve lived in your home for a long time, you may be expecting to make a big profit when you sell — especially if your home is entirely paid off. But there’s one big hurdle left to clear before you can make a clean break from your old home: taxes.
Specifically, there’s a capital gains tax that penalizes people who make a massive amount of money all at once. Which, if you’ve taken good care of your home while it’s steadily appreciated in value over the years, could be a problem for you when you try to sell.
This can be frustrating. Here’s how to figure out whether or not your home’s sale will qualify you for the capital gains tax — and, if it does, how to prepare for it so Uncle Sam doesn’t totally ruin your downsizing party.
How the Capital Gains Exemption Works
First, the good news: things are definitely better for you as a home seller today than they would have been 20 years ago.
That’s because the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 raised the bar for how much profit a home seller can earn before they incur capital gains tax. This law gives you a $250,000 exemption if you’re a single home seller, or a $500,000 exemption if you’re married, as long as you meet a few requirements.
For one, the home must have been your principal residence for at least two of the past five years. (Sorry, serial home flippers; this loophole isn’t for you.)
Also, in order to meet the full use requirement, you must have actually, physically lived in the house for at least two of the last five years prior to selling. (Of course, if you didn’t because you’ve been lounging on a Moroccan beach for the past half-decade, you may not be terribly worried about taxes in the first place.)
Negotiating the Tax Liability of Your Home Sale
Now, most couples won’t have to worry about hitting this $500,000 bar… but the “bad” news is, some of you will. Especially if you bought your home many years ago for a great deal in a great area, and its value has held up even through the 2008 downturn.
For example, if you and your spouse originally paid $100,000 for your home, and you’re about to sell it for $625,000, that’s a big $525,000 profit, which means you’re going to take a massive hit on taxes… or does it?
Well, not necessarily.
Capital gains taxes apply specifically to gains, not just profits. Gains are what’s left after you subtract all your other expenses and deductions from the transaction. In the case of selling your home, your gain is what’s left of your selling price after you subtract:
- all deductible closing costs
- all deductible selling costs
- your tax basis in the property
What about home improvements?
Home improvements that increase the tax basis of your home do count as deductions when it sells. However, home repairs don’t count. What’s the difference? Basically, an improvement must have a “useful life” of more than one year. This includes big things like additions, room remodels, roof upgrades, extensive landscaping, etc. (So make sure you keep all your receipts!)
There are also opportunities for you to earn partial exemptions for special circumstances, such as death, disability, or divorce, as well as a partial exemption if you don’t meet the full use requirement. And if you’re a member of the armed forces or the intelligence service, your use requirement can be extended to 10 years instead of five.
A few business details could also complicate your situation. For example, if you’ve previously claimed a portion of your house as a home office, or if you’ve used part of your residence as a rental property, those portions of your home’s value may not qualify for the capital gains exemption.
You can get more details on all of these deductions, and what does and doesn’t qualify, here. And for more tips about how to whittle down your tax liability during a home sale, check out this article in Forbes.
(By the way, if all of this is starting to sound super-complicated, don’t worry. Situations like these are why people hire accountants and certified tax professionals who actually enjoy this kind of thing!)
The Bottom Line?
So, what happens if, even after all your deductions, you do find yourself exceeding the exemption limit? Don’t panic: you’re only going to be taxed on the portion of your gain that exceeds the limit.
So, in our example above, $500,000 of your $525,000 gain could be exempted, leaving you responsible for paying capital gains taxes only on the remaining $25,000. How much of that $25,000 will you owe in taxes? The answer differs depending on your tax bracket, so talk to your accountant to find out which bracket you expect to be in during the tax year in which your home is sold.
The bottom line? Earning a profit from the sale of your home is still a good thing, no matter how you look at it. But it does require some smart financial preparation to help reduce your tax liability and leave as much money in your pocket as possible, so you can enjoy your newly downsized life in style.
And a spare $250,000 or $500,000 goes a long way, doesn’t it?
DISCLAIMER: This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, tax advice, legal advice, or accounting advice. You should always consult your own tax, legal, and accounting advisors before engaging in any major financial transaction.