How Much Is Capital Gains Tax on Real Estate? What Homeowners Need to Know to Avoid It

What is capital gains tax? This is a prime question that might crop up when you sell your home for more than you paid for it. That’s good news for you, but the downside is, you may have to pay taxes on those profits in the form of capital gains tax. Yep, just as you pay income tax and sales tax, home sale profits are subject to taxation, too.

Complicating matters is the new Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which is changing the rules. So if there’s ever a time to brush up on all things capital gains, it’s right now. Here’s what you need to know.

What is capital gains tax—and who pays it?

In a nutshell, capital gains tax is a duty levied on property and possessions you’ve held onto for more than a year that you sell for a profit—including your home.

Unlike other investments, home sale profits still benefit from a number of exclusions that might exempt you from capital gains tax entirely under some conditions, says Kyle White, an agent with Re/Max Advantage Plus in Minneapolis–St. Paul.

The IRS gives each person, no matter how much the person earns, a $250,000 tax-free exemption for a primary residence.

“So if you and your spouse buy your home for $100,000, and years later sell for up to $600,000, you won’t owe any capital gains tax,” says New York attorney Anthony S. Park. However, you do have to meet specific requirements to claim this exclusion:

  • The home must be your primary residence.
  • You must have owned the home for at least two years.
  • You must have lived in the home for at least two of the past five years.

If you don’t meet all these requirements, you may be able to take a partial exclusion for capital gains tax. For more information, consult a tax adviser or IRS Publication 523.

How much capital gains tax will you have to pay?

For capital gains over that $250,000-per-person exemption, just how much of a bite will Uncle Sam take out of your real estate sale? In the past, that depended on your tax bracket. Under the new tax law, capital gains rates are now based on your income, explains Park. Let’s break it down.

  • You’ll pay 0% in capital gains if… You’re a single filer earning less than $39,375, married filing jointly earning less than $78,750, or head of household earning less than $78,750.
  • You’ll pay 15% in capital gains if… You’re a single filer earning between $39,376 and $434,550, married filing jointly earning between $78,751 and $488,850, or head of household earning between $52,751 and $461,700.
  • You’ll pay 20% in capital gains if… You’re a single filer earning more than $434,550, married filing jointly earning more than $488,850, or head of household earning more than $461,700. For those earning above $488,850, the rate tops out at 20%, says Park.

Don’t forget, your state may have its own capital gains tax. And very high earners may owe an additional 3.8% net investment income tax.

Do home improvements reduce capital gains tax?

How much capital gains tax you’ll pay may also be reduced because of home improvements you’ve made. The money you spent on any home improvements—such as replacing the roof, building a deck, replacing the flooring, or finishing a basement—can be added to the initial price of your home to give you the adjusted cost basis of your home.

For example, if you purchased your home for $200,000 in 1990 and sold it for $550,000, but over the past 29 years have spent $100,000 on home improvements, that $100,000 would be subtracted from the sales price of your home this year. Instead of owing capital gains taxes on the $350,000 profit from the sale, you would owe taxes on $250,000. In that case, you’d meet the requirements for a capital gains tax exclusion and owe nothing.

Take-home lesson: Make sure to save receipts of any renovations and repairs, since they can save you big-time come tax filing season.

How capital gains tax works on inherited homes

What if you’re selling a home you’ve inherited from family members who’ve passed away? The IRS also gives a “free step-up in basis” when you inherit a family house. But what does that mean?

Let’s say Mom and Dad bought the family home years ago for $100,000, and it’s worth $1 million when they die and leave it to you. When you sell, your purchase price (or “basis”) is not the $100,000 your folks paid, but instead the $1 million it’s worth on their date of death.

How to avoid capital gains tax as a real estate investor

If the home you’re selling is a second home (i.e., vacation home) rather than your primary residence, avoiding capital gains tax is a bit more complicated. But it’s still possible. The best way to avoid a capital gains tax if you’re an investor is by doing a 1031 exchange. This allows you to sell your property and buy another one without recognizing any potential gain.

“In essence, you’re swapping one investment asset for another,” White says. He cautions, however, that there are very strict rules regarding timelines and guidelines with this transaction, so be sure to check them with an accountant.

If you’re opting out of the rental property investment business and putting your money in another venture, then you’ll owe the capital gains taxes on the profit.

Article by Cathie Ericson

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