For most of us, our home represents our largest asset. Over time, the management of this asset can make a big difference in our overall financial outlook. One of the largest planning opportunities home ownership brings is the favorable tax treatment afforded the sale of a primary residence.
Home Sale as Capital Gain
The gain on the sale of a home is considered a gain on the sale of a capital asset. Any taxable profit you make is subject to a maximum long-term capital gain rate of 15% (5% for gains in the 10% to 15% federal income tax brackets) if you owned the house for more than 12 months. Gain on the sale of a home may only be taxable to the extent it exceeds $250,000 ($500,000 for joint filers) if certain conditions discussed below are met.
To determine your profit (gain), you subtract your basis from the sale price minus all costs and commissions. For instance, if you sell a house for $250,000, and must pay your broker 6% of the sale price -- or $15,000 -- your sale price for determining capital gain tax is $235,000 ($250,000 minus $15,000).
Say you bought that house 20 years ago, for $35,000. You have since redone the kitchen and bathrooms, put in new windows, added a bedroom, and a new roof. Your basis in the house is $35,000 plus the cost of all of the capital improvements you have made, providing you have paperwork to verify the costs. Let's assume the total cost of those improvements over the 20 years you owned the home is $40,000. In such a case, your basis would be $75,000. Your capital gain would be $235,000 minus $75,000, or $160,000. If you are in the 28% federal tax bracket or higher, your capital gain tax on your home sale would be $32,000 unless you use the principal residence exclusion.
The Primary Residence Exclusion
A $250,000 exclusion for single filers ($500,000 for joint filers) is now available to all taxpayers. You can claim the exclusion once every 2 years. To be eligible, you must have owned the residence and occupied it as a principal residence for at least 2 of the 5 years before the sale or exchange. If you fail to meet these requirements by reason of a change in place of employment, health, or other unforeseen circumstances you can exclude the fraction of the $250,000 ($500,000 if married filing a joint return) equal to the fraction of 2 years that these requirements are met.