The Tax Rules Of Buying Or Selling A Home
Though the mortgage-interest deduction may be the most obvious example of the government’s largesse to home-owners, other significant breaks apply when you buy or sell a home. People buy or sell a home for lifestyle reasons and not for tax reasons. But knowing the tax rules can save you a bundle on a house sale by keeping your tax bills to a minimum. Consider these strategies.
Don’t sell too soon. With the way that home prices have appreciated over time (despite the recent decline), selling your house could net you a major profit with no tax bill—unless you make your move too soon. If you’ve lived in a home for at least two of the past five years, you can exclude up to $250,000 of your gain from capital gains taxes; if you are married, you and your spouse can avoid taxes on a profit of up to $500,000. If you sell after just a year, however, you’ll be taxed on your profit at the 15% rate for capital gains (20% for high-income individuals) —and if you sell a place you’ve lived in less than 12 months, your gain is considered short-term, and taxed at your ordinary income rate of up to 39.6%. Plus, you may owe a 3.8% surtax on the excess above the home sale exclusion.
Plead hardship. So-called hardship sales—necessitated by medical problems, divorce, job loss, or multiple births—could win you a tax break even if you sell before living in your home for two years. If you qualify, you’ll get a reduced home-sale exclusion based on your amount of time in the house, expressed as a fraction of the ordinary two-year minimum. If you sold after 18 months, for example—three-quarters of the minimum—you could exclude a profit of up to three-quarters of the usual $250,000 or $500,000 exclusion.
Minimize your gains. If you have to pay tax on your profit, look for ways to increase your home’s tax basis—for example, by including the closing costs you paid when you bought the house. A higher basis means a smaller gain. However, if you depreciated a portion of the house because you used it for business purposes—such as for a home office—you’ll generally owe capital gains tax on some or all of the depreciated amount.
Get the points. When you take a mortgage for a new home, you may pay “points” in exchange for a lower interest rate. Because the IRS considers points to be prepaid mortgage interest, you may be able to deduct them from your income for the year of the purchase. For instance, two points paid on a $500,000 mortgage—that is, 2% of the half-million—would give you a $10,000 deduction. However, if you finance the points along with the mortgage balance, you must deduct them over the life of the loan. Spread over the term of a 15-year mortgage, for example, that same $10,000 would mean a deduction of only $667 a year.
Keep these tax rules in mind when you make home-buying or home-selling decisions.
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