Sale of residence gain exclusion not always automatic

For homeowners, the exclusion of all or a portion of the gain on the sale of their principal residence is an important tax break. The maximum amount of gain from the sale or exchange of a principal residence that may be excluded from income is generally $250,000 ($500,000 for joint filers).

Unfortunately, the $500,000/$250,000 exclusion has a few traps, including a “loophole” closer that reduces the homesale exclusion for periods of “nonqualifying use.” Careful planning, however, can alleviate many of them. Here is a review of the more prominent problems that homeowners may experience with the homesale exclusion and some suggestions on how you might avoid them:

Reduced homesale exclusion. The Housing Assistance Tax Act of 2008 modifies the exclusion of gain from the sale of a principal residence, providing that gain from the sale of principal residence will no longer be excluded from income for periods that the home was not used as a principal residence. For example, if you used the residence as a vacation home prior to using it as a principal residence. These periods are referred to as “nonqualifying use.” This income inclusion rule applies to home sales after December 31, 2008 and is based on nonqualified use periods beginning on or after January 1, 2009, under a generous transition rule. A specific formula is used to determine the amount of gain allocated to nonqualifying use periods.

Use and ownership. Moreover, in order to qualify for the $250,000/$500,000 exclusion, your home must be used and owned by you as your principal residence for at least 2 out of the last 5 years of ownership before sale. Moving into a new house early, or delaying the move, may cost you the right to exclude any and all gain on the home sale from tax.

Incapacitated taxpayers. If you become physically or mentally incapable of self-care, the rules provide that you are deemed to use a residence as a principal residence during the time in which you own the residence and reside in a licensed care facility (e.g., a nursing home), as long as at least a one-year period of use (under the regular rules) is already met. Moving in with an adult child, even if professional health care workers are hired, will not lower the use time period to one year since care is not in a “licensed care facility.” In addition, some “assisted-living” arrangements may not qualify as well.

Pro-rata sales. Under an exception, a sale of a residence more frequently than once every two years is allowed, with a pro-rata allocation of the $500,000/$250,000 exclusion based on time, if the sale is by reason of a change in place of employment, health, or other unforeseen circumstances to be specified under pending IRS rules. Needless to say, it is very important that you make certain that you take steps to make sure that you qualify for this exception, because no tax break is otherwise allowed. For example, health in this circumstance does not require moving into a licensed care facility, but the extent of the health reason for moving must be substantiated.

Tax basis. Under the old rules, you were advised to keep receipts of any capital improvements made to your house so that the cost basis of your residence, for purposes of determining the amount of gain, may be computed properly. In a rapidly appreciating real estate market, you should continue to keep these receipts. Death or divorce may unexpectedly reduce the $500,000 exclusion of gain for joint returns to the $250,000 level reserved for single filers. Even if the $500,000 level is obtained, if you have held your home for years, you may find that the exclusion may fall short of covering all the gain realized unless receipts for improvements are added to provide for an increased basis when making this computation.

Some gain may be taxed. Even if you move into a new house that costs more than the selling price of the old home, a tax on gain will be due (usually 20%) to the extent the gain exceeds the $500,000/$250,000 exclusion. Under the old rules, no gain would have been due.

Home office deduction. The home office deduction may have a significant impact on your home sale exclusion. The gain on the portion of the home that has been written off for depreciation, utilities and other costs as an office at home may not be excluded upon the sale of the residence. One way around this trap is to cease home office use of the residence sufficiently before the sale to comply with the rule that all gain (except attributable to recaptured home office depreciation) is excluded to the extent the taxpayer has not used a home office for two out of the five years prior to sale.

Vacation homes. As mentioned, in order to qualify for the $250,000/$500,000 exclusion, the home must be used and owned by you or your spouse (in the case of a joint return) as your principal residence for at least 2 out of the last 5 years of ownership before sale. Because of this rule, some vacation homeowners who have seen their resort properties increase in value over the years are moving into these homes when they retire and living in them for the 2 years necessary before selling in order to take full advantage of the gain exclusion. For example, doing this on a vacation home that has increased $200,000 in value over the years can save you $40,000 in capital gains tax. However, keep in mind the reduced homesale exclusion for periods of nonqualifying use.

As you can see, there is more to the sale of residence gain exclusion than meets the eye. Before you make any decisions regarding buying or selling any real property, please consider contacting the office for additional information and guidance.