For those who qualify, a married couple can exclude up to $500,000 ($250,000 for unmarried taxpayers) in capital gains from the sale of your principal residence. This exclusion can be taken once every two years as long as you meet a two-years out of five residency and ownership test before you sell the property.
What you need to know
Often tax planning is required to ensure you maximize this tax benefit. Here are some situations that require a review prior to selling your home.
Ownership and principal residency tests met using different years. As long as the two-year requirement is met for both tests you can take the deduction. It does not matter that you use different years for each test. The most common example of this occurs when you rent a home or condo and then buy it later.
Life events complicate things. Marriage, divorce, and death are common life-events that require planning to maximize the gain exclusion tax benefit. For example, you can take advantage of the full $500,000 gain exclusion after the death of a spouse, but usually only during the time you are able to file a joint tax return.
Selling a second home requires planning. While you can use the gain exclusion every two years, you need to be careful with a second home. You may be able to plan your living arrangements to make each home a primary residence during different tax years to meet the two-year requirement for both properties. This means you need to determine your primary residence each year with good recordkeeping in case you are audited.
Business use of your home. You will need to adjust your home basis (cost) for any business activity and depreciation of your home. This can create a depreciation recapture tax event when you sell your home.
A Partial gain exemption is possible. There are exceptions to the two-year tests when certain events occur. The normal exceptions include a required move for work, health reasons, or unforeseen circumstances. Since the IRS definition of each is vague, you should review your options if you are required to move.
Recordkeeping matters. Be prepared to document the gain on your property and how you meet the residency and ownership tests. Please keep all documents relating to the purchase and sale of your property. Save any receipts that document improvements to your home. Also keep an accurate record to support your claim of principal residence if you own a second home.
Given the potential for tax savings, please ask for help before selling your home or vacation property.