June 22, 2024

Capital gains taxes: What to know when you sell your home or other asset

Capital-gains taxes occur when you sell an asset, like your home or a stock. They are paid to both the state and federal government. The government collects a percentage tax on the gain or profit of the asset while in your possession.

As you think ahead to tax season, understand that taxes on capital gains were lowered in 2017 and remain at the lowest rate in decades as of this writing. The average taxpayer pays a 15% federal tax on long-term capital gains, defined as the profit on an asset you have owned for more than one year.

A few people, those whose income is over $445,850, pay a 20% federal tax. There are exceptions where capital gains trigger a higher rate, but they apply to small-business stock and collectible sales. More information is available from the IRS at Topic No. 409, Capital Gains and Losses.

Learn more: Heads up investors: Capital-gains tax rules for 2024 are here

The bottom line is that capital-gains tax is not something to worry about, but is something to plan for as you prepare to sell an asset.

Here are three steps to make capital gains an easier process in your life:

1. Learn the lingo

When you buy a home or stock, the price you pay for it is called the basis of that item. Knowing the basis will make your life easier when you go to sell any property or investment.

The property may get a step-up in basis if you owned it in joint name and became the sole owner through a death. Typically, property has increased in value over time which means your half of the property has had the original value and the other half is the value when it was transferred to you following the death of your co-owner.

This step-up of basis also applies to inherited assets. All property gets a step-up in cost basis to the current value for the new owner following a death. This applies to your home, moneys in a brokerage account and other assets. If others inherit your property, they will receive a step-up in value, whether they are relatives or friends.

In addition, understand whether the property was held short-term or long-term. The gain is calculated based on how long you have held the property. Anything less than a year is considered short-term. Longer than a year is a long-term gain calculated at a lower rate.

If you’re thinking of cashing in on your real-estate investment without handing over all your hard-earned gains to Uncle Sam, you need to be strategic. Here are some options to consider.

2. Keep good records

Capital gain rules apply to investments like stocks, cryptocurrency, mutual funds and certain types of life insurance. In the case of these investments, the investment or insurance company maintains the records for you.

At the end of the year, companies send a Form 1099. On the 1099, only the proceeds are recorded. You need to ask at the time of the sale what you paid for it (if they do not note it on paperwork), any other payments you may have made such as life insurance premiums and calculate any investment fees relevant to the sale. This will give you the current basis of the property and allow you to calculate the anticipated taxes.

For more information, read IRS Publication 550, Investment Income and Expenses.

Capital-gains taxes occur when you sell your home residence, but you can prepare now even in this inflated home price environment. Home improvements over the time of your ownership add to the basis of your home.

Save yourself stress and taxes in the future by keeping a tally of home-improvement costs. Even if you are not selling this year, organizing that paperwork now so you can keep those receipts and information separately will save you a hassle in future years.

Keeping good records can increase the home’s cost basis for tax purposes, saving you from paying unnecessary capital-gains taxes if you sell. A new kitchen, bath or outdoor patios and lights — essentially anything beyond paint and maintenance. Here’s the full IRS list of what qualifies. When you sell your house, provide these numbers to your accountant.

Caution: Do not increase the cost basis of your home by making improvements you do not need or want. There is no guarantee that expenses will be offset by the selling price, no matter what your real-estate agent says.

You add the cost basis to the cost of improvements you have made to the property. This is tangible upgrades like landscaping, or building additions that will sell with the property. Not the maintenance over the years of lawn mowing or painting to keep the property in good condition.

See list below for clarity and read IRS Publication 523 (2022), Selling Your Home. Then, review your records and dig out your calculator to find your full basis for tax purposes when you file for tax year 2023.

Examples of improvements include:

  • Heating system.

  • Central air conditioning or humidifier.

  • Central vacuum.

  • Wired security system.

  • Lawn sprinkler system.

  • Exterior storm windows or doors.

  • Pipes and duct work.

  • Septic system.

  • Water heater.

  • Built-in appliances.

  • Kitchen modernization.

  • Wall-to-wall carpeting.

Your basis when you sell the property will be the cost basis when you bought the property plus the cost of improvements. Remember, you may qualify for a $250,000 capital gain exclusion ($500,000 if you were married) if this has been your main home two out of the past five years and you meet other requirements. As a result, your capital-gains tax may not be as much, especially when including the improvements in your home. More information is available at IRS Publication 523, Selling Your Home — Internal Revenue Service.

People have put off selling their homes because they fear their capital gains will exceed the exemption amount. If you are delaying selling a too-big home because of the gain and the fear of taxes, there is something you can do now to prepare.

3. Be tax prepared

Once you know the basis of your property and its sale price, the difference is considered the capital gains. Use this number to calculate the tax on the property. Unless you are in a state that does not have a capital-gains tax, such as Florida, New Hampshire, and Wyoming, be sure to put away in savings 25% of your profit for state and federal taxes.

This set aside is critical so that you have the money to pay the appropriate tax on April 15 of the following year. The best way to do this is to have a separate saving account or short-term certificate of deposit. This way it is clearly separate money set aside for tax purposes and less tempting to dip into through the year.

Read next: 2024 tax season: When can taxpayers start filing returns and when are taxes due?

If this all sounds confusing or overwhelming, then consult a tax professional who does this every day and can simplify your life even when it is not tax season. Capital gains are manageable if you are not blindsided by lack of knowledge.

C.D. Moriarty, CFP, is a Vermont-based financial speaker, writer and coach. She can be found at MoneyPeace.com. 

This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, ©2024 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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