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Changes to Capital Gain Tax Treatment of a Primary Residence

Just when we think we have the income tax laws regarding real estate figured out, the federal government has to go and change them again! This time the changes come as part of the 2008 Housing and Economic Recovery Act (HERA), H.R. 3221, an attempt on the part of government to help individuals impacted by the current mortgage crisis without spending money to do it. It’s called “revenue neutral”, which means that they have to collect more money from somewhere to pay for it.

The additional collection relative to real estate comes from a change in the way profits (capital gains) from the sale of a primary residence are (or are not) taxed. Currently, if a person sells a house for a profit (capital gain) after living in it as their primary residence for 2 of the past 5 years, there is no capital gain tax due on $250,000 of the gain for a single person or $500,000 for a couple. They are free to do whatever they want with the money and there are no age restrictions.

Americans are a creative people, particularly when it comes to avoiding taxes, and during the recent boom, this tax provision provided an incredibly easy way to make money. Let’s look at a simplified example:

A couple owns a house (their primary residence), a vacation home and a rental house. They sell their primary residence, take $500,000 in tax-free profit and move into their rental house. They live there 2 years, sell it, take $500,000 in tax-free profit, buy a home where they want to retire and move into their vacation home. They live there 2 years, sell the former vacation home, take the tax-free profit and move into their retirement home. 3 sales, no capital gain tax.
The sale of a former rental does have some tax implications regarding recapture of depreciation, but that has been minimal relative to the potential for gain.

Congress has decided that this scenario does not fit the original intent of the law, which was to eliminate capital gain taxes on the increase in value of a person’s home. As of January 1, 2009, there will still be no capital gain tax due on a profit generated by the sale of one’s personal home where they have lived for 2 of the past 5 years, with the following exception:
If that home was converted to a personal home from a rental or vacation property, capital gain tax will be due on that percentage of the gain equivalent to the percentage of time that the house was used other than as a primary residence since January 1, 2009.

For most homeowners, this change will be of no concern, but many knowledgeable people have incorporated this tax provision into their financial planning. It has always been important to talk with your financial advisor or accountant before making a decision to sell property, and never more so than now.

Rich & Lylene have been licensed Realtors for 20 years. We have been married for 40 years & have had many lives wearing many different hats to include Corporate Manager, Middle School Teacher, Grocer, Baker, Contractor & for the last 20 years, Realtor. We can both unequivocally say that everything that has led up to this profession has made us appreciate it all the more. The one thing that we have learned is that while things are constantly changing, over the long run real estate has been, is & will continue to be an excellent foundation upon which to build your financial life. As real estate professionals, we hope that you enjoy this article & find it useful.

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