Q&A: Figuring home-sale taxes

Dear Liz: My husband and I bought a home in Los Angeles in 1976 for $200,000. He died in 1992. The value of the house was at that time about $850,000. (I had it appraised.)

I want to sell the house now. The value is about $2 million. How much would be the stepped-up base for capital gain tax when I sell it?

Answer: In most states, only your husband’s half of the home would have gotten a new tax basis at his death. (A tax basis is used to determine potentially taxable profit.) In community property states such as California, however, both halves of a property get the step up in basis when one spouse dies.

You can add to your basis any commissions or fees paid to purchase the property and the cost of any additions or improvements. What you spent on maintenance and repairs doesn’t count. The improvement must add to the value of your home, prolong its useful life or adapt it to new uses to qualify, according to the IRS.

To figure your taxable profit, you’ll take the net amount you receive from the sale — the sale price minus any commissions or fees paid to sell the home — and subtract your basis from that. You can exempt up to $250,000 of the home sale profit, but you would pay long-term capital gains rates on the rest.

Let’s say you invested $150,000 in improvements over the years. That would be added to your $850,000 basis for a total adjusted basis of $1 million. Let’s also assume you pay $100,000 in commissions to sell your home, netting $1.9 million. Your $1 million basis would be subtracted from the $1.9 million, leaving you with a $900,000 home sale profit. Because $250,000 of that would be exempt, you would owe long-term capital gains tax on $650,000.

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