Q&A: Avoiding capital gains

Dear Liz: In a few years, my husband and I will sell our large primary residence and move into a smaller home for our retirement. We are both over 55. We currently rent out the smaller home and pay a mortgage on it. We will realize a small capital gain on the large residence when it is sold. Rather than use our one-time exclusion for the sale of a primary residence, can we avoid capital gains by putting the small profit toward paying down the mortgage principal on the smaller home when it becomes our primary residence shortly after selling the large house?

Answer: The ability to defer capital gains taxes on home sales and the one-time exclusion for home sale profits were repealed in 1997. Before that, capital gains taxes were typically due on home sale profits unless the homeowners bought a house of equal or greater value within two years of the sale. The exception was for people 55 or older, who could exclude up to $125,000 of home sale profit from their incomes once in their lives.

Now, when you sell a home, regardless of your age, up to $250,000 in home sale profits can be excluded by an individual or $500,000 by a married couple. You can do this multiple times, as long as you live in each home at least two of the preceding five years.

There are some issues with converting a rental property into a primary residence, however, especially if you should want to sell it someday. You should discuss this with a tax professional.

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