Q&A: How to reduce capital gains taxes on a home sale

Dear Liz: We’re retired and living in California. We are planning on selling our home, which is paid for, and moving to Tennessee in a couple of years. I think we qualify for a “one time” capital gains exemption. Our home is worth over $1 million and we paid only $98,000 in 1978. We plan on buying a home in Tennessee for around $800,000. Will we have to pay capital gains tax?

Answer: Before 1997, a homeowner could defer paying taxes on home sale gains as long as they rolled the proceeds into the purchase of another home of equal or greater value. In addition, there was a one-time exclusion for homeowners over age 55, who could exclude up to $125,000 in home sale gains.

Those rules were replaced in 1997 with the current law. Now homeowners of any age can exclude up to $250,000 each in capital gains on the sale of their primary residence, as long as they’ve owned and lived in the house for at least two of the previous five years. As a married couple, you can exclude up to $500,000 of gain — but that still leaves you with more than $400,000 of potential capital gains.

The capital gains calculation doesn’t factor in the value of your replacement home or whether you have a mortgage. However, you can use the value of home improvements you’ve made over the years to reduce your taxable gain — assuming you kept those receipts. The IRS defines home improvements as expenses that add to the value of your home, prolong its useful life or adapt it to new uses. Examples would include additions (bedrooms, bathrooms, decks, garages, etc.), heating or air conditioning systems, plumbing upgrades, kitchen remodels and landscaping, among other costs.

Improvements don’t include maintenance required to keep your home in good condition, such as painting, fixing leaks or repairing broken hardware, or improvements that are later taken out. If you put wall-to-wall carpeting and then removed it to install hardwood floors, only the cost of the hardwood floors would count.

Many of the costs you incur to sell the home, such as real estate agent commissions and notary fees, also can be used to reduce the capital gain. You can find more details in IRS Publication 523, Selling Your Home. A big home sale gain can affect other areas of your finances, such as your Medicare premiums, and may require you to pay quarterly estimated taxes. Consider talking to a tax pro before the sale so you know what to expect.

Q&A: House sale implications for retiree

Dear Liz: I’m 67, divorced since 1992 and retired with a good government pension, a retirement investment fund, some stocks and cash savings. I plan to sell my home of 33 years soon for a hefty profit and buy a smaller home. I owe $100,000 on the mortgage. I worry about a significant increase in payments to Medicare and tax obligations to the IRS. What financial advice do you have for me? This is my first time selling and buying a property on my own.

Answer: Now would be a great time to consult a tax professional about your options. You can exempt as much as $250,000 of home sale profit, but gains beyond that would incur capital gains taxes and could increase your Medicare premiums.

The amount you owe on your mortgage doesn’t affect the tax you owe on a home sale, but other expenses might. For example, you may be able to reduce your taxable profit if you kept good records of the amounts spent on home improvements. What you spent on maintenance and repairs over the years won’t help, but any work that improved the value of your home may be added to what you paid for the home to increase your tax basis. This basis is what’s subtracted from the sale price to help determine your taxable profit. Certain expenses you incurred to buy your home, such as closing costs, and to sell it, such as real estate commissions, also can help reduce the taxable portion.

IRS Publication 523 goes into detail about how to calculate home sale profit, but an enrolled agent (you can get referrals from the National Assn. of Enrolled Agents) or a CPA could be extremely helpful in advising you about these calculations.

Q&A: House gift needs a lawyer’s help

Dear Liz: I have a rental house that I would like to give to my sister as an outright gift. (She is the current tenant but cannot afford to buy the house.) How can I do this legally? Do I need a lawyer? If so, what kind? I have already asked a real estate agent, and I’ve been told that I don’t really need her services. She suggested asking an escrow company. The house is in the name of my revocable trust and I own it free and clear. For various reasons, I would like to give her the house now rather than leave it to her in my will. I realize she will be stuck with my cost basis, but she has no plans to ever sell it because she has lived there for 10 years and wants to live in it for the rest of her life.

Answer: Talk to a real estate attorney, who can help you through the multi-step process of transferring a house deed and getting it recorded. You could try to do it yourself, but the attorney can ensure the transfer is done properly and answer any questions you may have.

Because the house probably is worth more than the annual gift exemption limit — which is currently $15,000 and rising to $16,000 next year — you also will have to file a gift tax return. Actual gift taxes aren’t owed until you’ve given away millions of dollars in your lifetime. If you’re wealthy enough to be concerned about that, please also consult an estate planning attorney.

Q&A: Here’s a retirement dilemma: Pay off the house first or refinance?

Dear Liz: My husband and I are retired, with enough income from our pensions and Social Security to cover our modest needs, plus additional money in retirement accounts. We have owned our home for 35 years but refinanced several times and still have 15 years to go on a 20-year mortgage.

With rates so low, we were contemplating refinancing to a 15-year mortgage just for the overall savings on interest, but we started thinking about the fact that, at 67 and 72 years old, it’s unlikely that both of us will survive for another 15 years to pay off this loan. Since that’s the case, we’re now thinking about taking out a 30-year mortgage, with monthly payments $700 or $800 less than what we currently pay.

Our house is worth around 10 times what we owe on it, and if we had to move to assisted living we could rent it out at a profit, even with a mortgage. We also each have a life insurance policy sufficient to pay off the balance on the mortgage should one of us predecease the other.

I know that conventional wisdom says that we should pay off our mortgage as quickly as we can. But an extra $700 or $800 a month would come in handy! Am I missing something? Is this a bad idea?

Answer: Answer: Not necessarily.

Most people would be smart to have their homes paid off by the time they retire, especially if they won’t have enough guaranteed income from pensions and Social Security to cover their basic living expenses. Paying debt in retirement could mean drawing down their retirement savings too quickly, putting them at greater risk of ultimately running short of money.

Once people are in retirement, though, they shouldn’t necessarily rush to pay off a mortgage. Doing so could leave them cash poor.

You are in an especially fortunate position. Your guaranteed income covers your expenses, including your current mortgage, and you have a way to pay off the loan when that income drops at the first death. (The survivor will get the larger of the two Social Security checks. What happens with the pension depends on which option you chose — it may drop or disappear or continue as before.) Even with a mortgage, you have a large amount of equity that can be tapped if necessary.

So refinancing to a longer loan could make a lot of sense. To know for sure, though, you should run the idea past a fee-only, fiduciary financial planner who can review your situation and provide comprehensive advice.

Q&A: Should you sell a house or let heirs deal with it? The taxes shake out differently

Dear Liz: My mother, who will be 101 later this year, is leaving me real estate in her trust. The value of it is $4.5 million. She has other assets that will put her estate over $5 million when she passes. I currently have an offer from someone who wants to buy the real estate. Is it better for her to sell it now and reduce the value of her estate? She has never exercised the option for the one-time sale of her primary residence tax free. What are the tax implications if it remains in her estate until she passes?

Answer: There’s no such thing as a one-time option to sell a home tax free. Decades ago, homeowners could defer the recognition of taxable gain if they bought another house, and homeowners 55 and older could exclude as much as $125,000 of gain. That was a one-time deal, so perhaps that’s what you’re remembering.

Since 1998, however, taxpayers have been able to exempt as much as $250,000 of capital gains from the sale of their primary residence as long as they owned and lived in the home at least two of the prior five years. Taxpayers can use this exemption as often as every two years.

Clearly, your mom needs to find a source of good tax advice, such as a CPA or other tax professional. If you have the authority to act on your mother’s behalf through a power of attorney or legal conservatorship, then you should seek the tax pro’s advice as her fiduciary.

Under current law, if she retains the real estate it would get a “step up” to the current market value as of her death. That means all the appreciation that happened during her lifetime would never be taxed. If she sells now, on the other hand, she probably would owe a substantial capital gains tax bill, even if she uses the exclusion. The tax pro will calculate how much that’s likely to be.

That tax bill has to be weighed against the possibility that her estate could owe taxes. The current estate tax exemption limit is $11.7 million, an amount that will continue to be adjusted by inflation until 2025. In 2026, the limit is scheduled to revert to the 2011 level of $5 million plus inflation. President Biden has proposed lowering the limit to $3.5 million and modifying the step up, but those ideas face stiff opposition in Congress.

An estate planning attorney could discuss other options for reducing her estate if she’s still with us as 2025 approaches. The tax pro probably can provide referrals.

Q&A: Taxes on a home sale

Dear Liz: My wife wants to sell our home of three years for a $300,000 profit after an extensive remodel and move into our rental home. She wants to stay there for two years and then sell to take advantage of the capital gains exemption. If we do it her way, we lower our monthly mortgage payment but lose the yearly rental income of $30,000. Our income is around $130,000. Any input?

Answer: Each homeowner can exclude up to $250,000 of home sale profits from capital gains taxes if they have owned and lived in a property as their primary residence for at least two of the previous five years. Married couples can exclude up to $500,000. This tax break can be used repeatedly.

The federal capital gains tax rate is currently 15% for most people, so the full $500,000 exemption could save a seller $75,000 in federal capital gains taxes. If your state or city has an income tax, you could save there as well. California, for example, doesn’t have a capital gains tax rate, so home sale profits would be subject to ordinary income tax rates of up to 13.3%.

The math is a little different when you move into a property you’ve previously rented out, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer. Over the years, you’ve taken tax deductions for depreciation of your property. When you sell, the Internal Revenue Service wants some of that benefit back, something known as depreciation recapture.

When you sell a former rental property, some of the gain will be taxed as income, even if you’ve converted the home to personal use, Luscombe said. The maximum depreciation recapture rate is 25%.

A tax pro can help you figure out the likely tax bill. Any tax savings would be offset by the net result of a move, such as the lost rental income (minus the lower mortgage payments) and the substantial costs of selling, including real estate commissions and moving expenses.

It’s not clear if you’ve already remodeled your current home. If you haven’t, please think twice about an extensive remodel if you plan to sell, because you probably won’t get back the money you spend. Home improvement projects rarely return 100% of their cost. You’ll typically get a better return by decluttering, deep cleaning, sprucing up the yard or putting on a new coat of paint.

Q&A: Protecting home sales proceeds from taxes

Dear Liz: My friend has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and is now living in a secure assisted living facility. After a year in this home, his sister finally sold his condo. Her tax person says he will take a big tax hit. I say it is totally medically ordered and he’ll need the money for his current housing ($5,000 a month) until he dies. I also question whether part of that $5,000 should be deductible because it is only ordered because of his illness. Your thoughts?

Answer: Your friend may not be able to protect all of his home sale proceeds from taxation, but he likely will be able to protect some.

If your friend lived in his condo for at least two of the previous five years before the sale, he will be able to avoid tax on up to $250,000 of home sale profits. Even if he fell short of the two-year mark, he likely would benefit from IRS rules that allow partial exemptions when the sale is due to “unforeseen circumstances.”

Meanwhile, medical expenses, including some long-term care expenses, are potentially deductible if they exceed 7.5% of someone’s adjusted gross income. Assisted living expenses may qualify as deductible medical expenses if the resident is considered chronically ill, which means they cannot perform at least two activities of daily living (eating, toileting, bathing, dressing, getting in and out of bed and remaining continent) or they require supervision because of cognitive impairment, such as Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. The personal care services must be provided according to a plan of care prescribed by a licensed healthcare provider. Typically, assisted living facilities prepare such care plans for their residents.

Q&A: House transfer in a trust

Dear Liz: My dad set up a living trust that included his house, which has a mortgage on it. The lender accepted the transfer of the home to the trust. Dad recently passed away so the house should transfer to my sister and myself. Can the lender trigger the due-on-sale clause? Or make me or my sister qualify for the mortgage?

Answer: A federal law known as the Garn-St. Germain Depository Institutions Act of 1982 details several situations in which lenders can’t enforce due-on-sale clauses, including when a home passes to a relative or joint tenant, said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach. The law applies to residential properties with four or fewer dwelling units.

You and your sister won’t have to qualify for a new loan but can continue making payments under the current mortgage terms. If you can’t afford the payments, you’ll need to consider other options, such as refinancing or selling the home.

Q&A: Future home sale affects Medicare

Dear Liz: I am 65 and have a very low income but will be selling my home of 25 years soon to downsize. How will the one-time capital gains affect my Medicare payments, which are currently at the minimum? Can I share with the Social Security office that this is a one-time event and that the following years will all have a very low income stream? Will they adjust my payments up one year and back down the next?

Answer: You can exempt up to $250,000 per person of home sale profit from capital gains, so only profit above that amount would be added into your modified adjusted gross income to determine your Medicare premiums. There’s a two-year lag, so if you sell your home this year and report it on the tax return that’s due next year, your premiums will increase the following year (in your case, in 2023).

As noted in a previous column, you can appeal the increase if your income was affected by certain life-changing events including marriage, divorce, death of a spouse, work stoppage or reduction, loss of income-producing property (because of a disaster or other event beyond your control), loss of pension income or an employer settlement payment because of an employer bankruptcy or reorganization. If you don’t qualify to appeal, the increase would only be for one year and your premiums would return to normal afterward.

Another option is to structure the deal so you receive the payout over time, rather than all at once, but consult an accountant or financial planner before proceeding.

Q&A: A house in one state, a spouse in another. What about taxes?

Dear Liz: My husband recently took a dream job in a different state. We are renting a place there, and it is his primary residence. We own our home in the “original” state, where I live and work. We intend to keep our home for another three to four years. How will this impact our taxes? We are married, filing jointly and our income is straightforward W-2. Will we need to file as residents in both states? I know most states will credit taxes already paid on income earned in another state, but which is our “primary” residence? I may base permanently in the new state because I can work remotely. I am confused about filing jointly when each spouse lives in a different state.

Answer: Please talk to an accountant about the best way to handle your returns. In some cases, spouses who live in different states can submit their federal tax returns as “married filing jointly” while filing their respective state returns as “married filing separately.” Other times, there may be tax advantages to filing jointly in one state, or the nonresident spouse will be required to file.

If you are required to submit a return to the nonresident state, your accountant can tell you whether you qualify for credits. Alternatively, there may be a reciprocal tax agreement between states that allows nonresidents to avoid taxes if they follow certain rules.

But you’ll want to be particularly careful if you currently live in a high-tax state with a reputation for aggressive residency audits such as California, New York and Illinois.

A state auditor may decide that your husband’s move is temporary and his income is thus subject to your state’s taxes. It would be up to him to prove otherwise, and that may not be as easy as changing his voter registration. A tax pro can help guide him, and later you, on the best way to establish residency.