Q&A:Don’t make this mistake with your retirement savings

Dear Liz: My wife and I are in our mid-40s and planning to buy what likely will be the last house we’ll purchase. I’ve decided to withdraw around $15,000 from my IRA to buy down the rate, which will guarantee returns in the form of interest savings, even if those will be less than the returns I would earn if I left the money in the account. My real question is about our current house. We owe around $77,000 on a house that could likely fetch in the low $200,000 range. I’ve looked at it up, down and sideways. Would it make more sense to rent, sell, or rent then sell after a couple of years to avoid the capital gains tax?

Answer: Sometimes it can make sense to buy down a mortgage interest rate by paying more upfront if you plan to stay in the home for many years. The deals vary by lender, but you might pay 1% of the loan amount (one point) to get a rate that’s 0.25% lower, or 2% (two points) to get the rate reduced by 0.5%. For example, paying two points on a $200,000 mortgage, or $4,000, could lower the rate from 4.5% to 4%. You would drop the monthly payment about $59, and it would take you nearly six years for the slightly lower monthly payments to offset what you paid upfront.

You complicate the math, though, when the money used to buy down the rate comes out of a retirement account. That money is taxed as income and would likely be penalized as well because you aren’t yet 59½. (There’s an exception to the penalty for first-time home buyers who withdraw up to $10,000, but they’ll still owe income tax on the withdrawal.) The tax bill varies according to your tax bracket and your state, but you can expect it to equal roughly one-quarter to one-half of the amount withdrawn.

In addition to the tax bill, you’ve also given up future tax-deferred returns on the money. And because most people’s incomes drop in retirement, you’re probably paying a higher tax rate than you would if you withdrew the money later.

A good rule of thumb is to consult a tax pro before you take any money out of a retirement account. The rules can be complex and it’s easy to make an expensive mistake. A tax pro also could advise you about the tax implications of renting vs. selling, although you might also want to talk to anyone you know who’s a landlord about what’s involved with renting out a property.

The simplest solution may be to sell your current home and use the equity to reduce the size of the loan you’ll need on the next residence, rather than raiding a retirement fund to get a slightly lower rate.

Q&A: Tax take on inherited house

Dear Liz: In a recent column, you quoted an attorney saying that if an inherited home in a trust is sold for its value at the date of death, the trust won’t owe capital gains. We sold our family’s house in 2007 within a month of my mother’s death and the government took half. Fortunately it was a really valuable house in Brentwood, but what are you talking about? I must be missing something.

Answer: If the government took half, then estate taxes — rather than capital gains taxes — probably triggered that hefty bill.

When your mother died, the estate tax exemption limit was much lower — $2 million, compared with the current $11.4 million. The top federal estate tax rate then was 45%, compared with 15% for capital gains.

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.

Q&A: Figuring the tax toll for an inherited house

Dear Liz: I inherited my home when my husband died. If I sell this house now at a current market value of around $900,000, what will be the basis of the capital gains tax? I think at the time of my husband’s death, the house’s market value was $400,000.

Answer: Based on your phrasing, we’ll assume your husband was the home’s sole owner when he died. In that case, the home got a new value for tax purposes of $400,000. That tax basis would be increased by the cost of any improvements you made while you owned it. When you sell, you subtract your basis from the sale price, minus the costs to sell the home, such as the real estate agent’s commission, to determine your gain. You can exempt up to $250,000 of the gain from taxation if it’s your primary residence and you’ve lived in the house at least two of the previous five years. You would owe capital gains taxes on the remaining profit.

Here’s how the math might work. Let’s say you made $50,000 in improvements to the home, raising your tax basis to $450,000. You pay your real estate agent a 6% commission on the $900,000 sale, or $54,000. The net sale price is then $846,000, from which you subtract $450,000 to get a gain of $396,000. If you meet the requirements for the home sale exclusion, you can subtract $250,000 from that amount, leaving $146,000 as the taxable gain.

If your husband was not the sole owner — if you owned the home together when he died — the tax treatment essentially would be the same if you lived in a community property state such as California. In other states, only his share of the home would receive the step-up in tax basis and you would retain the original tax basis for your share.

Q&A: Keeping an eye on your financial planner

Dear Liz: I’m a fee-only financial planner with a quick comment regarding the investor who complained about a financial advisor who ran up a huge capital gains tax bill. I’ll bet that the vast majority of the gains came from selling the person’s initial investments to re-position them according to the advisor’s recommendations. That seems most likely given the gains seemed to be huge (implying the current investments had been in place for a long time) and the client’s balance didn’t seem to grow much at the same time. Of course, that’s not necessarily an excuse — accounts with unrealized capital gains need to be handled very carefully by an advisor. And you are dead-on with the main point of your response: Giving an advisor discretionary trading status is risky. I would add to that the client doesn’t seem to know the advisor’s investment strategy, so that’s another disconnect. I’m glad that fee-only gets a lot of positive comments in the financial press, but you’re correct that you still need to move with caution.

Answer: Advisors are in an unenviable position when they’re trying to fix a portfolio that hasn’t been properly diversified over the years. Big gains build up because the investor doesn’t want to sell and pay capital gains taxes. By refusing to sell some winners occasionally, though, those winners can comprise an ever larger share of the portfolio, making it more and more risky. A concentrated portfolio can fall more in a bad market and gain less in a good one than a portfolio that’s properly diversified.

So the advisor may have been doing what needed to be done, but the fact that the investor didn’t understand what the advisor was doing or why indicates a breakdown in communication, at the very least. No one should give an advisor blanket permission to trade an account without understanding the advisor’s strategy and being willing to monitor how it’s being carried out.

Q&A: How to sort out the taxes when you sell your house

Dear Liz: I am trying to understand the capital gains tax exemption as it applies to the sale of a house. If I have no mortgage and I sell my house before I have lived in it for two of the previous five years that are now required for the exemption, is it based on the total selling price of the house or on the amount over what I paid for it? And what is the tax rate based on?

Answer: The home sale exemption can shelter from taxes up to $250,000 per owner ($500,000 for a couple) of capital gains from a home sale. If you don’t live in the home for at least two of the previous five years, you typically can’t use the exemption unless the sale was because of a change in employment, health problems that require you to move or an unforeseen circumstance that forced the sale.

The rules on these exceptions can get pretty tricky, so you’d need to discuss your situation with a tax pro. If you qualify, the amount of the exemption usually would be proportionate to the percentage of the two years that you actually lived in the home. If you sold after one year, for example, you might exempt up to $125,000 per owner.

Whether you have a mortgage does not affect the capital gains calculation. What matters is the difference between the price you get when you sell the house and the price you paid when you bought it.

From the sale price, you get to subtract any selling costs such as real estate commissions. From the purchase price, you can add in certain costs, such as home improvement expenses. What results after these adjustments is your capital gain for tax purposes.

If you have capital gains in excess of the exemption, you would pay long-term capital gains rates on that profit. Long-term capital gains are typically taxed at a 15% federal rate, although the highest-income taxpayers (those in the 39.6% bracket) may pay 20% and the lowest-income taxpayers (those in the 10% and 15% brackets, including taxable capital gains) pay a 0% rate.

States typically have additional taxes.

Q&A: Capital gains taxes explained

Dear Liz: Do I understand correctly that I must live in a house for two years before selling it to avoid paying capital gains tax, regardless of how much I may profit from the sale?

Answer: You do not. You must live in a home for two of the previous five years to exempt up to $250,000 of home sale profits. (Married couples can exempt up to $500,000.) After that, you’ll pay capital gains taxes on any remaining profit.

Even if you didn’t last the full two years, you may be able to claim a partial exemption if you meet certain criteria, such as having a change in employment, a health condition or other “unforeseen circumstance” that required you to move out.

Q&A: Capital gains tax on home sale profit

Dear Liz: I recently sold a home and am trying to escape the dreaded capital gains tax. I’ve done everything I can to reduce my overall tax bill, including maxing out my retirement contributions. I don’t want to buy a more expensive home to escape the gains tax. Any thoughts?

Answer: Buying a more expensive home wouldn’t change what you owe on your previous home. The days when you could roll gains from one home purchase into another are long gone.

These days you’re allowed to exclude up to $250,000 in home sale profit from your income (the limit is per person, so a couple can shelter $500,000). In other words, that amount is tax free, as long as you lived in the home for at least two of the previous five years. Beyond that your profit is subject to capital gains taxes. The top federal capital gains rate is 20%, plus a 3.8% investment surtax if your income is more than $200,000 for singles or $250,000 for married couples.

Here’s where good record-keeping may help. While generally you’re not allowed to deduct repair and maintenance costs from that profit, you can use home improvement expenditures to reduce the tax you owe. Home improvements are added to your cost basis — essentially what you paid for the property, including settlement fees and closing costs, and that’s what is deducted from your net sales price to determine your profit.

You’ll need receipts plus credit card or bank statements to prove what you paid. Improvements must “add to the value of your home, prolong its useful life, or adapt it to new uses,” according to IRS Publication 523, Selling Your Home. Examples of improvements include additions, remodels, landscaping and new systems, such as new heating or air conditioning systems. You can include repairs that are part of a larger remodeling job, but you can’t include improvements you later take out (such as the cost of a first kitchen remodel after you do a second one).

Q&A: Income tax vs. capital gains tax

Dear Liz: I was wondering about the disabled vet who wanted to sell his home, which had increased in value by about $1 million. You mentioned that “[S]ingle people with incomes over $415,050 in 2016 are subject to the 39.6% marginal tax rate. Most people pay capital gains tax at a 15% rate, but those in the top bracket face a 20% rate.” Would he have to pay federal income tax on the non-exempt portion of the equity as well as paying 20% capital gains on the non-exempt portion?

Answer:
You may pay income tax or capital gains tax on a source of income, not both. If an investment has been held less than a year, the gain is considered short term and subject to income tax. Investments held more than a year are considered long-term and qualify for capital gains treatment.

When you’re selling your primary residence, the first $250,000 in profit is typically exempt from tax. The rest of the gain would be taxed as a capital gain.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

downloadToday’s top story: How to apply for a credit card after bankruptcy. Also in the news: Avoiding stress while paying down debt, the biggest tax “break” you shouldn’t forget, and how to slash your cable bill.

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