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Will I owe income taxes when I sell my home?

In general, when you sell your home, any amount you receive over your cost basis (what you paid for the home, plus capital improvements, plus the costs of selling the home) is subject to capital gains taxes. However, if you owned and used the home as your principal residence for a total of two out of the five years before the sale (the two years do not have to be consecutive), you may be able to exclude from federal income tax up to $250,000 (up to $500,000 if you’re married and file a joint return) of the capital gain when you sell your home. You can use this exclusion only once every two years, and the exclusion does not apply to vacation homes and pure investment properties.

For example, Mr. and Mrs. Jones bought a home 20 years ago for $80,000. They’ve used it as their principal residence ever since. This year, they sell the house for $765,000, realizing a capital gain of $613,000 ($765,000 selling price minus a $42,000 broker’s fee, minus the original $80,000 purchase price, minus $30,000 worth of capital improvements they’ve made over the years). The Joneses, who file jointly and are in the 28% marginal tax bracket, can exclude $500,000 of capital gain realized on the sale of their home. Thus, their tax on the sale is only $16,950 ($613,000 gain minus the $500,000 exemption, multiplied by the 15% long-term capital gains tax rate).

What if you don’t meet the two-out-of-five-years requirement? Or you used the capital gain exclusion within the past two years for a different principal residence? You may still qualify for a partial exemption, assuming that your home sale was due to a change in place of employment, health reasons, or certain other unforeseen circumstances.

Special rules may apply in the following cases:

  • You sell vacant land adjacent to your residence
  • Your residence is owned by a trust
  • Your residence contained a home office or was otherwise used for business purposes
  • You rented part of your residence to tenants
  • You owned your residence jointly with an unmarried taxpayer
  • You sell your residence within two years of your spouse’s death
  • You’re a member of the uniformed services

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