Capital Gains: Timing is Everything

Thanks, Utah housing market, for a wild ride. That’s the nature of the business. I couldn’t love it more. I don’t love the volatility but I do love the knowledge I have gained in the past three decades on the ground. I have watched market cycles for years, and even I, am impressed by its growth in Salt Lake City and surrounding neighborhoods like University, Sugar House, and East Bench. Most of Utah has fared well during some pretty rocky times in a complicated market. I love this industry because it allows me to help clients make informed financial decisions.

A home sale or purchase is one of the most significant investments my clients will ever make. The market? She’s fickle. Real estate transactions can become complex. That’s why it’s time we had a serious chat about capital gains taxes.

A significant spike in Utah home prices beginning in early 2020 was a gift to existing homeowners. In the blink of an eye, many owners more than doubled their equity. Utah real estate sales are slowing, but home prices are steady in Utah.

Suddenly, home and property owners had some serious equity. Many cashed in. Believe it or not, there can be a downside to cashing in on your home equity; the tax bill always comes due (unless, of course, you time your sale just right). If you were one of them (or even if you plan to be) I urge you to read up on capital gains taxes and seek the advice of a tax professional. What the Feds will do with interest rates in 2024 is anybody’s guess but at a Jan. 31, 2024 meeting, interest rates remained unchanged.

Interest increases put the breaks on home sales and purchases but it hasn’t come close to stopping them. Utah is a unique market in that homes are still in high demand. Sellers are hesitant to let go of their homes for fear they will have to buy at a much higher interest rate. In reality, rates do go up but they always go down.

The real estate market requires a stealth strategist to benefit from some great tax breaks. It’s a little like chess, you just have to learn to play the game. I can help, and if I can’t, I know someone who will.

A real estate tax professional will help

Congressional Research Service data shows that about two-thirds of federal individual capital gains subject to tax are from selling corporate stock. The rest is from property sales.

If you had capital gains in 2023, there are some basic points to remember in your financial planning. This information is specifically related to real estate.

  1. A capital gain or loss is the difference between the amount paid for a property and the amount for which it is sold. Yes, that’s a bit of an oversimplification but let’s stick with
    that for now.
  2. Certain capital gains are exempt from taxation but not all.
  3. Length of ownership and occupancy are important considerations with capital gains taxes.
  4. The Internal Revenue Service will consider the dollar amount of a gain or loss, the use of a property in question, and allowed capital expenses.
  5. Unless you are a tax attorney, the money you spend for professional guidance could save you thousands. Now that is a real investment.

I’m not going to repeat the tax code to you here. I can’t possibly address every scenario; however, I did consult with my accountant Dave Lewis of Huber, Erickson & Bowman, LLC (HEB). Dave has a bachelor of science in accounting and a master’s of accounting (MAcc) from Brigham Young University. He specializes in providing audit, tax, and consulting services to homeowner associations, real estate, and construction clients throughout the Western United States. I became a certified public accountant during my service to the United States Marines.

Dave said there are some primary factors to consider when deciding whether or not you need to address capital gains taxes on the sale of your primary residential property.

How much money did you net on the sale of your home?

The IRS built a safety net into the Section 121 exclusion in IRS Publication 523, Selling Your Home. If you are single, you could qualify for up to a $250,000 exclusion. A couple can exclude up to $500,000.

For example:

You sold your primary Poplar Grove home. You bought it for $250,000 in 2018. You lived in it as your primary residence for two of the most recent five years (the time you lived there does not have to be contiguous). The market goes bonkers and you sell it in 2024 for $500,000. That’s a $250,000 profit. If you were the sole owner of the home when you sold it, you would not be obligated to pay capital gains tax because you can take $250,000 right off the top before taxes are calculated. If a couple owned the home, they would be fine because two owners qualify for up to a $500,000 exemption.

It would be simple if that was the only factor you had to consider, wouldn’t it? It’s not. The IRS published a book on this.
Uncle Sam carefully considers these factors too:

  1. Ownership. If you owned the home for at least 24 months (two years) out of the last five years leading up to the date of sale (date of closing), you meet the ownership requirement.
  2. Residence. If you owned the home and used it as your primary residence for at least 24 months of the previous five years, you meet the residence requirement. The 24 months of residence can fall anywhere within five years. The IRS mandates, “All that is required is a total of 24 months (730 days) of residence during the five years. Unlike the ownership requirement, each spouse must meet the residence requirement individually for a married couple filing jointly to get the full exclusion.”
  3. Look-Back. As long as you did not sell a home (or if you did, you didn’t claim the exclusion) in the past two years, you meet the Look-Back requirement.

If you meet these requirements, you could qualify for a capital gains exception, it would be worth pursuing with your trusted tax adviser. There are a host of exclusions and loopholes here that apply to divorce, death, marriage, invalid care, certain exchanges, and more so this so-called “Eligibility Test” is just the beginning.

The long and short of it matter

The Eligibility Test we just reviewed is based on long-term capital gains on a primary residence. There is a different set of rules for short-term gains. I won’t go over them here, but be aware there is a difference. If you own the home you sell after owning it for a year or less, you will need to look into short-term gains and losses as they relate to taxes. If the asset is sold after more than a year, it is considered a long-term gain but you still have to meet the previously-mentioned requirements to save through the Capital Gains exclusion.

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Minimize your capital gains taxes

Nothing tax-related is simple. There are some ways to minimize the taxable amount of your capital gain. It does require some advanced planning, and it does require awareness. That’s why you’re here, right?

Major, permanent improvements are spendy. Luckily, homeowners who make such improvements and keep good financial records (including receipts) can deduct them from the difference between the purchase and sale prices of their primary homes. IRS Publication 523 on Selling Your Home details some examples of improvements that might qualify. They include the following:

  1. Additions. Think bedroom, bathroom, deck, garage, porch, patio
  2. Lawn & grounds. Major landscaping (mowing your lawn doesn’t count), a new driveway, a walkway, fence, retaining wall, or a swimming pool
  3. Systems. These can include a heating system, central air conditioning, furnace ductwork, a central humidifier, a central vacuum, an air/water filtration system, a security system, or a sprinkler system.
  4. Exterior. Some potential qualifiers are storm windows and doors, a new roof, siding, or
    a satellite dish.
  5. Insulation. Energy conservation measures are often deductible including insulation in
    your attic walls, floors, around pipes, and ductwork.
  6. Plumbing. Installation of a septic system, water heater, soft water system, and filtration
    systems all qualify under plumbing.
  7. Interior. Built-in appliances, kitchen modernization, flooring, wall-to-wall carpeting.

Small repairs and maintenance can not be excluded from capital gains unless they are part of a larger project. Whether you own a home now or plan to buy a home these items can be great money-savers if you properly track them and keep careful records.

Timing is everything

Refer back to the time guidelines and remember:

  1. You can only claim the capital gains exclusion on one property in two years.
  2. You must have lived in the home as your primary residence for two of the last five years.
  3. You can claim an exclusion every two years as long as you lived in the property in question for at least two years.
  4. Short vacations don’t count against your time.
  5. If you spend time in a rehabilitation facility while the home is your primary residence, that doesn’t count against you.

A day really can make a difference when it comes to closing dates, so be prepared to plan accordingly.

Get help

Because the state and federal tax codes can be very detailed (and let’s be honest, confusing) the most sage advice I can give you is to consult an experienced tax professional before you buy your home, when you buy your home, and when you sell it to avoid unplanned tax ramifications.

Joel Carson - Utah's # real estate agent

Joel Carson is the President and Principle Broker of Utah Real Estate with over 30 years of experience buying and selling real estate in the greater Salt Lake City area.

Have questions? Call or text me at 801-673-3333

Article Last Updated: February 2, 2024

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