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How do I figure the tax on the sale of my home?

It depends on several factors, including whether the home is your principal residence or takes some other form (such as a vacation home or investment property). 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 on the sale of your home. You can use this exclusion only once every two years, and this 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 have used it as their principal home 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 percent 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 percent long-term capital gains tax rate).

What if you fail to meet the two-out-of-five-years requirement? Or what if you used the capital gain exclusion within the past two years with respect to 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.

You should also be aware that special rules might apply in the following cases:

  • If you sell vacant land adjacent to your principal residence
  • If your principal residence is owned by a trust
  • If your principal residence contained a home office or was otherwise used partially for business purposes
  • If you rented part of your principal residence to tenants
  • If you owned your principal residence jointly with an unmarried taxpayer
  • If you sell your principal residence within two years of your spouse's death

Note: Members of the uniformed services and foreign service personnel may elect to suspend the running of the 2-out-of-5-year requirement during any period of qualified official extended duty up to a maximum of 10 years.

Consult a tax professional for more details.