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We’re Selling Our House and Netting $550k to Downsize for Retirement. How Can We Avoid Capital Gains Taxes?


Selling your home to downsize can make your retirement more financially stable, but if you have a profit on the sale you might owe capital gains taxes. Fortunately, in many cases those selling their primary residence who are single can exclude $250,000 from capital gains taxes, while married couples filing jointly can exclude $500,000. Employing this exclusion can reduce or eliminate capital gains taxes. Some restrictions do apply, however, so it’s best not to assume your gain will be excluded. There are other strategies that you might be able to use, but these may have significant limitations, uncertainties and risks.

Do you have questions about retirement planning? Speak with a financial advisor today.

Is the Gain on Your Home Sale Taxable?

Selling your primary residence may result in capital gains taxes, but for many people it doesn’t. To determine whether your gain will get taxed, you must first figure out how much gain qualifies to be excluded. The amount of the gain that can be shielded from taxes depends on the filing status you choose when you submit your income tax return.

Single filers can exclude $250,000 and married couples filing jointly can exclude $500,000 of profits on the sale of a primary home. However, to qualify for these exclusions, the sellers must have owned and lived in the home at least two of the five years prior to selling. Also, you can’t have used the exclusion in the previous two years.

If your gain exceeds the exclusion, the amount of the overage will be taxed as capital gains. The amount of tax depends on how long you have owned the home. If you have owned it for more than a year, you’ll likely qualify for long-term capital gains tax rates of 0%, 15% or 20%. The exact rate depends on your income and other capital gains for the year, and the gain on your home sale gets included when figuring that. In this case, a married couple who makes $550,000 in gains on their home sale would likely be subject to the 15% long-term tax bracket, which starts at $47,025 in 2024.

Downsizing in Action

Here’s how this all could play out, looking at three possible scenarios:

  1. A married couple filing jointly can exclude $500,000 in gains from taxation after the sale. This would leave only $50,000 to be taxed. Because the couple has owned and lived in the home for at least two out of the last five years, long-term capital gains tax rates will apply. The tax bill for the sale alone would be $50,000 at 15%, or $7,500.
  2. If you aren’t eligible for any exclusion, due to not living in the home two of the previous five years or using the exclusion more recently than two years, then the entire $550,000 will be taxed. If the whole gain of $550,000 is taxed at 15%, the bill would be $82,500.
  3. For the sake of an example, let’s assume you were single and meet the criteria for the exclusion. In this scenario, you can exclude $250,000 of the $550,000 gain, which leaves $300,000 taxable. The rate will likely be 15%, as the 20% long-term tax bracket starts at $518,900 for 2024. This will result in 15% taxes owed on the $300,000, or $45,000.

While these guidelines apply to federal capital gains taxes, some states also levy capital gains taxes. States tax capital gains in a variety of ways, so you need to check local laws to get an accurate idea of your tax bill.

Another Approach

You may be able to reduce your taxes, even if none or only part of the gain qualifies for an exclusion. This can be done by making sure you accurately figure your cost basis of the house. To do this, add up all the improvements you made to the property. Now add this figure to the property’s original cost and subtract it from the sale price.

If you have previously not fully accounted for your cost basis, this can reduce the amount of the gain and the subsequent taxes you’ll owe. For instance, if you spent $50,000 on a kitchen renovation and hadn’t included that in your cost basis, accounting for it correctly could reduce your $550,000 gain to $500,000.

Bottom Line

A home seller pocketing $550,000 can legally avoid some capital gains taxes through an exemption and other legitimate tax minimization strategies. However, limitations abound, so consult a financial advisor to understand how these situations work and how to plan for them.

Retirement Tax Tips

  • A financial advisor can help you plan for taxes and retirement. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • SmartAsset’s income tax calculator can shine a revealing light on how much you’ll owe or receive as a refund next time you file taxes.

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