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Can You Avoid Capital Gains by Buying Another Home?


When you sell your home, the IRS allows one major form of capital gains break. It’s called the home sale exclusion, and it allows you to deduct a significant amount of the profit from your home sale to minimize or avoid capital gains taxes. If you’re selling an investment property, you can use the process known as a “like-kind” exchange to lower your tax burden, but this process only applies to investment and rental properties. Here’s what you need to know. For answers to your complex financial questions that are relevant your own unique situation, consider working with a vetted financial advisor.

Home Sale Exclusions

If you’re selling a house, there are two main forms of tax breaks the IRS allows. The first tax break is called a Section 121 (commonly referred to as home sale exclusion), which allows taxpayers to exclude capital gains from the sale of their home. This means that it could only be applied to the primary residence where you live. In 2023 and 2024, this exclusion allows individual taxpayers to exclude up to $250,000 from the sale of their primary home ($500,000 for joint taxpayers).

The second tax break is called Section 1031 (also called a like-kind exchange), which allows taxpayers to defer paying capital gains tax on an investment property sale by using the proceeds to buy another similar property.

You should note that taxable capital gains only apply to the amount made on a sale. This means that you first deduct the price you paid for the house, and then you remove any tax-deductible improvements or expenses. Then, you deduct the home sale exclusion. Whatever is left is the amount on which you owe taxes.

As an example, let’s say an individual bought a house for $200,000. Years later the individual sells it for $500,000. The potential capital gains tax on the sale would be $300,000, which is the profit made from the sale. Using the home sale exclusion, the seller could exclude $250,000 of the profit. and consequently owe the remaining $50,000 in capital gains.

To apply for the home sale exclusion your property must pass two tests:

  • Ownership: Taxpayers must have owned this home for at least 24 out of the past 60 months (put another way, at least two years out of the last five). These months do not have to be consecutive.
  • Use and occupancy: During the period of ownership, this house must have been used as a primary residence. There are several ways of formally establishing primary residence. Most importantly, this must have been the address for filing taxes, voting, state and federal IDs and utility bills.

You should note that you can only have one legal primary residence at a time, meaning that you can only apply the home sale exclusion to one sale at a time. The home sale exclusion does not apply to investment or rental properties. This must be a home that you live in and it cannot be a second home.

Taking Advantage of Like-Kind Exchanges

A couple wondering if they can avoid capital gains tax by buying another home.

The IRS defines like-kind exchanges as exchanges between real properties that are used for business or held as an investment for another business that is the same type or like-kind. Generally, when sellers make this type of exchange, they are not required to recognize a gain or loss under Internal Revenue Code Section 1031. This means that if you own business property, the IRS allows you to sell one property and use the proceeds to buy another without having to pay taxes on the transaction.

This once applied to all forms of business assets, however, Congress eliminated like-kind exchanges for all assets in 2017. This tax legislation limited to real estate held for active transactional purposes, such as rental properties, offices, shops, hotels and other in-use assets; and created a dedicated benefit for closely or individually held real estate firms.

Like-kind exchanges must meet three general requirements:

  • This property must be held as an investment asset. It cannot be a home for personal use, whether as a primary residence, secondary residence or even an occasional vacation home. As a general rule, if you ever stay at this property it will probably not count for a 1031-like-kind exchange.
  • This property must generate income through rental or other uses. You cannot hold the property just as an investment for a later sale.
  • The property you buy must be of the same “character and class” as the property sold. This is generally a low requirement, as the IRS considers most real estate fungible for this purpose. In general, if you are selling one investment property and using the proceeds to buy another, you will likely meet this requirement. The biggest restriction here is that the IRS rarely considers property outside of the United States as taxably equivalent to property inside the country.

You do not need to make a direct swap in a like-kind exchange. Instead, once you sell your first investment property you can put the proceeds from this sale into escrow. You then have 180 days to find and purchase another similarly situated piece of land. This new purchase must also generate income through rentals or other use, and it must also be exclusively for business purposes.

You can then use your escrowed funds to buy this property. If you do so, the IRS allows you to consider this an exchange and you do not have to pay taxes on the proceeds from your original sale. If you own a rental property and would like to upgrade it, this can be an extremely useful tool. However, it is not valuable for homeowners, as like-kind exchanges specifically do not apply to your private residence.

Bottom Line

A man calculating if he can avoid capital gains tax by buying another home.

You can avoid a significant portion of capital gains taxes through the home sale exclusion, a large tax break that the IRS offers to people who sell their homes. People who own investment property can defer their capital gains by rolling the sale of one property into another. This like-kind exchange does not apply to personal residences, however.

Property Buying Tips for Beginners

  • A financial advisor can help you create a financial plan for your home buying needs and goals. 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.
  • Picking between a dream home and an investment property could be difficult. Depending on your financial needs and goals, here’s why a long-term rental property could pay off.

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