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House for rentOwning a rental property can help you to grow wealth long-term and diversify your income streams. Receiving regular rental income can help supplement withdrawals you might make from a 401(k) or an individual retirement account (IRA) in retirement or give you an extra cushion in addition to your regular paychecks if you’re still working. But rental income isn’t tax-free money; you do have to pay the IRS taxes on the income you earn. Capital gains tax can also apply when you sell a rental property. If you’re interested in how to avoid capital gains tax on rental property, there are some strategies you can try. It can also be helpful

How Rental Property Is Taxed

There are two dimensions to the tax picture when talking about rental properties. First, there’s the tax you pay on rental income paid to you. And second, there’s the taxes you might pay if you were to sell a rental property for a profit.

In terms of taxes on rental income, it’s subject to the same treatment as any earned income you might have from working or side-hustling. In other words, rental income is taxed as ordinary income at whatever your regular tax bracket may be for the year. The good news is, you can reduce what you owe in income taxes on rental income by claiming deductions for depreciation and rental expenses, such as maintenance, upkeep and repairs.

When you sell a rental property, you may owe capital gains tax on the sale. Capital gains tax generally applies when you sell an investment or asset for more than what you paid for it. The short-term capital gains tax rate is whatever your normal income tax rate is and it applies to investments you hold for less than one year. So, for 2020, the maximum you could pay for short-term capital gains on rental property is 37%.

Long-term capital gains tax rates are set at 0%, 15% and 20%, based on your income. These rates apply to properties held for longer than one year. If you own rental property as an investment year over year, you may be more likely to deal with the long-term capital gains tax rate. If you’re interested in minimizing capital gains tax on rental property or avoiding it altogether, there are three avenues open to you.

Use Loss Harvesting

Tax-loss harvesting is a strategy that allows you to balance out capital gains with capital losses in order to minimize tax liability. So, if your rental property appreciated significantly in value since you purchased it but your stock portfolio tanked, you could sell those stocks at a loss to offset capital gains.

Essentially, this could cut your capital gains tax bill to zero if you have enough investment losses to cancel out the profits. This strategy assumes, of course, that some of your other investments didn’t perform as well over the previous year.

If your entire portfolio did well over the past year then you may need to consider other ways to cut your taxes than loss harvesting. Or it may not yield enough of a benefit to offset all of your capital gains from selling a rental property.

Use a 1031 Exchange

"PROPERTY TAX" written on a piece of paperSection 1031 of the Internal Revenue Code allows you to defer paying capital gains tax on rental properties if you use the proceeds from the sale to purchase another investment. You don’t get to avoid paying taxes on capital gains altogether; instead, you’re deferring it until you sell the replacement property. There are a few rules to know about Section 1031 exchanges. First, this is a like-kind exchange, which means that the rental property you buy must be the same type of property as the one you sold. The good news is the IRS allows for some flexibility in how like-kind is defined. So, for example, if you own a duplex and you decide to sell it, then use the proceeds to purchase a single-family rental home that could still meet the criteria for a 1031 exchange.

You also need to be aware of the timing when executing a 1031 exchange. If you want to use this strategy to avoid capital gains tax on a rental property, you must have a potential replacement property lined up within 45 days. The closing on the new property must be completed within 180 days. If you don’t meet those deadlines, you’ll owe capital gains tax on the sale of your original rental property.

Again, a 1031 exchange doesn’t let you off the hook for paying capital gains tax on rental property. But it could buy you time for paying those taxes owed if you’re interested in swapping out your rental property for a new one.

Convert a Rental Property to a Primary Residence 

One perk of being a homeowner is that the IRS offers a significant tax break if you sell at a profit. Single filers can exclude up to $250,000 in gains from the sale of a primary home from taxation. That amount doubles to $500,000 for married couples who file a joint return.

If you like your rental property enough to live in it, you could convert it to a primary residence to avoid capital gains tax. There are some rules, however, that the IRS enforces. You have to own the home for at least five years. And you have to live in it for at least two out of five years before you sell it.

This might be something to consider if you’re no longer interested in owning a rental property for income or you’d like to move from your current home into the rental.

The Bottom Line

Model house with a calculator next to itCapital gains tax on rental properties can quickly add up if you’re able to sell a property you own for a large profit. Keeping an eye on conditions in the housing market and reviewing your overall financial situation can help you determine whether it’s the right time to sell to minimize taxes. For example, if your regular income is down for the year, then selling a rental property at a capital gain may not carry as much of a sting if you’re in a lower tax bracket. Talking to a tax expert or a financial advisor can help you find the best ways to manage capital gains tax.

Tips on Taxes

  • Consider talking to a financial advisor about how including rental properties into your financial plan could affect your taxes. If you don’t have a financial advisor yet, finding one doesn’t have to be complicated. SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool can help you connect with professional advisors in your local area in a few minutes. If you’re ready, get started now.
  • Tax-loss harvesting isn’t limited to rental properties. You can also use stock losses to offset stock gains, for example. One thing to keep in mind, however, is the IRS wash-sale rule. This rule specifies that you can’t sell a losing stock and then replace it with a substantially similar one in the 30 days before or after the sale.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/xeni4ka, ©iStock.com/designer491, ©iStock.com/supawat bursuk

Rebecca Lake Rebecca Lake is a retirement, investing and estate planning expert who has been writing about personal finance for a decade. Her expertise in the finance niche also extends to home buying, credit cards, banking and small business. She's worked directly with several major financial and insurance brands, including Citibank, Discover and AIG and her writing has appeared online at U.S. News and World Report, CreditCards.com and Investopedia. Rebecca is a graduate of the University of South Carolina and she also attended Charleston Southern University as a graduate student. Originally from central Virginia, she now lives on the North Carolina coast along with her two children.
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