Friday, February 19 2010
Keeping track of the cost of capital improvements to your home can really pay off on your tax return when it comes time to sell.
It’s no secret that finishing your basement will increase your home’s value. What you may not know is the money you spend on this type of so-called capital improvement could also help lower your tax bill when you sell your house.
Tax rules let you add capital improvement expenses to the cost basis of your home. Why is that a big deal? Because a higher cost basis lowers the total profit—capital gain, in IRS-speak—you’re required to pay taxes on.
The tax break doesn’t come into play for everyone. Most homeowners are exempted from paying taxes on the first $250,000 of profit for single filers ($500,000 for joint filers). If you move frequently, maybe it’s not worth the effort to track capital improvement expenses. But if you plan to live in your house a long time or make lots of upgrades, saving receipts is a smart move.
What counts as a capital improvement?
While you may consider all the work you do to your home an improvement, the IRS looks at things differently. A rule of thumb: A capital improvement increases your home’s value, while a non-eligible repair just returns something to its original condition. According to the IRS, capital improvements have to last for more than one year and add value to your home, prolong its life, or adapt it to new uses.
Capital improvements can include everything from a new bathroom or deck to a new water heater or furnace. Page 9 of IRS Publication 523 has a list of eligible improvements. There are limitations. The improvements must still be evident when you sell. So if you put in wall-to-wall carpeting 10 years ago and then replaced it with hardwood floors five years ago, you can’t count the carpeting as a capital improvement. Repairs, like painting your house or fixing sagging gutters, don’t count. The IRS describes repairs as things that are done to maintain a home’s good condition without adding value or prolonging its life.
How capital improvements affect your gain
To figure out how improvements affect your tax bill, you first have to know your cost basis. The cost basis is the amount of money you spent to buy or build your home including all the costs you paid at the closing: fees to lawyers, survey charges, transfer taxes, and home inspection, to name a few. You should be able to find all those costs on the settlement statement you received at your closing.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Had you not factored in the money you spent on the kitchen remodel, you’d be facing a tax bill for that $25,000 gain that exceeded the automatic exemption. By keeping receipts and adjusting your basis, you’ve saved about $3,750 in taxes (based on the current 15% tax rate on capital gains). Well worth taking an hour a month to organize your home-improvement receipts, don’t you think?
Watch out for these basis-busters
Some situations can lower your basis, thus increasing your risk of facing a tax bill when you sell. Consult a tax advisor. One common one: If you take depreciation on a home office, you have to subtract those deductions from your basis. Any depreciation taken if you rented your house works the same way. You also have to subtract subsidies from utility companies for making energy-related home improvements or energy-efficiency tax credits you’ve received. If you bought your home using the federal tax credit for first-time homebuyers, you’ll have to deduct that from your basis too, says Mark Steber, chief tax officer at Jackson Hewitt Tax Services.
This article provides general information about tax laws and consequences, but is not intended to be relied upon by readers as tax or legal advice applicable to particular transactions or circumstances. Readers should consult a tax professional for such advice, and are reminded that tax laws may vary by jurisdiction.
Donna Fuscaldo has written about personal finance for more than 10 years at the Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, and Fox Business. She’s currently remodeling her home—and aiming to make a profit on it one day.