A couple stands outside a home with a for sale sign in the yard, with their relator.

Capital Gains Tax: What Is it, And What Are The Rates On Home Sales?

6-minute read

November 09, 2020

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There are many tax considerations for homeowners. Taxes related to real estate are paid from the time you buy the home all the way through the sale of your property.

Capital gains tax may not be the most exciting part of selling your home, but it’s important to know how it’ll impact your sale. We’re going to teach you a little bit more about the capital gains tax, what it means, and how you can reduce your tax burden when you sell your home.

What Is Capital Gains Tax?

The capital gains tax is a levy you pay when you sell an asset that has increased in value since you bought it. Your capital gains tax rate can be 0%, 15% or 20% depending on your income and your tax filing status. Certain assets are taxed at different rates depending on what they are and the situation.

Almost any property you own is subject to capital gains tax if you sell it for more than the original purchase price. This includes things like furniture and collectibles and investments such as stocks and bonds. It can even include cars, although with rare exceptions for collectible vehicles, that probably wouldn’t come up because most cars are sold at a loss for the original owner. Capital gains tax also applies when it comes to home sales, and that’s what we’ll be talking about for the remainder of this article. Let’s start by giving you a feel for how the tax works.

For example, let’s say you bought your home for $150,000 and you sold it for $180,000. Your profit, $30,000 (the difference between the two selling prices), is your capital gain and it’s subject to the tax.

You only pay the capital gains tax after you sell an asset. Let’s say you bought your home 2 years ago and it’s increased in value by $10,000. You don’t need to pay the tax until you sell the home.

There are two main types of capital gains: short-term and long-term. Below, we’ll go over the differences between the two.

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What Is The Capital Gains Tax Rate?

There’s no one capital gains tax rate and there are several factors that go into which one applies in your situation.

The first thing you need to figure out is whether you’re dealing with a short- or long-term capital gain. In general, the rule is that if you’ve had the property for less than a year, it’s a short-term gain, and anything after that point is considered long-term. However, there are exceptions were other rules may apply for certain classes of assets, like gifts or inherited property, patents or certain types of investment income like commodity futures. For tax purposes, these dates are calculated from the day after the original purchase to the date of sale of the property.

The next thing to know is how much income you made the previous year and your filing status because this will determine your tax bracket and the applicable rate.

Finally, it’s important to know the type of asset you’re dealing with, because while most long-term capital gains are taxed at rates of up to 20% based on income, there are situations in which higher rates apply. These assets include:

Special Asset Classes for Long-Term Capital Gains Tax

Asset Type

Capital Gains Tax Rate

Taxable part of gain from qualified small business stock sale under section 1202

28%

Collectibles (e.g. art, coins, comics)

28%

Unrecaptured gain under section 1250 for real property (applies in certain cases where depreciation was previously reported)

25%

Short-Term Vs. Long-Term Capital Gains Tax

If you do need to pay the capital gains tax, it’s important to know the date you bought and sold the home. This is because there are different tax strategies for long-term and short-term investments.

Short-Term Capital Gains Tax

If you’ve made the determination based on the rules mentioned above that short-term capital gains tax applies in your situation, the profit is taxed at regular income tax rates. For the 2019 tax year, these rates are as follows:

Short-Term Capital Gains Tax Rates

Tax Rate

Single

Married Filing Jointly and Surviving Spouses

Married Filing Separately

Heads of Household

10%

$0 – $9,700

$0 – $19,400

$0 – $9,700

$0 – $13,850

12%

$9,701 – $39,475

$19,401 – $78,950

$9,701 – $39,475

$13,851 –$52,850

22%

$39,476 – $84,200

$78,951 – $168,400

$39,476 – $84,200

$52,851 – $84,200

24%

$84,201 – $160,725

$168,401 – $321,450

$84,201 – $160,725

$84,201 – $160,700

32%

$160,725 – $204,100

$321,451 – $408,200

$160,725 – $204,100

$160,701 – $204,100

35%

$204,101 – $510,300

$408,201 – $612,350

$204,101 – $306,175

$204,101 – $510,300

37%

Over $510,300

Over $612,350

Over $306,175

Over $510,300


Tax rates work slightly differently if you happen to be declaring a short-term capital gain sold by an estate or trust.

Short-Term Capital Gains for Estates or Trusts

Tax Rate

Estate or Trust Income

10%

$0 – $2,600

24%

$2,601 – $9,300

35%

$9,301 – $12,750

37%

Over $12,750


Your home is considered a short-term investment if you own it for less than a year before you sell it. There are no special tax considerations for capital gains made on short-term investments. Instead, the government counts any gain you made on the home as part of your standard income.

This can present a major problem for short-term buyers like house flippers. For example, let’s say you earn a profit of $50,000 from flipping a home within 1 year. Let’s also say that you earn an annual salary of $50,000 from your regular job. Under these circumstances, the $50,000 you earned from the sale of your home essentially doubles your income. When you file your federal taxes, the IRS would consider your gross income for that year to be $100,000 and you’d be subject to the same tax rate as an executive that earns $100,000 at your company.

You can minimize your tax burdens with short-term sales by carefully accounting for all of your expenses and deductions.

Long-Term Capital Gains Tax

Owning your home for more than a year means you pay the long-term capital gains tax. Unlike the seven short-term federal tax brackets, there are only three capital gains tax brackets. The long-term capital gains tax rates are much lower than the corresponding tax rates for standard income. You may not need to pay the tax at all if you make less than the minimum amount listed below.

The percentage you pay on your capital gains depends on your filing status and how much money you made last year.

Long-Term Capital Gains Tax Rates

Filing Status

0%

15%

20%

Single

$0 – $39,375

$39,376 – $434,550

More than $434,550

Married filing jointly and surviving spouse

$0 – $78,750

78,751 – $488,850

More than $488,850

Married filing separately

0 – $39,375

$39,376 – $244,425

More than $244,425

Head of household

$0 – $52,750

$52,751 – $461,700

More than $461,700

Trusts and estates

$0 – $2,650

$2,651 – $12,950

More than $12,950

How To Avoid Capital Gains Tax On A Home Sale

There are a few ways that you can minimize (or even eliminate) your capital gains tax liability. Use these tips to reduce the amount that you owe.

Tips For Selling A Primary Residence

You need to live in your home for at least 2 years out of the last 5 years to qualify it as a primary residence. The 2 years that you live in your home don’t need to be consecutive. You also don’t need to own your home for at least 5 years in order to claim an exemption from the capital gains tax. For example, if you own your home for 3 years and live in it for 2 years before you sell it, it’s still considered a primary residence. In a case like this, you might not need to pay the capital gains tax when you sell the home.

You don’t need to pay up to $250,000 ($500,000 for married couples filing jointly) in capital gains on your home sale if you meet three conditions:

  • You’ve lived in your home for the last 2 years. You can only deduct capital gains on your primary residence. You must have lived in your home for at least 2 years out of the last 5 years before you sell it to qualify for an exemption. The years you’ve lived in the home don’t have to be consecutive.
  • You’ve owned your home for at least 2 years. You need to have owned your home for at least 2 years before you can claim an exemption. If you haven’t owned your home for at least 2 years, you’ll pay the much more expensive short-term tax rate.
  • You haven’t recently claimed another exemption. Generally, you can’t claim another exemption if you’ve already claimed an exemption during the last 2 years.

If you meet all three criteria above, you can exclude some or all of the capital gains tax when you sell the home.

It’s important to note that this exemption only applies to your primary residence. If you were to sell your second home or investment property to anyone, including a family member you were trying to help out, you would have to pay full capital gains tax.

Tips For Selling An Investment Property

You can minimize your burden by selling the home strategically if you have an investment property that’s not exempt from the capital gains tax. Keeping careful track of how much money you made can help you find the best time to sell your home.

For example, let’s say that you and your spouse earn a combined $80,000 a year. Then, let’s say that your spouse stops working, and as a result your household income drops to $50,000. This would be the ideal time to sell the home because your new income puts you in the 0% bracket for capital gains, thereby eliminating your liability, presuming the property qualified for long-term capital gains tax policy.

Tips For Selling Any Kind Of Real Estate

No matter which type of property you decide to sell, take careful note of how much money you spend finding and securing a buyer. From marketing expenses to closing costs paid by the seller (like real estate agent fees), you can deduct these costs from your taxes.

You can also deduct any repairs or renovations you made to an investment property to improve the final selling price of the home. Remember to keep documentation such as bills, deeds of sale, credit card statements and other similar papers to prove how much you spent. These documents will be an asset if you’re audited.

Summary: Capital Gains Tax On A Home Sale

The capital gains tax is a levy you pay on assets that you sell for more money than you paid for them. You generally pay the short-term capital gains tax if you own your asset for less than a year. The government classifies short-term gains as a part of your standard income. If you own your home for more than a year, you’ll pay reduced rates with the long-term capital gains tax.

There are a number of exemptions that you can use to avoid the tax. You don’t need to pay at all if your income is below the threshold. You also don’t need to pay on up to $250,000 worth of gain when you sell your primary residence. For married couples, that exempt gain doubles to $500,000. It’s a good idea to live in your property strategically and record all of your expenses in order to minimize your tax liability.

The amount you’ll pay in taxes depends on valid deductions, your income and the amount that you sell your asset for. Capital gains tax is just one of many tax considerations you might have in homeownership. There are also tax implications for a cash-out refinance, for example.

Remember, everyone’s financial situation is different and it’s best to speak with a licensed financial expert or advisor before making any major financial decisions.

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