|Home improvements that can lower
your capital gains
A lot more is riding on home improvements
than making your house nicer to live in or getting a better price
when you sell. Remodeling your kitchen, adding a bathroom or even
planting some shrubs can reduce possible capital gains taxes.
True, the tax code is generous in excluding
from taxes a big chunk of home-sale profit. A single seller
can walk away with up to $250,000 tax-free when he sells his primary
residence; a married couple won't be taxed on double that profit.
But if you net more than that, you are in for a nasty
capital gains shock. And it's not just the super rich who are caught
in this capital gains trap. People who have owned their homes for
a long time may see substantial appreciation on the property. In
some hot real estate regions, especially large cities and their
suburbs, home prices have skyrocketed in only months, not years.
Robert Demmett, partner with the CPA firm of Eisner
& Lubin LLP in New York City, has personally witnessed this
phenomenon: "A client who lived in the Hamptons for 25 years
and who sold his home made a gigantic amount of money."
No one wants to drop their home's selling price just
to lessen taxes, but there are ways to work around the potential
problem. The easiest method is to boost your home's value, or as
it's known in tax talk, its basis. When you sell, you subtract your
home's adjusted basis from its sale price to come up with your profit.
If it exceeds the tax-exclusion amount, get ready to write a check
to the U.S. Treasury.
Building on your basis
Uncle Sam defines basis as the amount you paid for your house. It
includes settlement and closing costs and any debt. If you inherited
your home, your basis is the fair market value on the day the prior
You can increase your home's basis by spending money
on improvements. Just make sure the upgrades meet IRS
specs. A tax-acceptable improvement must add value to your home,
"considerably" prolong your home's useful life or adapt
your house to new uses. Examples include installing new plumbing
or wiring, adding a bathroom or paving the driveway.
"The overriding factor is doing something that
improves or enhances the value of your home," says Jamshed
B. Gandi, partner with the San Francisco CPA firm of Bertorelli
Gandi Won & Behti. "If the items are purely for maintenance,
to maintain the home, they are not included."
Simple common sense generally will help you determine
what will add to your property's basis. The addition of a bathroom
or an in-ground swimming pool, for example, add to basis. Installing
fancy wallpaper in the master bedroom does not. Fixing leaky faucets
and replacing broken fixtures won't help either -- they'll count
only as repairs, which do not add value or extend the life of your
The IRS provides a nifty chart on page 8 of its Publication
523, Selling Your Home. The list includes:
- Additions such as a bedroom, bathroom, deck, garage,
porch or patio
- Heating and air conditioning (for example, putting
in new systems)
- Plumbing (for example, installing a new soft water
- Interior improvements, such as built-in appliances
and wall-to-wall carpeting
- Insulation additions to the attic, walls, floor,
pipes or ductwork
The IRS even includes such miscellaneous items as
a central vacuum, wiring upgrades or a satellite dish. So enjoy
your DirecTV's 700 channels now and when you sell.
Another common and often-overlooked improvement, according
to Demmett, is landscaping.
Paving your driveway, erecting a fence or even putting in a retaining
wall can all add value to your home, boost its basis and reduce
any capital gain when selling.
Also don't forget those myriad costs associated with
your house purchase. Land survey costs, attorney fees and your broker's
commission all add to the value or basis of your home, notes Demmett.
Documenting your tax improvements
Experts agree that the biggest mistake that home sellers make is
not documenting home improvements. Even if you have no plans to
sell, hold onto every Home Depot and contractor receipt.