Since the financial downturn and real estate crisis in 2007–09, residential real estate in many parts of the country has seen a significant increase in value. This increase has created additional considerations for homeowners deciding if they want to sell an existing property or convert it into a rental.
Rental properties are taxed differently than personal residences. In some cases, these can make it tempting to move into an existing rental property for a few years to reduce the taxable income on the sale.
Homeowners also need to be mindful of the reverse—how the decision to turn a primary house into a rental property can be a poor tax move.
Tax Benefits When Selling Your Personal Residence
Since 1997, homeowners have been able to use the Section 121 exclusion to exclude up to $250,000 of gains from taxation ($500,000 if married filing jointly) upon the sale of a property. In order to qualify, the taxpayer must own and use the property as a primary residence for two of the past five years. Notably, these two years do not have to be the most recent two years. A taxpayer could live in a property from 2017–2019 then sell the property in 2021 and still qualify.
Example 1: Jolene and Max purchased their house in June 2011 for $400,000. They sell in June 2021 for $850,000. Because their total gain is less than $500,000, none of that gain needs to be reported as taxable income when they sell their property.
Example 2: Luke and Jenny purchased their home in June 2011 for $400,000. They sell in June 2021 for $1,050,000. Because their gain is $650,000, they will need to include the $150,000 above the $500,000 exclusion in their income. This $150,000 will be taxed at long-term capital gains rates. (NOTE: If Luke and Jenny did significant renovations, those costs can potentially be added to the $400,000 purchase price, reducing the taxable income.)
Understanding the Tax Impact of Turning Your Primary House into a Rental Property
When deciding to move into a new house, homeowners often have two options for their existing property: they can sell it or turn it into a rental property. While turning a primary residence can offer the appeal of receiving monthly rental income, turning your house into a rental property can have a significant tax hit come tax time if you decide to sell.
Example 3: Jolene and Max from Example 1 decide in June 2021 to turn their house into a rental property rather than sell. After 2 years, they decide they would rather not be landlords and sell the property in June 2023 for $850,000. Because they lived in the house as their primary residence for at least two of the last five years, they still qualify for the Section 121 exclusion. In fact, because the rental period happened after they lived in the house as their primary residence, they don’t even need to prorate the gain between periods of qualifying and non-qualifying use as they would if they moved back into the rental property. The only income to be reported is the recapture of any depreciation that was taken during the rental period.
Example 4: Jolene and Max from Example 1 decide in June 2021 to turn their house into a rental property rather than sell. In this case, they keep it as a rental property for four years before selling the property in June 2025 for $850,000.
When they sell their house in June 2025, it was only used as a personal residence for one of the past five years. They no longer qualify for the Section 121 exclusion. The entire $450,000 gain will be included in their taxable income. They will also have to recapture any depreciation that was taken during the rental period.
Jolene and Max’s decision in Example 4 to rent their house for four years before selling it has resulted in a significantly higher tax bill than they would have had if they sold it immediately or if they had sold it after only a few years of renting out the property.
Planning Opportunities for Real Estate that Was Converted into a Rental Property
There are several planning opportunities that owners might consider if they are in Jolene and Max’s situation described in example 4. These include:
- Moving back into the property to re-gain the exclusion
- Continue renting out the property until qualifying for a step-up in cost basis
- Consider a Section 1031 exchange into a different rental property
- Sell the principal residence and purchase a different rental property
Move Back into the Property to Re-Gain the Exclusion
Individuals can move back into the rental property to regain some of the exclusion.
Example 5: Tina and Troy purchased their house in June 2011 for $400,000. They turned it into a rental property in June 2015. In June 2019, they want to sell the house. Because it was a rental property for the past four years, all gains will be included in taxable income.
They decide to move back into their house in June 2019 and sell it in June 2021 for $850,000. They now qualify for the Section 121 exclusion because it was their primary house for at least two of the last five years.
When they sell their house in 2021, it had six years of qualified use as a personal residence and four years of non-qualified use as a rental property. The $450,000 of gains will be prorated between $450,000 x 60% = $270,000 that can be excluded and $450,000 x 40% = $180,000 that cannot be excluded.
Also, all depreciation that was taken during the four years as a rental property will be included in taxable income when the house is sold.
By moving back into their rental property for two years, Tina and Troy were able to exclude some, but not all, of the gains from the years they owned the property.
Continue Renting Out the Property Until Qualifying for a Step-Up in Cost Basis
Currently, when the owner of an asset dies, that asset gets a complete step-up in cost basis. Any gains that might otherwise have been included in taxable income are erased, and the cost basis is “reset” as if the taxpayer purchased the asset on the date of death.
Example 6: Tina and Troy from Example 5 don’t move back into the house in 2019, but they instead continue to rent it out. They live in Washington, and Troy is in bad health. Troy dies in June 2021 when the rental house is worth $850,000.
Tina receives a complete step-up in cost basis. It is now treated as if she purchased the house for $850,000. If she sells the house for $850,000, there is no taxable income, regardless of whether it is a personal or a rental property.
The example above assumes Troy and Tina live in a community property state like Washington (or California, Texas, or several others). If they live in a common law state, they likely would not receive the full step-up in cost basis described. Also, owners of rental properties receive a step-up in any depreciation taken in addition to the capital gains, providing an even more powerful tax benefit.
Consider a Section 1031 Exchange into a Different Rental Property
If a taxpayer no longer wants to rent out their current property, but they are willing to have a rental property, they can defer taxes with a Section 1031 exchange into a new rental property. The taxpayer can sell one rental property, purchase a new rental property, and transfer the cost basis. This will delay any taxes until the new rental is ultimately sold.
This 1031 exchange is a complicated process that requires working with a broker who specializes in it. This exchange can only be done with rental properties. It cannot be used to turn a rental property into a new primary house.
Sell the Principal Residence and Purchase a Different Rental Property
The final strategy to consider is to sidestep the issue altogether. If the taxpayer is moving out of a principal house and wants to own a rental property, it may be more tax efficient to sell the principal residence then purchase a different rental property.
By selling the principal residence before turning it into a rental property, the taxpayer can exclude all gains up to the $250,000 or $500,000 maximum of the Section 121 exclusion. Then the new rental property can be purchased and managed with a “reset” higher cost basis.
When moving out of a house, it may be tempting to turn that house into a rental property. There may be benefits to receiving increased cashflow that a rental can provide.
However, if you have a property with significant appreciation, consider carefully any decision to rent it out when you leave. This decision to rent out the property may give up far more in tax benefits than are received in new rental income.
If you’d like to understand the right approach for you, contact the Merriman team to strategize the decision to rent or sell your property while remaining mindful of the big picture.
Disclosure: The material is presented solely for information purposes and has been gathered from sources believed to be reliable, however Merriman cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of such information, and certain information presented here may have been condensed or summarized from its original source. Merriman does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice, and nothing contained in these materials should be relied upon as such.
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After college, Chris moved to South Korea where he worked for the army as a financial counselor. He helped everyone from 18-year-old service members getting their first real paychecks, to those approaching retirement, and saw the stress caused by spending too much money early in life, as well as the stress of sacrificing too much earlier on and missing out on the opportunity to really live fully. He became a financial advisor to help people find clarity in reaching goals and to work with them to find balance between planning for tomorrow and living fully today.
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