Partial Tax Exclusions for Home Sales

If you've been living in your home for a while, you're may be sitting on a tax gold mine. That's because the tax law allows a married couple filing jointly to pocket up to $500,000 of gain without owing any federal income taxes from a home sale if they have owned and used the home as a principal residence for two out the previous five years. Unmarried or married taxpayers filing separately can pocket a gain of up to $250,000 without owing any federal income tax.

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There is no limit on the number of times you can exclude the gain on the sale of a principal residence as long as you wait at least two years between sales and meet the ownership and use tests.

But what if you don't meet the two-out-of-five-year rule? Fortunately, you may still qualify for a partial exclusion. Many people are able to take advantage of the tax break after "premature" sales of their residences.

IRS regulations clarify the rules for certain "safe harbors" the tax agency has approved. Here's a quick roundup:

How much of the home sale exclusion do you get after an eligible premature sale? You are allowed a percentage of the regular $500,000 or $250,000 limit, depending on how much of the two-year ownership and use test was satisfied.

Let's say you and your spouse own and use a home as your principal residence for 18 months. You are forced to sell because your job is transferred to a distant state. Under these circumstances, you would qualify for a reduced gain exclusion of $375,000. This is 75 percent of the full $500,000 joint-filer exclusion, because you owned and lived in the home for 75 percent of the required two-year period.

Bottom Line:
If you qualify for the reduced exclusion, it can be generous enough to completely shelter your profit from federal income tax, depending on the value of your home. The IRS considers the facts and circumstances of each case, but in recent years, the tax agency has been lenient in defining "unforeseen circumstances" for this purpose.

For example, in one case, taxpayers who sold their condo after having a child qualified for a reduced gain exclusion. The married couple had a child when they bought the 2-bedroom condo, then later had another baby. The suitability of the condo changed as a result of an "unforeseen circumstance" and was the reason for selling, the IRS found in a private letter ruling. (IRS Private Letter Ruling 201628002)

Of course, a private letter ruling only applies to the taxpayers who requested it. But it's a good indication of how the IRS would rule in a similar situation. Consult with your tax advisor if you think you are eligible for a partial exclusion.

More Than One Home?

IRS regulations list several factors that help determine which home is the principal residence.

They include: the amount of time the home is used; place of employment; where other family members live; the address used for tax returns, driver's license, voter registration, bills and correspondence; as well as the location of banks, religious organizations and recreational clubs.

Special Tax Break for Military Personnel

A taxpayer on qualified official extended duty in the U.S. Armed Services or the Foreign Service may suspend for up to 10 years of such duty time the running of the 5-year ownership-and-use period before the sale of a residence. This applies when:

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