What’s the difference between death and taxes?
Death doesn’t change every time Congress meets. But taxes certainly did in 1997, and the Taxpayer Relief Act of that year made a dramatic difference in the tax liability of those who sell their own homes. As it stands today, almost no one will owe any federal tax on profit made from the sale of a principal residence (defined by the IRS simply as the place you live most of the time.). To qualify, you must have owned and occupied the house as your main home for at least two of the five years before you sell.
And that’s about it..
It won’t matter how old you are when you sell.
It won’t matter if you once used the old one-time $125,000 over-55 exclusion.
It won’t matter whether you buy a replacement home or not.
It won’t even matter if you’ve used this new exclusion on another main home in the past, as long as it was more than two years before the current sale.
A single owner can take up to $250,000 gain free of any federal tax ever.
A married couple filing jointly can take up to $500,000. Even if only one of them owns the property, the full $500,000 is available if the non-owner spouse occupied the property for the required two years.
The exclusion can include postponed profit on previous homes, rolled over under the old pre-1997 rules. This new tax break can be used over again on the sale of another principal residence, as often as every two years.
You can even use part of the exclusion if you were in the house less than the full two years, if your move is required by one of three reasons: job transfer, health reasons, or some other unforeseen circumstance acceptable to the IRS.
So few home sales will require federal tax payments these days that in most cases your sale won’t even be reported to the IRS by the person in charge of the closing.