When you sell an investment property, you could potentially get a hefty tax bill -- even if you didn't make a big profit. In addition to capital gains taxes on a profitable sale, you may also have to pay back any depreciation benefits you received while you owned the property. In a nutshell, you could have a much larger tax bill in store than you're used to in the year you sell an investment property. However, there's a way that you could defer paying these taxes for as long as you want, as long as you keep investing your money in real estate. Here's a rundown of the taxes you might have to pay when you sell an investment property, when they're due, and how you could avoid paying them -- at least for a while.
The taxes you might have to pay when selling an investment property
There are two possible reasons you might owe taxes when selling an investment property -- capital gains and depreciation recapture.
Capital gains tax
The first is capital gains tax, which comes into play when you sell an asset for a profit. In other words, if you purchased an investment property with a cost basis of $100,000 including fees and closing costs and sold it for net proceeds of $120,000, you'd have a $20,000 capital gain. The tax treatment of capital gains depends on how long you owned the investment property. As long as your ownership period was greater than one year, you will have a long-term capital gain, which is taxed at preferential rates of 0%, 15%, or 20%, depending on your other income. If you sold an investment property that you held for a year or less, you'd have a short-term capital gain, which is taxable as ordinary income. Of course, if you sold your investment property at a net loss, you won't have to worry about capital gains tax. In fact, you may even be able to use at least some of the capital loss to offset your other taxable income.
The second type of tax you may face when selling an investment property is known as depreciation recapture. As an investment property owner, you are entitled to claim a depreciation deduction each year to help reduce your taxable rental income. For residential investment properties, this deduction is equal to your cost basis in the property divided by 27.5 for each full year of ownership. For example, if you spend $150,000 on an investment property, you get a $5,454 annual depreciation deduction, which can be a tremendous tax benefit when it comes to your rental income. The caveat is that when you sell the property, the IRS takes this benefit back through a tax known as depreciation recapture. You can calculate depreciation recapture on IRS worksheets provided with Schedule D, and the process can be a bit complex, but the important point is that depreciation recapture is taxed at rates of as much as 25%.
An example of taxes after you sell an investment property
Let's say that you acquired an investment property 10 years ago and that your cost basis in the property is $150,000. You sell it for net proceeds of $200,000. For simplicity, we'll say that you owned the property for exactly 10 full calendar years (although it rarely works out this easily in practice). We'll say that you're in the 15% long-term capital gains bracket and the 32% income tax bracket. First, you'd have a $50,000 capital gain, which would be taxed as a long-term gain at 15%, coming to $7,500. And then you'd need to pay the depreciation recapture. Over your 10-year holding period, you would have claimed $54,545 in depreciation, which would be taxed at 25%, coming to $13,635. Combining these two adds up to a tax liability of $21,135 on the sale.