In case you’ve heard rumors or received worrisome e-mails about any of this, here’s a quick primer.
Yes, upper-income individuals face a new 3.8 percent surtax that takes effect Jan. 1 on certain investment income, including some of their real estate transactions. But it’s not a transfer tax and it’s not likely to affect the vast majority of homeowners who sell their primary residences next year. In fact, unless you have an adjusted gross income of more than $200,000 as a single-filing taxpayer or $250,000 for a couple filing jointly ($125,000 if you’re married filing singly), you probably won’t be touched by the surtax at all. (You might, however, be affected by other changes in the tax code if Congress fails to extend the Bush-era tax cuts scheduled to expire at the end of this year.)
Even if you have income above these thresholds, you might not be hit with the 3.8 percent tax unless you have certain types of investment income, specifically dividends, interest, net capital gains and net rental income. If your income is solely “earned” — salary and other compensation derived from active participation in a business — you have nothing to lose from the new surtax.
Where things can get a little complicated, however, is when you sell your home for a substantial profit and your adjusted gross income for the year exceeds the $200,000 or $250,000 thresholds. The good news: The surtax does not interfere with the current tax-free exclusion on the first $500,000 (for joint filers) or $250,000 (for single filers) of gain you make on the sale of your principal home. Those exclusions have not changed. But any profits above those limits are subject to federal capital gains taxation and possibly to the new surtax.
Julian Block, a tax attorney in Larchmont, N.Y., and author of “Julian Block’s Home Seller’s Guide to Tax Savings,” says it will be more important than ever to document the capital improvements you made to the property and the expenses connected with the house — including settlement or closing costs — because these items increase your tax “basis” and thereby lower your capital gains.