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Is It Nailed Down? What Stays in the House and What Goes


The doors, the windows, and most likely the azalea bush by the driveway—you’d expect those to stay with the new house you just bought, and you’d be right. But what stays in the house when you buy it?

Who claims the washer and dryer? Will the sellers bequeath the lawn mower? What about the bathroom fixtures? Your real estate attorney will know specifics about what you are legally entitled to keep as the new homeowner, which can vary between states.

Generally, though, the basic rule is this: if it’s nailed down, it stays. If it’s not, it goes—unless otherwise negotiated.

Here’s a primer on the basics of what stays in the house for the new owner:

Most appliances are moveable items, and moveable items are considered personal items or possessions of the seller. The real estate agent should have explained things such as, “The seller was leaving all the kitchen appliances and the washing machine—but not the dryer.”

If there are leftovers that haven’t been mentioned yet—say, the portable air conditioner in a basement window—ask the experts as you negotiate the closing. The seller might agree, especially for a price.

Plants, shrubs and trees in the ground remain with the new house. Backyard equipment—such as lawn chairs, tables, swings and grills—are all considered the seller’s personal items. A swing set may get a bit tricky, because it is possible to claim it’s attached to the ground in some cases.

If you have a questions about anything specific, the real estate attorney should make sure it is answered by the closing. The seller may be very willing to let you have backyard items for a price.

Light Fixtures
Light fixtures, lamps and chandeliers usually spark discussion between the buyer and seller. Items clearly attached to the home—and if removed may damage walls—are considered fixtures. Fixtures must remain in the new house unless the seller explicitly states the item isn’t included in the sale.

The seller may not care about the $40 Home Depot sconce, but the family-heirloom, lead crystal chandelier could be held dear. If the buyer agrees to let a priceless fixture go, it falls on the seller to remove the chandelier without damaging anything.

Lamps attached to nothing but the cord plugged into an outlet fall under “movable items” and go with the seller. It’s a good idea, if you’re the buyer, to inventory all the fixtures and fans in the new house, and you should make sure you and the seller know exactly who wants and gets what items before closing.

Everything Else
Built-in bookcases—they’re nailed down, so they stay. Ditto custom-made valances. But the owners have a right to claim store-bought curtains hung on rods.

As one Wall Street Journal expert notes, it’s become more commonplace to have large televisions mounted on the wall, but they can be easily popped out. The owner of a 80-plasma TV may not imagine letting that go over a $30 wall bracket. Those gray areas can be negotiated.

If the sellers plan to move cross-country or downsize, you might even be doing them a favor by agreeing to take on some of their household goods. And if there’s something they desperately want to keep, that could play in your favor if you ask for a give-back on a price point.

The one thing no one wants is for a pair of $50 curtains or a cheap TV wall bracket to make or break a home sale. So make sure you know what stays in the house when you’re buying it.

Based on an earlier version by Susan Wellish.



The Upside of Downsizing Your Home


You worked so hard to own your home, it’s hard to imagine moving on—much less to a smaller abode. But while downsizing your home may involve major lifestyle changes, there are a lot of advantages to moving into a smaller space.

Downsizing remains one of the most effective ways to lower housing and energy costs.

These are just a few of the advantages:

§  Lower mortgage payments

§  Lower utility bills

§  Less to clean

§  Easier to maintain

§  Less yard maintenance

While the size of the average American home remains fairly large, there are signs that downsizing may increase in the future.

Home Downsizing Trend: No More McMansions

The average American home has grown from under 1,900 square feet some 20 years ago to more than 2,400 square feet, according to 2013 U.S. Census data.

Families who bought five, ten, or even 15 years ago or more might find many rooms unused as their children have grown and moved out. While the Baby Boomers continue to hold on to many of those larger homes, according to recent reports, experts predict an uptick in downsizing as the oldest Boomers enter their mid-70s.

“We continue to move away from the McMansion chapter of residential design, with more demand for practicality throughout the home,” writes Kermit Baker, chief economist at the American Institute of Architects. “There has been a drop-off in the popularity of upscale property enhancements such as formal landscaping, decorative water features, tennis courts and gazebos.”

Large foyers are becoming a thing of the past. The formal living room is being replaced by a more flexible open plan, such as a large family room/breakfast nook/kitchen combination.

Downsizing Your Budget

For some homeowners, of course, downsizing is not a matter of choice, but of necessity. Many families are still digging out of the recession, which had an impact on home values, employment and retirement nest eggs invested in the stock market. A couple finding itself with a diminished income may simply be unable to keep up with mortgage payments and maintenance costs on a 2,800-square-foot home on a half-acre lot.

Still, the very idea of downsizing takes some getting used to—much less carrying out a downsizing plan. If you feel stuck, a home downsizing consultant can help you formulate a plan of action, appraise and sell belongings, and estimate how much money you stand to save.

Learning to Live With Less

Downsizing your home means a change in lifestyle and attitude. You may have to learn to live without a garage, that extra bathroom, and the basement storage where you tossed years’ worth of home goods, equipment and mementos. A smaller home can mean less room for guests and less opportunity for privacy.

As you consider downsizing, ask yourself these questions:

§  Do you feel ready to live more simply?

§  Are you prepared to divest yourself of resources?

§  How many of the things you’ve accumulated over the years do you truly treasure?

Home downsizing is really about making do with less. But some people would say that less is more. Rather than devoting your time and energy to supporting and maintaining your home, you may find yourself devoting more of your time and energy to enjoying it.

Based on an earlier version by Ben Garson.



Find a House to Fit All Your Needs and Wants


To find a house is more than simply choosing a place to rest your head.

The location impacts virtually every aspect of your life, from your commute to grocery shopping to leisure time. A home’s layout can promote or hinder your lifestyle, and large monthly mortgage payments can seriously dent your budget.

Before jumping into a home purchase, carefully consider whether you can find a house to fit the way you live.

Your Commute: Getting Around

Is your potential new home well suited to getting where you need to go?

Will you face frustrating gridlock on your morning commute? Do the rush-hour drive to check whether traffic flows smoothly. Daily two-hour traffic snarls—maybe even each way—can ruin your mood and your schedule.

Will winter ice or spring storms make the roads hard to navigate? Research the city or township’s record of road maintenance. In snowy regions, a street that never sees a snowplow can severely impede your ease of movement. Streets riddled with potholes are inconvenient and dangerous.

Accessing the Essentials

Everyone needs groceries and household items. Explore the local shopping areas. If the closest grocery store takes more than half an hour to reach, how will that fit into your lifestyle? Are you prepared for two-hour grocery runs? Or will you accept the higher prices and limited choices of nearby convenience stores?

On the other hand, you might decide that a quiet, remote location is worth the trade-off of easy access to goods. And perhaps a favorite restaurant or grocery store close by delivers.



Leaving Room for Fun

Both your home’s location and its setup will affect how you spend your time off. Do you enjoy the nightlife? If so, consider the house’s distance from the local hotspots. Is it a distance you’re comfortable with? Or will you need to scale back your social life?

For an avid hobbyist, you’ll want to make sure your new home has room for what makes you happy. If you’re a passionate home chef, a tiny galley kitchen may quickly frustrate you. If you are a fitness fanatic, make sure there’s room for your home-gym equipment.

Find a House for Your Lifestyle

You know how many bedrooms and bathrooms you need. Yet it’s easy to become wowed by extras and lose sight of the essentials.

If you mean to buy a “forever” home, that dramatic sweeping staircase can put stress on aging knees. That alluringly vast lawn will consume your free time. A finished basement rec room won’t do for young children who demand more parental supervision.

Take a minute to carefully consider the home’s structure and layout to determine whether the space matches your lifestyle.

Budgeting for Your Home and Your Life

Even after the bank has cleared you for a mortgage, consider those monthly payments. How deeply will they impact your quality of life?

Some people are content to live frugally, enjoying the comfort of home ownership. Others feel edgy when they don’t have cash on hand, whether that’s the freedom for a little guilt-free shopping or a larger savings safety net.

So before you sign that contract, take some time to really consider whether the home fits all of your needs and wants. Your future self will thank you.

Updated from an earlier version by Gilan Gertz.



Pre-qualification and Pre-approval: Do You Really Need Both?


What kind of mortgage you can afford and what kind you can get are important things to know when you begin the home-buying process. You might have a ballpark price range for your next home, but you run the risk of setting your sights too high—or too low—without some additional legwork. Narrow down your range by getting pre-qualification and then pre-approval.

The Difference

Pre-qualification (sometimes abbreviated as ‘prequal’) is a basic overview of a borrower’s ability to get a loan. You provide all the information, without any kind of paperwork to back it up.

Pre-approval is more in-depth. The lender will look at your bank statements, credit score and other information to demonstrate your financial capability. Neither is a guarantee you’ll get the loan, but a pre-approval is more reliable and more favorably viewed byREALTORS® and potential sellers when you start home shopping.

So why get pre-qualified?

§  It’s quick and can be done online or over the phone

§  You’ll know if you can afford a mortgage

§  It can give you a basic idea of what kind of mortgage you can get

A Good Idea, Not the Final Step

While pre-qualification is relatively easy, don’t rely entirely on that information. Mistakes can be made and discrepancies can and will be found during the pre-approval or the final approval process.

Being pre-approved is not a sure-fire way of obtaining a loan, either. For example, if you are pre-approved one month, but then you take out a loan for a new car next month, you can damage your ability to get a mortgage. You do not want to change careers, spend too much money or take out loans during the home-buying process. If you do, you can hurt your loan eligibility.

While being pre-qualified and pre-approved won’t guarantee you a loan, it’s recommended you do both. At the very least, get pre-approved. Many REALTORS® and sellers won’t consider you as a strong home-buying candidate without a pre-approval letter.

So when you’re looking for a new home to buy, it’s in your best interest to do the following:

§  Get pre-qualified

§  Get pre-approved

§  Shop for a home based on your pre-approval amount

§  Apply for the loan

If you follow these steps in order, it can save you a lot of time and aggravation during the mortgage loan and home buying process.

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What is a Lien?

A lien is not the end of the world, nor is it uncommon.

Maybe you’ve had some bad luck recently. Perhaps you lost your job, or business is painfully slow, or you had unexpected bills.

To cover yourself, you borrow money to get back on your feet again, thinking your luck will turn around—but things don’t seem to be going in your favor.

Before you know it, you’re further into debt, and creditors are calling. Rather than face them, you avoid the issue. After all, you don’t have the money––what can they do?

Creditors’ Tool

When creditors want you to know they mean business, they may choose to take legal action by placing a lien on your biggest asset—your home.

A lien is a legal document acting as security for the debt by giving the creditor a stake in your home. When there is a lien on your home, what you can do with the property is limited. You may not be able to take out a second mortgage or home-equity loan with an unpaid lien

If you decide to sell your home, the lien must be paid off at closing with the proceeds of the sale.

Common Liens

There are a number of different types of liens creditors may place on your home. The most common are mechanic’s liens, judgment liens and tax liens.

§  Mechanic’s Lien: When general contractors build your home—or repairmen, carpenters, plumbers or painters work on your home—they may file a mechanic’s lien on the property as insurance to make sure they’re paid.

§  Judgment Lien: If you have lost a court case and there was a judgment against you, the winning party of the lawsuit can file a judgment lien against your home until the payment is collected. This type of lien is also sometimes imposed by an attorney if you do not pay your bill for legal services.

§  Tax Lien: If you do not pay your federal, state or county taxes, the government may file a tax lien on your home.

Removing a Lien

It is in your best interest to have any lien against your home removed as quickly as possible. The simplest way to have a lien removed is to negotiate with the lien holder. For example, settling the lawsuit or paying any outstanding bill to your contractor should remove the lien. If you owe back taxes, the Internal Revenue Service may agree to remove the lien on your home if you plan to sell the property and agree to a payment plan to repay the past due amount.

If you feel the action is unjustified, you can file a lawsuit to have the court order the lien removed. Your case will be investigated, and if there is no basis for the lien, or if you can prove the debt was paid, it will be removed.

Updated from an earlier version by Aviva Friedlander.



Four Essential Tips for Staging Your Home

Buying a new home is so personal. Yet, to sell yours, you’ll want to remove so many of your homey, personal touches. This is part of staging your home: buyers should be able to picture themselves living in your house—not picture you living in your house.

Successful staging will boost your home’s appeal—and your chances of selling. And there are two rooms that often need the most staging: bedrooms and bathrooms.

You might decide your house looks good enough as-is. But even in a strong market, a little staging could boost the offers you receive.

Think like a buyer

Staging lets you see your house with fresh perspective and helps you correct any eyesores you may have become used to over the years. It helps you to view some of your beloved items as clutter and gives you the initiative to clear away unneeded items.

Staging will also help you in the packing process, which inevitably involves streamlining and downsizing.

Bedrooms equal comfort

A bedroom should be a place of serenity. Stage your bedroom to convey a tone of comfort and relaxation. You want it to appear spacious. Here are some tips for presenting your bedroom:

§  Paint it in soft, neutral tones

§  Remove all furniture other than a bed, a dresser and a few knickknacks

§  Remove at least half of your wardrobe from your closet to make the closet seem larger

§  Clear away clutter, shoes, reading material and family photos

§  Invest in new linens and throw pillows

§  Steam clean the carpets, clean the windows and dust the shades

Bathrooms can be beautiful

Purchasers don’t spend a lot of time in bathrooms, so your bathrooms have to make a great first impression. Bathrooms should be impeccably clean and somewhat modern. Here are some bathroom staging tips:

§  Replace old bathroom fixtures, such as towel rods and faucets, with sleek new ones

§  Hang luxurious-looking towels to match the bathroom’s color scheme

§  Layer towels on the rack, smaller towels over larger towels

§  Before an open house, put a bouquet of fresh flowers in the bathroom

§  Ruthlessly clean mold and dirt from tiles and shower doors

§  Add spa-like accessories, such as candles, scented soaps in baskets and glass containers holding cotton balls

Cleanliness is a virtue

Cleanliness trumps all. Buyers have to imagine themselves living in your home, and they will have a hard time picturing themselves living in a dirty house. In fact, the top of your to-do list when you list home to sell should be a deep, thorough clean, like your house probably hasn’t seen since you moved in.

§  Remove mold and mildew

§  Scour away lime stains left by hard water

§  Clean windows inside and out

§  Steam carpets

§  Wash all linens and curtains

If you smoke or have a pet, be especially vigilant about eradicating those odors—because a clean, well-staged home should bring you a quick and profitable sale.

Based on an earlier version by Gilan Gertz.



When and How to Refinance 

Whether you’ve been a homeowner for a few years or more than a decade, you may consider refinancing your home loan whenmortgage rates dip. If you’ve never refinanced before, there are a few basic facts you need to know before you can decide if it’s right for you.

Refinancing basics

You may be thinking since you’ve faithfully made all your mortgage payments on time and your income has even increased a bit since you applied for the loan, refinancing should be a breeze.

But when you’re refinancing, you’re applying for a new loan. And whether you use the same lender or another lender, you’ll be subject to complete documentation and verification of your income, your assets, your debt-to-income ratio, your credit profile and your job history. Not only do you have to qualify for the loan, but your house must appraise for enough value to support the loan.

Refinancing also costs money: closing costs vary by location but average 2% to 3%, or $4,000 to $6,000 on a $200,000 loan. Even a “no-cost” refinance costs money you pay through a higher interest rate, a larger loan balance or the payment of discount points.

If you’re refinancing to lower your payments, you can do a simple calculation to determine how long it will take you to recoup the closing costs on your loan. For example, if your refinance costs $2000 and your monthly savings are $150 per month, it will take you a little over 13 months before you’ve recouped your costs and truly are saving money.

Refinancing goals

Your decision to refinance or not should be made in the context of your overall financial plan. Most people want to refinance when interest rates are low, so they can pay less in interest and lower their monthly payments. Some borrowers also want to refinance an adjustable rate mortgage (ARM) into a fixed-rate loan before rates rise faster.

Others refinance when their equity has risen and they want to take cash out of the property to make home improvements or pay off high-interest credit card debt.

Refinancing can also be a good choice if you want to reduce your loan term from a 30-year loan to a 10-, 15- or 20-year loan in order to pay it off in full faster—although even with lower rates, your payments are likely to be higher because of the shorter timeframe to repay the loan.

Loan terms and refinancing

If you’re currently financing your home purchase with a 30-year, fixed-rate loan, you should carefully evaluate your payments and your options for refinancing into a shorter term or into another 30-year loan. Typically, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to refinance early in your loan, because initially your payments are mostly interest—and you won’t have paid down the principal balance.

If you’ve been paying your loan for seven or eight years, your loan balance will be lower. If your goal is to lower your monthly payments, you’ll benefit by both lower mortgage rates and financing a smaller amount of money. However, by extending the loan term for another 30 years, you may end up paying more in interest over the life of the loan, since you’re essentially paying interest on the house for 37 or 38 years instead of the original 30-year term.

If you want to pay off your loan faster, you should compare the payments on a shorter term loan to see if you can comfortably afford the payments. Interest rates are lower on shorter term loans, which can offset the accelerated payoff pace.

Refinancing and future plans

Refinancing makes the most sense if you plan to stay in your home for a few years, because if you’re selling soon, you may not recoup the cost of the refinance. However, there are always exceptions to the rule, so if you know you’ll sell in three years, for example, a refinance into an ARM with a low, fixed interest rate for five years could be a smart decision.

Always make sure to consult a lender to discuss refinancing in the context of your individual financial plan.



The Basics of Homeowners Associations


If you live in a newer suburban community or planned unit development—like some 63 million Americans, according to the Community Associations Institute—you are probably a member of homeowners associations, or HOAs.

It’s also a good bet you haven’t given your HOA much thought until you have a problem. Since HOAs make and enforce the community rules, it’s smart to understand what you can do if you can’t or don’t want to follow them.

HOA Facts

Homeowners associations, volunteer groups of neighbors who manage common areas and community property, create their own own covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&Rs). These CC&Rs cover:

§  Resident behavior (no glass containers around the pool)

§  Architecture (no fences higher than 8 feet)

§  Common responsibilities (fee schedules and fines for non-compliance)

Is there value to living in an HOA? Depends on how you define “value”. A 2005 study that appeared in the Cato Institute’s “Regulation” magazine compared a group of Washington, D.C., area HOA properties with similar homes without community benefits—a total of about 12,000 homes. The HOA house values were found to be 5.4% higher. With the median home price around $190,000, that’s about $10,000.

Of course, that means you’d pay more for the HOA home than the non-HOA home. And you’d pay dues, which average $396, according to the Census Bureau. The real value is your HOA property will be well-maintained and the rules for maintenance enforced.

When You Don’t Like the Rules 

Some boards can impose what some homeowners believe are invasive, silly or elitist rules. In 2014, a Myrtle Beach, SC, association decided homeowners could have only two pets. A couple who’d had three dogs for the past 14 years were threatened with a $100-a-day fine unless they got rid of one of their dogs.

And some years back, news outlets reported a story about a homeowner in an upscale gated community in Frisco, TX, who was threatened with fines for parking his new Ford F-150 series truck in his driveway overnight. The board made exceptions for several luxury brands, but his mid-range truck was ruled “not classy enough.”

Even if you disagree with the rules, keep paying your dues. HOAs have broad legal powers to collect fines and fees and regulate activities. If you don’t respond to letters from the board, property manager, or a collection agency, the HOA can and will turn to small claims court or file a lien against your property.

You can handle some issues with a phone call. For example, adding recycling to the garbage collection route is a budget, not a rules, issue. Call the board member who oversees trash collection to find out if there’s leeway in the budget. If you want to do something that’s against the rules—like flying the American flag in your yard—start by:

§  Making a written request for variance, using the appropriate HOA form in your CC&R documents. A variance gives you permission to be the exception to the rule. Submit your request to the board and property management company.

§  Seeking a compromise: That you’d like to fly the American flag, but only on national holidays.

Don’t Expect a Quick Solution

Some HOA boards meet as little as twice a year. If the board decides the issue is worth pursuing, it may require a community vote. If it passes a majority, the board will adopt it. Board members also may consult the HOA attorney to see if there’s a legal liability if they rule against you.

If you don’t get a timely response, request a hearing and resubmit your request for variance with as much support for your cause as possible.

If the board rules against you without a community vote, you can appeal the ruling with a petition signed by a majority of other homeowners.

Fine Reality

But if you fly your flag without permission, expect to get fined. Fines can range from a nominal $25 to a painful $100 or more depending on the issue. Your CC&Rs will indicate the fine schedule—per day, per incident, etc. Interest for nonpayment can accrue, and the HOA can sue you in small claims court.

If you feel the ruling or the fines are unjust, the last resort is to hire an attorney and sue the HOA, as a flag-flying couple did in 1999. They battled their HOA in court for nine years before the case was settled in their favor.

Become the Rule Maker 

If you don’t like the rules, the best way to change them is to become part of the process.

1. Know your CC&Rs, annual budget, and employee contracts. Do you see areas where expenses can be cut? Are service providers doing their jobs?

2. Volunteer for a committee or task. If the board needs to enforce parking rules, for instance, you can volunteer to gather license plate numbers of residents’ vehicles. In addition, put your professional expertise to work: Assist the board with data entry, accounting or website design.

3. Stand for election to the board. When a position becomes open, the board notifies the members, and you can put your name forward. New board members are elected at the annual meeting by member majority vote. Many boards are three to nine members large, with terms of one to two years.

Involvement Drawbacks

As a board member, be prepared to spend two to four hours a month:

§  Reviewing property management reports

§  Monitoring budgets

§  Talking to other board members and residents

Most boards meet quarterly; small boards only meet twice a year for a couple of hours.

Accept that you might become less popular if homeowners don’t like your decisions. In the worst case, you could be sued, along with the rest of the association.

Involvement Benefits

But there are rewards. You’ll feel more in control of your community’s fate. You may find that some rules you didn’t support have merit after all. But most of all, you’ll know you’re doing all you can to protect your quality of life and your home’s value.



How Long Does It Take to Buy a Home?


Consumers considering a home purchase often want to get a handle on how long the process takes.

The problem is that it’s a surprisingly subjective and multilayered question. Answers tend to focus on the typical time it takes to close a home loan once you’re under contract, which is usually 30 to 45 days.

That’s an accurate response, but it’s a vantage point that leaves little room between the starting and finish lines. The home-buying journey— from financial preparation and finding the right home to getting under contract and through closing—tends to take a lot longer.

The reality is there is no stock answer, mostly because everyone’s journey is different. Here is a closer look at some stages and steps that can shape your home-buying timeline.

Building Credit & Savings

Signing a purchase agreement to buy a home is a key step, but it doesn’t mean much if you don’t have the credit and assets necessary to secure a mortgage.

You might need to spend time burnishing your credit profile or stockpiling savings in order to qualify for a home loan. Credit-score and down payment requirements can vary depending on the lender and the loan type. (Checking your credit scores before you begin your home search can help you determine if you need more time to build your credit. There are various services that allow you to check your credit scores for free, including

Borrowers looking at a $300,000 home would need at least $15,000 in cash for a minimum down payment on conventional financing (5%) and at least $10,500 for FHA financing (3.5%).

The average conventional borrower in April had a 755 credit score, while the average FHA borrower had a score of 685, according to mortgage software company Ellie Mae.

Paying down debt, correcting mistakes on your credit report and other steps can help boost your score, rapidly in some cases. But some blemishes can take longer to clear up than others.

How long it takes to build that down payment nest egg depends on the borrower and their budget. Scraping together enough cash to simply meet those minimum requirements can take considerable time, especially for first-time buyers.

Finding the Right Home

Last year, homebuyers typically looked at 10 homes over 12 weeks before getting under contract, according to the National Association of Realtors.

But there’s no game clock on your home search. You can tour 50 homes over 50 weeks. You can buy the first showing.

It’s obviously the most personal part of the process, but it’s also a time when perfect can truly be the enemy of good. First-time buyers especially have to learn to balance wants and needs with the realities of their housing market and what they can afford.

That’s not always an easy—or quick—lesson to learn.

Loan Processing

For mortgage lenders, the home-buying clock starts once they get a copy of your purchase agreement. From there, work starts on getting the property appraised and all of your financial documentation in order for an underwriter to review.

Like credit and underwriting requirements, appraisal time frames can vary depending on the loan type. For example, most appraisals on VA loans are back within 10 days, but it might take longer in more remote parts of the country.

That 30- to 45-day window from contract to close is a good ballpark for most purchase loans, unless you are trying to buy a short sale (think more like 90 to 120 days). But understand it’s not uncommon for underwriters to require additional documents once they begin scrutinizing your loan file.

Borrowers can help speed the process along by returning those documents as quickly as possible. You don’t have a ton of control once you are under contract on a home, but this is one key area where your swift action—or lack of it—can have a big impact on your home-buying timeline.




Follow the Rules for a Tax-Free Home Sale 


When you are ready to sell your home you are probably focused on your potential profits, particularly if you plan to buy another home with the proceeds from the sale.

While REALTOR® commissions and other closing costs will impact how much you keep from the transaction, fortunately, if you’re like most sellers, you won’t have to pay a capital gains tax on your federal income tax return on profits up to $250,000 or $500,000 depending on how you file your taxes.

The Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 made it easier for more sellers to qualify for the capital gains tax exclusion. Prior to that date, the exclusion was limited to a once-in-a-lifetime benefit and only to sellers over age 55.

There are a few requirements you must meet to avoid capital gains taxes on your home sale, including:

§  The capital gains tax exclusion is limited to $250,000 of the profits from the sale of your home if you file taxes as a single person and to $500,000 of the profits if you file taxes jointly.

§  You must have lived in your home for at least two of the previous five years. The time that you live in the home doesn’t have to be within the past two years and doesn’t have to be altogether in one solid block, either. You can live there in two different years within the past five years and have that count. You don’t have to be living there when the house is listed for sale, either.

§  If you have used your home as a rental property and want to sell it, make sure you have lived in the home yourself for two of the past five years. In other words, if you lived in it for two years and want to sell it, make sure you sell it before you have rented it for more than three years.

§  Your home must be your principal residence rather than a vacation home or second home to qualify for the tax break.

§  You can invest the profits in anything you want. Before 1997, IRS rules said that you had to reinvest your profits from the sale of one home into another within two years to avoid paying taxes. Since 1997, taxpayers are not required to buy another home.

§  If you are married, you and your spouse cannot have used the capital gains exclusion within two years prior to your transaction.

Partial Exclusion

Even if you don’t qualify for the full capital gains tax exclusion, you may qualify for an exception to the two-year residency rule. Some examples of reasons you could be exempt from the two-year rule include an early move due to:

§  A change in your employment location

§  A health concern that forces you to move

§  Deployment for the military or foreign service

§  Divorce or separation

§  “Unforeseen circumstances,” such as an act of war or terrorism, or multiple births from one pregnancy.

Medicare Tax

The Affordable Care Act of 2010 imposed an additional potential tax on the sale of real estate, but this tax impacts only high-income individuals who earn $200,000 or $250,000 for a couple. This tax, designated to supplement Medicare expenses, imposes a 3.8% tax only on the amount of profit above the exclusion for capital gains taxes.

The only sellers who must pay this tax are those who have an income above the threshold and who also sell a house with profits above the capital gains exclusion. The tax is imposed only on the difference between your profit and the excluded amount, not the full profit.

Consult IRS Publication 523, “Selling your Home,” or consult a tax advisor to make sure you are following the correct rules related to the individual circumstances of your home sale.


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