Selling a Principal Residence

If you sell (or exchange) your principal residence at a gain, there are certain conditions that will limit how much if any capital gains tax you need to pay. Based on the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997, if you are single, you will pay no capital gains tax on the first $250,000 you make when you sell your home. Married couples enjoy a $500,000 exemption. There are, however, some restrictions on this exemption.

In order for the sale to be exempt, the home must be considered a primary residency based on Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rules. These rules state that you must have occupied the residence for at least two of the last five years. If you buy a home and a dramatic rise in value causes you to sell it a year later, you would be required to pay capital gains tax on the gain. This rule does, however, allow you to convert a rental property into a primary residence because the two-year residency requirement does not need to be fulfilled in consecutive years. For example, suppose that you invest in a new condo. You live in it for the first year, rent the home for the next three years and, when the tenants move out, you move back in for another year. At the end of this five-year period, you will be able to sell your condo without having to pay capital gains tax. 

The other major restriction is that you can only benefit from this exemption once every two years. Therefore, if you have two homes and lived in both for at least two of the last five years, you won't be able to sell both of them tax free.