Repair vs. Improvement, and the Tax Implications

By Benny L. Kass
Saturday, December 13, 2008

Q: I am having trouble figuring out what constitutes an improvement and what is ordinary maintenance. Thinking ahead to selling my house in a few years when the market rebounds, I have been keeping accurate records so that I can deduct these costs to lower the capital gains. Recently, I remodeled a bathroom, replaced a deck, replaced and upgraded the spa filter and motor, replaced the front door with a fiberglass model guaranteed to last longer than my lifetime, and replaced a roof and rain gutters. Which of these can I safely regard as improvements, and which are just maintenance?

A: The line between repairs and improvements is fuzzy. The court cases that have analyzed this issue are all over the place, with judges ruling in opposite directions on the same work.

If your property is a rental, then in most cases you want to call the work a repair. Repairs can be deducted as rental expenses in the year that you pay them, thereby reducing your rental income.

If this is your principal residence, however, while you obviously want to keep your house in good repair, the money you spend on ordinary maintenance provides no taxable benefits for you.

Improvements, on the other hand, may be valuable when you sell your house because they increase the tax basis. The higher the basis, the less tax you have to pay.

Let's look at this example: In 1985, you bought your first house for $100,000. You sold it for $200,000 in 1990. That same year, you bought another house for $200,000. Before 1997, an important tax break for homeowners was called the "rollover." Although you made a profit of $100,000 when you sold your first house, you did not have to pay any capital gains tax. Instead, the profit was "rolled over" into the new house. The basis for tax purposes of the second property became $100,000.

You now want to sell and have listed your house for $700,000. You know that under the current law, because you are married and have lived in the house for two out of the previous five years, you can exclude up to $500,000 of your gain. You do the numbers and think that because you bought the house for $200,000 and will sell it for $700,000, you are home-free on any capital gains tax.

Wrong. Because you took advantage of the old "rollover," your basis was $100,000, and when you sell it for $700,000, you will have made a profit of $600,000. While you can exclude up to $500,000 of this gain, you will have to pay capital gains tax on the $100,000 difference. Currently, the tax rate is 15 percent, so you will have to send a check to the Internal Revenue Service for $15,000. You will also have to pay the applicable state tax.

For purposes of this discussion, I am not taking into consideration other expenses you have paid, such as closing costs, real estate commissions or legal fees. These expenses will, of course, reduce your overall tax obligation.

How can you increase your tax basis? Here is where improvements play a vital role. Any work you do to your house that adds to its value, prolongs its useful life or adapts it to new uses (such as "going green") will be considered an improvement and can be added to the tax basis of your property.

Let's take your example:

ยท Remodeled the bathroom. Because this clearly prolongs the useful life, it is an improvement;

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