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Suppose you’ve inherited your parents’ longtime home. Suppose they paid $100,000 for it, and it’s now worth $300,000. Had they sold it while it was in their possession, they would have avoided paying capital gains tax due to the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997.
Now that it’s yours, has that tax avoidance opportunity been lost? If you sell it for $300,000, will you have to pay taxes on the $200,000 gain?
The answer is no, and the reason is step-up basis.
What is step-up basis?
When you sell an asset, you may owe capital gains tax. For example, if you buy stock for $10,000 and sell it 10 years later for $15,000, you owe tax on the $5,000 you profited. The original cost, the $10,000, is your basis, and you are taxed on your sale proceeds minus that basis.
If you buy stock, the original cost is your basis. But if you inherit stock, your basis is stepped up to what it’s worth when you inherit. If your mother leaves you that same stock, now worth $15,000, your basis is $15,000, not the $10,000 she paid. The IRS looks at it as if you acquired the stock for $15,000. If you sell it later for $18,000, your taxable gain is ($18,000 - $15,000) or $3,000.
Real estate works the same way. Going back to our example, your basis in the inherited home is $300,000, not the $100,000 your parents paid. If you sell it immediately for $300,000, you've made no taxable profit and you keep everything. You pay no capital gains tax at all. If you sell in a few years for $350,000, you pay tax only on the $50,000 difference. The appreciation that happened while your folks were alive never gets taxed.
If you decide to rent that house out (or if you inherit an apartment building) there’s yet another benefit. You can depreciate the dwelling at the step-up value, even if the previous owner used it as an income property and depreciated it. For that $300,000 building, you can deduct $10,909 a year from your rent income over the 27 ½ year depreciation period, rather than the $3,636 if your basis had been $100,000. You’d pay taxes on $7,273 less every year for a long time.
Step-Up During Your Lifetime
Under special circumstances you can take advantage of step-up basis on real estate when you give it away. You can donate property to a charity and deduct the step-up amount rather than your original basis. However, rules are strict. There are appraisal requirements, limitations based on taxable income and the charity must use the property in its work rather than resell it.
There is an even more specialized opportunity under the recent Tax Cuts and Jobs Act to sell appreciated property, invest in a designated opportunity zone, and defer or avoid taxes on your gain.
In both of these specialized cases, you must follow stringent regulations. Don’t wade in without the help of an expert.