How to Deduct Home Improvement Costs on a Sold House

It’s always gratifying to get a tax break for spending money on something, and there are indeed some tax advantages to be had in improving your home so you can sell it. They’re technically not tax deductions, however, except in isolated circumstances. And there’s a significant tax difference between home improvements and home repairs. The latter doesn’t impress the Internal Revenue Service much at all.

The IRS doesn’t publish an exact list of home improvements that are tax deductible, but it defines a home improvement as something that:

  • Significantly increases the property’s value
  • Increases its useful life
  • Gives it a new or additional use or purpose  

What Kind of Home Improvements Are Tax Deductible?

There are no home improvement tax deductions in 2018, at least not if the property is your personal residence and serves no other purpose, such as because you claim a home office. You can’t shave the cost of improvements dollar for dollar off your taxable income, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t possibly save you tax dollars in other ways.

The Effect on Capital Gains Tax

There are income taxes and then there are capital gains taxes. The latter is a tax on any profit you realize when you sell an asset for more than you paid for it. Your profit is the difference between the sales price and your tax basis, and your tax basis isn’t just what you paid for your home. It also includes things like home improvements.

The greater your basis, the less your capital gain. You would have a taxable capital gain of $50,000 if you purchased your home for $200,000, invested $50,000 in improvements, and sold it for $300,000. Your gain would be twice that, $100,000, if you hadn’t made those improvements. That’s $50,000 less you’d have to pay capital gains tax on.

There’s a catch or two, of course. If you should “undo” an improvement for some reason, such as by filling in that in-ground pool you decided you didn’t want after all, you can’t add its cost to your basis. And while you can include the cost of labor, you can’t use the cost of your own time for improvements you might make yourself.

Some Capital Gains Aren’t Taxed Anyway

Cost basis is less important for some taxpayers than for others because the IRS offers a home sale tax exclusion. If you meet certain rules, the first $250,000 of profit on the sale of your home is tax-free if you’re single, and it’s $500,000 if you’re married and file a joint return. You wouldn’t owe capital gains tax anyway on that sale for $300,000 unless you failed to qualify for the exclusion. One rule is that you must have lived in and owned your home for at least two of the last five years.

If You Borrow Money for Improvements

It’s possible that you could also get a small tax break if you take out a home equity loan to pay for those improvements. Mortgage interest is tax deductible, but only if you itemize, and only up to $750,000 of indebtedness. It used to be that you could deduct interest on home equity loans you took out for any reason, but as of 2018, you can only do so if you use the funds to “buy, build or substantially improve” your home, according to the IRS.

A Home Improvement Tax Credit in 2018 and 2019

Some home improvements qualify for a tax credit, which isn’t the same as a deduction but it can provide a significant tax break nonetheless. Credits come directly off what you owe the IRS.

The Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit covers the cost of installation of geothermal, wind, solar and fuel-cell technology. Unfortunately, another credit – the Nonbusiness Energy Property Tax Credit – expired at the end of 2017.

How to Document Home Improvements for Taxes

Of course, you’ll want to keep track of all this so you have a record of how much you spent when you get around to selling your home and if you find that you need to whittle away at that profit for capital gains tax purposes. This doesn’t have to be particularly challenging. Start a file the first time you pay to upgrade your hot water heater and drop the receipt in there. Add to it whenever you do something new. Just be sure to keep the file in a safe, fireproof place. Or take pictures of your receipts and maintain a file on your computer with a backup in the cloud or on a flash drive.