The Ins and Outs of Capital Gains When Selling US and Foreign Property

One of the most confusing (and important!) parts of selling property is the tax impact from your gains or losses. We, of course, hope you realize a gain, but let’s look at capital gains more closely, so you can fully understand how to calculate your gains/losses, how to report them on your expat tax return, and what the tax impact may be.

What are Capital Gains?

Capital gains and losses are generated when you sell property or an investment. Property can be anything from real estate to jewelry, while investments are generally stocks, bonds, and other monetary instruments.

The basic premise is this: when you sell property or investments for more than the cost basis, you have a gain, and when you sell for less than your cost basis, you have a loss. Most gains and losses will need to be claimed on your US tax return if you are a US person (citizen or permanent resident).

Personal Property Sale

When you sell personal property, you will need to report any gains from the sale on your tax return. Contrary to popular belief, losses from the sale of personal property are not deductible and cannot offset income on your tax return.

If you sell your main home – the one you primarily lived in – you can exclude up to $500,000 on any gain from the sale so long as you lived in and owned the home for any 2 of the 5 years preceding the sale. Losses from the sale of the property cannot be claimed. There are some rules in place if you did not live in your primary home for 2 of the past 5 years or owned the property for less than two years. Please consult your tax advisor to see if you are able to claim at least a portion of the exclusion.

There are special rules for property that is considered “collectible.” Collectibles include but are not limited to artwork, coins, precious metals and stones, stamps, and antiques. Collectibles gain is taxed at the rate of 28% even if held for more than one year.

Types of Capital Gains

Capital gains are classified as long term or short term. Long-term capital gains (LTCG) are gains from the sale of property that was held for more than one year. Short-term capital gains (STCG) are gains from the sale of property that was held for one year or less (365 days or less).

Capital gains generally have a more favorable tax rate than your ordinary income (wages, interest, etc.), but only if the gain is from LTCG. The rate you will pay on the gains is based upon your total income.

See the chart for the long-term capital gains tax rates from the IRS here.

Calculating Your Gain or Loss

Before you can figure out your gain or loss, you will first need to know what your cost basis is in the property. This often consists of what you paid for the property, but it can be increased or decreased based upon other factors.

Examples of increases to your basis:

  • Costs of improvements that have a useful life of more than 1 year (new roof, additional bedrooms, fences, etc.)
  • City or county assessments for local public improvements
  • General sales tax imposed on the purchase
  • Settlement charges from the purchase or sale including fees, title fees, attorney fees, and commissions
  • Commissions and fees relating to the sale/purchase of stocks and bonds

Examples of decreases to your basis:

  • Insurance payments received for casualty losses
  • Depreciation allowed for business use of the property

When you sell the property, you subtract the basis in your property from the sales price. This gives you your total capital gain or loss.

Selling Your Property

When you sell property, both inside and outside of the US, you will need to know the following for your tax return:

  • Date of purchase
  • Purchase price and settlement charges
  • Improvements and other increases/decreases to the basis
  • Date of sale
  • Amount of sale and any settlement charges

When you sell property outside of the United States, there are more considerations you will need to make in order to properly classify your gains or losses. The largest consideration you will need to take into account is the exchange rate. The IRS requires you to convert all foreign currency amounts to US dollars before calculating the gain or loss from the sale. Since exchange rates fluctuate on a daily basis (if not hourly!) you should consider the rate before you buy and sell. The exchange rate used for both buying and selling property will be considered the spot rate for the day, unless otherwise specified. Gains and losses can even be created by an exchange rate difference!

To provide you an example of how currency fluctuations impact capital gains, let’s consider a hypothetical sale of land in Germany. You own 100 acres of land in Germany, purchased on July 1, 2010, for 100,000 Euros. You sell the land on July 1, 2014 for 100,000 Euros. Ostensibly you have no gain since you sold the land for the same amount you purchased it for, but since you have to convert the Euro to the dollar, this is not the case.

Exchange rates:

  • July 1, 2010 – 0.8163 Euros per $1 USD
  • July 1, 2014 – 0.7320 Euros per $1 USD

Purchase price – July 1, 2010

  • $122,504 (100,000 ÷ 0.8163)

Sale price – July 1, 2014

  • $136,612 (100,000 ÷ 0.7320)

You will show a gain of $14,108 on your US taxes for the sale of the property. This gain will be taxed at the LTCG tax rates because you held the property for more than one year.

How Capital Gains/Losses are Reported on Your Tax Return

You will report the gain or loss on Schedule D of Form 1040 on your US tax return. You will need to include a brief description of the property, the purchase date and price, and the sale date and price. Capital gains and losses are netted against one another. Net capital gains are included in your income and then taxed accordingly based on your total tax picture. Net capital losses are reported on the tax return and help to lower the taxable income from other sources.

Capital losses can be taken against capital gains, and may exceed the total capital gains by up to $3000 on the tax return. Any losses over $3000 and not claimed on the tax return can be carried forward to a future year, or carried back to a previous tax year.

Here’s some good news: US taxes attributed to capital gains from the sale of foreign property may be offset using the Foreign Tax Credit. The Foreign Tax Credit is a dollar for dollar reduction in your US taxes using taxes paid to a foreign country on the same income. However, capital gains cannot be offset using the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, as the gains are not considered “earned” income, which is a requirement to utilize this exclusion.

When selling property – foreign property in particular – we advise you to speak to a tax professional before doing so to ensure it’s a sound financial decision given the various factors mentioned above.

Need More Information About How Your Property Affects Your Expat Tax Return?

Visit our blog page specifically for property investors for more detailed information. If you would like help filing your US expat tax return, please let us know!

Originally published in 2016; updated November 15, 2017.

Free Guide: The 25 Things Every Expat Needs to Know About Taxes

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