A California law allows parents to transfer homes to their children, without a property tax reassessment. This creates some confusion on the difference between property tax base and cost basis, says the San Francisco Chronicle in its recent article, “Taxes on a home can be confusing: Here’s how to keep them straight.”
If parents transfer their home to a child, the child can keep the current assessed value and annual property tax. The transfer can be either while the parents are living or in their will. If the transfer is an inheritance, and the child keeps the low property tax base, the child will still receive the stepped-up basis and avoid a substantial capital gain, when the home is eventually sold.
In other words, if parents give their home to their child as an inheritance, can the child have both the continued low property tax and the stepped-up basis? Yes, provided the property is transferred at the parent’s death. If it’s transferred while the parent is still alive, the child will receive the property tax break. However, he or she will not get the step-up in basis, which is a huge tax break for highly appreciated homes.
People frequently confuse “property tax base” and “cost basis,” and property taxes with income taxes. They’re entirely separate systems. Property taxes are governed by state law. Cost basis, capital gains and the step-up in basis are part of the income tax system.
Under the income tax system, the cost basis in your home (if you’ve never rented it out) is generally what you paid for it, plus the cost of major improvements. If you sell your home for more than its cost basis, the profit is taxed as a capital gain. If you’ve used the home as your primary residence for at least two of the past five years ending on the sale date, the first $250,000 in capital gains, or $500,000 for married couples, is tax free. If you retain your home until death, your heirs could receive an even greater capital gains tax break.
When you pass away with appreciated assets, including a home, their cost basis is “stepped up” to the market value on your date of death. Your heirs inherit the assets with their new, stepped-up cost basis. This will eliminate any taxes on the appreciation that happened in your lifetime. If your heirs sold these assets immediately, they’d owe little or no capital gains tax.
Unlike the property tax break, this capital gains tax break is only for inherited property. If you give your home to a child while you’re still alive, the child takes over your cost basis and loses the stepped-up basis. In addition, if you give your child all or part of the home while you’re alive, you’ll have to file a gift-tax return for the value that exceeds the annual gift tax exclusion. Although you probably won’t owe gift tax on the home’s value, it will be subtracted from your combined lifetime gift and estate tax exemption, which is $11.18 million for any person who dies in 2018, or $22.36 million for a couple.
Reference: San Francisco Chronicle (September 1, 2018) “Taxes on a home can be confusing: Here’s how to keep them straight”