Many homeowners look forward to purchasing a second home that can be used for vacations, rental income, investment purposes or as a primary residence during retirement. Current tax laws offer several tax breaks that can help make second-home ownership more affordable. If you already own, or are thinking about purchasing a second home, it will be in your best interest to understand the tax breaks and how they work. Different tax rules apply depending on how you use the property, for either personal or rental use, or a combination of the two.

Personal Use

As long as you use the property as a second home – and not as a rental – you can deduct mortgage interest the same way you would for your primary home. You can deduct up to 100% of the interest you pay on up to $1.1 million of debt that is secured by your first and second homes (that's the total amount – it's not $1.1 million for each home). You can also deduct property taxes on your second home and, for that matter, as many properties as you own. Like a primary residence, however, you generally can't write off any of the costs associated with utilities, upkeep or insurance (there are exceptions to this; for example, you may be able to claim a home office deduction if part of your home is used for business purposes).

Rental Use – The 14-Day or 10% Rule

The tax rules are quite a bit more complicated if you rent out the property. Different rules apply, depending on how many days a year you use the home for personal versus rental use. There are three categories into which you may fall:

1. You rent out the property for 14 days or less.

Your second home can be rented to another party for up to two weeks (14 nights) each year without that income begin reported to the IRS. Even if you rent it out for $10,000 a night, you don't have to report the rental income as long as the home was not rented out for more than 14 days. The house is still considered a personal residence, so you can deduct mortgage interest and property taxes under the standard second-home rules.

2. You rent out the property for 15 days or more, and use it for less than 14 days or 10% of days the home was rented.

This property is considered a rental property, and the rental activities are viewed as a business. If your second home is rented out for more than 14 days, all rental income must be reported to the IRS. You can deduct rental expenses (including mortgage interest, property taxes, insurance premiums, fees paid to property managers, utilities, and 50% of depreciation), but you have to factor in the amount of time the property is used for personal use versus rental use. And, as a rental property, up to $25,000 in losses might be deductible each year. Fix-up days don’t count as personal use, so you can spend more than 14 days at the property as long as it is for maintenance purposes. You should be able to document the maintenance activities, however, with receipts to prove you weren't using the property for leisure purposes on those days.

3. You use the property for more than 14 days or 10% of the total days the home was rented.

If you use the property for more than 14 days, or more than 10% of the number of days it is rented (whichever is greater), the property is considered a personal residence and the rental loss cannot be deducted. If a member of your family uses the property (including your spouse, siblings, parents, grandparents, children, and grandchildren), those days count as personal days unless you are collecting a fair rental price.

Selling Your Second Home

Tax laws allow you to take up to $500,000 profit ($250,000 if you are unmarried) tax free on the sale of your primary residence. This primary-home sale exclusion does not apply if you sell your second home: If you sell a house that is not your primary residence, you may have to pay the usual capital gains tax. If you make the second home your primary residence for at least two years before you sell it, however, you may be able to reap some tax benefits, but it's not as easy as it used to be.

Prior to Jan. 1, 2009, you could move into your second home, make it your primary residence for two years, sell it, and take advantage of the primary-home sale exclusion. Now, as a result of new laws associated with the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, you can still make your second home a primary home before you sell it, but you'll owe taxes for the period of time that the property was a second home after Jan. 1, 2009. The IRS now uses a ratio of the years you occupied the home as a primary residence versus the years the home was used as a rental (or other-than primary residence) to calculate the amount of capital gain that will be excluded from the sale.

For example, the Smiths purchased a second home in 2004. They continued to use it as a rental home during 2009 and 2010, and then used the home as a primary residence during 2011 and 2012. Only 50% of the capital gains from the sale of the home will be tax free (up to the $500,000 exclusion) since the home was a primary residence for only 50% of the time after Jan. 1 2009.

1031 Exchanges

A 1031 exchange, also known as a like-kind exchange or tax-deferred exchange, is a transaction where a seller swaps a rental or investment property for another rental or investment property of equal or greater value, on a tax-deferred basis. The advantage is that the seller may be able to avoid paying capital gains tax on the exchange. A property must be considered a rental property (and not a personal residence) to qualify for a 1031 exchange. This means that you must rent out the property for 15 days or more, and use it for less than 14 days or 10% of days the home was rented.

The Bottom Line

If it's financially feasible, owning a second home can be an excellent investment for vacation or rental purposes, or to use as a primary home during retirement. Because owning any home carries a significant financial burden – from mortgage and taxes, to maintenance and repairs – it is in your best interest to understand the tax implications of second-home ownership. Since tax laws are complicated and do change, owners and potential buyers should consult with a qualified real-estate tax specialist to gain a full understanding of tax implications and laws, and to determine the most favorable ownership strategy.

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