What Is a Capital Loss?

A capital loss is the loss incurred when a capital asset, such as an investment or real estate, decreases in value. This loss is not realized until the asset is sold for a price that is lower than the original purchase price.

Key Takeaways

  • A capital loss is a loss incurred when a capital asset is sold for less than the price it was purchased for.
  • In regards to taxes, capital gains can be offset by capital losses, reducing taxable income by the amount of the capital loss.
  • Capital gains and capital losses are reported on Form 8949.
  • The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) puts measures around wash sales to prevent investors from taking advantage of the tax benefits of capital losses.

Understanding a Capital Loss

A capital loss is essentially the difference between the purchase price and the price at which the asset is sold, where the sale price is lower than the purchase price. For example, if an investor bought a house for $250,000 and sold the house five years later for $200,000, the investor realizes a capital loss of $50,000.

For the purposes of personal income tax, capital gains can be offset by capital losses. When a position is liquidated for a sale price that is less than the purchase price, taxable income is reduced on a dollar-for-dollar basis (making it exempt income). Net losses of more than $3,000 can be carried over to the following tax year to offset gains or directly reduce taxable income. Substantial losses carry forward to subsequent years until the amount of the loss is exhausted.

Reporting a Capital Loss

Capital losses and capital gains are reported on Form 8949, on which dates of sale determine whether those transactions constitute short- or long-term gains or losses. Short-term gains are taxed at ordinary income rates. Thus, short-term losses, matched against short-term gains, benefit high-income earners who have realized profits by selling an asset within a year of purchase, because their taxable income is reduced.

Long-term capital gains, in which investors are taxed at rates of 0%, 15%, or 20% when profiting from a position held longer than one year, are likewise offset by capital losses realized after one year.

Form 8949 reports the description of assets sold, the cost basis of those assets, and the gross proceeds from sales, ultimately determining whether aggregate sales result in a gain, loss, or wash. A loss flows from Form 8949 to Schedule D, which determines the dollar amount used to reduce taxable income.

Capital Losses and Wash Sales

Wash sales involving capital losses are exemplified in the following scenarios. After dumping XYZ stock on November 30 to claim a loss, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) disallows the capital loss if the same stock is purchased on or before December 30, requiring the investor to wait 31 days before the repurchased security can be sold again to claim another loss.

The rule does not apply to the sale and repurchase of a mutual fund with similar holdings. Sidestepping the rule, a dollar amount sold in Mutual Fund One can be fully reinvested in the Mutual Fund Two, for example, preserving the right to claim a subsequent loss while maintaining exposure to a similar portfolio of equities.