Discussed in this article are ways in which a property seller can lower his tax liability arising from capital gains made on the transaction the words of the former American president, late Theodore Roosevelt, every person who invests in well-selected real estate, in a growing section of a prosperous community, adopts the surest and safest method of becoming independent, for real estate, is the basis of wealth. Property ownership offers the holder a wide variety of benefits. An immovable asset not only offers physical safety and security but also acts as an investment avenue.
As the sale of property typically results in profits for the owner, income tax (IT) laws in India treat the benefits as income, and taxes are levied accordingly. If not planned carefully, the sale may, in fact, prove to be a costly affair, in terms of tax liability, significantly eating into the profits. Thus, it is pertinent to find legally accepted means to minimize your tax liability on property sales.
However, employing dubious methods to avoid tax liability, might ultimately land one in trouble. This is evident from the fact that there have been rising instances of the tax department reopening very old cases to prove tax fraud. It is in your best interest to avoid circumventing the law in any manner or form to lower your tax liability.
Before we find out how to save taxes, we look at the factors that determine the tax liability of the property seller.
The holding period for capital gains
Under the existing Indian IT laws, the holding period – the time for which you remain the owner of the property before you sell it – plays a determining role in deciding the tax liability. If the law perceives the transaction to fall under the category of short-term capital gains (STCG), the tax liability will be higher. However, if the transaction falls in the long-term capital gains (LTCG) category, you will be charged 20.8% of the profit in taxes. The 20.8% LTCG tax is applicable, irrespective of your tax slab.
Another important thing to note is that a taxpayer is allowed several rebates under the provisions of the IT Act, in case the transaction is treated as LTCG. In the case of STCG, the scope to lower the tax liability is almost non-existent – the taxpayer can only set off the gain against any short-term loss from the sale of assets like stocks and gold, etc.
Investment in new property
Your tax liability will be considerably low and akin to zero, if you reinvest the sales proceeds of the old property into a new one, within a specific period, subject to certain terms and conditions.
The tax liability is always higher for a seller who owns multiple properties. The same is not true in the case of someone who owns only one property. We shall examine the specific provisions that establish this, in the latter part of this article.
How to save taxes on property sales?
Let us discuss the options available to sellers, to save taxes on property sales.
Benefits under Section 54 on purchase of new property
If you sell a property within two years of the purchase, the gains you earn through the sale would be treated as STCG and will be taxed, depending on your tax slab.
The applicability of deductions offered under Section 54 will arise, only when you sell the property after two years of purchase, thus, earning profits under LTCG. In this case, while the profits will be taxed at 20.8% along with indexation benefits, Section 54 will help you get relaxations if you follow certain conditions. These include:
Number of houses you can invest in for capital gains exemption
You can reinvest the capital gains from the property sale in buying or constructing up to two houses. It is pertinent to recall here that the exemption was limited to only one property before Budget 2019 extended it to two properties. In case you are reinvesting the proceeds in two properties, the deduction will only be available in the capital gains on the sale of the property that does not exceed Rs 2 crores. The seller must also be mindful that he can claim this benefit only once in a lifetime.
The holding period for claiming capital gains tax exemption
The law also imposes restrictions, with respect to the purchase time, location, and holding period of the new property. Firstly, the new property should be purchased one year before the sale or two years after the sale of the main property. In case you are building the house on your own, the construction should be completed within three years of the sale of the property. Secondly, this property you are buying or building must be situated in India.
The relaxation in tax would be reversed if you sell the new property within three years of its purchase. The profit earned on this sale will also be treated as short-term capital gains.
The entire profit must be reinvested in the new property, to claim an exemption on the entire LTCG amount. If this is not so, the exemption will be limited to the amount re-invested. Suppose, you earned Rs 20 lakhs as profit on the sale. The entire amount will become tax-free if you reinvest Rs 20 lakhs to buy a new property. In case you only spend Rs 15 lakhs on the new property, the remaining Rs 5 lakhs would become taxable. All the associated charges included in the purchase of the new property, i.e., stamp duty, registration charge, brokerage fee, should be included in the cost of the new house in order to increase the deduction limit. Similarly, money spent on repairs and renovation can be added to the overall purchase cost, while computing LTCG.
The capital gains exemption is valid under Section 54 if you have taken a home loan to buy the new property or repay the home loan for the old one.
Indexation benefits on capital gains on the sale of a property
For the uninitiated, indexation is the process of adjusting the purchase price of the property, for inflation. The indexation benefit allows the seller to factor in the impact of inflation on the historical cost of acquisition. This, effectively, lowers the amount on which capital gains tax will be charged. In the absence of this benefit, the tax will be charged on a much higher amount.
The LTCG tax is computed, by deducting the indexed cost of the house from its net sale price. You are entitled to avail of indexation benefit on long-term capital gains. If you bought a property in 1994-95 at Rs 20 lakhs and sold it in 2015-16 for Rs 1 crore, your long-term capital gains will not be Rs 80 lakhs. Instead, it will be calculated as follows:
Capital gain = Selling price – Indexed cost of acquisition.
Indexed cost of acquisition = Purchase price x (Index in the year of sale/Index in the year of purchase).
Now, the index in 1994-95 stood at 259 and in 2015-16 at 1,081.
Hence, your indexed cost of acquisition will be = 20 x (1081/259) = 83.48
Your long-term capital gains will be = 100 – 83.48 = 16.52 lakhs.
Exemptions under Section 54 EC on purchase of specific bonds
Sellers do not necessarily have to reinvest the sales proceeds of their property into reality, to claim deductions. They could also do so by reinvesting the money in specific bonds.
Section 54EC allows exemption of LTCG on the sale of land and building if the profit is reinvested in certain specified bonds, within six months from the date of sale of the house. Section 54EC-specified bonds include those issued by the Railway Finance Corporation, the National Highways Authority of India, the Rural Electrification Corporation, etc. Note that the upper limit is capped at Rs 50 lakhs, for this investment with a lock-in period of five years.
More importantly, this exemption is available on the sale of residential, as well as non-residential properties. The interest earned on these bonds, which is 5.25% annually, is entirely taxable. However, the maturity proceeds of the bonds are fully tax-free.
Exemptions under Section 54GB
Section 54GB exempts the profits categorized as LTCG on sale of house or plot, if the proceeds thus earned are invested in the subscription of equity shares of eligible companies. The exemption would be available if the profit is reinvested in small or medium enterprises or in eligible start-ups. If you are buying computers and other such equipment for your start-up with the sales proceeds of a house property, you could claim deductions under this section.
In any case, the holding period for the new asset has been capped at a minimum of five years. Open only to individuals or Hindu Undivided Families (HUFs), the exemption under Section 54GB could be availed, if the taxpayer utilizes the net consideration before the due date of furnishing the income tax return.
Setting off gains against losses
Another option available to property sellers, to reduce tax liability on property sale, is to set off the LTCG from the sale of the house against any long-term loss from the sale of other assets, including stocks and gold. These could be the losses carried forward in the last eight years, along with the losses incurred in the year in which you are claiming the benefit.
Factors that property sellers must keep in mind
- In case you invested in a housing project which is stuck for some reason and the developer has not been able to offer possession, you are still allowed to claim the exemptions under various sections of the tax law.
- Depending on the holding period, the profit on the transaction will be treated as STCG or LTCG and taxed accordingly. Similarly, the relaxations under Section 54 and Section 54EC will apply.
- A property cannot be registered below a certain value as specified by state government authorities. Even if you agree to sell the property for a lower price, its registration would still be done at the minimum registration value allowed in that area. The entire tax liability will be calculated, depending on the property’s value as determined by the sub-registrar’s office.
- If you are neither able to invest the sales proceeds earned from the transaction into buying another property nor able to reinvest the fund into specified bonds, the balance amount should be deposited in the Capital Gains Account Scheme. This way, you will remain eligible to claim deductions.
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