If you qualify for the exclusion, you may do anything you want with the tax-free proceeds from the sale. You are not required to reinvest the money in another house. But, if you do buy another home, you can qualify for the exclusion again when you sell that house. Indeed, you can use the exclusion any number of times over your lifetime as long as you satisfy the requirements discussed below.
If you're a homeowner this is the one tax law you need to thoroughly understand.
Here's the most important thing you need to know: To qualify for the $250,000/$500,000 home sale exclusion, you must own and occupy the home as your principal residence for at least two years before you sell it. Your home can be a house, apartment, condominium, stock-cooperative, or mobile home fixed to land.
If you meet all the requirements for the exclusion, you can take the $250,000/$500,000 exclusion any number of times. But you may not use it more than once every two years.
The two-year rule is really quite generous, since most people live in their home at least that long before they sell it. (On average, Americans move once every seven years.) By wisely using the exclusion, you can buy and sell many homes over the years and avoid any income taxes on your profits.
One aspect of the exclusion that can be confusing is that ownership and use of the home don't need to occur at the same time. As long as you have at least two years of ownership and two years of use during the five years before you sell the home, the ownership and use can occur at different times. The rule is most important for renters who purchase their rental apartments or rental homes. The time that a purchaser lives in the home as a renter counts as use of the home for purposes of the exclusion, even though the renter didn't own the home at the time.
To qualify for the home sale exclusion, you don't have to be living in the house at the time you sell it. Your two years of ownership and use may occur anytime during the five years before the date of the sale. This means, for example, that you can move out of the house for up to three years and still qualify for the exclusion.
This rule has a very practical application: It means you may rent out your home for up to three years prior to the sale and still qualify for the exclusion. Be sure to keep track of this time period and sell the house before it runs out.
To qualify for the exclusion, you must have used the home you sell as your principal residence for at least two of the five years prior to the sale. Your principal residence is the place where you (and your spouse if you're filing jointly and claiming the $500,000 exclusion for couples) live.
You don't have to spend every minute in your home for it to be your principal residence. Short absences are permitted—for example, you can take a two month vacation away from home and count that time as use. However, long absences are not permitted. For example, a professor who is away from home for a whole year while on sabbatical cannot count that year as use for purposes of the exclusion.
You can only have one principal residence at a time. If you live in more than one place—for example, you have two homes—the property you use the majority of the time during the year will ordinarily be your principal residence for that year.
If you have a second home or vacation home that has substantially appreciated in value since you bought it, you'll be able to use the exclusion when you sell it if you use that home as your principal home for at least two years before the sale.
There are certain additional requirements you must meet to qualify for the $500,000 exclusion. Namely, you must be able to show that all of the following are true:
If either spouse does not satisfy all these requirements, the exclusion is figured separately for each spouse as if they were not married. This means they can each qualify for up to a $250,000 exclusion. For this purpose, each spouse is treated as owning the property during the period that either spouse owned the property. For joint owners who are not married, up to $250,000 of gain is tax free for each qualifying owner.
If your spouse dies and you subsequently sell your home, you qualify for the $500,000 exclusion if the sale occurs within two years after the date of death and the other requirements discussed above were met immediately before the date of death.