The tax law does not allow you to ‘flip’ a property tax-free even if you are living in it.
Most people think that they can move in to a property, renovate it, and then sell it without paying tax. The main residence exemption – the exemption that protects your family home from tax – does not apply if your primary purpose is to ‘flip’ the property for a profit. The fact that you are living in the property does not mean it’s exempt from tax.
Some people reading this are probably thinking, but who is going to know? How can the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) really know what my intention is when I buy a property to live in? Generally, the ATO is looking for a pattern of behaviour or a declaration of intention. For example:
- You are not employed and earn your income moving in, renovating then selling
- You have a pattern of renovating and selling properties
- Your loan documents on your mortgage suggest the property is for flipping and not for the long term
- You go on national television stating that you are looking to move in, renovate and flip the property (hello The Block contestants).
The ATO’s guide on property is clear: “If you’re carrying out a profit-making activity of property renovations also known as ‘property flipping’, you report in your income tax return your net profit or loss from the renovation (proceeds from the sale of the property less the purchase and other costs associated with buying, holding, renovating and selling it).”
People often make the assumption that any gain made from property flipping will be exempt from tax as long as the property is their main residence for the entire ownership period. However, this is only the case where the property is held on capital account. A property would generally be held on capital account if it is bought with the genuine intention of using it as a private residence or rental property for the foreseeable future and there is evidence to back this up.
The ATO indicates that someone who is renovating a property with the intention of selling the property again at a profit could be taxed on revenue account in which case the main residence exemption does not apply.
The guide identifies three main scenarios and the general tax implications:
- Personal property investor – this is someone who purchases a property with the primary intention of using it as a long-term rental property or private residence. If this person undertakes renovations and then sells the property earlier than originally planned, then they should still generally be able to argue that the sale is dealt with on capital account, which means that the main residence exemption and/or Capital Gains Tax (CGT) discount could apply.
- Isolated profit making undertaking – this is someone who buys a property with the primary intention of carrying out renovations and then selling the property when the work is completed. Someone in this category is likely to be taxed on revenue account with no access to the main residence exemption or CGT discount.
- Business of renovating properties – this is someone who undertakes property-flipping activities on a regular or repetitive basis and where the activities are organised in a business-like manner. As with the category above, there is generally no access to the main residence exemption or CGT discount.
Just because you live in the property for all or part of the ownership period does not automatically mean that the profits from sale are exempt from tax. The main residence exemption can only reduce capital gains; it cannot reduce amounts that are taxed on revenue account.