How to Track Home Improvement Costs — and Why You Should

By Kevin Brouillard · March 11, 2024 · 8 minute read

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How to Track Home Improvement Costs — and Why You Should

Embarking on a home renovation to transform your living space is an exciting endeavor. Home improvements are also an investment that can significantly increase the value of your property, so it’s important to track expenses to be prepared for capital gains tax when you sell your home. Tracking home improvement costs can also help homeowners stick to a budget and ensure a greater return on investment.

Let’s take a closer look at how to track home improvement costs, which upgrades qualify for tax purposes, and options for financing a home renovation.

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Why Track Home Improvement Costs?

Amid all the work and logistics that goes into renovations, tracking home improvement costs might not feel like a high priority. However, having documented home improvement costs can help reduce potential capital gains tax when it’s time to sell your home.

The IRS allows qualifying home improvement costs to be added to the original purchase price of the property, known as the cost basis, when calculating capital gains on a home sale. The basis is subtracted from the home sale price to determine if you’ve realized a gain and subsequently owe tax. But by adding home improvement expenses to your cost basis, the profit from the sale that’s subject to taxes decreases — lowering or even potentially exempting you from property gains tax.

Besides home improvements, other factors that affect property value, like location and the current housing market, could make a property sale subject to capital gains tax.

Here’s an example of how capital gains tax on a home sale works: A married couple that purchased a home for $200,000 in 2001 and sold it for $750,000 in 2024 would have a $550,000 realized gain. Assuming that the sellers made this home their main residence for two of the last five years, they’d be able to exclude $500,000 of the gain from taxes. The remaining $50,000 would be taxed at 0%, 15%, or 20% based on the sellers’ income and how long they owned the property.

However, the sellers spent $70,000 on home improvements during their 23 years of homeownership, so the capital gains calculation would be revised to: $750,000 – ($200,000 + $70,000) = $480,000. Tracking home improvement costs in this example exempted the sellers from needing to pay capital gains taxes.

Note that single filers may exclude only the first $250,000 of realized gains from the sale of their home. Eligibility for the exclusion also requires living in the home for at least two years out of the last five years leading up to the date of sale. Those who own vacation homes should note that the IRS has very specific rules about what constitutes a main residence.

💡 Quick Tip: A Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC) brokered by SoFi lets you access up to $500,000 of your home’s equity (up to 90%) to pay for, well, just about anything. It could be a smart way to consolidate debts or find the funds for a big home project.

Qualifying vs Nonqualifying Improvements

The IRS sets guidelines that determine what home improvements can be added to your cost basis for calculating capital gains tax. Thus, not every dollar spent on sprucing up your home’s curb appeal or living space needs to be tracked for tax purposes. Generally, tracking costs is a good idea for any home improvements that increase your home’s value and fall outside general repair and upkeep to maintain the property’s condition.

Qualifying Improvements

According to the IRS, improvements that add value to the home, prolong its useful life, or adapt it to new uses can qualify. This includes the following categories and home improvements:

•   Home additions: Bedroom, bathroom, deck, garage, porch, or patio

•   Home systems: HVAC systems, central humidifier, central vacuum, air/water filtration systems, wiring, security systems, law and sprinkler systems.

•   Lawn & grounds: Landscaping, driveway improvements, fencing, walkways, retaining walls, and pools

•   Exterior: Storm windows, roofing, doors, siding

•   Interior: Built-in appliances, kitchen upgrades, flooring, wall-to-wall carpeting, fireplaces

•   Insulation: Attic, walls, floors, pipes, and ductwork

•   Plumbing: Septic system, water heater, soft water system, filtration system

It’s also important to track any tax credits or subsidies received for energy-related home improvements, such as solar panels or a heat pump system, since these incentives must be subtracted from the cost basis.

Recommended: How to Find a Contractor for Home Renovations and Remodeling

Nonqualifying Expenses

Owning a home requires routine maintenance and occasional repairs — think fixing a leaky pipe or mowing the lawn. And the longer you own your home, the greater the chance you reapproach past home improvements with a fresh design or modern technologies. The IRS considers regular maintenance and any home improvement that’s been later replaced as nonqualifying costs.

For instance, a homeowner could have installed wall-to-wall carpet and later swapped it out for hardwood floors. In this case, the hardwood floors would qualify, but not the carpeting.

Recommended: The Costs of Owning a Home

How to Track Your Costs

Developing a system for tracking home improvement costs depends in part on where you are in the process. Here’s how to get track home improvement costs before, during, and after a renovation project.

Before You Renovate

The average cost to renovate a house can vary from $20,000 to $80,000 based on the size of the home and type of improvements. Given this range in cost expectations, it’s helpful to create an itemized budget that estimates the cost for each improvement. It’s hardly uncommon for renovations to take more time and money than expected, so consider budgeting an extra 10-20% for the unexpected.

Your itemized budget can be leveraged for tracking home improvement costs once the project starts. Simply plug in the completion date, cost, and description for each improvement, and keep receipts, to itemize the expense as it’s incurred.

Recommended: How to Make a Budget in 5 Steps

Keep Detailed Records

Tracking home improvement costs goes beyond crunching the numbers. The IRS requires documentation to adjust the cost basis on a property. As improvements are made, catalog contractor and store receipts and take pictures before and after the work is done to document the improvements for your records. Store these records digitally in a secure and accessible location; the IRS recommends keeping records for three years after the tax return for the year in which you sell your home.

Catch Up After the Fact

Tracking home improvement costs after the work has been completed is doable, but it requires more effort. If your renovations required any building permits, your municipality should have records on file.

For other projects, start by searching your email for receipts and records can help find a paper trail and track down documentation. Reach out to contractors you worked with for copies of missing receipts or invoices. If you paid with a check or credit card, you can browse through your previous statements or contact the bank for assistance.

Consult a Tax Pro

Taxes are complicated. If you have any doubts about what improvements qualify, consult a tax professional for assistance. Homeowners who used their property as a home office or rented it for any duration could especially benefit from a tax pro. Any property depreciation that was claimed in previous tax years may need to be recaptured if the home sale price exceeds the cost basis.

Home Improvement Financing Options

Renovations and upgrades to your home can be expensive. Many homeowners use a combination of savings and financing to pay for home improvements.

•   HELOC: A Home Equity Line Of Credit lets homeowners tap into their existing equity to fund a variety of expenses, such as home improvements. With a HELOC, you can take out what you need as you need it, rather than the full amount you’re approved for, which is often 75%-85% of your home’s value. You only pay interest on the amount you draw.

•   Cash-out refinance: Some owners take out a new home loan that allows them to pay off their old mortgage but also provides them with a lump sum of cash that they can use for home repairs (or other expenses). How much cash you might be able to take will depend on the amount of equity you have in your home.

•   Personal loan: An unsecured personal loan could be a good option for quick funding that doesn’t require using your home as collateral. The interest rate and whether you qualify are largely based on your credit score.

•   Credit card: Financing a home improvement with a credit card can help earn cash back or rewards on your investment. However, these perks should be weighed against the risk of higher interest rates. If using a 0% interest credit card, crunch the numbers to ensure you can pay off the balance before the introductory offer expires.

💡 Quick Tip: You can use money you get with a cash-out refi for any purpose, including home renovations, consolidating other high-interest debts, funding a child’s education, or buying another property.

The Takeaway

Tracking home improvement costs from the start can help stick to your project budget and lead to significant tax savings when it comes time to sell your property. A HELOC is one way to fund home improvements, and may be especially useful to borrowers who aren’t sure how much money they will need for home projects. If you’re unsure whether a home improvement qualifies under the IRS rules around capital gains tax on home sales, consult a tax professional.

SoFi now offers flexible HELOCs. Our HELOC options allow you to access up to 95% of your home’s value, or $500,000, at competitively low rates. And the application process is quick and convenient.

Unlock your home’s value with a home equity line of credit brokered by SoFi.

Photo credit: iStock/Cucurudza

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