Do you live overseas and own a house in Australia? If so, you may have less than five months to act before you’re stuck with a large tax bill on the sale of that property.
Proposed tax changes
In May 2017, the Australian Government proposed changes to the existing capital gains tax (‘CGT’) laws. These changes will affect tax non-residents who hold property in Australia that have previously lived in as their main residence.
Under the current laws, an Australian property that is your main residence can be sold with potentially no Australian tax to pay (or at least a significantly reduced amount of tax to pay to reflect the ‘main residence’ period you lived there). However, under the proposed changes, if you are a non-resident (for Australian tax purposes) at the date of sale, you will no longer be able to claim the ‘main residence exemption’. This means that the entire gain you make on selling the property could be subject to tax, with no reduction for the period you actually lived in the property.
Although these proposed changes were announced nearly two years ago, they are still not law. It appears that one of the reasons for this is because the changes are quite draconian given non-residents could be taxed on the entire gain made on the property sale (irrespective of whether the property was their main residence for a significant period of time).
Further, if legislated, the changes are proposed to apply retrospectively from 9 May 2017. Despite this, there is a proposed transitional period for properties purchased before 9 May 2017 and sold by 30 June 2019 (whereby the current rules will still apply, meaning they could potentially still obtain the ‘main residence exemption’).
For many people, this means they may have less than five months to decide whether to sell their property or be faced with a large tax bill.
What should you do between now and 30 June 2019?
The uncertainty surrounding whether these changes will become law can make accurate decision making very difficult.
Should you sell your property now? Is it the right time to sell? What happens if the changes don’t become law?
Whilst the answers to many of the questions is outside your control, if you answer these four questions below, the decision-making process should become a lot clearer.
1) Will I actually be affected?
Ask yourself “will these changes even affect me?”
These changes will only apply where you are a tax non-resident at the date of sale. If you intend to re-establish your tax residency in Australia, the changes may not apply to you.
For example, you may currently be overseas on secondment and intend to return to Australia in the future. If you don’t plan on selling your property before returning to Australia, then you should not be affected by the changes.
Alternatively, if you plan to move overseas permanently and sell your property whilst you are a tax non-resident, then you would be affected and may need to act fast.
2) Will I have a large tax bill?
Even if you are affected by the proposed changes, you may not have a large tax bill on your hands.
To determine this, calculate what your tax liability would be (if any) under the current law and then again applying the proposed changes. If these calculations do not give rise to a material tax difference, you mightn’t have anything to worry about with the proposed changes.
For example, if you bought your house two years ago there may’ve been little growth in the value of the property since that time, meaning there may be little tax to pay on sale.
Alternatively, if you bought your house 30 years ago and lived there for 25 years prior to moving overseas, you could be up for a large tax bill on the difference in the property’s value between when you acquired it and when you sold it. In these circumstances, the decision to sell your property before 30 June 2019 becomes more relevant.
3) Should I sell before 30 June?
As an investor, you should assess whether it is appropriate for you to sell your property before 30 June 2019. This decision should not be made hastily (especially in light of Australia’s current property market).
According to CoreLogic, Australia is currently facing its weakest property market since 2008. As a result, if you were to sell your property during the coming months, you may not achieve the sale price you’re after. Are you better off holding the property long term and selling it when the market recovers? In some instances, a lower sale price may even outweigh any tax saving you would make by selling before 30 June 2019.
However, if you don’t sell your property, consider any potential holding costs. These could include land tax and an annual vacancy fee if your property is not residentially occupied or rented out for more than 183 days in a year.
Also ask yourself “how does my property fit within my investment portfolio?”. If your property has a strong rental yield you mightn’t be in a rush to sell. On the flip side, would the sale of your property enable you to invest in other assets with a higher return?
4) Will I be able to sell before 30 June?
Even if you decide to sell before 30 June, is it possible?
The Australian property market has experienced a recent decrease in auction clearance rates to 43.6% in the last quarter of 20181. These market conditions could cause delays in the sale of your property and mean you can’t actually sell before 30 June 2019.
If you need to undertake renovations to spruce your property up before selling, this could contribute to additional delays. This means you may need to move fast if you want to sell before 30 June.
Although the potential changes may seem daunting, if you work through the 4 steps above, you may find out you’ve got nothing to worry about. Alternatively, if you do have a potentially large tax problem, by acting fast and tailoring a solution to your personal circumstances, you may be able to manage (or eliminate) the problem.
Should you require any assistance with working out how these tax measures might impact you or to tailor solutions to minimise any tax impacts, please contact your local William Buck advisor.
 As included in the CoreLogic Quarterly auction report to 31 December 2018