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Understanding Installment Sales


The majority of sales and purchases of property are usually settled by the buyer paying the seller an agreed on lump sum up front. However, there are circumstances when it makes sense to structure the sale of property so that payments will be received in installments over a number of years. What are those circumstances and what are the tax consequences of such transactions?

When an Installment Sale Makes Sense

An installment sale can be helpful if a potential buyer of your property lacks sufficient cash to pay the full purchase price in a lump sum. The interested party suggests an installment sale in which he or she makes a partial payment now and pays the balance over several years, with interest.

An installment sale may be something to consider if you want to sell a business or a rental property but there has been limited interest from prospective buyers. It can also be an attractive option for tax planning purposes. With an installment sale, you spread out the capital gain (and the tax liability) on the sale over the years you receive payments rather than reporting the income in a single year. By spreading out the income, an installment sale may help keep your income within a desired tax bracket and reduce your potential exposure to alternative minimum tax, net investment income tax, and tax on any Social Security retirement benefits you are receiving.

The Tax Rules

The rules on installment sales are complex and can trap the unwary. Since you receive payments over more than one tax year, you can defer a portion of any taxable gains realized on the sale. Your total gain on an installment sale is generally the amount by which the selling price of the property you sold exceeds your adjusted basis in that property. The selling price includes the money and the fair market value of any property you received for the sale of the property, any of your selling expenses paid by the buyer, and any existing debt on the property that the buyer assumed or paid.

When you report the sale on your tax return, you include in income each year only the part of the gain you receive or are considered to have received. You do not include in income the part of the payment that is a return of your basis in the property. You have to report interest on an installment sale as ordinary income. Essentially, an installment sale allows you to pay your taxes over time as you collect from the buyer.

What's Not Allowable

The installment sales method is not available for sales of publicly traded securities and certain other sales. You have the option of electing out of installment sale treatment and reporting your entire gain in the year of sale. Electing out may be advantageous under certain circumstances: for example, if you have a large capital loss that can offset your entire capital gain in the year of the sale.

Before entering into an installment sale, we recommend that you consult with a tax professional.