Home Improvement and Residential Energy Tax Credits

A Credit Is Still Available for Sustainable Home Improvements Through 2021

Construction worker installing insulation between ceiling struts
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Homeowners can claim a federal tax credit for making certain improvements to their homes or installing appliances that are designed to boost energy efficiency. This is known as the Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit; solar, wind, geothermal, and fuel cell technology are all eligible. However, these credits will only apply to home modifications made through the end of 2021. When filing your taxes for tax years 2019, 2020, and 2021, take note of the adjustments that happen year to year.

The Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit

There are three applicable percentages you can claim.

  1. 30% for property placed in service after December 31, 2016, and before January 1, 2020.
  2. 26% for property placed in service after December 31, 2019, and before January 1, 2021.
  3. 22% for property placed in service after December 31, 2020, and before January 1, 2022.

Whichever tax credit you are eligible for is a percentage of the cost of alternative energy equipment that's installed on or in a home, including the cost of installation. Solar hot water heaters, solar electric equipment, wind turbines, and fuel cell property are examples of equipment eligible for the tax credit.

There's no dollar limit on the credit for most types of property, although the credit for fuel cells is capped at $500 per half-kilowatt of power capacity. Installing a fuel cell with a 4-kW capacity would earn you a $4,000 tax credit.

This tax credit isn't refundable, but the unused portion can be credited to the following year’s tax return if the credit is more than any tax you owe.

The home must be located in the United States, but it doesn't have to be the taxpayer’s main residence unless the alternative energy equipment is a qualified fuel cell property. In this case, the equipment must be installed in your principal residence. Both existing homes and homes under construction are eligible.

Take note that you cannot claim the residential solar credit for your rental properties. For you to be eligible for the tax credit, you must live in that property for part of the year, only using it as a rental when you're away.

The Non-Business Energy Property Credit

This tax credit has unfortunately expired, but you can still claim it for tax years prior to 2018 if you haven't filed yet or if you go back and amend a previous year's tax return.

The first part of this credit was worth 10% of the cost of qualified energy-saving equipment or items added to a taxpayer’s main home in the past year. For example, energy-efficient exterior windows and doors, certain roofs, and added insulation all qualify, but costs associated with the installation weren't included.

The second part of the credit isn't a percentage of the cost, but it does include the installation costs of some high-efficiency heating and air-conditioning systems, water heaters, and biomass fuel stoves. Different types of property have different dollar limits.

The main home must have been located in the United States to qualify for the credit, and it was only available for existing homes, not homes that were under construction.

This wasn't a particularly generous tax credit. The credit for home insulation, exterior doors, certain roofing materials, and exterior windows and skylights was just 10% of the cost. You could deduct 100% of energy-related property costs, but this portion of the credit had a maximum lifetime limit of $500—you couldn't claim $500 per year.

And you'll need written certification from the manufacturer that a product qualified for the tax credit, which is typically found on the manufacturer's website or in the product’s packaging. Taxpayers should not attach this to their tax returns, but keep it on hand with your other tax records.

Energy Tax Credits Reduce Your Cost Basis

You must reduce the cost basis of your home by the dollar amount you claim for the residential energy tax credits. The IRS explains in Publication 523 that you need to reduce your basis by points the seller paid you. If you had a hand in building a portion or the entirety of your house yourself, its basis is the total amount it cost to complete it.

What does this mean? Let's say you bought your home for $250,000 and sold it for $300,000. Your cost basis is $250,000, assuming you didn't make any other improvements that did not result in claiming a residential energy tax credit. You would have capital gains of $50,000—the difference between $300,000 and $250,000—and capital gains are taxable.

Now let's say that you claimed that $4,000 tax credit from your fuel cell earlier on. Because you must subtract this from your cost basis, your gain increases to $54,000, or $300,000 less $246,000.

Energy Credits Tax Forms and Instructions

Complete and file IRS Form 5695 with your tax return to claim either the Residential Renewable Energy tax credit in current and future years or the Non-Business Energy Property tax credit for prior years, remembering that the tax credit no longer applies to years prior to tax year 2018. You'll need the 2017 version of Form 5695 if you want to amend a previous year's return to claim this credit. This will no longer be applicable when filing your taxes in 2021 for tax year 2020.

Article Sources

  1. Congressional Research Service. “Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Incentives: A Summary of Federal Programs,” Page 30. Accessed Feb. 13, 2020.

  2. IRS. "Energy Incentives for Individuals: Residential Property Updated Questions and Answers." Accessed Feb. 13, 2020.

  3. DSIRE. “Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit.” Accessed Feb. 13, 2020.

  4. Legal Information Institute. “26 U.S. Code § 25D. Residential Energy Efficient Property.” Accessed Feb. 13, 2020.

  5. TurboTax. "Federal Tax Credit for Residential Solar Energy." Accessed Feb. 13, 2020.

  6. IRS. “Instructions for Form 5695 (2019) Residential Energy Credits,” Pages 1-4. Accessed Feb. 13, 2020.

  7. IRS. "Instructions for Form 5695 (2018)." Accessed Feb. 13, 2020.

  8. TurboTax. "Energy Tax Credit: Which Home Improvements Qualify?" Accessed Feb. 13, 2020.

  9. IRS. "Publication 523," Page 9. Accessed Feb. 13, 2020.