Your cottage and the principal residence exemption

Aug 01, 2019 | Bird Elinesky Schuett Private Wealth Management


An overview of the principal residence exemption and how it may apply to Canadian secondary or vacation properties

Two Muskoka chairs overlooking a lake

Your home. For many, it likely stands out as the largest purchase you’ve made as an individual or a family. And for some, depending on your circumstances, that may be followed by the purchase of a cottage or other type of Canadian vacation property.

When it comes to home or cottage ownership, the mindset is often buy it, enjoy it, maintain it (and potentially upgrade it over time), and then sell it or transfer it to the next generation. But what’s important to remember is that these properties may significantly increase in value over time, which can create a large tax liability when they get sold or passed down. This is where it may be very helpful to understand how the principal residence exemption (PRE) works, when it applies and how to effectively use it, especially when you own more than one property in Canada.

Note: The following information is an overview of considerations and strategies and may not necessarily apply to your particular financial circumstances. To ensure that your own situation has been properly considered and that action is taken based on the latest information available, you should consult with your qualified tax and legal advisors.

Principal residence: What qualifies?

A principal residence can include your house, apartment, condominium, cottage, chalet, cabin, mobile home, trailer, houseboat or shares in a cooperative building.

For a property to qualify, you have to own it (solely or jointly with one or more individuals), and you or your spouse, former spouse or child must have “ordinarily inhabited” the residence during some part of the year. When it comes to what constitutes “ordinarily inhabited,” the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) has stated that the requirements can be met even where the owner, the spouse or the children live in the property only for a short period of time. Specifically for cottage or seasonal property owners, this means if you stay there even for a brief vacation, it may be considered ordinarily inhabited for the year.

What about rental properties?

Do you rent your cottage or other secondary property over the course of the year? If so, this may impact whether it qualifies as a principal residence. In general, property you purchase that’s used mainly for earning income is not considered “ordinarily inhabited,” even if you stay in the property for some period of time. However, it is possible to earn incidental income (e.g. rental income) from a property and still claim it as your principal residence.

Capital gains tax

Any principal residence, because it’s owned primarily for your or your family’s use or enjoyment, is considered a personal-use property. When you sell or are deemed to dispose of the property (e.g. when an individual passes away), if the property has increased in value during the time you’ve owned it, you’ll realize a capital gain.

Note: The capital gain will be equal to your sale proceeds minus the adjusted cost base (ACB) of the property. The ACB is normally the purchase price plus any expenses to acquire it (e.g. commissions, legal fees). The ACB also includes capital expenditures, such as the cost of additions and improvements to the property.

In general, you’re required to pay tax on the capital gain resulting from the sale (or deemed disposition) of a personal-use property, unless there’s a specific exemption. That’s where the PRE comes into play, because it can reduce or eliminate this capital gain.

Basic PRE calculations

When you sell (or are deemed to dispose of) your principal residence and there’s a capital gain, this is the formula used to determine the exemption amount:

formula for tax exempt capital gain: 1 + Number of years property is designated as principal residence divide by Number of years property is owned after 1971 multiply by Capital gain = Tax-exempt capital gain

* You must have been resident in Canada during these years to qualify.

Note: The “1” in the formula represents one additional taxation year of exemption room (called the “one-plus rule”). This accounts for the fact that in some cases, you may dispose of a principal residence in one year and acquire a replacement residence in the same year, and you wouldn’t otherwise be allowed to designate both properties as a principal residence for that year.

The importance of 1981

When designating your principal residence for tax purposes, for years up to and including 1981, it is possible for each family member to designate a different property, and therefore you can make use of the exemption for each property. For ownership years from 1982 and onward, however, you can only designate one principal residence per family unit (spouses and minor children) in a particular year.

Another important year: 1994

In 1994, the government removed the then $100,000 capital gains exemption, but allowed you to file a special one-time election on your 1994 tax return to claim this exemption against capital gains accrued to that date. If you made this election and still own that property today, make sure the revised cost base is taken into consideration when you sell (or dispose of) it.

Applying the exemption

If your primary house and secondary property in Canada both qualify as principal residences, then for any period after 1981 where you owned both properties, you should determine which property, on average, has the largest annual increase in value.

You may be able to maximize the PRE if you designate this property as the family’s principal residence for the maximum number of years. And remember, the maximum number of years a property needs to be designated is the number of years of ownership, minus one (because of the one-plus rule) to fully exempt the gain.

illustrated cabin cottage with fence

Did you know?

Before the year 1972, capital gains weren’t taxed in Canada. So, if you’ve owned your home or vacation property since before 1972, only the increase in value since December 31, 1971, will be used to calculate the gain.

An example

Mrs. Jackson acquired a city home 23 years ago for $70,000 and its fair market value today is $325,000. She also purchased a cottage 18 years ago for $90,000, which her family uses during the summer, and its current fair market value is $260,000. Mrs. Jackson is thinking of selling both properties this year. Since the city home was the only residence Mrs. Jackson owned for the five years prior to purchasing the cottage, she can only designate the city home as her principal residence for these five years.

To figure out the best option for the time period where she can designate either the city home or the cottage as her principal residence, she calculates the average annual increase in value for each home:

  • The city home value increased by approximately $10,625 per year: ($325,000 – $70,000) ÷ 24 years (total years of ownership including the year of sale).
  • The cottage value increased by roughly $8,947 per year: ($260,000 – $90,000) ÷ 19 years (total years of ownership including the year of sale).

To maximize the PRE, Mrs. Jackson should designate the city home as her principal residence for 18 out of the 19 years she owned both properties. (She doesn’t need to designate it for the entire 19-year period because of the one-plus rule.) For the cottage, Mrs. Jackson can designate it as her principal residence for one year and the one-plus rule will allow her to exempt a total of two years’ worth of gains. In other words, the PRE shields the entire capital gain on the city house of $255,000 from taxes and potentially $17,894 of capital gains on the cottage.

How to designate a principal residence

When you sell your principal residence (or are deemed to dispose of it), you have to report the disposition and make the principal residence designation on your income tax return for the year.


Source: Perspectives - Volume 7, Issue 1, Spring 2019