The decision to trade in or sell your vehicle is not so easy if you’ve used that vehicle for business.
Selling a vehicle outright or trading it in towards a new vehicle usually involves analyzing the economics of the transaction. However, tax factors can start to complicate things if that vehicle was used in your business.
Generally, a gain or loss on the sale of a business asset is determined by the difference between the sales price and basis (your cost for tax purposes). Basis is typically your original cost less depreciation deductions claimed for the asset over the years.
Under the tax-free swap rules, trading an old business asset for a new, like-kind asset doesn’t result in a current gain or loss. The basis in the new asset will be the remaining basis in the old asset plus any cash paid on the deal.
So if your car was used exclusively in business and depreciated down to a zero, or very low basis, trading in the car can avoid current tax. Here is an example:
Mary originally purchased her car for $35,000. The car is used exclusively for business and Mary has deducted depreciation of $33,000 over the years. Mary’s remaining basis is $2,000. Mary has an offer to sell her car for $7,000. If Mary accepts the offer she will have a taxable gain of $5,000. If, however, Mary decides to accept a trade-in of $7,000 for the car she will not recognize any gain. The basis in the new car will be Mary’s basis in the original car ($2,000) plus any cash she paid to trade-up.
Alternately, you would choose to sell the car if the depreciation was limited by annual depreciation dollar caps. In this situation, your basis in the old car may exceed its value. If you sell the car you will recognize a tax loss. If you trade the car in, you would not recognize the loss under the tax free swap rules.
What if you used the standard mileage allowance to deduct car-related expenses?
The standard mileage allowance has a built-in allowance for depreciation, which must be reflected in the basis of the car. For 2016, the deemed depreciation is 24¢ for every business mile traveled. This method may leave you with a higher basis when the car is sold. Therefore, the car should be sold rather than used as a trade-in to recognize the tax loss.