How to Pay Zero Taxes, Minimize Risk & Keep Your Sanity While Live-In Flipping

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I’ve been flipping houses since 1998. My investment model is the “live-in flip,” where I live in the home as I remodel it. This strategy definitely has its ups and downs, but it’s an excellent way to dip your toes into the rehab market to see if you like it rather than diving headfirst into the deep end only to discover it’s not for you.

Let’s look at the pros and cons of live-in flipping.

Baby Steps

I bought my first investment property because I was sick of paying rent. I found a 2-bedroom condo that I could afford — my mortgage payment was $7 more than my monthly rent payment. My brother lived in the second bedroom and went to school nearby.

The condo had good cabinets, ugly flooring, and a broken dishwasher when I bought it “as-is.”

I kept the cabinets, replaced the linoleum floor with ceramic tile, fixed the one broken piece in the dishwasher, and painted the whole place.

I bought this jewel for $49,900 and sold it 4 years later for $76,250. And since I lived there, I was able to leverage the purchase with a lower rate, owner-occupied mortgage.

The property was habitable when I bought it, and there were relatively few repairs. I didn’t spend the whole time I lived there working on the house, and if I would have decided that it wasn’t for me, I wasn’t going to be stuck with a half-finished rehab project.

My first project — and the profits I pocketed tax-free — showed me this was indeed my thing.

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Take It Slow

Because I purposely chose a project that wasn’t enormous, I didn’t have to work non-stop to complete it. The property was habitable from day one, so I completed repairs as I had money and time.

As I progressed to other homes with larger-scale rehabs, I was still living in them and still taking my time. For tax reasons, I couldn’t sell the property for two years. Taking my time with the rehab took off a lot of the pressure.

It’s been a while since that first investment property, and my life has changed considerably. I have a full-time job and two kids, and I don’t want to try to juggle all that with another full-time job running a remodeling business in order to scale up. (I won the employment lottery when I got the job here at BiggerPockets, and I have zero interest in leaving.)

Related: Flipping Houses: The Ultimate Step by Step Guide

Living in the home that I’m working on allows me to continue to invest without the time-sucking commute. I don’t have to drive over to my flip, I’m already there.

I Pay ZERO Taxes

In 1997, Congress passed the Taxpayer Relief Act, effectively relieving me of paying any capital gains taxes — as long as I follow a few rules.

  1. I have to live there. It must be my primary residence in order for me to realize any tax breaks.
  2. I have to own the home and live in it for two of the last five years.

It’s a government program — of COURSE there are more rules than just these two, but they are the main points. If I follow these rules, I can write off up to $500,000 in capital gains. (I can do this because I’m married. If I were single, I could write off up to $250,000 in capital gains.)

And that’s G-A-I-N-S, not just the difference between purchase and sale price. Keep meticulous track of your expenses while you rehab the house to maximize your profits.

Yes, it’s difficult to hit that $500k profit on a rehab — you REALLY have to find a smoking hot deal. I found one in 2012 that would have probably netted me way more than $500k in profits, but it was an all-cash deal, I hadn’t yet discovered BiggerPockets, and all my cash was tied up in my home. Talk about the one that got away…

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Reduce Risk

My live-in flip model reduces my investment risk a couple of different ways. First off, I have to live somewhere, so I’m only paying one mortgage or one set of holding costs — costs I would already be paying even if I weren’t working on the home.

Second, I am under no time crunch. The holding costs are part of my living expenses, and the tax write-offs dictate I live in the home for at least two years.

If the home doesn’t sell immediately — or takes me longer to finish the rehab — that’s OK because I still need a home to live in.

But It’s Not ALL Rosy…

There ARE negatives to the live-in flip.

  1. It’s not scaleable. If you’re doing it for the tax benefits, you can only sell a property once every two years. And if you’re not doing it for the tax benefits, it makes the whole process a lot less appealing.
  2. It can be a HUGE drag on your psyche. The construction zone is a mess, and it can be extremely depressing to come home to every single night, then wake up in again the next morning.

Keys to Keeping Your Sanity While Living Through the Flip

So how DO you live through all that mess and still be mentally competent? Prepare in advance. While you can’t predict everything, there are some things you can do to make your experience smoother sailing.

Organize yourself.

This is a vital point to hammer home. If you do not have an organized place to work, you will descend into chaos, which will drive you straight to the mental hospital. Know where your tools are. Know what the next few steps are on any project, and have backup projects to work on when you hit a snag or finish faster than you expect. (Pro tip: You will never finish faster than you expect.)

Related: 4 HGTV-Level Upgrades to Make Your Flip Stand Out

Knowing where your tools are is a HUGE time saver. I have multiple copies of numerous tools because at some point, I couldn’t find it when I needed it, and I needed it right then and there. Somehow, I always live close to a big box home improvement store, and sometimes it’s just been easier to go buy another. Get yourself a tool belt, and wear it proudly. Be the pro you are.

Knowing the order of things to be done can also be a huge time saver — if you run into a snag with one project, your entire workday isn’t wasted. Just move on to the next phase or project until you can resume the original task.

Prepare for demolition and drywall mess.

OK, this is kind of a misnomer because there is no way to prepare for the level of mess that demolition and drywall creates. Think of a toddler with an open bottle of baby powder. Times a million.

You can tape and tarp as much as you want, but drywall dust will get everywhere. When you tear down the old, the dust gets into every crack and crevice you didn’t even know you had. When you put the new drywall up, the mess finds all new cracks and crevices you didn’t know you had. In fact, drywall is one of the jobs I recommend hiring out. They do it better and faster than you, for slightly more than it would cost you in materials alone. Honestly, it would be a bargain at 12 times the price.

The only way to possibly prepare for these steps of the process is to get as much of your stuff out of the house as possible. Put it in storage or put it in the garage. Even putting it in some other part of the house with doors closed and a towel in front of the space at the bottom of the door will help, although don’t be fooled into thinking that will eliminate the mess — because it won’t.

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Clean as you go.

It goes without saying that your home isn’t going to be in pristine condition at all times. Construction is messy. But it doesn’t take much time to tidy up at the end of your workday, and you should plan a little time to make sure you aren’t tracking dust into other parts of the house. Put your tools back where they belong so you can find them when you need them. We always set up tool shelves in a central part of the house so we could find them easily. In theory. But every once in a while we wouldn’t put it back in the right spot, couldn’t find it, and had to run to purchase a new one. I have 12 utility knives. And those are just the ones that I can find right now. Sigh.

Plan downtime.

Living in the flip is draining, so we planned breaks. Some were full-blown vacations, while others were just a weekend away or even simply a night off. Taking a mental health break is vital to avoiding a meltdown.

Keep your focus.

The whole reason for living in a home during a flip is to save money. Whether on rent or avoiding capital gains taxes when you sell, living in a flip can save you significant cash. It can also test your reserve. Keeping your focus on the end result can help you keep your sanity.

Have you lived in a home you’ve flipped? What are your tips for a successful live-in flip?

Let me know your thoughts with a comment!

About Author

Mindy Jensen

Mindy has flipped numerous homes in the past 10 years, one at a time and doing much of the work with her husband. She lives in Longmont, CO, and is always looking for an ugly duckling to turn into a swan.

23 Comments

  1. margaret smith on

    Honestly, Mindy, this is such a great article because everything in it is TRUE!! This is how I started also, back in our first house purchased in Atlanta in 1979. WE bought the worst house in a great neighborhood, with some seller financing, so not only did we gain sweat equity over our 2 years of work, we had great appreciation. We were absolutely flummoxed at the gain we pocketed at sale. I have now done this several more times, completely taking my time as I go, and have never done poorly with this.

    It does help to know what the latest fashions are in decor, as tile, floors, hardware, cabinets, counters and backsplashes, appliances, shower space, etc- all change quickly now. Better get to some high end open houses to investigate unless you want to bet the farm on some old fuddy duddy ideas of what is “hot”! If you don’t know, ASK someone knowledgeable!

    Also- Better have a flexible attitude toward your lifestyle, which will be completely re-shaped during the course of this experience, for better or worse!

  2. Joshua D.

    Great thoughts! Having just sold our 2 live in flip (we bought it 2 years ago) we are loving this process. The only thing we did different on the 3rd one is that we rehabbed the entire inside of the house while we were waiting for the last sale to close. We got to move into a beautiful home and NO MESS, while still being able to make a great tax free profit. The outside of the house and the yard still need major work but that is fine cuz we aint livin in the mess.
    I think we will do this from now on out, as my wife really don’t like living in a construction zone.

  3. Mark Douglas

    Hit the nail on the head! I’m going through my first live-in rehab (working on both sides of a duplex, one side vacant) and it has taken longer than I planned, and cost more than I’d planned for! But as you said, I still need a place to live in the meantime, so it’s working out. (That being said, I do need to hurry and finish so I can rent out the units and start making some money again lol)

    Great article !

    • Mindy Jensen

      I hear you, Mark. I’ve never had a flip go according to schedule – there’s ALWAYS some delay, and usually out of my hands!

      Focus on the unit you aren’t living in to get some cashflow going to help offset costs until you can buy another one and move to repeat the process!

  4. Chad Carson

    LOVE this strategy, Mindy! I don’t know why more people don’t take advantage of this, at least for a season of their live. When you can flip 2-3 houses and own your home free and clear or have a chunk of equity to start your rental business – why wouldn’t you???

    Oh yeah, it’s hard. But so is getting stuck to a job you don’t love for multiple decades. And so is not having enough money to retire in comfort.

    Seems like the dust is worth it to me.

  5. Rick Santasiere

    Love it Mindy. I bought a condo (my first home) in 1997 for $49,500, and sold for $74,000 2-3 year later.. Talk about close figures for our first:-) I only painted and carpeted. But I had roommates for the time I lived there (which paid my entire mortgage), leaving me with the HOA fees, electricity, and gas. Thank for sharing.

  6. Roger Keyes

    Great article. I’m currently on my 3rd live-in-fix-then-rent. I consider myself hardcore; I moved into my last two houses and they didn’t even have a working sink, toilet or HVAC. It was more like camping and I’ve had police show up because they thought I was squatting….<– I've never been so motivated to get plumbing fixed in my life. After doing three live-in-fix-then-rents that I paid cash for, I realized, with the skills i picked up, I could leverage my three, recently-renovated house to pay cash for other houses in slightly better shape. Leverage one to buy another, rent it, then leverage that one to buy the next, rent it, etc. Live-and-flip enables one and give them the confidence they need to manage risk while chasing cash-flow. Great article.

  7. Can you claim a flip residence as your primary while your spouse and children live in another? Let’s say hypothetically I live in home1 while I flip for two years while my family is in home2. IRS cool with that? I would think not but thought I’d ask and hope they haven’t clearly defined the rules.

    • Mindy Jensen

      Hi Ben.

      Are you asking about deducting the cost of, say tools like a nail gun? Those costs don’t count toward rehab costs. It is the materials and labor if you are paying someone else. I don’t believe you can deduct the cost of your own labor.

  8. Jerome Kaidor

    I’ve done this too. Sort of. My first house, bought in 1980. Lived in it for 16 years and built a 460-foot house addition. Sold it for $200K more than I paid. Of course, some of that was just 16 years of appreciation. We bought another house in a better neighborhood. Replaced endless rotted decks, remodeled the kitchen, lived there for 15 years, sold it for $500K more than we paid for it.

    Now on my third house. A foreclosure. It had been vandalized. They removed all the appliances, busted up the fireplace, blinds, shower heads etc. The most painful thing was the two central air conditioners. The downstairs furnace was gone as well as both condensers.

    I sold a collector car, bought new appliances and installed them. Cracked the books for a few weeks, took a test, and became a licensed HVAC technician. Then replaced the air conditioners. Last year, the house appraised for $400K more than I paid for it, and another very similar house down the street sold for $300K more than THAT.

    Over the years, we have occasionally pulled equity out of our house to buy multifamily buildings. We now have 73 units….

  9. Lee Nguyen

    This speaks out to me on so many levels. I also bought a 2bdrm condo that was relatively small, bought as is, and had no real issue except for a bad refrigerator and leaky toilet. I wanted something small and needed updating. I lived in it for two years making repairs as I go, doing the projects as soon as I had the funds. I bought it as a short-sale at 66.5k and with all the work is now worth around 130k. I haven’t sold it. I rented it for almost double than what it cost to live just live there (HOA + Mortgage), and I took a HELOC out.

    Going through this experience was incredibly enlightening on so many levels like you mentioned. Cleanliness, organization, and preparation for any rehab project goes a long way for when you start, do, and finish the project. The financial side was something I didn’t learn until halfway when I actually started keeping track of all the cost.

    The project was mentally draining. It was rough balancing the Navy and the rehab. There were times I just wanted to go nuts. Your note on planning downtime is right on. I

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