Explaining California Prop 13 transfer rules. Proposition 13 capped property taxes at one percent, but what happens when you transfer home ownership?

Q: The family trust has one piece of real estate in California. If a buyer wants to protect the low Proposition 13 basis, may he or she “buy” the trusteeship and pay the purchase price through the trust to the current beneficiaries? 

We’re thinking that the buyer loans money to the trust, the buyer then becomes the new trustee, the new trustee distributes the purchase price to the beneficiaries. The trust still has complete title to the land, its low tax basis, and the beneficiaries waive any claims against the trust. My guess is that this is a first-time question, but hoping you have some thoughts on the subject.

A: We’re going to start with a disclaimer: Our column can’t give you legal advice. For that you’ll have to talk to an attorney in California. 

But, here’s one thought to consider: There’s a fine line between avoiding a tax or evading a tax. If you can avoid paying tax, it might be legal, but when you evade tax payments, it’s probably illegal. 

Explaining California Prop 13 Transfer Rules and Reassessment Triggers

Our California readers will know this, but for our readers in the rest of the country (and abroad), California Proposition 13 (officially named the People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation), was approved by voters in June, 1978. It reduced property taxes on homes, businesses and farms substantially, by around 57 percent, rolling back property values (for tax purposes) to where they were in 1976. Prior to that move, Californians paid property tax at a rate of just under 3 percent of market value, which would have made it one of the highest property tax rates in the country.

Proposition 13 capped real estate property taxes at the rate of one percent of the sales price of the home. Property taxes are only reassessed when the property is sold and as long as it isn’t sold, tax increases are limited to 2 percent. Here’s a simple example: If a home was worth $100,000 in 1976, the homeowners paid $1,000 in property taxes, which increased at a rate of 2 percent every year since. If the home was sold last year for $2 million, the property taxes would be reassessed at around $20,000. 

California may have certain allowances to transfer home ownership between spouses and even children (in the event of divorce or death) that may have a limited effect on assessment of the real estate taxes. And California homeowners may have the ability to transfer the low tax basis from their existing home to a new home they purchase. For example, under certain conditions of other California laws, seniors may have two years to sell their homes and buy or build a replacement property, and receive a property tax break.

Can You Sell the Underlying Ownership Structure in a Home to a Third Party and Keep the Low Real Estate Taxes You’re Currently Paying?

But it doesn’t seem like that’s what you’re really asking. We read your question as wondering whether you can sell the underlying ownership structure in the home to a third party and keep the low real estate taxes you’re currently paying. 

In many parts of the country, municipalities have addressed these change of control situations by specifically stating that a change in control of the underlying ownership is considered a sale for purposes of real estate taxes and real estate transfer taxes. If you do some digging, or speak with a reputable real estate attorney, you’ll probably find out that California has a change of control provision in its regulations so that a person can’t do what you are describing in your question. Otherwise, you’d see everyone setting up trusts and selling trust interests without triggering the increase in real estate taxes.

You aren’t the first one to ask this question, by the way. And, kudos on thinking creatively. However, over the course of Sam’s law practice, he saw commercial property owners who avoided paying hefty real estate transfer taxes on the sale of commercial properties by doing what you describe but using corporations or limited liability companies instead of trusts. It didn’t take long for the local municipalities to cry foul and pass an ordinance or rule stating that a change of control in the underlying entity would be equivalent to the sale of the property itself.

We hope this helps.

More on Topics Related to Prop 13 Transfer Rules, Transferring Home Ownership and Property Taxes

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How Are Property Taxes Calculated?

Transfer of Homeownership: What Taxes Will I Pay When I Sell?

Which States Have the Highest Property Taxes?

Transferring Homeownership During Refinance

Tax Implications of Transferring Home Ownership

Quit Claim Deed Vs. Warranty Deed To Transfer Property Ownership From Father to Son

What Are the Tax Implications of Joint Property Ownership?

Will Adding Child to Title Increase Property Taxes?

When No One in the Family Wants to Pay Property Taxes, What Can You Do?