Friday, June 25, 2010

Deduct Mortgage Interest and Home Equity Loans

Deducting mortgage interest, as well as interest on home equity loans and HELOCs, can save money on taxes. Deducting mortgage interest is a great tax benefit that can make homeownership more affordable. Your first mortgage isn’t the only loan that qualifies, either. In many cases, you can also deduct interest on home equity loans, second mortgages, and home equity lines of credit, or HELOCs.

If you want to deduct all of your mortgage interest, there are limits on both how much money you can borrow and on what you do with the money you get. You also need to itemize your return to reap the benefits of these deductions. Calculations can be complicated, so consult a tax adviser.

Know your loan limits
A good place to check out what you can deduct before you borrow is the chart on page 3 of IRS Publication 936. It’ll walk you through the requirements you must meet to deduct all of your home loan interest. It’s an hour well spent.

The first hurdle you’ll run into is the total amount of your loan or loans. In general, individuals and couples filing jointly can deduct the interest on up to $1 million ($500,000 if you’re married and filing separately) in combined home loans, as long as the money was used for acquisition costs, that is the cost to buy, build, or substantially improve a home, explains Scott O’Sullivan, a certified public accountant with Margolin, Winer & Evens in Garden City, N.Y. Any interest paid on loan amounts above the $1 million threshold isn’t deductible.

The same $1 million limit applies whether you have one home or two. Buying a vacation home doesn’t double your loan limits. And two homes is the max; you can’t deduct a mortgage for a third home. If you have a mortgage you took out before Oct. 13, 1987, you have fewer restrictions on claiming a full deduction. The calculations for “grandfathered debt” can get complex, so get help from a tax professional or refer to IRS Publication 936.

Whatever you do, don’t forget that you can also deduct the points and fees associated with a first or second mortgage when you initially buy your home, says Jeff Rattiner, a CPA with JR Financial Group in Centennial, Colo. If you refinance the same house, you have to deduct those costs over the entire term of the loan. If you refinance again, you can deduct all the costs from the earlier refi in the year you take out the new loan.

Spend loan proceeds wisely
The other limitation on how much you can borrow and still get your deduction comes into play when you take out a home equity loan or HELOC that you don’t use to buy, build, or improve your home. In that case, you can deduct the interest you pay only on the first $100,000 ($50,000 if married filing separately). This loan limit also applies in a so-called cash-out refi, in which you refinance and take out part of the equity you’ve built up as cash, says John R. Lieberman, a CPA with Perelson Weiner in New York City.

That means if you decide to take out a $115,000 home equity loan to buy that Porsche, you can deduct the interest on the first $100,000 but not on the $15,000 that exceeds the limit. Use the same $115,000 to add a new bedroom, however, and the full amount is allowable under the $1 million cap. Keep in mind, though, that the $115,000 gets added into the pot of whatever else you owe on your other home loans. In many cases, points and loan origination costs for HELOCs are deductible.

Consider this simplified scenario: You borrow $250,000 against your home at 8% interest. That means you’ll pay $20,000 in interest the first year. Spend the $250,000 on home improvements, and all of the interest is deductible. Spend $150,000 on improvements and $100,000 on your kids’ college tuition, and all the interest is still deductible.

But spend $100,000 on improvements and $150,000 on tuition, and the improvement outlays are deductible but $50,000 of the tuition expense isn’t. That’ll cost you $4,000 in interest deductions. Preserve the $4,000 deduction by coming up with the extra money for tuition from another source, perhaps a low-interest student loan or by borrowing from a retirement plan. In 2009, lowering your taxable income by $4,000 to $96,000 would’ve cut your tax bill by $988.

Beware the dreaded AMT
Even if you’ve followed all the loan limit rules, you can still get stuck paying tax on mortgage interest. How come? It’s all thanks to the Alternative Minimum Tax. Congress created the AMT, which limits or eliminates many deductions, as a way to keep the wealthy from dodging their fair share of taxes.

Calculating the AMT can be complex, but if you make more than $75,000 and have several kids or other deductions, you might well be subject to it. Problem is, if you fall into the AMT group, you may not be able to deduct interest on a home equity loan, even if the loan falls within the $1 million/$100,000 limit. If you’re subject to the AMT and borrow money against the value of your home, you’ll have to use it to buy, build, or improve your place, or you may not have a chance to deduct the interest, says Rattiner, the Colorado CPA.

This article provides general information about tax laws and consequences, but is not intended to be relied upon by readers as tax or legal advice applicable to particular transactions or circumstances. Readers should consult a tax professional for such advice, and are reminded that tax laws may vary by jurisdiction.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Mortgage rates return to 2010 low

The low rates, combined with weakened housing prices, provide a great opportunity for homebuyers. Yet many markets are still far from a turnaround.

[Related content: homes, interest rates, mortgage, loans, financial planning]
Mortgage rates have fallen to their lowest point for the year.

The benchmark 30-year fixed-rate mortgage fell 5 basis points over the past week, to an average of 5.07%, according to the national survey of large lenders. (A basis point is one-hundredth of a percentage point.) That ties the 2010 low from the March 17 survey.

The mortgages in the latest survey had an average total of 0.42 discount and origination points. One year ago, the mortgage index was 5.21%; it was also 5.21% four weeks ago.

Check mortgage rates near historical lows

The benchmark 15-year fixed-rate mortgage slipped 4 basis points, to an average of 4.45%. The benchmark 5/1 adjustable-rate mortgage also dropped 4 basis points, to 4.27%.

Invisible fall
But if mortgage rates tumble across America and nobody sees the drop, does it really happen? $150 million home for sale

When the stock market suddenly plunged nearly 1,000 points in a few minutes May 6, mortgage rates also collapsed. By some accounts, rates fell to about 4.5% on the 30-year fixed and below 4% for some adjustable-rate mortgages.

But mortgage professionals say the rock-bottom borrowing costs didn't last long and went largely unnoticed by the public.

"I think it kinda sailed over everyone's heads because everyone was hypnotized by the crash in the stock market," says Jeff Lazerson, the president of Mortgage Grader in Laguna Niguel, Calif.

Chris Sipe, a senior loan officer at Embrace Home Loans in Frederick, Md., says that when rates fell, he experienced a "little pop" in refinance activity -- but mostly because he called clients to alert them to the unexpected opportunity.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Tax Breaks on Capital Improvements to Your Home

Keeping track of the cost of capital improvements to your home can really pay off on your tax return when it comes time to sell. It’s no secret that finishing your basement will increase your home’s value. What you may not know is the money you spend on this type of so-called capital improvement could also help lower your tax bill when you sell your house.

Tax rules let you add capital improvement expenses to the cost basis of your home. Why is that a big deal? Because a higher cost basis lowers the total profit—capital gain, in IRS-speak—you’re required to pay taxes on.

The tax break doesn’t come into play for everyone. Most homeowners are exempted from paying taxes on the first $250,000 of profit for single filers ($500,000 for joint filers). If you move frequently, maybe it’s not worth the effort to track capital improvement expenses. But if you plan to live in your house a long time or make lots of upgrades, saving receipts is a smart move.

What counts as a capital improvement?
While you may consider all the work you do to your home an improvement, the IRS looks at things differently. A rule of thumb: A capital improvement increases your home’s value, while a non-eligible repair just returns something to its original condition. According to the IRS, capital improvements have to last for more than one year and add value to your home, prolong its life, or adapt it to new uses.

Capital improvements can include everything from a new bathroom or deck to a new water heater or furnace. Page 9 of IRS Publication 523 has a list of eligible improvements. There are limitations. The improvements must still be evident when you sell. So if you put in wall-to-wall carpeting 10 years ago and then replaced it with hardwood floors five years ago, you can’t count the carpeting as a capital improvement. Repairs, like painting your house or fixing sagging gutters, don’t count. The IRS describes repairs as things that are done to maintain a home’s good condition without adding value or prolonging its life.

There can be a fine line between a capital improvement and a repair, says Erik Lammert, tax research specialist at the National Association of Tax Professionals. For instance, if you replace a few shingles on your roof, it’s a repair. If you replace the entire roof, it’s a capital improvement. Same goes for windows. If you replace a broken window pane, repair. Put in a new window, capital improvement. One exception: If your home is damaged in a fire or natural disaster, everything you do to restore your home to its pre-loss condition counts as a capital improvement.

How capital improvements affect your gain
To figure out how improvements affect your tax bill, you first have to know your cost basis. The cost basis is the amount of money you spent to buy or build your home including all the costs you paid at the closing: fees to lawyers, survey charges, transfer taxes, and home inspection, to name a few. You should be able to find all those costs on the settlement statement you received at your closing.

Next, you’ll need to account for any subsequent capital improvements you made to your home. Let’s say you bought your home for $200,000 including all closing costs. That’s the initial cost basis. You then spent $25,000 to remodel your kitchen. Add those together and you get an adjusted cost basis of $225,000.

Now, suppose you’ve lived in your home as your main residence for at least two out of the last five years. Any profit you make on the sale will be taxed as a long-term capital gain. You sell your home for $475,000. That means you have a capital gain of $250,000 (the $475,000 sale price minus the $225,000 cost basis). You’re single, so you get an automatic exemption for the $250,000 profit. End of story.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Had you not factored in the money you spent on the kitchen remodel, you’d be facing a tax bill for that $25,000 gain that exceeded the automatic exemption. By keeping receipts and adjusting your basis, you’ve saved about $3,750 in taxes (based on the current 15% tax rate on capital gains). Well worth taking an hour a month to organize your home-improvement receipts, don’t you think?

Watch out for these basis-busters
Some situations can lower your basis, thus increasing your risk of facing a tax bill when you sell. Consult a tax advisor. One common one: If you take depreciation on a home office, you have to subtract those deductions from your basis. Any depreciation taken if you rented your house works the same way. You also have to subtract subsidies from utility companies for making energy-related home improvements or energy-efficiency tax credits you’ve received. If you bought your home using the federal tax credit for first-time homebuyers, you’ll have to deduct that from your basis too, says Mark Steber, chief tax officer at Jackson Hewitt Tax Services.

Monday, June 14, 2010

More Time For Homebuyers

Homebuyers could get more time for tax credit

NEW YORK ( -- First-time homebuyers looking to land an $8,000 federal income tax credit may have a little more time to close on their purchases if a Senate amendment unveiled Thursday makes it into law.

As it stands now, homebuyers must have signed contracts by April 30 and must close the deal by June 30. They could be eligible for an $8,000 tax credit if they are first-time buyers or a $6,500 credit if they owned and lived in their previous home for five of the last eight years.

362diggEmail Print CommentThe closing deadline, however, could be pushed back to Sept. 30 under an amendment offered by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. The senators said they want to make sure banks have time to process the transactions -- especially short-sales, which is a more involved process.

"By extending the transaction deadline, we can ensure that everyone taking advantage of this credit can complete the purchase of their new home, Reid said.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the amendment will go anywhere. It's part of a controversial jobs and tax bill that may be radically changed before the Senate approves it. Lawmakers are not scheduled to vote on the bill until next week at the earliest.