Taxes

How can owning a home pay off at tax time?

A home provides many tax benefits, literally from the time you buy to the time you sell. The mortgage interest paid on a home loan up to $1 million for a primary residence or second home is tax deductible every year, as is the local property tax. Other mortgage costs – including late-payment charges and early-payment penalties – are also deductible. And if you use a portion of your home for business purposes, you can take a depreciation deduction as well. Many federal tax benefits are also available from local and state tax agencies. Contact your local tax agency for more information.

Are up-front fees and closing costs deductible?

Many of the costs paid at closing are not immediately deductible. The exception is points you pay to purchase your home loan. They are deductible for that year. Points paid when you refinance an existing mortgage must be deducted over the life of the new loan.

Some fees – including loan application, appraisal, document preparation and recording fees – that are assessed when purchasing a home can be recouped by adding them to the adjusted cost basis, the starting point for figuring a gain or less when selling the home. Significant home improvements also can be calculated into your cost basis.

Are fees and assessments owed a homeowner’s association deductible?

Generally not because they are considered personal living expenses. But if an association has a special assessment to make capital improvements, condo owners may be able to add the expense to their cost basis when the property is sold. Another exception may apply if you rent your condo – the monthly condo fee is deductible every year as a rental expense.

Are there tax credits for first-time homebuyers?

Yes, thanks to the many city and county governments that offer Mortgage Credit Certificate (MCC) programs, which allow first-time homebuyers to take advantage of a special federal income tax write-off. The credit reduces the amount of federal taxes paid by the buyer each year, if he keeps the same loan and lives in the same house.

An MCC also makes it easier for eligible buyers to qualify for a mortgage loan. The lender can reduce the housing expense ratio – the percentage of gross monthly income applied toward housing expenses – by the amount of the tax savings. Normally, lenders reject loans if the housing expense ratio is too high.

Program requirements for MCCs vary, although most adhere to the following guidelines:

  • The buyer must live in the home being purchased with an MCC-assisted mortgage.
  • Total household income cannot exceed certain limits.
  • The buyer cannot have owned a principal residence within the past three years. This restriction may be waived if a property is purchased within a certain targeted area.
  • The purchase price must fall within an established limit. More information is available by calling your local housing or redevelopment agency, or contacting your REALTOR®.

Why do homeowners have to pay property taxes?

Property taxes are assessed by city and county governments to generate the bulk of their operating revenues. The taxes help pay for such public services as schools, libraries, roads, and police protection.

Re-valuations of the tax are often done periodically, although the time interval varies from state to state or, in some states, from town to town, and can range from annual reassessments to periods of ten years or more.

How are individual tax bills figured?

Unlike the income tax and the sales tax you pay, the property tax is not based on how much money you earn or how much you spend. It is based solely on how much the property you own is worth. The real property tax is an ad valorem tax, or a tax based on the value of property. Ideally, the owners of property of equal value pay the same amount of property taxes, and the owners of more valuable property pay more in taxes than the owners of less valuable property. The tax is calculated using a variety of formulas and is based on a property’s assessed value – its full market value or a percentage thereof – and the tax rate of the taxing jurisdiction, minus any property tax exemptions, such as those offered for the elderly or veterans.

Can I contest my property taxes?

Many people do, mainly because determining value can often be tricky. This is especially true in a changing market when local prices either take off dramatically or plunge precipitously, like during the Texas oil bust of the 1980s. While it is up to a professional assessor to evaluate property value for tax purposes, property owners are usually allowed to contest their assessment until a certain date after they are made public.

Once you contest, you will have to prove why you think your property is worth less – few homeowners contest hoping to pay more taxes! The two most popular ways for determining value are an appraisal and a comparative market analysis. With an appraisal, a professional estimates the property’s market value based on recent sales of comparable properties. A comparative market analysis is an informal estimate of market value performed by a REALTOR® based on similar sales and property attributes. Most agents will offer free analyses to win your business. Contact your local tax assessor’s office for procedures on appealing your property tax assessment.