Relief and uncertainty for short sellers

real estateAlthough we’ve come a long way, the housing market is still feeling the effects of the financial and foreclosure crises. Consider that the CoreLogic’s October National Foreclosure Report (corelogic.com/about-us/news.aspx) indicated that there were 41,000 “completed foreclosures” (the total number of homes lost to foreclosure) during October, which is a 26.4% reduction of the 55,000 recorded during the same time last year; and about 65% lower than that of the peak during September 2010. Although moving in the right direction, the 41,000 completed foreclosures is a far cry from the 21,000 average monthly recorded completed foreclosures before the housing downturn (2000 and 2006).

Also seen as progress is the increasing number of home owners who are paying their mortgages; which is observable from the decrease of mortgage defaults since 2010. The November 2014 S&P/Experian First Mortgage Default Index, was 0.97%; and although this is slightly higher than the 3 months prior, there has been a -3.72% change from the November 2010 index of 4.69% (us.spindices.com).

Negative equity mortgages are making headway too. CoreLogic reported on September 25th (CoreLogic Reports 946,000 Residential Properties Regained 1 Trillion Dollars in Total Equity in Q2 2014) that “950,000 homes returned to positive equity” during the second quarter of 2014. The number of underwater borrowers dropped to 5.3 million (compared to 6.3 underwater borrowers reported in the previous quarter). However, as of Q2 there were 3.2 million underwater borrowers with first mortgages, and an additional 2.1 million underwater borrowers with first and second mortgages.

The number of home owners that continue to be underwater may have been the impetus for Congress to pass the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act before adjourning for break; the legislation was subsequently signed by the President. A December 17th National Association of Realtors® press release (realtor.org) praises the passage of the legislation meant to help “distressed home owners and commercial property investors with transactions made during 2014.” NAR President Chris Polychron stated, “Realtors® strongly supported the bipartisan Mortgage Forgiveness Tax Relief Act, which was included in the package to prevent underwater borrowers from paying taxes on any mortgage debt forgiven or cancelled by a lender in a workout or after their home was sold for less money than was owed.

The Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007 was initially passed and signed into law December 20th 2007; which, if you remember, was a time when the housing market was in a sharp downturn. Any debt forgiveness from lenders (either from a mortgage refinance/ modification or a short sale) typically resulted in a huge tax liability (debt forgiveness is usually considered income). The legislation provided tax relief through 2009 to qualified underwater home owners and sellers seeking to avoid foreclosure. The legislation was extended several times thereafter.

Since the last extension expired December 31st 2013, the recent passage of the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act was received as a reprieve by many underwater home owners expecting tax relief from debt forgiveness of short sales that closed during 2014. However, since the recent extension only covers mortgage debt forgiveness during 2014, those who have a short sale planned to close during 2015 find themselves in a tentative situation.

Current politics and economics have many pundits believing that any further extensions of the legislation may not be forthcoming. If you have a short sale planned for 2015, you should consult with your tax preparer about any potential tax liability you may incur.

© Dan Krell
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