Mortgage Interest Deduction last chapter?

mortgage interest deduction
Mortgage interest deduction (infographic from keepingcurrentmatters.com)

The mortgage interest deduction seems to be the everyone’s lovable fiscal scapegoat.  The mortgage interest deduction was almost abolished in 2010 as a means of increasing revenue after the recession.  And then again in 2012 it’s elimination was considered to increase revenue lost through sequestration.  This time the mortgage interest deduction is in Congress’ sights as a means of tax reform.

The mortgage interest deduction is a remnant of consumer interest deductions that were allowed when income tax was first collected.  It wasn’t until the 1980’s when most consumer interest deductions, such as credit card and auto loan interest, were eliminated (to reduce budget deficits after a deep recession).  The mortgage interest deduction survived in a limited form, which implemented a cap on the amount of an individual’s deductions.

The mortgage interest deduction is again embattled.  Reporting by AP’s Marcy Gordon reveals the divide in eradicating the MID (GOP eyes popular tax breaks to finance overhaul; apnews.com, September 18, 2017).  The MID is viewed by some as a middle-class mainstay that is a political hot potato.  While others see the MIS as an antiquated subsidy that can be removed as part of a major tax plan.  However, the likelihood of totally abolishing the MID is slim because of the political fallout.  More likely to occur is something akin to what happened in the 1980’s, which was a narrowed version that limited deductions.  Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan hinted that the current $1million cap could be further reduced, by saying “We could change that limit — I suppose.”

Over the decades, the mortgage interest deduction has been criticized by some as poor economic policy. Those who argue against the mortgage interest deduction claim that it doesn’t increase homeownership.  They also claim that the MID is a subsidy that artificially inflates home prices, and is used mostly by the wealthy.  Additionally, the enticement of receiving a MID at the end of the year is used to encourage home buyers to buy homes that they really can’t afford.  A recent study by Jonathon Gruber (known to many as the architect of Obamacare), et al, produced results that mimics the assertions of the mortgage interest deduction critics’ (Do People Respond to the Mortgage Interest Deduction? Quasi-Experimental Evidence from Denmark; National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc; Working Paper 23600, July 2017).

Proponents of the mortgage interest deduction, such as the National Association of Realtors, and the National Association of Home Builders, claim that the MID encourages homeownership and makes it affordable for many.

As a witness in the September 13th Senate Finance Committee Hearing on Individual Tax Reform, Iona Harris (chair of NAR’s Federal Taxation Committee) testified that limiting or abolishing the mortgage interest deduction could actually have the unintended consequence of increasing taxes on millions of “middle class homeowners,” while “putting the value of their homes at risk.”

Ms. Harris stated:

“…it is estimated that American homeowners already pay well over 80 percent of all federal income taxes53 percent of individuals claiming the itemized deduction for real estate taxes in 2014 earned less than $100,000.

And recapped the outcome of the 1980’s mortgage interest deduction reduction:

“…When Congress last undertook major tax reform in 1986, it eliminated or significantly changed a large swath of tax provisions, including major real estate provisions, in order to lower rates, only to increase those rates just five years later in 1991…Most of the eliminated tax provisions never returned and in the case of real estate, a major recession followed.

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Homeownership crisis?

homeownership crisis
Homeownership Crisis? (infographic from keepingcurrentmatters.com)

The housing market made significant strides last year with regard to home sales and home prices.  However, even with housing’s good news, the homeownership rate continues to be at generational lows.  Economists and real estate professionals are stumped. Is there a homeownership crisis?

The homeownership rate for the first quarter of 2017, reported by the U.S. Census Bureau (census.gov), was 63.6 percent.  This is a slight improvement from homeownership rate recorded in 2016.  However, in their analysis, the Census Bureau stated that when the rate is adjusted for “seasonal variation,” there was no statistical difference from the 63.5 percent rate recorded in the last quarter of 2016.

homeownership
Homeownership Rate (historical data from census.gov)

The homeownership rate peaked at 69.2 percent in 2005, but has steadily declined since the Great Recession. Industry experts have been flummoxed as to why there have not been more home buyers taking advantage of historically low interest rates in an upward economy. (Freddie Mac reported last week that the national average interest rate for a 30 year fixed rate mortgage was 3.94 percent; freddiemac.com). Even mortgage lending has become looser, as some mortgage companies have rolled out low and no-down payment programs in recent months.

A homeownership crisis in the making, why is there lack of interest in homeownership?  A recent study co-sponsored by the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics, UC Berkley and the Rosen consulting Group (Hurdles to Homeownership: Understanding the Barriers; June 2017) asserted to have the answer to this question.  According to a NAR press release (realtor.org), the study was announced this month in honor of National Homeownership Month, and presented at the National Association of Realtors Sustainable Homeownership Conference.

The authors discussed regulatory issues that has hindered housing and mortgage lending.  They also identified issues affecting would-be home buyers, which include: student debt; availability of mortgages; housing affordability; low home sale inventory; and “post-foreclosure stress disorder.”

You may already have heard much about regulatory issues, consumer debt, mortgages, affordability, and low housing inventory.  But, what is “post-foreclosure stress disorder?”  The Rosen Consulting Group coined the phrase to give a name to the concept of perceived home buying risks derived from a financial crisis.

Even though a number of consumer surveys continue to indicate a strong positive sentiment towards homeownership, the authors point to post-foreclosure stress disorder as a major influence on home buying decisions.  They believe that many individuals have been directly and indirectly affected by the Great Recession, and therefore have changed their behaviors based on perceived financial risks.  And the greater the financial risk, the greater the caution exercised.  They claim this is confirmed by a Federal Reserve survey where 80 percent of respondents indicated they would like to own a home someday, but only one in six who were financially able to purchase a home felt that renting was the best choice for now.  The authors stated that although the trauma of the Great Recession will fade over time, they assert the need to rebuild confidence in homeownership benefits.

Post-foreclosure stress disorder may account for a decline in the homeownership rate, but this is not a homeownership crisis.  It is shift in values and a major shift in lifestyles. Surveys have indicated that millennials are expected to be the largest group of homebuyers, but many millennials don’t want to be anchored by owning a home. They want to be able to take advantage of global opportunities without the burden of having to sell a home.  There is a shift away from the old standard of being house-centric to mobility.

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Home owner savvy

Home owner savvy
Home maintenance schedule (from homezada.com)

The playwright Oscar Wilde must have been fond of the idiom “nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing,” because he used it in back to back works; first in The Picture of Dorian Gray, and then a variation in Lady Windermere’s Fan.  Today, corrupted forms of Wilde’s phrase are wrongly attributed or misquoted – but the point is well made.  More psychologist then poet, Wilde seemed to characterize a core consumer behavioral trait of seeking short term gain vs long term value – which applies to home owner savvy!

Consumers in the 19th century were much like consumers today, such that they sought out to get a bargain; often times overlooking the costs from which it comes by.  And what may have been in Wilde’s time a conflation of price and value, is still common today – especially for home owners.  While many home owners pride themselves on their frugality in home maintenance, they don’t realize the consequences of their poor choices when it comes time to sell their home.  Home owner savvy is also knowing about value.

Today’s home owner’s frugality comes honestly as a result of the great recession.  A McKinsey Global Institute consumer sentiment survey from a year and half ago sums it up in the title: America the frugal: US Consumer Sentiment Survey (Martinez, Motiwala, and Sher; mckinsey.com; December 2014).  Martinez, Motiwala, and Sher wrote in their economic analysis that “…Multiple years of austerity have left consumers with altered views about spending. Almost 40 percent say they will probably never go back to their prerecession approach to buying…

While looking to spend less on maintenance and home repairs, home owners often ignore the effects of their thriftiness on the long term maintenance costs of their home.  Trying to spend less often means becoming reactive to maintenance issues, instead of proactive.  Reactive maintenance typically means that the plumbing, electrical, or roof issue the owner is repairing, may have been an ongoing problem that may have also affected other systems of the home.  However, proactive home maintenance is an ongoing process that can prevent minor problems from becoming costly major issues and is home owner savvy.

John Riha invoked Ben Franklin’s “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” when writing about home maintenance and house values (How Much Value Does Regular Maintenance Add to Your Home?; houselogic.com).  He repeats a common theme that regular preventative maintenance doesn’t only save you money down the line, but can add to a home’s sale price.  Riha quotes University of Connecticut and Syracuse University studies that implies the value of a regularly maintained home may increase by 1% a year!

Riha recommends a “proactive maintenance strategy” to help stay on top of necessary repairs and system replacements.  He suggests saving 1% to 3% of a home’s cost for regular maintenance.  To help keep it “interesting,” he suggests repairing and updating one room per year.  If you are unsure where to begin, a home inspection may help identify areas of immediate concern; as well as develop a regular maintenance schedule.  Also, keeping records of ongoing repairs and upgrades will cement in a home buyer’s mind the amount of care you had for your home.

Home owner savvy is not necessarily about being frugal with home maintenance, which is also not about knowing the price of everything; but in reality, diminish the value of their home.  Regular home maintenance can not only keep you comfortable and safe through the year, it may help you sell your home faster and for more!

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When transfer tax becomes controversial

real estate
from marylandreporter.com

The legislative process encourages discourse for proposed legislation.  The result is a bill that is passed or defeated.  Regardless, proposed housing market and real estate legislation is not typically exciting; and in fact the minutia of the bill can be downright boring and/or confusing.  However, there are occasions when proposed legislation has the potential to affect home owners and buyers such that it can create a brouhaha.

First, let’s review a few bills passed by the Maryland General Assembly: The first has to do with agency.  Currently, “licensees” are required to provide the Maryland Real Estate Commission’s Understanding Whom Real Estate Agents Represent at the time of first face to face meeting and is a notice to the consumer.  The disclosure explains seller’s agents, agents who represent the buyer, and dual agents.  For many home buyers, the first face to face meeting of an agent is at an open house, and are supposed to be given the disclosure by the agent sitting at the open house regardless if the buyer has an agent or not.  The new law is to simplify the disclosure, eliminating redundant notices and allowing agents at open houses to post who they represent instead of the asking every visitor to sign the disclosure.

Another change is how agents recommend service providers.  The current requirement is for agents to check the licensing status of all recommended service providers, ensuring that the provider is currently licensed in Maryland.  The new law will only require agents to annually check home improvement licenses of recommended contractors.

The General Assembly also passed legislation that will require home sellers throughout the state to disclose deferred water and sewer charges. Additionally, legislation was passed that adds requirements to the state brokerage licensing exemption for attorneys.

Still with me?  Good.  Local residents should be aware of the Montgomery County Council’s attempt to fast track a bill to increase the county’s recordation tax on real estate transactions.  On April 14th, Expedited Bill 15-16, Recordation Tax – Rates – Allocations – Amendments was introduced by Council President Nancy Floreen.  Recordation tax is collected when a home is sold, and when a home owner refinances a mortgage.  If passed, it will become effective July 1st 2016 (which is about 2 months from now!).

The Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors® issued an April 18th press release opposing the bill, stating that it unfairly targets home buyers and home owners by increasing a tax that is already among the highest in the state.

In an April 12th memorandum to Councilmembers (page 7 of pdf) Councilmember Floreen stated: “While nobody likes the idea of increasing taxes of any kind, our needs are great, and this tax is less likely to affect those Montgomery County residents who are struggling most. On the up side, it will generate millions of dollars to support our desperate need for new schools and educational facility improvements. What’s more, a portion of the recordation tax is earmarked for affordable housing.”

Although aspirations for certain projects may be well intentioned, Councilmember Floreen should consider that further burdening home buyers in an already high cost area for real estate could impact homeownership and make “affordable housing” less affordable.  Furthermore, the average Montgomery County home owner refinancing their mortgage may not be struggling, but they are trying to get by the best they can in a high cost of living area.

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Housing and presidential election

from trulia.com

Another presidential election, and there will most likely be very little discussion and debate about housing policy. During the 2012 presidential election, housing seemed to take a back seat as the real estate market was still emerging from a foreclosure crisis and recession just four years earlier. Fast forward to today and homeownership is hovering near a 30-year low.  Homeownership is out of reach to many due to tightened mortgage qualifying and increasing home prices; while Americans’ incomes are being squeezed by rising rents.

Enter Ron Terwilliger. A successful real estate developer and philanthropist, Terwilliger launched the J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America’s Families in 2014 (jrthousing.org). The organization’s mission is to “…recalibrate federal housing policy to more effectively address our nation’s critical affordable housing challenges and to meet the housing needs of future generations.”

Giving the keynote address at The Affordable Housing Developers Summit in Chicago, Terwilliger described an evolving “silent housing crisis.” He proclaimed that “A legacy of the great recession, the rental affordability crisis is often overlooked by policymakers, ignored by the media, and underestimated, at best, by the general public.” And although affordable housing is a bi-partisan issue, he stated that candidates don’t talk about the issue (housingfinance.com).

New HomesSo it should come as no surprise that the J. Ronald Terwilliger Foundation for Housing America’s Families and the Bipartisan Policy Center hosted a housing summit this past October. Speaking at the summit were a number of presidential candidates, policy makers, current and former Senators, a former HUD Secretary, local officials, and industry leaders and experts. Unfortunately, the presidential candidates that are still in the race, did not participate. The summit was held in New Hampshire, where housing costs for 36% of residents is more than 30% of their gross income; and median rents have increased 50% since 2000 (housingwire.com).

The housing summit seemed to inspire realtor.com chief economist Jonathan Smoke, who shortly afterward penned a statement declaring his candidacy for president as leader of the “Housing Party” (As President, I’ll Make American Housing Great Again—Really; realtor.org; October 21, 2015). Smoke believes that housing should be first on the national agenda stating, “The market won’t solve all of our housing problems on its own. And our government seems incapable of working together to find solutions that can help…” Laying out a detailed platform, Smoke proclaims that a vote for him would “…build our way to a stronger economy and more affordable housing for the middle class—a better America for all of us.” He said that he would work toward getting a home for every family.

But it may be that housing policy is a bit more complicated than just proclaiming “homes for everyone.” In a frank analysis of housing policy, Daniel Hertz laid out what seems to be diametrically opposed positions: policy should keep housing affordable so as not to price people out of the market; and policy should protect house values, because homes are an investment and wealth building vehicle (American Housing Policy’s Two Basic Ideas Pull Cities in Opposite Directions; theatlantic.com; October 14, 2015).

Hertz believes that these seemingly opposite policy positions can be “reconciled” by offering a wide variety of housing types for a broad range of incomes. Additionally, he discussed how local privately developed affordable housing programs (such as Montgomery County’s Workforce Housing and MPDU programs) is one avenue to a comprehensive housing policy.

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