I have received such great feedback on the information we sent you last month. I have also been asked quite a few questions in regards to the first-time home buyers credit that has been offered in the Housing and Economic Recovery Act. In response, I have contacted various resources available to me in order to get the best answers for my clients.
The Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 authorizes $7,500 tax credit for qualified first-time home buyers purchasing homes on or after April 9, 2008 and before July 1, 2009. These questions and answers provide basic information about the tax credit
1. Who is eligible to claim the $7,500 tax credit?
First time home buyers purchasing any kind of home—new or resale—are eligible for the tax credit. To qualify for the tax credit, a home purchase must occur on or after April 9, 2008 and before July 1, 2009. For the purposes of the tax credit, the purchase date is the date when closing occurs.
2. What is the definition of a first-time homebuyer?
The law defines “first-time home buyer” as a buyer who has not owned a principal residence during the three-year period prior to the purchase. For married taxpayers, the law tests homeownership history of both the home buyer and his/her spouse. For example, if you have not owned a home in the past three years but your spouse has owned a principal residence, neither you nor your spouse qualifies for the first-time home buyer tax credit.
3. What types of homes will qualify for the tax credit?
Any home purchased by an eligible first-time home buyer will qualify for the credit, provided the home will be used as a principal residence and the buyer has not owned a home in the previous three years. This includes single-family detached homes, attached
homes like townhouses, and condominiums.
4. Instead of buying a new home from a home builder, I’ve hired a contractor to build a home on a lot I already own. Do I qualify for the tax credit?
Yes. For the purposes of the home buyer tax credit, a principal residence that is constructed by the home owner is treated by the tax code as having been “purchased” on the date the owner first occupies the house. In this situation, the date of first occupancy
must be on or after April 9, 2008 and before July 1, 2009. In contrast, for newly-constructed homes bought from a home builder, eligibility for the tax credit is determined by the settlement date.
5. Can you give me an example of how the partial tax credit is determined?
As an example, assume a married couple has a modified adjusted gross income of $160,000. The applicable phase out to qualify for the tax credit is $150,000, and the couple is $10,000 over this amount. Dividing $10,000 by $20,000 yields 0.5. When you subtract 0.5 from 1.0, the result is 0.5. To determine the amount of the partial first-time
home buyer tax credit that is available to this couple, multiply $7,500 by 0.5. The result is $3,750.
6. Does the credit amount differ based on tax filing status?
No. In general, the credit is equal to $7,500 for a qualified home purchase, whether the home buyer files taxes as a single or married taxpayer. However, if a household files their taxes as “married filing separately” (in effect, filing two returns), then the credit of $7,500 is claimed as a $3,750 credit on each of the two returns.
7. I heard that the tax credit is refundable. What does that mean?
This means the home buyer credit can be claimed even if the taxpayer has little or no federal income tax liability to offset. Typically this involves the government sending the taxpayer a check for a portion or even all of the amount of the refundable tax credit. For example, if a qualified home buyer expected, notwithstanding the tax credit, federal income tax liability of $5,000 and had tax withholding of $4,000 for the year, without the tax credit the taxpayer would owe the IRS $1,000 on April 15th. Supposing the taxpayer qualifies for the $7,500 home buyer tax credit. As a result, the taxpayer would receive a check for $6,500 ($7,500 minus the $1,000 owed).
8. What is the difference between a tax credit and a tax deduction?
A tax credit is a dollar-for-dollar reduction in what the taxpayer owes. That means that a taxpayer who owes $7,500 in income taxes and who receives a $7,500 tax credit would owe nothing to the IRS. A tax deduction is subtracted from the amount of income that is taxed. Using the same example, assume the taxpayer is in the 15 percent tax bracket and owes $7,500 in income taxes. If the taxpayer receives a $7,500 deduction, the taxpayer’s tax liability would be reduced by $1,125 (15 percent of $7,500), or lowered from $7,500 to $6,375.
9. Can I claim the tax credit if I finance the purchase of my home under a mortgage revenue bond (MRB) program?
No. The tax credit cannot be combined with the MRB home buyer program.
10. I am not a U.S. citizen. Can I claim the tax credit?
Maybe. Anyone who is not a nonresident alien (as defined by the IRS), who has not owned a principal residence in the previous three years and who meets the income limits test may claim the tax credit for a qualified home purchase. The IRS provides a definition of “nonresident alien” in IRS Publication519.
11. Will I be required to pay back to the government? If so, what are the payback provisions?
Yes, the tax credit must be repaid. Home buyers will be required to repay the credit to the government, without interest, over 15 years or when they sell the house, if there is sufficient capital gain from the sale. For example, a home buyer claiming a $7,500 credit would repay the credit at $500 per year. The home owner does not have to begin making
repayments on the credit until two years after the credit is claimed. So if the tax credit is claimed on the 2008 tax return, a $500 payment is not due until the 2010 tax return is filed. If the home owner sold the home, then the remaining credit amount would be due from the profit on the home sale. If there was insufficient profit, then the remaining credit payback would be forgiven.
12. Why must the money be repaid?
Congress’ intent was to provide as large a financial resource as possible for home buyers in the year that they purchase a home. In addition to helping first-time home buyers, this will maximize the stimulus for the housing market and the economy, will help stabilize home prices, and will increase home sales. The repayment requirement reduces the effect on the Federal Treasury and assumes that home buyers will benefit from stabilized and, eventually, increasing future housing prices.
13. Because the money must be repaid, isn’t the first time home buyer program really a zero-interest loan rather than a traditional tax credit?
Yes. Because the tax credit must be repaid, it operates like a zero-interest loan. Assuming an interest rate of 7%, that means the home owner saves up to $4,200 in interest payments over the 15-year repayment period. Compared to $7,500 financed through
a 30-year mortgage with a 7% interest rate, the home buyer tax credit saves home buyers over $8,100 in interest payments. The program is called a tax credit because it operates through the tax code and is administered by the IRS. Also like a tax credit, it provides a reduction in tax liability in the year it is claimed.
14. If I’m qualified for the tax credit and buy a home in 2009, can I apply the tax credit against my 2008 tax return?
Yes. The law allows taxpayers to choose (“elect”) to treat qualified home purchases in 2009 as if the purchase occurred on December 31, 2008. This means that the 2008 income limit (MAGI) applies and the election accelerates when the credit can be claimed
(tax filing for 2008 returns instead of for 2009 returns). A benefit of this election is that a home buyer in 2009 will know their 2008 MAGI with certainty, thereby helping the buyer know whether the income limit will reduce their credit amount.
15. For a home purchase in 2009, can I choose whether to treat the purchase as occurring in 2008 or 2009?
Yes. If the applicable income phase out would reduce your home buyer tax credit amount in 2009 and a larger credit would be available using the 2008 MAGI amounts, then you can choose the year that yields the largest credit amount.