Homebuyer Tax Credit or Mortgage Deduction?

While Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), pictured left, wants to talk about renewing the homebuyer tax credit, just about everyone else is discussing whether or not to change the mortgage deduction. Over the next year "deficit reduction" will be the buzzwords driving Congressional legislation, leaving little room in the budget for another homebuyer tax credit. They have a really tough choice.
Generally analysts agree that while the homebuyer tax credits appeared to increase sales, in reality, they primarily succeeded in pushing sales forward. After each tax credit ended sales plummeted and stayed down there for months afterward. In fact the Purchase Index just topped last May's record two weeks ago. Sales dropped and stayed down there after the April home buyer tax credit ended.

So the more likely issue to hit the floor of the House and Senate in 2011 is whether or not the mortgage interest deduction will survive and in what form. The heads of the deficit-reduction commission want to do away with the mortgage interest deduction as we now know it. They want to turn the deduction into a 12 percent non-refundable tax credit that will be available to all. They also want to cap the allowable mortgage size to $500,000 and deny the write-off of interest for second homes and equity loans.

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You can bet the housing industry will be out in full force to stop this change. The Mortgage Bankers Association wasted no time getting out in front on this issue. "A rollback of the mortgage interest deduction as proposed by the commission would have a devastating impact on both present and future homeowners in this country," Michael D. Berman, Chairman of the MBA said in a statement. He added, "It would immediately stop in its tracks any stabilization we are seeing in the housing market and would effectively increase the cost of homeownership for millions upon millions of people."

What does this mortgage interest deduction cost the U.S. Treasury? The estimated costs are $131 billion per year. Right now, taxpayers who itemize their deductions can deduct the interest on their mortgages of up to $1 million on both their principal and second residences. They can also deduct the interest on equity loans of up to $100,000.

This isn't the first time politicians tried to tamper with the popular mortgage interest deduction. In fact it was as recently as 2005, when President George W. Bush's Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform recommended cutting the deduction to help pay for lower income-tax rates. Lawmakers didn't even touch that controversial plan.

Opposition from the housing industry for this popular deduction will likely reduce any chance of the drastic change now being proposed by the deficit commission, but since Congress is in the mood for deficit reduction after this last election, a change could be made. But that change will more likely be a cap on the amount of interest to be deducted, rather than a total redesign of the deduction.

Lita Epstein has written more than 25 books including "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Tax Breaks and Deductions" and "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Improving Your Credit Score."

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