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Don’t Panic! 3 Money-Saving, Last-Minute Tax Tips for Homeowners

July 2, 2020

last minute tax tips for home owners

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It’s heeeere: tax time.

Granted, this year, the coronavirus pandemic prompted the Internal Revenue Service to extend the usual April 15 deadline to July 15. That might have seemed like plenty of time—and yet here we are, with a mere two weeks to go and a filing window that’s closing fast.

We get it. Maybe you’re a procrastinator. Or maybe you’re a homeowner who, rather than taking the easy-peasy standard deduction, generally tries to save a bundle by itemizing your deductions instead.

Whatever your reason, if you’ve put off filing your taxes until now, don’t panic! You still have options.

Here are three last-minute tax tips for homeowners that could save you plenty of money, headaches, and more.

Tip No. 1: Grab Form 1098

Form 1098, or the Mortgage Interest Statement, is sort of like your home’s W-2: a one-stop shop for your possibly two biggest tax breaks.

  • Mortgage interest: “The biggest real estate tax deduction for most people will be the interest on their home loan,” according to Patrick O’Connor of O’Connor and Associates. Single people can deduct the full interest up to $500,000; for married couples filing jointly, the limit is $1 million if you purchased a house before Dec. 15, 2017. If you bought a home after that date, you will be allowed to deduct the interest on no more than $750,000 of acquisition debt—that’s a loan used to buy, build, or improve a main or secondary home. (Here’s more on how your mortgage interest deduction can help you save on taxes.)
  • Property taxes: This is the second-biggest deduction for most homeowners. Just remember the total amount you can deduct is $10,000, even if you pay way more—and that includes state and local income tax, property tax, and sales tax. (Here’s how to calculate your property taxes.)

You might be eligible for other real estate–related deductions and tax credits, but these are the biggies for most people. If you’re down to the wire on filing, you might just deduct these two and call it a day.

Just remember to make it worth your while. These numbers need to add up to more than the current standard deduction, which jumped to $12,200 for individuals, $18,350 for heads of household, and $24,400 for married couples filing jointly.

Tip No. 2: File an extension

If you still need more time to get your taxes together, it’s totally simple and penalty-free to file for an extension until Oct. 15. But don’t get too excited; the IRS still requires you to pay your estimated tax bill by July 15, or else you’ll pay interest on what you owe down the road.

The IRS makes it easy to file for an extension, either online or by mail. On the form, just estimate how much tax you owe. If you’re filing an extension because you need more time to figure out your itemized deductions, one easy shortcut is to just take the standard deduction now—or the same amount you claimed last year. All in all, it’s better to overestimate what you owe, because then you won’t pay any interest. Once you file for real, anything you’ve overpaid will come back to you.

But what if you need an extension because you can’t pay your tax bill? It’s still better to file for an extension with fuzzy numbers than to not file at all.

The IRS has payment plans that can help if you are short on cash. Just file something—blowing the deadline entirely will open you up to penalties as well as interest on your bill. And maybe an audit, too.

Tip No. 3: Hire some help

If you make less than $69,000 a year, you qualify to use free tax prep software from the IRS. Even if you make more than that, there are lots of free or low-cost online tax prep options that should work for anyone with relatively straightforward taxes.

Of course, another option is to find yourself a good accountant.

If paying for a tax preparer sounds extravagant, keep in mind that, according to the U.S. Tax Center, the average cost of getting your taxes done is only $225. This, generally speaking, is money well-spent.

A good accountant can actually save you money by spotting deductions you might not have found on your own, and helping you plan to minimize the next year’s taxes. All in all, that may add up to the best few hundred bucks you’ve ever spent!

Another timesaver: Rather than snail-mailing your accountant your tax forms, snap pictures of them on your smartphone; some apps like CamScanner can do so with scanner-style quality. Accountants don’t need the originals to file.

For next year, remember to prepare

OK, so this year you waited too long and stressed yourself out. If you don’t want a repeat ordeal next year, now is also the time to mend your ways and start tax prep early. Nobody wants to be thinking about taxes all year, of course. But as a homeowner, you can do some things to be better prepared.

So before you do any home maintenance, upgrades, or renovations, research whether there are any tax deductions you could be eligible for.

Start now, and you’ll be sitting pretty to collect on all the various tax perks that come with owning a home rather than pulling out your hair at the last minute.

The post Don’t Panic! 3 Money-Saving, Last-Minute Tax Tips for Homeowners appeared first on Real Estate News & Insights | realtor.com®.

2020 Could Be an Unprofitable Year for Rental Properties. Here’s How to Handle the Taxes

June 11, 2020

beach house

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Economic fallout from the COVID-19 crisis and civil unrest could cause many rental real estate properties to run up tax losses in 2020 and maybe beyond. This column covers the most important federal income tax questions and answers for rental property owners. Here goes.

What can I write off?

Nothing new here. You can deduct mortgage interest and real estate taxes on rental properties. You can also write off all standard operating expenses that go along with owning rental property: utilities, insurance, repairs and maintenance, care and maintenance of outdoor areas, and so forth.

What about depreciation write-offs?

For many rental property owners, the tax-saving bonus is the fact that you can depreciate the cost of residential buildings over 27.5 years, even while they are (you hope) increasing in value. You can generally depreciate the cost of commercial buildings over 39 years.

Example: You own a small apartment building that cost $1.5 million not including the land. The annual depreciation deduction is $54,545 ($1.5 million/27.5). The deduction can shelter that much annual positive cashflow from income taxes. So, depreciation write-offs are nice tax-savers, especially if you own an expensive property or several properties.

Variation: As stated earlier, commercial buildings must be depreciated over a much-longer 39-year period. Even so, the annual depreciation write-off for a $1.5 million commercial building is $38,462. The deduction can shelter that much annual cash flow from income taxes.

Can I claim 100% first-year bonus depreciation?

Yes, for qualified improvement property (QIP) expenditures on a nonresidential building. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) included a retroactive correction to the statutory language of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). The correction allows much faster depreciation for commercial real estate qualified improvement property (QIP) that’s placed in service in 2018-2022. QIP is defined as an improvement to an interior portion of a nonresidential building that’s placed in service after the building was placed in service. However, QIP doesn’t include any expenditures attributable to: (1) enlarging the building, (2) any elevator or escalator, or (3) the internal structural framework of the building. Thanks to the CARES Act correction, you can write off the entire cost of QIP in Year 1, because it qualifies for 100% first-year bonus depreciation.

Alternatively, you can choose to depreciate QIP over 15 years using the straight-line method. That alternative might make sense if you expect higher tax rates in future years. Discuss your QIP depreciation options with your tax pro.

What else do I need to know about depreciation write-offs?

You ask such good questions. There’s more. The TCJA increased the maximum Section 179 first-year depreciation deduction for qualifying real property expenditures to $1 million, with annual inflation adjustments. The inflation-adjusted maximum for tax years beginning in 2020 is $1.04 million. The Section 179 deduction privilege potentially allows you to deduct the entire cost of qualifying real property expenditures in Year 1. I say potentially, because Section 179 deductions are subject to several limitations. Ask your tax pro for details.

The TCJA also expanded the definition of qualifying property to include expenditures for nonresidential building roofs, HVAC equipment, fire protection and alarm systems, and security systems.

Finally, the TCJA further expanded the definition of qualifying property to include depreciable tangible personal property used predominantly to furnish lodging. Examples of such property include beds, other furniture, and appliances used in the living quarters of an apartment house.

Can I claim the qualified business income (QBI) deduction base on my net rental income?

Maybe. For 2018-2025, the TCJA established a new personal deduction based on qualified business income (QBI) passed through to your personal Form 1040 from a pass-through business entity (meaning a sole proprietorship, LLC treated as a sole proprietorship for tax purposes, partnership, LLC treated as a partnership for tax purposes, or S corporation). The deduction can be up to 20% of QBI, subject to restrictions that kick in at higher income levels. For a while, it was unclear if you could claim QBI deductions based on net rental income passed through to you from one of the aforementioned pass-through entities. The IRS eventually issued taxpayer-friendly guidance that allows QBI deductions in most such cases, but you must follow complicated rules to collect the tax-saving benefit. As your tax pro for details.

What about the passive loss rules?

Ugh. If your rental property throws off tax losses (most properties do, at least during the early years and during years when the economy is suffering — like now), things can get complicated. The so-called passive activity loss (PAL) rules may come into play. Losses from rental properties will usually be classified as passive losses.

In general, the PAL rules only allow you to currently deduct passive losses to the extent you have current passive income from other sources, like positive income from other rental properties or gains from selling them. Passive losses in excess of passive income are suspended until you either have enough passive income or you sell the property that produced the losses. Bottom line: the PAL rules can postpone any tax-saving benefit from rental property losses, sometimes for years. Fortunately, there are several exceptions to the PAL rules that can allow you to deduct rental property losses sooner rather than later. Your tax pro can explain the exceptions and help you plan to become eligible, if possible.

Is that the end of the bad news?

Not exactly. Say you manage to successfully clear the hurdles imposed by the PAL rules for your rental property losses. So far, so good. But the TCJA established another hurdle that you must also clear to currently deduct those losses. For tax years beginning in 2018-2025, you cannot deduct an excess business loss in the current year. An excess business loss is one that exceeds $250,000 or $500,000 for a married joint-filing couple. Any excess business loss is carried over to the following tax year and can be deducted under the rules for net operating loss (NOL) carry-forwards. This loss disallowance rule applies after applying the PAL rules. So, if the PAL rules disallow your rental losses, this rule is a nonfactor.

COVID-19 Relief: Thankfully, the CARES Act suspends the excess business loss disallowance rule for losses that arise in tax years beginning in 2018-2020. That’s good news.

What’s the deal with net operation losses (NOLs)?

Say you manage to successfully clear both of the preceding hurdles for your rental property losses. Now we are talking, because you can generally use those losses currently to offset taxable income from other sources. If losses for the year exceed income from other sources, you may have a net operating loss (NOL) for the year.

COVID-19 Relief: The CARES Act allows a five-year carryback privilege for an NOL that arises in a tax year beginning in 2018-2020. So, you can carry an NOL from one of those years back to an earlier year, deduct it, and recover some or all of the federal income tax paid for the carryback year. Because federal income tax rates were generally higher in years before the TCJA took effect, NOLs carried back to those years can be especially beneficial. The TCJA kicked in starting with tax years beginning in 2018.

What if I have positive taxable income?

Eventually your rental property should start throwing off positive taxable income instead of losses, because escalating rents will surpass your deductible expenses. Of course, you must pay income taxes on those profits. But if you piled up suspended passive losses in earlier years, you can now use them to offset your passive profits.

Another nice thing: positive taxable income from rental real estate is not hit with the dreaded self-employment (SE) tax, which applies to most other unincorporated profit-making ventures. The SE tax rate can be up to 15.3%. Something to avoid when possible.

One bad thing: positive passive income from rental real estate owned by a higher-income individual can get socked with the 3.8% net investment income tax (NIIT), and gains from selling properties can also get hit with the NIIT. Ask your tax pro for details.

The bottom line

There you have it: most of what you need to know about the federal income tax issues that can come into play for rental property owners. The economic fallout from the COVID-19 crisis and recent civil unrest increase the odds that rental properties will suffer losses in 2020, but tax relief provisions may soften the blow.

The post 2020 Could Be an Unprofitable Year for Rental Properties. Here’s How to Handle the Taxes appeared first on Real Estate News & Insights | realtor.com®.

Standard vs. Itemized Deduction: Which One Should You Take?

April 1, 2020

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Standard versus itemized deduction: Which one should you claim? If this question is weighing heavily on your mind as you file your taxes, now that all the new tax reforms have taken effect, let this guide help you decide.

Itemizing your deductions—particularly if you’ve bought a home recently—could save you major bucks when you file. But, more than ever, you need to understand what you can and can’t do. We’ll break it down to help you make the decision on whether to select a standard or an itemized deduction.

What is the standard deduction?

The standard deduction is essentially a flat-dollar, no-questions-asked reduction to your adjusted gross income. When you file your tax return, you can deduct a certain amount right off the bat from your taxable income.

For 2019, the standard deduction is $12,000 for single filers and $24,000 for married couples filing jointly. (The standard deduction nearly doubled as a result of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which went into effect in 2018.)

Here are some of the benefits to taking a standard deduction:

  • It allows you a deduction even if you have no expenses that qualify as itemized deductions.
  • It eliminates the need to keep records and receipts of your expenses in case you’re audited by the IRS.
  • It lets you avoid having to track medical expenses, charitable donations, and other itemizable deductions throughout the year.
  • It saves you the trouble of needing to understand the fine nuances of tax law.

 

What are itemized deductions?

Although claiming the standard deduction is easy and convenient, choosing to itemize can potentially save you thousands of dollars, says Mark Steber, chief tax officer at the Jackson Hewitt tax service.

“Don’t be lulled into thinking the standard deduction is always a better answer,” Steber says. That advice especially applies to homeowners.

“Buying a home has the single largest impact on your tax return,” he adds, noting that a home purchase is “an anchor item that can move someone into the itemized taxpayer category.”

Itemizing your deductions may enable you to deduct these expenses:

  • Home mortgage interest (note the exceptions below)
  • Real estate and personal property taxes (note the cap below)
  • State and local income taxes or sales taxes (but not both)
  • Gifts to charities
  • Casualty or theft losses
  • Unreimbursed medical and dental expenses
  • Unreimbursed employee business expenses

 

Why itemizing often makes sense for homeowners

Under the new law, current homeowners can continue to deduct interest on a total of $1 million of mortgage debt for a first and second home. But new buyers can deduct interest on only $750,000 for a first and second home.

It’s still possible that if you own a home, your mortgage interest alone might exceed the standard deduction, says Steve Albert, director of tax services at the CPA wealth management firm Glass Jacobson. In this case, it’s a no-brainer to itemize your deductions.

This is particularly true if you bought a house recently, since most mortgages are front-loaded to pay mortgage interest rather than whittle down the principal (which is the amount you borrowed).

For instance: If you have a 30-year loan for $400,000 at a fixed 5% interest rate, in the first year of your mortgage, you’ll pay off only $5,901 in principal and a whopping $19,866 in interest.

That alone exceeds an individual’s standard deduction of $12,000 deduction for 2019. So if you’re filing taxes this year, itemizing would make total sense.

Plus: If you bought your house in 2019 and paid points—which are essentially a way to prepay interest upfront to lower your monthly mortgage bills—these points count as mortgage interest, too, amounting to more tax savings.

On the other hand, if you’ve owned your home for a while, then your mortgage interest may not amount to much. By the 25th year of that same $400,000 loan, you’ll pay only $6,223 in interest.

However, keep in mind that your property taxes of up to $10,000 are an itemized deduction, too—and combined with mortgage interest and other deductions, could push you over the top into itemizing territory.

Itemized vs. standard deduction: Which is right for you?

Not sure how much you paid in mortgage interest and property taxes last year? To get a ballpark, you can punch your info into an online mortgage calculator.

Also, early in the new year, your mortgage lender should have mailed you a mortgage interest statement (Form 1098) showing the total you paid during the previous year.

“And if you had your property taxes impounded in your loan, your taxes will appear on your 1098 as well,” says Lisa Greene-Lewis, a CPA and tax expert at TurboTax.

Another DIY approach for seeing whether your combined itemized tax deductions are higher than your standard tax deduction is to fill out the IRS Schedule A form, which outlines all federal itemized deductions line by line.

You can also consult an accountant (you can search for a tax professional in your area using the IRS directory of tax return preparers). But as a general rule, if you bought a home recently, you could be a prime candidate for itemizing, so don’t let these potential savings pass you by without checking!

The post Standard vs. Itemized Deduction: Which One Should You Take? appeared first on Real Estate News & Insights | realtor.com®.

How Much Is Capital Gains Tax on Real Estate? Plus: How to Avoid It

March 3, 2020

how much is capital gains tax on real estate

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What is a capital gains tax? It’s the income tax you pay on gains from selling capital assets.

If you sell your home for more than what you paid for it, well, that’s good news for you! The downside, however, is that you probably have a capital gain. And you may have to pay taxes on your capital gain in the form of capital gains tax.

Just as you pay income tax and sales tax, gains from your home sale are subject to taxation, too.

Complicating matters is the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which took effect in 2018 and changed the rules somewhat. Here’s what you need to know about all things capital gains.

What is capital gains tax—and who pays it?

In a nutshell, capital gains tax is a tax levied on property and possessions that you sell for a profit—including your home.

If you sell it in one year or less, you have a short-term capital gain.

If you sell the home after you hold it for longer than one year, you have a long-term capital gain. Unlike short-term gains, long-term capital gains are subject to preferential capital gains tax rates.

What about the primary residence tax exemption?

Unlike other investments, home sale profits benefit from capital gains exemptions that you might qualify for under some conditions, says Kyle White, an agent with Re/Max Advantage Plus in Minneapolis–St. Paul.

The IRS gives each person, no matter how much that person earns, a $250,000 tax-free exemption on capital gains from a primary residence. You can exclude this capital gain from your income permanently.

“So if you and your spouse buy your home for $100,000, and years later sell for up to $600,000, you won’t owe any capital gains tax,” says New York attorney Anthony S. Park. However, you do have to meet specific requirements to claim this capital gains exemption:

  • The home must be your primary residence.
  • You must have owned it for at least two years.
  • You must have lived in it for at least two of the past five years.
  • You cannot have taken this exclusion in the past two years.

If you don’t meet all of these requirements, you may be able to take a partial exclusion for capital gains tax if you meet certain exceptions (e.g., if your job forces you to move before you live in the home two years). For more information, consult a tax adviser or IRS Publication 523.

What’s my capital gains tax rate?

For capital gains over that $250,000-per-person exemption, just how much tax will Uncle Sam take out of your long-term real estate sale? Under the new tax law, long-term capital gains tax rates are based on your income (pre-2018 it was based on tax brackets), explains Park.

Let’s break it down.

  • Your tax rate is 0% on long-term capital gains if you’re a single filer earning less than $39,375, married filing jointly earning less than $78,750, or head of household earning less than $78,750.
  • Your tax rate is 15% on long-term capital gains if you’re a single filer earning between $39,376 and $434,550, married filing jointly earning between $78,751 and $488,850, or head of household earning between $52,751 and $461,700.
  • Your tax rate is 20% on long-term capital gains if you’re a single filer earning more than $434,550, married filing jointly earning more than $488,850, or head of household earning more than $461,700. For those earning above $488,850, the rate tops out at 20%, says Park.

Don’t forget, your state may have its own tax on income from capital gains. And very high-income taxpayers may pay a higher effective tax rate because of an additional 3.8% net investment income tax.

If you held the property for one year or less, it’s a short-term gain. You pay ordinary income tax rates on your short-term capital gains. That’s the same income tax rates you would pay on other ordinary income such as wages.

Do home improvements reduce tax on capital gains?

You can also reduce the amount of capital gains subject to capital gains tax by the cost of home improvements you’ve made. You can add the amount of money you spent on any home improvements—such as replacing the roof, building a deck, replacing the flooring, or finishing a basement—to the initial price of your home to give you the adjusted cost basis. The higher your adjusted cost basis, the lower your capital gain when you sell the home.

For example, if you purchased your home for $200,000 in 1990 and sold it for $550,000, but over the past 29 years have spent $100,000 on home improvements, that $100,000 would be subtracted from the sales price of your home this year. Instead of owing capital gains taxes on the $350,000 profit from the sale, you would owe taxes on $250,000. In that case, you’d meet the requirements for a capital gains tax exclusion and owe nothing.

Take-home lesson: Make sure to save receipts of any renovations, since they can help reduce your taxable income when you sell your home. However, keep in mind that these must be home improvements. You can’t take a deduction from income for ordinary repairs and maintenance on your house.

How the tax on capital gains works for inherited homes

What if you’re selling a home you’ve inherited from family members who’ve died? The IRS also gives a “free step-up in basis” when you inherit a family house. But what does that mean?

Let’s say Mom and Dad bought the family home years ago for $100,000, and it’s worth $1 million when it’s left to you. When you sell, your purchase price (or “basis”) is not the $100,000 your folks paid, but instead the $1 million it’s worth on the last parent’s date of death.

You pay capital gains tax only on the difference between what you sell the house for, and the amount it was worth when your last parent died.

What if I have a loss from selling real estate?

If you sell your personal residence for less money than you paid for it, you can’t take a deduction for the capital loss. It’s considered to be a personal loss, and a capital loss from the sale of your residence does not reduce your income subject to tax.

If you sell other real estate at a loss, however, you can take a tax loss on your income tax return. The amount of loss you can use to offset other taxable income in one year may be limited.

How to avoid capital gains tax as a real estate investor

If the home you’re selling is not your primary residence but rather an investment property you’ve flipped or rented out, avoiding capital gains tax is a bit more complicated. But it’s still possible. The best way to avoid a capital gains tax if you’re an investor is by swapping “like-kind” properties with a 1031 exchange. This allows you to sell your property and buy another one without recognizing any potential gain in the tax year of sale.

“In essence, you’re swapping one investment asset for another,” White says. He cautions, however, that there are very strict rules regarding timelines and guidelines with this transaction, so be sure to check them with an accountant.

If you’re opting out of the rental property investment business and putting your money in another venture that does not qualify for the 1031 exchange, then you’ll owe the capital gains tax on the profit.

The post How Much Is Capital Gains Tax on Real Estate? Plus: How to Avoid It appeared first on Real Estate News & Insights | realtor.com®.

7 Tax Benefits of Owning a Home: A Complete Guide for Filing in 2020

February 4, 2020

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What are the tax benefits of owning a home? Plenty of homeowners are asking themselves this right around now as they prepare to file their taxes. You may recall the new Tax Cuts and Jobs Act—the most substantial overhaul to the U.S. tax code in more than 30 years—went into effect on Jan. 1, 2018. And as a result, last year likely brought big changes to your taxes, especially the tax perks of homeownership.

While not much has changed taxwise since then, an entire year has passed—so you might need a refresher as you sit down with your receipts.

Well, look no further than this complete guide to all the tax benefits of owning a home, where we break down all the tax breaks homeowners should be aware of when they file their 2019 taxes in 2020. Read on to make sure you aren’t missing anything that could save you money!

Tax break 1: Mortgage interest

Homeowners with a mortgage that went into effect before Dec. 15, 2017, can deduct interest on loans up to $1 million.

“However, for acquisition debt incurred after Dec. 15, 2017, homeowners can only deduct the interest on the first $750,000,” says Lee Reams Sr., chief content officer of TaxBuzz.

Why it’s important: The ability to deduct the interest on a mortgage continues to be a big benefit of owning a home. And the more recent your mortgage, the greater your tax savings.

“The way mortgage payments are amortized, the first payments are almost all interest,” says Wendy Connick, owner of Connick Financial Solutions. (See how your loan amortizes and how much you’re paying in interest with this online mortgage calculator.)

Note that the mortgage interest deduction is an itemized deduction. This means that for it to work in your favor, all of your itemized deductions (there are more below) need to be greater than the new standard deduction, which the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act nearly doubled to $24,400 for a married couple. For individuals the deduction is $12,200, and it’s $18,350 for heads of household.

As a result, only about 5% of taxpayers will itemize deductions this filing season, says Connick.

For some homeowners, itemizing simply may not be worth it. So when would itemizing work in your favor? As one example, if you’re a married couple who paid $20,000 in mortgage interest and $6,000 in state and local taxes, you would exceed the standard deduction and be able to reduce your taxable income by an additional $2,000 by itemizing.

Tax break 2: Property taxes

This deduction is capped at $10,000 for those married filing jointly no matter how high the taxes are. (Here’s more info on how to calculate property taxes.)

Why it’s important: Taxpayers can take one $10,000 deduction, says Brian Ashcraft, director of compliance at Liberty Tax Service.

Just note that this year, property taxes are on that itemized list of all of your deductions that must add up to more than the standard deduction ($24,000 for a married couple) to be worth your while.

And remember that if you have a mortgage, your property taxes are built into your monthly payment.

Tax break 3: Private mortgage insurance

If you put less than 20% down on your home, odds are you’re paying private mortgage insurance, or PMI, which costs from 0.3% to 1.15% of your home loan. But here’s some good news for PMI users: You can deduct the interest on this insurance thanks to the Mortgage Insurance Tax Deduction Act of 2019. Also known as the Secure Act, it retroactively reinstated for 2018 and 2019 certain deductions and credits for homeowners.

“These include the deduction for PMI,” says Laura Fogel, certified public accountant at Gonzalez and Associates in Massachusetts. (This credit is retroactive for 2018, so talk to your accountant to see if it makes sense to amend your 2018 tax return.)

Why it’s important: The PMI interest deduction is also an itemized deduction. But if you can take it, it might help push you over the $24,000 standard deduction. And here’s how much you’ll save: If you make $100,000 and put down 5% on a $200,000 house, you’ll pay about $1,500 in annual PMI premiums and thus cut your taxable income by $1,500. Nice!

Tax break 4: Energy efficiency upgrades

The Residential Energy Efficient Property Credit was a tax incentive for installing alternative energy upgrades in a home. Most of these tax credits expired after December 2016; however, two credits are still around. The credits for solar electric and solar water heating equipment are available through Dec. 31, 2021, says Josh Zimmelman, owner of Westwood Tax & Consulting, a New York–based accounting firm.

The Secure Act also retroactively reinstated a $500 deduction for certain qualified energy-efficient upgrades “such as exterior windows, doors, and insulation,” says Fogel.

Why it’s important: You can still save a tidy sum on your solar energy. And—bonus!—this is a credit, so no worrying about itemizing here. However, the percentage of the credit varies based on the date of installation. For equipment installed between Jan. 1, 2017, and Dec. 31, 2019, 30% of the expenditures is eligible for the credit. That goes down to 26% for installation between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2020, and then to 22% for installation between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2021.

Tax break 5: A home office

Good news for all self-employed people whose home office is the main place they work: You can deduct $5 per square foot, up to 300 square feet, of office space, which amounts to a maximum deduction of $1,500.

Understand, however, that there are strict rules on what constitutes a dedicated, fully deductible home office space. Here’s more on the much-misunderstood home office tax deduction.

The fine print: If you work from home occasionally but have an office to go to, you can’t take this deduction.

Tax break 6: Home improvements to age in place

To get this break, these home improvements will need to exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income. So if you make $60,000, this deduction kicks in only on money spent over $4,500.

The cost of these improvements can result in a nice tax break for many older homeowners who plan to age in place and add renovations such as wheelchair ramps or grab bars in slippery bathrooms. Deductible improvements might also include widening doorways, lowering cabinets or electrical fixtures, and adding stair lifts.

The fine print: You’ll need a letter from your doctor to prove these changes were medically necessary.

Tax break 7: Interest on a home equity line of credit

If you have a home equity line of credit, or HELOC, the interest you pay on that loan is deductible only if that loan is used specifically to “buy, build, or improve a property,” according to the IRS. So you’ll save cash if your home’s crying out for a kitchen overhaul or half-bath. But you can’t use your home as a piggy bank to pay for college or throw a wedding.

The fine print: You can deduct only up to the $750,000 cap, and this is for the amount you pay in interest on your HELOC and mortgage combined. (And if you took out a HELOC before the new 2018 tax plan for anything besides improvements to your home, you cannot legally deduct the interest.)

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What Are Mortgage Points? Upfront Fees That Could Save You Money

September 25, 2019

What Are Mortgage Points

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What are mortgage points? The interest rate your mortgage lender offers you when you buy or refinance a house is not necessarily the rate you have to stick with. In fact, you can lower your mortgage rate by shelling out at closing for something called mortgage points. But what are mortgage points and how can they save you some serious cash (like, thousands of dollars over the years you make monthly payments)? Read on for the answers from loan experts.

What are mortgage points?

There are two types of mortgage points:

  • Discount points: These points, also known as prepaid points, lower your interest rate but increase your closing costs, because payment for them is due at closing. Discount points are a kind of prepaid interest you “buy” from your lender, based on your loan amount, for a lower mortgage rate.
  • Origination points: These points are charged to recover some costs of the mortgage origination process. This would include compensating your loan officer, notary fees, preparation costs, and inspection fees.

One mortgage origination or discount point typically costs 1% of the loan amount. For example, 1 point on a $250,000 mortgage would equal $2,500.

How do mortgage points lower your interest rate?

The primary purpose of buying discount points from the lender is to reduce your interest rate on your mortgage, and thus lower your monthly payment.

You can pay points during the home-buying process, or when you refinance your home. One point usually reduces the borrower’s interest rate between 0.125% to 0.25%, depending on the lender’s terms, although 0.25% is typical.

For example, if you took out a 30-year, $400,000 loan at an interest rate of 5%, you would pay $2,147 in mortgage payments a month (not including taxes, insurance, or anything else). Paying 2 mortgage points to the lender at 0.25% per point would lower the interest rate to 4.5% and drop the monthly payment to $2,027. You would also need to foot the upfront cost of $8,000 to buy discount points at closing.

Should you buy mortgage points?

Buying points from a lender makes the most sense for borrowers who plan on living in their house and making monthly mortgage payments for many years, either for the life of the loan or close to it.

Consider how long you think you’ll stay in your house and keep your home loan. Generally, if you buy points, you want to stay longer to break even and recoup the money it took to buy the points on the loan. If you sell the house or pay off the loan too soon, you won’t reach the break-even point, and you can lose money.

Let’s go back to the above example of the 30-year, $400,000 loan. The 2 mortgage discount points for $8,000 at closing saves you $120 in monthly payments. It would take about 5.5 years to reach the break-even point of $8,000, before you could start to save money.

However, it would also save you $43,394 in interest over the life of the loan. Deduct that $8,000 in point-buying costs from money saved in interest and you will have actually saved a total of $35,394. Of course, that’s if you see out the life of the loan. If you sell after six or seven years and pay off your mortgage, buying those points from the mortgage lender wasn’t worth it. Know your future plans and move forward accordingly.

You should also consider how much money you have to use for a down payment at the time of closing. If you are looking to pay the least amount possible in mortgage closing costs, and you can’t afford out-of-pocket points on your loan, you may need to opt for a zero-point loan program.

Tax breaks and mortgage points

Because discount points are a form of interest you pay on your loan, they’re usually tax-deductible as mortgage interest for the year you buy your home. However, origination points that are basically document fees for your mortgage are not deductible.

If you’re considering buying discount points, consult your tax adviser to determine if you qualify for these mortgage deductions.

When you refinance your home and pay for mortgage discount points, you amortize the cost of the points over the years you have the loan. If you sell the house or pay off the loan, you can deduct any remaining points in the last year you have the mortgage.

Generally, the bigger the mortgage, interest rate, and mortgage length, the more money discount points will save you. Buying points on mortgages with only a few years left, or on those with already very low mortgage rates, could yield monthly savings of only a few bucks and never reach a break-even point for your closing costs, so be sure to do the math before you finalize any mortgage decision.

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HOA Drama and Other Issues Buyers Wish They’d Considered Before the Deal Closed

September 6, 2019

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Being a first-time home buyer is exciting. After you finish signing a gazillion documents and the keys are finally placed in your hands, there’s an undeniable sense of accomplishment and pride. However, not long thereafter, buyer’s remorse can set in. New buyers might wonder if they made the right decision or if there were warning signs that they missed—or outright ignored.

Everyone hopes that life after closing on a house will be smooth sailing, but some unsuspecting buyers end up in turbulent waters. The following anecdotes outline missteps that first-time home buyers can make and, most importantly, how to identify those red flags before you’re locked into the sale.

No room to grow

Many of the first-time homeowners Chicago-based real estate agent Jonathan Self speaks to say that they underestimated how much space they would need.

“The family expanded faster than they had planned, and they now need to move without owning the house for enough time to reap any benefit of price appreciation,” he says. “Life happens, but you want to make sure you’ve had four to five years minimum in the home at the normal rate of appreciation—and that’s just to break even.”

To avoid having to move because of a lack of space, buyers should ask themselves the following questions: Is the size of your family going to change? Is there a chance an older family member will need to move in with you? Do you have space for a dog, if you want one?

Some first-time homeowners get tripped up by perfectly staged homes.

“Finding the right home isn’t just the sexy, fun stuff like finish selections,” Self says. That’s why you need to consider how much space you and your family will really need down the road so you can stay put.

HOA drama

First-time homeowners would do well to understand the pros and cons of a homeowners association before moving into an area that has one. That’s why Self goes as far as going through the HOA’s meeting minutes with his clients who are considering living in one of these communities.

“Neighbors are always an X factor, and as agents, we do what we can to investigate. But your best bet at spotting any internal HOA drama is to check out those meeting minutes and budget line items,” he says.

A lack of HOA meeting minutes or transparency with the budget is also a big red flag.

Becky Beach, a business owner and blogger at MomBeach.com in Austin, TX, says her HOA dues are $500, but a lack of communication means she and the other homeowners do not know what the money is going toward.

Living in a community with an HOA suits many buyers, but you want to know what you’re in for before signing on the dotted line.

Rushed to buy a home

Aleka Shunk, founder of the blog Bite Sized Kitchen, warns first-time home buyers against a hasty home purchase like the one she made.

While searching for a home in New Jersey, one of her friends sent a flyer from neighbors looking to sell their home. The Shunks loved the home and the area, and the highly motivated sellers wanted to move within six weeks. One of the sellers was an agent, and preferred that the Shunks didn’t use an agent on their behalf—and also said the home would be sold as is.

“I found a local inspector who said there were a few small problems, but overall the house was in good shape,” Shunk says. “I also hired a lawyer to handle the legalities.”

However, a few months after moving, the problems started.

“I woke up to no water in the bathroom faucet, and then a neighbor informed me that the water was gushing down the driveway,” Shunk says. Water was flowing from the ceiling in both the garage and living room. After a week of frigid temperatures, two pipes burst—to the tune of $40,000 in water damage. The cause of all of these problems? There was little to no insulation throughout the house.

“We were just so excited and could not wait to get into our own home,” Shunk says. “However, because we rushed, we did not have time to ask many questions.”

It took three months to fix all of the damage, and the family is saving up enough money to properly insulate the house. The lesson: Don’t rush into buying a home, and always get a second opinion.

DIY real estate transaction

Many buyers—first-time or not—underestimate the value of having a real estate agent represent them. You may be capable of combing through online listings, but navigating the negotiations, paperwork, and legal stipulations that arise during a real estate deal requires experience.

“This is a big transaction, therefore, it is very helpful to have another qualified person speak and deal on your behalf,” says Mark Cianciulli, a real estate broker and founder of The Crem Group in Long Beach, CA.

For example, he says, even a home being sold as is can be negotiated—especially one like the Shunks’ that came with major problems.

“Because we did not use an agent, we did not know the right questions to ask,” Shunk says. “What does ‘as is’ even mean?”

While she did use a lawyer and got a home inspection, Shunk says she trusted the seller to ensure that everything was taken care of.

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Giving—or Receiving—a Down Payment Gift? Here Are the Tax Consequences

June 7, 2019

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Searching for homes and scrolling through listing photos is fun, but saving up for a down payment can be a real challenge. That’s why some home buyers turn to family for a helping hand in the form of the gift of a down payment. But whenever a large stack of cash changes hands, Uncle Sam wants to know—and that means tax returns can get complicated. So before you give or get a down payment gift, make sure you understand their tax implications.

Who can give you a cash gift for a down payment?

If you’re buying a home, you can only use a cash gift from an immediate relative to help get a mortgage to buy a home. That means a parent, grandparent, sibling, or spouse. It’s also generally acceptable to receive gifts from a domestic partner, or significant other, if you’re engaged to be married.

“Keep in mind you will have to provide detailed documentation in the form of a gift letter to the lender that states the name of the donor, their relationship to you, the date and amount of the gift,” says Jennifer Harder, founder and CEO of Jennifer Harder Mortgage Brokers. You’ll also need a statement from the donor that the money was given with no expectation of repayment.

And watch out for this important condition: The general rule is, if you are putting a down payment of 20% or more, it can all be gifted money. But if your down payment is less than 20%, some of that needs to come from your own pocket.

How much of a tax-free gift can you give?

Any one person can give a gift of $15,000 or less to another individual and not have to pay taxes on it.

Here’s an example of how families can amass a bigger gift under that regulation: Each member of a couple trying to get help with a down payment can receive $15,000 from each parent. So Mom gives $15,000 to her daughter and $15,000 to her son-in-law, and Dad does the same. That means that one set of parents could give the couple a total of $60,000 tax-free. And then the husband’s parents could do the same.

“All that’s required is that it is a gift, meaning it’s made with disinterested generosity,” says Ann Brookes at Taxattorneyatlaw.com.

“The beauty of the gift tax is that any amount received that’s beneath the current $15,000 exclusion amount is not taxable to anyone,” says tax expert and CPA, Folasade Ayegbusi of accountingwithfolasade.com. She used the gift tax strategy to purchase her first home.

“I received a $10,000 gift and used it as my down payment,” she says.

What if the down payment gift is above $15,000?

Down payment amounts above $15,000 and received as a gift must be reported on a gift tax return by the person making the gift—not the beneficiary. But that doesn’t mean the donor will pay taxes.

“The gifts get tallied up over time and offset against the lifetime exclusion on gifts, which is currently $11.4 million,” says Brookes. “The purpose of filing the return is to track your lifetime gift amount, which will be used in calculating tax on your estate when you die.” If you give more than $11.4 million while still alive, the gift tax rate kicks in, which can be anywhere from 18% to 40%.

What if you don’t report the down payment gift?

There is generally a three-year statute of limitations on filing a gift tax return, although that doesn’t begin until a return is filed. If you do not file the gift tax return within that period, “the IRS can assess a gift tax, in addition to penalties and interest, on a reportable gift that was not adequately disclosed to the IRS on a return, years—even decades—after the gift was made,” says tax attorney Jennifer Correa Riera of Miami’s Fuerst, Ittleman, David & Joseph.

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How Much Is Capital Gains Tax on Real Estate? What Homeowners Need to Know to Avoid It

March 27, 2019

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What is capital gains tax? This is a prime question that might crop up when you sell your home for more than you paid for it. That’s good news for you, but the downside is, you may have to pay taxes on those profits in the form of capital gains tax. Yep, just as you pay income tax and sales tax, home sale profits are subject to taxation, too.

Complicating matters is the new Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which is changing the rules. So if there’s ever a time to brush up on all things capital gains, it’s right now. Here’s what you need to know.

What is capital gains tax—and who pays it?

In a nutshell, capital gains tax is a duty levied on property and possessions you’ve held onto for more than a year that you sell for a profit—including your home.

Unlike other investments, home sale profits still benefit from a number of exclusions that might exempt you from capital gains tax entirely under some conditions, says Kyle White, an agent with Re/Max Advantage Plus in Minneapolis–St. Paul.

The IRS gives each person, no matter how much the person earns, a $250,000 tax-free exemption for a primary residence.

“So if you and your spouse buy your home for $100,000, and years later sell for up to $600,000, you won’t owe any capital gains tax,” says New York attorney Anthony S. Park. However, you do have to meet specific requirements to claim this exclusion:

  • The home must be your primary residence.
  • You must have owned the home for at least two years.
  • You must have lived in the home for at least two of the past five years.

 

If you don’t meet all these requirements, you may be able to take a partial exclusion for capital gains tax. For more information, consult a tax adviser or IRS Publication 523.

How much capital gains tax will you have to pay?

For capital gains over that $250,000-per-person exemption, just how much of a bite will Uncle Sam take out of your real estate sale? In the past, that depended on your tax bracket. Under the new tax law, capital gains rates are now based on your income, explains Park. Let’s break it down.

  • You’ll pay 0% in capital gains if… You’re a single filer earning less than $39,375, married filing jointly earning less than $78,750, or head of household earning less than $78,750.
  • You’ll pay 15% in capital gains if… You’re a single filer earning between $39,376 and $434,550, married filing jointly earning between $78,751 and $488,850, or head of household earning between $52,751 and $461,700.
  • You’ll pay 20% in capital gains if… You’re a single filer earning more than $434,550, married filing jointly earning more than $488,850, or head of household earning more than $461,700. For those earning above $488,850, the rate tops out at 20%, says Park.

 

Don’t forget, your state may have its own capital gains tax. And very high earners may owe an additional 3.8% net investment income tax.

Do home improvements reduce capital gains tax?

How much capital gains tax you’ll pay may also be reduced because of home improvements you’ve made. The money you spent on any home improvements—such as replacing the roof, building a deck, replacing the flooring, or finishing a basement—can be added to the initial price of your home to give you the adjusted cost basis of your home.

For example, if you purchased your home for $200,000 in 1990 and sold it for $550,000, but over the past 29 years have spent $100,000 on home improvements, that $100,000 would be subtracted from the sales price of your home this year. Instead of owing capital gains taxes on the $350,000 profit from the sale, you would owe taxes on $250,000. In that case, you’d meet the requirements for a capital gains tax exclusion and owe nothing.

Take-home lesson: Make sure to save receipts of any renovations and repairs, since they can save you big-time come tax filing season.

How capital gains tax works on inherited homes

What if you’re selling a home you’ve inherited from family members who’ve passed away? The IRS also gives a “free step-up in basis” when you inherit a family house. But what does that mean?

Let’s say Mom and Dad bought the family home years ago for $100,000, and it’s worth $1 million when they die and leave it to you. When you sell, your purchase price (or “basis”) is not the $100,000 your folks paid, but instead the $1 million it’s worth on their date of death.

How to avoid capital gains tax as a real estate investor

If the home you’re selling is a second home (i.e., vacation home) rather than your primary residence, avoiding capital gains tax is a bit more complicated. But it’s still possible. The best way to avoid a capital gains tax if you’re an investor is by doing a 1031 exchange. This allows you to sell your property and buy another one without recognizing any potential gain.

“In essence, you’re swapping one investment asset for another,” White says. He cautions, however, that there are very strict rules regarding timelines and guidelines with this transaction, so be sure to check them with an accountant.

If you’re opting out of the rental property investment business and putting your money in another venture, then you’ll owe the capital gains taxes on the profit.

Cathie Ericson contributed to this report.

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I Survived An Audit (and It’s So Not What You’d Expect)

March 26, 2019

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It was just a regular day: I opened my mailbox, grabbed the pile of what I assumed was a combination of junk mail and bills, and then I saw it—an envelope from the IRS.

At first glance, it looked like a bill, a big one. But as I scrutinized the letter more carefully, I realized it was much worse: I was going to be audited by the IRS.

IRS audits are the stuff of nightmares, but I’m here to tell you that I survived. In fact, although I was terrified at the time, the process wasn’t nearly as frightening as I thought it would be. In an effort to help demystify this process, here’s a reality check on all things auditing-related, from who gets audited to how to cope if it happens to you.

The good news about audits

Here’s the good news: “Audits, in general, have been going down year over year,” says Mike Savage, CPA and CEO of 1-800Accountant in New York City. “They don’t happen as much as people think they do, and the full-blown audit is something of the past.”

“[The number of audits] is below 1%,” says Francine Lipman, a tax law expert and professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Tax audits may drop even more in the coming year. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which went into effect for the 2018 tax year, significantly increased the standard deduction. This means that most homeowners are going to take it rather than itemize. According to Lipman, this lowers the chances of being audited, since the standard deduction is the same for all who take it, rather than being calculated based on your expenses.

What triggers an audit?

Certain red flags on a tax return may prompt the IRS to take a closer look. Here are some of the most common.

The home office deduction

When it comes to the home office deduction, “the rules are complicated and strict,” says Savage. “Most people mess them up. Your [home] office has to be 100% for business. You can’t even share the computer with your kids or use that space for anything at all other than your business.” So if you take this deduction, do so with care—and here are some suggestions for avoiding the mistakes people often make.

Tax credits

This is one of the areas most scrutinized by the IRS. “About one-third of all audits are on the earned-income tax credit,” says Lipman.

Tax credits are a powerful way to reduce your tax bill. Unlike tax deductions, which lower the amount of income on which you will be taxed, tax credits are deducted from the amount of tax that you owe.

For example, if you owe the IRS $5,000 for a given tax year, and you qualify for a $4,000 tax credit, your tax bill will be reduced to $1,000.  Some common tax credits include the child tax credit, which could offer a tax credit of up to $2,000 per child, the child and dependent tax credit, which is a credit based on day care expenses, and the earned-income tax credit, which is a tax credit of up to $6,000.

When it comes to tax credits, the burden of proof is on the taxpayer. This means that if the IRS isn’t sure whether you qualify, it’s up to you to provide the proof.

Proceeds from a home sale

If you purchased your home for $200,000 and you later sold it for $250,000, that $50,000 profit would be subject to capital gains tax. Many home sellers qualify to exclude those proceeds from their taxes, but watch out—once again, the burden of proof is on you.

“You can exclude a significant amount of gain on the sale of your residence,” says Lipman, “but you have the responsibility of proving that you qualified for that exclusion.”

You can exclude up to $250,000 of capital gains on real estate if you’re single, and up to $500,000 of capital gains if you’re married and filing jointly, provided that you meet the IRS requirements, which include:

  • Having owned the home for at least two of the five years before the date of the sale.
  • Having used the home as your primary residence for at least two of the five years before the date of the home sale.
  • Not having used this exclusion for another home sale within two years of the sale date.

Rental property

When it comes to rental property, it can qualify as either an investment or a business for tax purposes. If it qualifies as a business, you can take advantage of the many tax deductions associated with this, including what you spend on advertising, maintaining the property, and insurance.

According to Lipman, for your rental property to qualify as a trade or business, you need to spend 250 hours or more on the property. A hands-on, multiunit property may qualify as a trade or business, but renting out a single-family home may not, so make sure you know where you fall.

Not passing the ‘smell test’

According to Lipman, the “smell test” is whether your tax return makes sense. For example, if you’re a sole proprietor and you have significant losses and no other income, how are you paying your bills? Charitable donations should also line up with your income. According to Michael Raanan, president of Landmark Tax Group and an enrolled agent in Irvine, CA, taxpayers tend to claim about 3% of their income on average as charitable donations.

These aren’t the only triggers, of course. Ultimately, it comes down to the secret formula that the IRS uses to screen tax returns for discrepancies.

If you get an IRS audit notice, how should you respond?

The first step in dealing with an IRS notice: Don’t panic. The notices may give the impression that the IRS has already come to a conclusion. It may look like a bill, but that doesn’t mean you should just pay it.

For example, I carefully read through my audit notice. It looked as if there was a discrepancy with my business expenses as a freelance writer, and the IRS felt that I owed more (a lot more).

For the tax year I was being audited for, I had prepared my own taxes using software. I wasn’t going to deal with the IRS alone, though. So I scoured the internet to find a certified personal accountant who not only had stellar ratings and reviews, but was an “enrolled agent”—meaning that they’ve passed an IRS-administered test about tax laws and regulations.

When I met with her, she was no-nonsense and didn’t seem fazed at all by the IRS notice. She got right down to business and had me gather all my tax documentation, including receipts. I printed out my bank account statements for anything I didn’t have a receipt for and highlighted the relevant expenses.

Once I’d gathered all the right paperwork, my CPA submitted an amended return on my behalf that addressed the issue in question. At the end of the day, I still owed the IRS, but it was a three-figure bill rather than the heart-stopping five-figure one I’d received initially.

And while some audits still involve a visit to your place of residence or work, I was able to handle mine through the mail. It wasn’t the scary, interrogation-room scene I had been expecting.

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