10 homeowner tax breaks you should be taking advantage of
Get your share of Uncle Sam’s generosity
If death and taxes are the two things you can always count on in life, there probably should be a third: the bucketful of tax breaks Uncle Sam offers every year to encourage more Americans to buy a home.
For one, Americans are able write off virtually all mortgage interest, not only for your primary home, but for a second home as well under some conditions — up to $1.1 million of debt when you include home-equity loans that are used for certain personal expenditures, such as funding college education. In most cases, homeowners are also able to write off their property taxes.
“If you have taken out a homeowner’s loan, consider these deductions as Uncle Sam’s gift to you. These tax breaks will surely alleviate the financial burden of many taxpayers, especially those who are paying their mortgage,” says John Gregory, founder of 1040Return.com, a Baltimore-based tax-prep company.
All told, homeowners (65% of Americans in 2013, down from an all-time high of 69% in 2004) have opportunities for dozens more federal income tax deductions than renters.“(The code) is completely skewed,” towards homeowners, said Robert Moss, a longtime affordable housing advocate and now national director for government affairs for CohnReznick, a New York-based accounting and tax advisory firm. “There is not a direct way in the code to get a direct tax benefit from renting,” he said, adding that the only real federal benefit to renters, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) goes to investors, not renters, when they build affordable housing.
In fact, only 21 states and the District of Columbia offer renters any kind of tax breaks or credits — generally credits for what is considered to be the percentage of property taxes that is rolled into a rent payment. (In Maryland, the state calculates that 15% of a monthly rental payment actually represents payments for property tax by the landlord and that increased property taxes are passed on to tenants in the form of increased rents.) Other states offer property tax credits to low-income households when the property tax payments exceed a certain ratio compared to their income.
Still, Americans claimed $364 billion in mortgage interest deductions (MID) alone in 2011,according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS). All told, the MID will save taxpayers (or cost the government in lost revenue, depending on your point of view) $75 billion in 2015 that would otherwise go to the IRS. And if you think that’s a lot, until the 1986 Tax Reform Act, there was no limit on the amount of the mortgage interest deduction and it applied to however many homes were owned.
Americans who owned homes saved about $1,900 a year, on average, on their taxes with the deduction in 2012. This is particularly beneficial to first-time home buyers whose early monthly payments in a 30-year loan are mostly only interest. About half (48%) of American homeowners took advantage of the MID in 2011, the CRS said. What about the other half? Well, according to the CRS, they already paid off their homes (34%) or the mortgage interest deduction was less than the standard tax deduction (18%).
In addition, the exclusion of capital gains from the sale of a principal residence (up to $250,000 for single taxpayers and $500,000 for married couples filing jointly) is another well-known real estate-related deduction. That deduction returned Americans $26 billion worth of federal revenue last year, and is expected to save Americans more than $27 billion they would otherwise owe to Uncle Sam in 2016, according to the CRS.
Even with the bounty of tax breaks, the distribution of benefits among homeowners leaves many women and minority homeowners behind. According to a study by Trulia.com, a San Francisco-based real estate research firm, white heads of households are more than three times likely to be eligible to claim the mortgage income deduction than African-American heads of households (who are also 57% less likely to own a home in the first place than whites), citing data from the U.S. Census’ 2014 American Community Survey.
Women who are head of households are also one-third less likely to claim the interest deduction than men, the research firm said. Overall, only 12% of tax filers with less than $50,000 in adjusted gross income (AGI) claim the mortgage interest tax deduction, compared with 94% of those with income over $200,000 in AGI, Trulia said.
Still, if you own a home, you should maximize your tax breaks. Here are some some other home-owning related tax breaks you may be missing. :
1. Points on home mortgage and refinancing: If you bought a home in 2015 with a mortgage, then in addition to the mortgage interest (which may not be a lot if you bought late in the calendar year), you can probably write off the points (both origination and discount points) on your tax return, says Jackie Perlman, principal tax research analyst at H&R Block HRB, -0.54%. One point is equal to 1% of the principal loan amount. That’s because the IRS considers points to be prepaid interest.
The challenge is whether you’re eligible to deduct the points all at once, or whether you have to spread the costs out over the life of the loan. Generally, if you bought your first home using a loan or got a loan to build that first home, you can take the deduction all at once, the IRS says. For a second home, and often for a refinance on a first home, the IRS says you most likely have to spread it out. “You have to meet all the criteria in order to deduct them up front, otherwise you have to amortize them over the life of the loan,” she said. A good place to start, she says, is the IRS Tax Information for Homeowners guide.
2. Interest on home-improvement loan: The IRS considers the interest on a home-improvement loan fully deductible, up to $100,000 in debt. In addition, interest paid on a home equity line of credit (HELOC) is also tax-deductible. However, as Greg McBride, chief financial analyst with Bankrate.com, notes, any portion of a home loan that is over 100% loan-to-value (meaning the loan is worth more than the value of the property) isn’t deductible. If you own a second home, the mortgage interest paid may be deductible as long as you spend at least 14 days or 10% of the fair rental days (whichever is longer) in the home, says Ray Rodriguez, Regional Mortgage Sales Manager for Cherry Hills, New Jersey-based TD Bank TD, +0.21%
3. Property tax: Property taxes are almost always tax-deductible, and more than half (54%) of American homeowners take this deduction, according to the Congressional Research Service, with American homeowners claiming $173 billion in 2011. As a result, about $30 billion will be returned to U.S. taxpayers in 2015, CRS says. Military service members (as well as clergy members) however can also write off real estate taxes and home mortgage interest even if they receive a housing allowance. Still, some things on your settlement document that might look like taxes really aren’t, says McBride. Transfer taxes, for example, and you can’t write off your attorney and appraisal fees, title insurance and credit report costs either, McBride notes.
4. Residential energy-efficient tax credit: If you made efforts in 2015 to make your home more energy efficient by installing equipment like storm doors, energy-efficient windows, asphalt or metal roofs, insulation, air-conditioning and heating systems, the IRS wants to give you a tax credit of up to $500. The credit has been extended as well through Dec. 31, 2016. “If you upgraded your home in 2015 by adding insulation, one of the most cost-effective upgrades you can make, you may be eligible for a tax credit on that investment,” said Ameeta Jain, co-founder of Long Beach, Calif.-based Homeselfe, a web-based residential energy audit site. “Not taking advantage of that is throwing away your hard-earned cash,” she said.
5. Renewable-energy tax credit: If you’ve installed equipment that uses renewable sources of energy, such as the sun and wind, to help power your home, you may be eligible for the Renewable Energy Efficiency Property Credit. You are eligible for this tax credit up to a whopping 30% of the cost of the equipment, installation included, so long as the equipment is placed in service by the end of December 2016. About 700,000 American homeowners have added residential solar equipment since 2010, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
6. Ground rent: There are rare situations in the U.S. for homeowners where the original owner still owns the land under your house after you’ve bought it, and you own the above ground property and “rent” the ground from the owner. The “ground rent” option reduces the cost of the home since you’re not buying the land. The IRS lets you get a break for this situation and thus “ground rent” amounts can be deducted if you have been paying the rent monthly or annually, so long as the lease is for more than 15 years. However, if you’re making a payment to capitalize the ground rent, to buy out the lessor’s interest to get out from under it every year, that payment isn’t deductible, the IRS says.
7. Income and interest on reverse mortgages: The IRS considers reverse mortgages as a loan advance not income, so the amount you receive isn’t taxable. But the interest accrued on a reverse mortgage isn’t deductible until the loan is paid off, so you can’t take a deduction each year for the interest as you might with the traditional mortgage interest you pay, says Gregory.
8. Private mortgage insurance: You may be eligible to claim the deduction for private mortgage insurance (PMI) or mortgage insurance premiums (such as those required on FHA loans) on your tax return. The deduction was set to expire after the 2014 tax year but was extended for both 2015 and 2016 tax years. Keep in mind that the deduction for qualified mortgage insurance premiums is reduced if your adjusted gross income (AGI) is over $100,000, and if it’s over $109,000 you can’t take the deduction at all. And you won’t get around that limitation if you’re married and filing separately, as the deduction begins to be reduced at $50,000 in AGI and disappears at $54,500.
9. Home expenses and improvement: If you make improvements to your property, you cannot write off the cost of home improvement, such as the materials and the labor. (Though you can write off the interest if you took out a home loan to pay Joe Contractor and purchase the materials.) However, when you sell your home, you can add the cost into the asking price of your property, which should diminish the capital gain when you sell your home, says Gregory of 1040Return.com. And while you can’t directly write off transfer or stamp taxes, as well as title insurance and costs of surveys, you can include them in your basis for what you paid when you bought your home.
10. Buying a home: The IRS allows first-time home buyers to withdraw up to $10,000 from their traditional IRA (and even Roth IRAs) penalty-free to help with the purchase of the home. Your spouse or even a parent, child, or grandchild can kick in another $10,000 from their IRA accounts, for a total of up to $20,000. You must use the money to buy, build, or substantially improve your first residence within 120 days of the withdrawal, says Perlman. You can also borrow half of your 401(k) balance up to $50,000 for the purchase of a home. But, the interest you pay on that 401(k) loan, unlike a mortgage loan, isn’t tax-deductible, she says.
This story has been updated.