It’s no surprise that owning a home automatically opts you into a new realm of tax advantages. In fact, in a recent survey of people who bought homes in 2012, 79 percent said the mortgage interest and property tax deductions were "extremely important" factors to their decision to become homeowners in the first place.
But these two deductions are just the tip of the iceberg of all the real estate-related tax guidelines, advantages and disadvantages. Because others get less press, it can be relatively easy for an individual American taxpayer to unwittingly trigger tax liabilities they might have been able to minimize or plan for, or to unwittingly trigger tax perks and fail to claim them.
This is why its essential to touch base with your tax pro before any and every real estate move you make, no matter how minor you think it might be. Sometimes planning and timing makes a major difference to the financial impact of a real estate-related tax; other times, just knowing the size and scope of the tax implications will impact the real estate decision you make.
Here is a short list of real estate moves that trigger surprising tax issues, pro and con:
1. Refinancing. American homeowners have been on a refinancing spree this year, spurred by continually low interest rates and a new resurgence in home values and equity. When you refinance into a lower interest rate mortgage than you previously had, the focus tends to be on the fact that your monthly payment is lower or that you can pay your home loan off faster with the same payment every month.
What many fail to calculate for is that the tax deduction based on your mortgage interest is the largest tax perk of home ownership. Most homeowners are eligible to deduct 100% of the interest they pay on a mortgage up to $1 million on their primary residence. So, if you reduce the interest you pay, you also reduce your mortgage interest deduction.
Here’s some perspective on this. Less than 30 percent of homeowners take their mortgage interest deduction every year. This is thought to be because at lower income and home price levels, the standard deduction is higher than the itemized deductions for which many homeowners would be eligible. That said, if you do itemize every year and/or you have a relatively high (or growing) adjusted gross income, you might be surprised at your tax bill the year after you refinance to a lower interest rate.
The best practice is to loop your tax professional in so they can help you plan for this and adjust your withholdings, if necessary, to avoid big surprise tax bills post-refi.
2. Becoming a landlord. Smart real estate investors get up to speed on capital gains tax laws, as its no surprise that selling a rental property at a profit triggers taxes, unless you exchange it for another. What’s trickier is when you become a more or less “accidental landlord.” It’s not obvious to people who are renting out a room for a few nights here or there, or who decide to rent out part or all of their own home for the longer term (e.g., deciding to hold onto your starter home when you move up, versus selling it) that there are tax implications for being a landlord that should be researched and respected.
For example, rental income is subject to all the regular income taxes, federal and state (if applicable). As well, in some cities, you might also be required to obtain a business license and pay business taxes, as a landlord. Additionally, some municipalities are cracking down and requiring people who rent their home or portions of it for very short time frames to pay hotel taxes, which might be a cost you can pass down to your short-stay tenants.
3. Remodeling. The conventional wisdom is that when you remodel your home, whatever you do, for the love of all that is sacred, save your receipts. And this is not a ‘save them until tax time’ recommendation, it’s a ‘save them until you sell the place’ mandate! The money you invest into improving your home over time gets added to your purchase price, or cost basis, when you sell, bringing down the amount the IRS considers to be profit or gain and reducing your chances of incurring capital gains tax. (Single home owners can realize $250,000 of “gains” above the cost basis of their home tax-free; marrieds, $500,000.)
This is no surprise to most homeowners.
Here’s where many of us do get surprised – many remodeling projects popular with homeowners these days trigger local and state tax credits. This is especially the case for home improvements that increase your home’s efficiency, from low-flow toilets and shower heads, to dual-paned windows and insulation – even solar systems and tankless water heaters. If you are remodeling and improving your home’s efficiency at the same time, visit your state, county and city websites to see what tax credits or other financial incentives you might qualify for.
And whether or not your remodeling projects are eco-friendly, if you use a home equity line to finance them, chances are good that you can deduct the interest from that loan (up to $100,000) on top of your home mortgage interest deduction. Again, don’t forget to mention this to your tax professional.
4. Renting. Here’s the thing – most of us just don’t think about renting as an intentional decision. It’s something many people do until they can afford to buy a home, or know where their career will take them geographically speaking. But there are people out there who have sufficient income, assets and stability to own a home, yet haven’t developed any sense of urgency around it, for various reasons.
I don’t believe in suggesting that someone who truly doesn’t want to own a home should do so, simply for tax reasons. But if you’ve been ambivalent about it or have been thinking about it and procrastinating, you should at least be aware of the tax implications of your fence-sitting. Some personal finance experts estimate that the average American renter works through the end of April just to earn enough income to pay taxes, federal, state, local and sales. As you move up the income ranks, consult with your tax professional about whether home ownership might get you some tax relief.