Top 5 tax breaks for homeowners

REThink Real Estate

By Tara-Nicholle Nelson
Inman News®

Q: We bought a house this year! We put $33,000 down and the bank financed $28,000. Can I write this off on my 2011 taxes? How much of it?

A: First things first: Congratulations! You’ve become a homeowner, and seem to have done so using an enviable financial arrangement. But now that you own a home, you might need to shift the way you think and look at some things, including your taxes and other financial matters.

Owning a home is one of those landmarks that signify financial adulthood. And one of the things that responsible financial adults do is get professional help when the situation requires it. Taxes are one of those areas that often do warrant calling the pros in.

I’m not just shilling for the tax prep industry here, either: The ultimate aim of using a tax professional is to make sure you get every deduction, credit and other tax advantage for which you qualify, without jacking up your chances at triggering the universally dreaded Internal Revenue Service audit by claiming dubious deductions.

Your mortgage debt is fairly small, as was your home’s purchase price, though I don’t know whether they are large or small in the context of your overall financial picture (i.e., income, assets, investments, etc.).

The fact that you saved or somehow came up with such a sizable chunk of change to put down makes me hesitate to assume that your finances are as simple as your mortgage balance might otherwise lead me to believe.

So, it might be the case that you can easily handle your own taxes — in fact, it’s even possible that your real estate-related deductions won’t even outweigh the standard deductions, so that filing a simple form without even itemizing your deductions is actually the financially advantageous move.

Whether that’s the case cannot be determined in a vacuum — you may have other financial and tax issues going on. But with software and tax preparation services as inexpensive as they are, starting at under $20 for simple returns, I think it behooves you to get some professional advice and ensure you get the deductions you need.

Hiring a tax preparer might be a worthwhile investment to make, even if just this year, so he or she can brief you on what records you should keep and strategies you should do moving forward, like home repair and improvement receipts, or documentation of your use of an area of the home as a home office.

Now, let’s talk more substantively about the deductions that are available to you, in the event you do decide to itemize your taxes (IRS Publication 530 offers a more nuanced view into Tax Information for Homeowners):

1. Mortgage interest deduction. Assuming this home is your personal residence, 100 percent of the mortgage interest you owe and pay before Dec. 31, 2011, is deductible on your 2011 taxes. In January, your mortgage lender will send you a form documenting the precise amount of interest you paid, although most lenders also now make this form immediately available to borrowers online.

Chances are good that you paid some amount of advance interest on your home loan at closing — expect to see that on your statement from your lender, but you should also be able to find it on the HUD-1 settlement statement you received from your escrow agent at closing.

2. Property tax deductions. Again, assuming that this is the home you live in most of the time, you should be able to deduct 100 percent of the property taxes you’ve paid to your state and/or local taxing agency this year.

3. Closing-cost deductions. Discount points and origination fees paid to your mortgage lender and/or broker at closing are frequently deductible, but there are rules around this, which tax software and/or professionals can help you make sure you meet. Also, state and local transfer or stamp taxes paid at closing are generally deductible on your federal returns.

Beyond these basics, there are various home improvements (especially those that increase your home’s energy efficiency), state and local tax credits for buying a foreclosure, and other tax advantages that might be available to you.

My advice is to work with an experienced, local tax preparer or, at the very least, use reputable tax preparation software to ensure that you get the maximum tax advantages available to you as a result of your new role as a homeowner.

Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of “The Savvy Woman’s Homebuying Handbook” and “Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions.” Tara is also the Consumer Ambassador and Educator for real estate listings search site Ask her a real estate question online or visit her website,

Which Home Improvement Projects Offer the Best Returns?

Daily Real Estate News | Friday, December 16, 2011

When it comes to remodeling, exterior replacement projects have routinely rewarded home owners with more bang for their buck. This year is no different: REALTORS® recently rated many exterior improvements as among the most valuable home investment projects as part of the 2011-12 Remodeling Cost vs. Value Report.

“This year’s Remodeling Cost vs. Value Report shows the value of putting your home’s best façade forward, so to speak,” said National Association of REALTORS® President Moe Veissi. “Inexpensive exterior replacement projects are not only crucial to a home’s regular upkeep, but are also expected to recoup close to 70 percent of costs. Specific exterior projects such as siding, window and door replacements are part of regular home maintenance, so many homeowners are already undertaking them. These projects also do not require expensive materials and they have the added bonus of instantly adding curb appeal.”, NAR’s consumer Web site, includes dozens of remodeling projects, from kitchens and baths to siding replacements, which indicate the recouped value of the project based on a national average. According to the Cost vs. Value, seven of the top 10 most cost-effective projects nationally in terms of value recouped are exterior replacement projects. REALTORS® judged an upscale fiber-cement siding replacement as the project expected to return the most money, with an estimated 78 percent of costs recouped upon resale.

Two additional siding replacement projects were in the top 10, including foam-backed vinyl siding, expected to return 69.6 percent of costs, and upscale vinyl siding, expected to recoup 69.5 percent of costs. Three door replacements were also among the top exterior replacement projects. The steel entry door replacement is the least expensive project in the report, costing little more than $1,200 on average and expected to recoup 73 percent of costs.

The upscale garage door replacement jumped seven spots to number six this year, primarily due to the average cost of the project declining more than 15 percent nationally. The upscale and midrange garage door replacement projects are expected to return more than 71 percent of costs. One window replacement project — upscale vinyl — rounded out the last exterior replacement project in the top 10, expected to recoup 69.1 percent of costs.

The 2011-12 Remodeling Cost vs. Value Report compares construction costs with resale values for 35 midrange and upscale remodeling projects comprising additions, remodels, and replacements in 80 markets across the country. Data are grouped in nine U.S. regions, following the divisions established by the U.S. Census Bureau. This is the 14th consecutive year that the report, which is produced by Remodeling magazine publisher Hanley Wood LLC, was completed in cooperation with NAR.

Source: NAR


Is septic inspection really necessary?

Some buyers say ‘water test’ is enough to assess condition

By Barry Stone
Inman News®

DEAR BARRY: When we bought our home, we did not have the septic system professionally inspected. Instead, we ran water at the sinks, bathtub and shower for more than an hour. There were no backups, so we thought everything was OK because our water test exceeded normal use. Recently, the system was serviced, and we learned that the septic tank is substandard and will soon collapse if not replaced. Are the sellers and real estate agent liable for their failure to disclose this condition? –Ryan

DEAR RYAN: The sellers and agent were required to disclose the problem only if they knew about it. It is highly unlikely that the agent knew the condition of a buried tank. The sellers, on the other hand, may or may not have known, depending on whether there was a septic inspection during the time they owned the property.

But regardless of who knew, your agent and the sellers’ agent should have recommended that the septic system be inspected. That would have been normal procedure in the course of the transaction. There was simply no excuse for letting that go by. If you were advised to have a septic inspection but declined to have one, that was a decisive mistake.

It was also a mistake to think that a water test would provide an adequate evaluation of the system. There are many kinds of septic problems that are undetectable by merely running water down the drains. A proper septic inspection involves opening the tank and draining the contents to expose the condition of the interior. The fact that sinks and showers were draining had no bearing on the condition of the tank. A septic tank can be collapsing and still allow water to drain. Someone should have advised you accordingly.

DEAR BARRY: When we bought our house, the home inspector said he suspected a gas leak in the crawlspace under the building. The seller hired a plumbing company to find the leak. According to the plumber’s invoice, all gas lines were checked and no leaks were found. He determined that the house had been vacant for months and the dry drain traps were allowing sewer gases to enter the building. But after we moved in, the gas smell persisted, so we called the gas company. They found a gas leak that was so dangerous we were ordered out of the house immediately. Do we have recourse with the seller or the plumber? –Becky

DEAR BECKY: The sellers apparently acted in good faith. They hired a licensed plumber to repair the gas leak that was discovered by your home inspector. They appear, therefore, to be free of liability. The plumber, however, appears to have been professionally negligent, having failed to discover the gas leak or its source. What we don’t know is how the plumber tested the system for leaks. A common method, after checking all fittings and fixtures, is to turn off the supply valves at all fixtures and then to observe the gas meter to see if the reading changes. Unless the gas leak was intermittent rather than continuous, the plumber should assume some responsibility for the repair costs.

To write to Barry Stone, please visit him on the Web at

What’s new for taxes in 2012? The good news and bad news

Real Estate Tax Talk

By Stephen Fishman
Inman News®

Several tax changes will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2012 — some good, some not so good. Here are the most important changes you should know about:

Tax breaks that have been reduced for 2012

Several tax breaks will be reduced, but not eliminated, for 2012.

1. Bonus depreciation: During 2011 taxpayers can deduct in one year 100 percent of the cost of most types of personal property they buy for their businesses and place in service during the year. This amount is scheduled to lower to 50 percent for most types of property placed in service during 2012. However, it is possible that 100 percent bonus depreciation will be extended through 2012.

2. Section 179 expensing: For 2011, the maximum Code Section 179 deduction is $500,000, the highest it has ever been. The maximum Section 179 deduction will be reduced to $139,000 for 2012. Moreover, the 2012 limit will have to be reduced dollar for dollar by any amount by which the cost of Code Section 179 property placed in service during 2012 exceeds $560,000.

3. Employee transportation benefits: For 2011, an employer can provide up to $230 per month in tax-free transportation benefits — this includes transit passes or reimbursement for commuting to work by vanpool. Starting in 2012, the limit will be reduced to $125 per month.

Tax breaks that have been eliminated for 2012

Three widely used tax breaks will be eliminated entirely starting in 2012:

1. State and local sales tax deduction: For 2011, taxpayers can elect to deduct as an itemized deduction on their Schedule A (itemized deductions) state and local sales taxes, instead of state and local income taxes. This deduction is eliminated starting in 2012. This is bad news for taxpayers who live in states with no state income tax.

2. $4,000 education expense deduction: For 2011, taxpayers with modified adjusted gross income of $65,000 or less ($130,000 or less for joint returns) may deduct up to $4,000 of qualified education expenses paid during the year for themselves, their spouses, or their dependents.

Such expenses include tuition and mandatory enrollment fees to attend any accredited public or private institution above the high school level. This deduction is eliminated entirely for 2012.

3. Charitable Contributions: IRA (individual retirement account) owners age 70 1/2 and up can directly transfer up to $100,000, tax free, to eligible charities during 2011. This option, created in 2006, is available for distributions from IRAs regardless of whether the owners itemize their deductions. This provision is eliminated for 2012.

Tax breaks that have been expanded or extended

A couple of tax breaks have been expanded for 2012:

1. Hire a veteran, get a tax credit: If you hire an eligible unemployed veteran for your business during Nov. 22, 2011, through Dec. 31, 2012, you’ll qualify for an expanded work opportunity tax credit. This is a tax credit against income tax of up $5,600 (more for disabled veterans).

2. Reduced Social Security Taxes? During 2011, Social Security taxes are reduced to 10.4 percent up to the annual income ceiling, instead of the normal 12.4 percent. The U.S. Senate passed a two-month extension of the 2 percent reduction, but the House rejected the Senate bill.

However, most people believe that — one way or another — the 2 percent reduction will be extended through the end of 2012.

Stephen Fishman is a tax expert, attorney and author who has published 18 books, including “Working for Yourself: Law & Taxes for Contractors, Freelancers and Consultants,” “Deduct It,” “Working as an Independent Contractor,” and “Working with Independent Contractors.” He welcomes your questions for this weekly column.

3 tips for staging your home to sell

Decluttering has financial upside

By Dian Hymer
Inman News®

Today’s buyers are looking for turnkey homes. That is, they want to move right in without having to do a lot of work. Buyers with busy lifestyles pay a premium for listings that are in prime condition. Staging can make the difference between a listing selling or not, the time it takes to sell, and the ultimate sale price.

Sellers who are financially strapped often have a hard time accepting that they’ll need to invest in preparing a house for sale even though they may sell for less than they paid. Fix-up costs can mount up; your agent can help you prioritize so that you don’t waste money. It’s important to keep your goal in mind, which is to sell your house in a difficult market.

Recently, a home in Piedmont, Calif., an affluent city neighboring Oakland, came on the market in “as is” condition. It had been lived in for decades without much upgrading. Although located in a desirable area, the listing was vacant, dark and showed poorly. The sellers refused to do any work to improve its appeal.

After months on the market with no significant interest, the sellers pulled the house off the market and made improvements. The wall-to-wall carpet was pulled up to reveal hardwood floors that were then refinished. Painters lightened the interior and a professional stager was hired to bring in furniture, artwork, house plants and accessories. The listing was put back on the market with a fresh look and sold right away.

HOUSE HUNTING TIP: Although listings staged by a good decorator show well and often sell quickly, you don’t need to spend a lot to put your home into shape for marketing. Most homeowners have too many personal possessions in their home from a sale standpoint. Decluttering is something most sellers need to do.

This can generate uncomfortable emotional responses. One seller, who was cleaning out the family home of 50 years, found a packet of love letters his father sent to his mother. Of course, he had to read all of them, which delayed his fix-up schedule.

Consider hiring someone to help you sort, pack, donate and recycle items that you no longer want. You may be able to take a tax deduction for things you donate. Make sure to get a receipt. Your real estate agent should be able to recommend someone who can help you clear your house of clutter if you are overwhelmed by the project.

Your agent, or stager, may ask you to put away collections of art, personal photos, etc. This can be difficult for most sellers because, for them, it’s part of the emotional appeal of their home. Your house won’t look like your home after you’ve removed personal possessions and moved what’s left around to display the house to its best advantage.

That’s the point of the preparation process. You don’t want prospective buyers focusing in on your personal property; you want them to focus on the house. Keep in mind that how you live in your home and how it should look when it goes on the market are not the same.

Some sellers complain that their house looks too stark without all their possessions. Even so, it helps you to detach yourself emotionally from the property. Also, less personal property usually gives homes a more spacious feel. When buyers are looking for the most for their money, bigger is usually better.

To close the deal, a listing should be spotless and inviting. Bring in new house plants to put in strategic locations, like orchids in the bathrooms. In dark spots that need a dash of warmth and color, use bromeliads.

THE CLOSING: If you can’t pull this together yourself, or with the help or your agent, hire a good stager for a consultation or a proposal for full or partial staging.

Dian Hymer, a real estate broker with more than 30 years’ experience, is a nationally syndicated real estate columnist and author of “House Hunting: The Take-Along Workbook for Home Buyers” and “Starting Out, The Complete Home Buyer’s Guide.”

Realtors Applaud Congress for Reinstating FHA Loan Limit

November 18, 2011

Realtors® Applaud Congress for Reinstating FHA Loan Limits

WASHINGTON (November 17, 2011) – The National Association of Realtors® commends Con­gress for reinstating the loan limit formula and maximum cap for Federal Housing Administration-insured loans for two years.

“As the nation’s leading advocate for homeownership, we applaud members of Congress for restoring FHA’s previous loan limits, which will help reduce consumer cost burdens, stabilize local housing markets and allow qualified, creditworthy borrowers to access affordable mortgage financ­ing,” said NAR President Moe Veissi, broker-owner of Veissi & Associates Inc., in Miami. “The reinstated loan limits will help provide much needed liquidity and stability to communities nation­wide as tight credit restrictions continue to prevent some qualified buyers from becoming home own­ers and the housing market recovery remains fragile.”

The provision reinstates the FHA loan limits through 2013 at 125 percent of local area me­dian home prices, up to a maximum of $729,750 in the highest cost markets. The floor will remain at $271,050. The loan limits for Fannie Mae- and Freddie Mac-backed mortgages will remain at 115 percent of local area median home prices, up to $625,500.

NAR believes the reinstated loan limit formula and cap change will help make mortgages more affordable and accessible for hard-working, middle-class families throughout the country, not just wealthy individuals or those in costly markets. Nearly two-thirds of buyers who will be helped by the loan limits provision have incomes below $100,000.

“It’s a misconception that only wealthy borrowers benefit from the maximum cost loan lim­its; middle-class home buyers living in all areas of the country deserve the same access to affordable mortgage financing and the same opportunity to achieve homeownership that home buyers enjoy in the most affordable regions of the country,” said Veissi. The legislative action will have an impact even in communities with loan limits well below the maximum cap; the reset last month impacted 669 counties in 42 states and territories, with an average loan limit reduction of more than $68,000.

The bill also provides for a short-term extension of the National Flood Insurance Program through December 16, 2011. NAR strongly urges Congress to use the additional time to complete work on a five-year reauthorization of the program, which ensures access to affordable flood insur­ance for millions of home and business owners across the country.

The National Association of Realtors®, “The Voice for Real Estate,” is America’s largest trade association, representing 1.1 million members involved in all aspects of the residential and commercial real estate industries.


Information about NAR is available at This and other news releases are posted in the News Media section.