Marriage. Children. Homeownership.

They seem to go together.

In fact, the largest tax benefits for homeownership go to people who are single. The second largest go to heads of households. The smallest go to married couples that file joint returns.

I learned this using my new Home Ownership Tax Benefits Calculator, an on-line tool that calculates your tax savings for each year of homeownership. It also calculates your total tax savings in dollars and as a percent of your original home purchase price.

The upside down result doesn't happen through magic or some special nastiness from the Internal Revenue Service. It's just another of those funny little things that comes from our wretched tax code. The real source of the difference is that married couples filing joint returns have a standard deduction of $7,950. A head of household has $7,000. A single taxpayer has $4,750.

Since the single taxpayers' itemized deductions will benefit them when they exceed $4,750 while the married couple won't benefit until their itemized deductions reach $7,950, home ownership deductions help the single taxpayer cut their tax bills long before they help the married couple.

Here's how it works.

An income of $60,000 will qualify you, whatever your marital status, to buy a home that costs about $175,000. (This assumes an interest rate of 5.5 percent, a property tax rate of about 2 percent, and a down payment of about 3 percent.) Whether you are married, single, or a head of household, an income of $60,000 will put you in the 27 percent tax bracket.

On those figures, a married couple filing a joint return will have tax savings for 16 years. They will be worth a total of $12,800. This is 7.3 percent of the original purchase price of the house.

A head of household, however, will enjoy 19 years of tax benefits worth $17,869. That's 10.2 percent of the original purchase price of the house.

But the real winner is a single taxpayer. Buying the same house, with the same down payment, the same mortgage payment, and the same property tax bill, the single taxpayer will enjoy 27 years of tax benefits worth $37,209. That's 21.3 percent of the original purchase price of the house. The single taxpayer, in other words, has a government incentive to buy a house that is three times the incentive provided to a couple filing a joint return.

What happens to the tax savings if the same homebuyers elect to finance their homes with lower interest rate adjustable mortgages?   They decline, but the tax advantage for the single taxpayer increases. It's over four times the tax saving for the married couple filing a joint return. While the married couple has tax savings of $6,617 over a 12-year period, the single taxpayer collects tax savings of $27,438 over a 26-year period.   (The figures are shown in the table below.)

  
Homeownership Tax Benefits:   Tops for Singles
Calculated assuming a $175,000 home with a 3 percent down payment, real estate taxes of 2.2 percent of value, standard deductions for 2003, and a 3 percent inflation rate.
   Joint Return Couple Single Tax Payer Head of Household
   Total Tax Savings Years of Tax Savings Savings as Percent of Home Value Total Tax Savings Years of Tax Savings Savings as Percent of Home Value Total Tax Savings Years of Tax Savings Savings as Percent of Home Value
5.5% $12,800 16 7.3 $37,209 27 21.3 $17,869 19 10.2
4.5% $   6,617 12 3.8 $27,438 26 15.7 $10,518 16    6.0
Source: Home Ownership Tax Benefits Calculator
  

There are two immediate messages here.

First, if you're single and looking to lower your taxes, think about becoming a homeowner.

Second, while national tax policy is supposed to encourage home ownership, it's neither rational nor even-handed.        Next: Tax savings and where you live