Some gilded cages are about to rattle. The financial quake will be felt all over California. Ditto Honolulu, New York, and Boston. Indeed, in every place where homes are priced high, higher and highest, angst will prevail.
Nothing is safe when Congress is in session. Now the treasured deductions we get from homeownership are heading toward “reform.”
Should you worry? Not if you are most people.
Many people don’t own homes. Many of those who do own homes don’t take deductions for mortgage interest and real estate taxes. The primary reason for this is simple: the standard deduction is a good alternative to itemizing. That explains why 70 percent of taxpayers don’t itemize.
For 2015 a couple gets a standard deduction of $12,600. For a single person household it is $6,300. So let’s do some arithmetic. With the standard deduction at $12,600, the first $12,600 of itemized deductions provides no tax benefit. Your income tax bill won’t go down by a dime until your itemized deductions exceed the standard deduction. That happens pretty easily for singles, if they earn enough to afford a home. But it’s a reach for couples, which tend to be homeowners.
Couples can have some hefty itemized deductions but have only a small tax cut.
Skeptical? I don’t blame you. Many view deductions as magic. Some talk about them as though they were pixie dust, making everything free. They aren’t. If you are in the 15 percent tax bracket with a dollar of interest deduction, you have to spend $1 on interest to get a 15-cent cut in your tax bill. That leaves you with a net cost of 85 cents. Yet in the common wisdom home ownership deductions rank up there with two-for-one pizza deals.
So let’s try a reality test. We’ll use the most recent median home resale prices from the National Association of Realtors. They are available as an Excel file download from their website. We add a few columns and make some guesses about likely mortgage and tax rates. That gives us a ballpark assessment of who gets benefits and who doesn’t. (For this column I assumed a 4 percent mortgage rate and a 1.5 percent real estate tax rate. Then I added the two deductions, and rank ordered the total.)
The result? In a list of 175 metropolitan areas 152 of them had estimated home ownership deductions lower than the standard deduction. Of the 23 areas where itemized deductions exceeded the standard deduction, seven were in California.
Do you live in the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara area, where the median home resale price is a whopping $855,000? Then you’ve got a problem. You could lose about $27,000 in deductions. So it could cost you $9,000 a year in higher income taxes. Sorry, but I am not driven to tears.
The median home price is down to $265,000 by the time you’re down to the 23rd most expensive area. That's Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Miami Beach. At that price level itemizing brings no tax benefit, unless you have other deductions.
Of course, you can always get around this by paying more than the median price— fifty percent of all buyers do. And, trust me, you’ll have no problem finding a home for more in the hot real estate markets of Texas. The medians are $243,800 in Austin, $189,600 in Dallas, $199,300 in Houston or $185,500 in San Antonio.
But in Grand Rapids you need to pay double the median price of $136,900 to reduce your tax bill. And in Akron or Dayton, Ohio, fuhgeddaboudit. Median resale prices there are $110,700 and $112,500, respectively. There, taking the standard deduction is smart tax planning.
The reality is that the deduction of mortgage interest and real estate taxes is not a middle class tax benefit. It is a subsidy for high-cost urban housing.
We get a similar picture by examining the statistics of tax returns. Homeownership recently hit a 20-year low, with only 64.5 percent of households owning a home. (Don’t panic, the peak rate was 69 percent in 2004.) Among homeowners 54 percent itemize their tax deductions. So the 65.2 percent of taxpayers who don't own a home or itemize deductions subsidize the other 34.8 percent. Among the 34.8 percent, households with incomes over $100,000 received 77 percent of the tax benefits. The total value of those benefits: $70 billion.