Buying a home for the first time can feel financially overwhelming. You build up a nice nest egg to use as a down payment, then with a few pen strokes and a wire transfer, your savings account shrinks like a grape in the sun. Add in moving costs, utility transfers, and furnishings, and it’s enough to make a first-time homebuyer’s head spin.
But here’s the good news: When it comes to income taxes, homeowners currently have multiple opportunities to save money in the form of credits and deductions. Plus, with President Biden’s proposed first-time homebuyer tax credit, there’s a possibility for even more savings.
Before you start searching the couch cushions for spare change, let’s take a look at some of the financial tax benefits that first-time homebuyers can take advantage of.
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First-time homebuyer tax credit
The Obama administration enacted the original first-time homebuyer tax credit in 2008 as a response to the housing crisis.
Linda Weygant, a CPA and investor in Colorado, says, “These credits were great because they really helped homebuyers to be able to afford their first home.”
True to its name, the first-time homebuyer tax credit was designed exclusively for buyers who had not owned a home in the previous three years. Terms varied, but basically, homebuyers were able to take a credit of up to $8,000 by the time the program ended in September of 2010.
Though the original credit has timed out, President Biden has proposed a new first-time homebuyer credit for the coming year. In theory, this new tax credit of up to $15,000 would be instantly available at the closing table. That means immediate financial benefits could be realized rather than waiting until tax filing in the following year.
Tax breaks all homebuyers can receive
Whether or not the first-time homebuyer’s tax credit is passed, there are still several tax breaks that first-time homebuyers should be aware of.
As you’re considering the following tax reductions, keep in mind the difference between deductions and credits.
Credits reduce the amount of tax. In most cases, a credit comes right off the bottom line if there is tax owed; in some cases, credits actually increase the amount of a refund.
Deductions reduce the amount of taxable income (and subsequently, the tax rate). Deductions are never “money in your pocket.” Instead, they simply decrease the amount to be taxed. Remember, each year there is a standard, flat deduction offered, and taxpayers can always choose whether to itemize their deductions or take the standard deduction. Unless the sum total of all eligible deductions exceeds the standard deduction, there is no tax break realized by the following itemized deductions.
Natalie Kolodij, CEO of Kolodij Tax and Consulting, says, “The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act doubled the standard deduction to $12,000 for singles or $24,000 for couples. With the new increased standard deduction, many people no longer get to itemize. The standard tends to be higher for many more people, especially with homes less than $300,000.”
That said, it’s still in your best interest to be aware of the options so that you can determine what’s best in your particular situation.
Mortgage interest deduction
You’re probably familiar with the mortgage interest deduction; most lenders will mention this as you’re moving through the loan application phase. This common deduction allows homebuyers to count the interest paid on their loan against their taxable income each year. Right now, the limit of the loan amount is $750,000; any interest paid on a home loan valued at or less than $750,000 is eligible for deduction.
Points and loan origination fee deduction
Some first-time homebuyers pay points (also known as loan origination fees) to reduce the amount of interest on their mortgage. One point is usually equal to 1% of the loan.
Since points represent interest paid upfront, they also qualify as a tax deduction. Some homebuyers are able to deduct the full points amount in the year they were paid; others are required to deduct points over the life of the loan.
Homebuyers can deduct the full amount in the year paid as long as all the following apply:
- The points were paid for your primary residence.
- The points were paid in cash (not built into the loan).
- The points were customary for your area (both in practice and in amount).
- The points were clearly shown as a percentage of principal on the HUD statement (not used in place of other fees like appraisals, inspections, etc.).
Weygant says, “A first-time homebuyer can see significant savings on their taxes if they pay it in one lump sum in the year of purchase.”
Property tax deduction
Property taxes can also be deducted from your taxable income when filing your federal income taxes. However, the total combined deduction of property taxes, state taxes, and local taxes cannot exceed $10,000.
Residential energy credit
As a general rule, the residential energy credit allows homeowners to claim 10% of the cost of qualified energy-efficient improvements (such as windows, doors, insulations, and some roofs) and/or a certain percentage of energy property expenses (such as heaters, AC units, and water heaters).
There are limits to what items qualify, as well as overall lifetime limits that apply. In addition, the credit is nonrefundable, meaning it can bring your owed tax to $0 but no further (you cannot get money paid to you). It may also change the cost basis when you go to sell the home (which could influence capital gains tax, if applicable). So you’ll want to be strategic in how you utilize this benefit.
Weygant says, “Energy credits are beneficial, but not something you want to just do for the tax credit. You’ll want to make sure that your cost savings make up for the purchase of the item.”
Though not everyone qualifies for tax breaks at the federal level, there may be tax savings to look into at the state and local levels.
Kolodij says, “Many states and counties offer credits for historic homes, general renovations, or purchasing in certain areas. Homebuyers should search their state, county, and city websites for any tax credits they may potentially qualify for related to their purchase.”
She also encourages homeowners to think about taxes related to renovations. “If you live in a state without state income tax, you should be mindful of sales tax paid on large items like renovations. The combined spending on sales tax on large items like renovations may increase itemized deductions.”
Tax pro tips for first-time homebuyers
Keep your HUD statement and major receipts
Weyant says, “Make sure you keep your settlement statement from the purchase of your home forever. This document will be important if you convert it to a rental or if you sell it later. Also keep the invoices for major improvements that you do to the house (room additions, major remodels, etc) for the same reason.”
Kolodij concurs, adding, “The HUD/ALTA statement is very important. This is different from the CD (loan statement). Any costs put into the house should be tracked, especially in a high appreciation area where you may exceed the gain exclusion on a sale.”
Check the property tax assessment
Every homebuyer should look into exactly how their property taxes are assessed. This is important from a property tax perspective, of course, and could also affect federal income taxes in the future.
Kolodij says, “Homebuyers should review the county assessor’s allocation percentage between land vs. buildings if there’s a chance they will be renting the property in the future or utilizing part of it for a business purpose. The more value an assessor allocates to the building, the greater depreciation deduction they will qualify for in those situations.”
Think through tax-free income
Using your home to generate tax-free income can help offset some of the costs of ownership. Kolodij likes to inform first-time homebuyers of these two options:
- Rent your primary home for up to 14 days each year tax-free. You don’t report any of the income or any expenses as rental expenses. If you live somewhere where there’s a large annual event that attracts tourists, you can rent your house, stay with friends/family, and make a significant amount of money tax-free.
- Rent rooms within your house as a house hack. If you do this, you’ll still qualify for the full primary homeowners exclusion when you sell the house. This means that even though part of the home brought in rental/business income, you can still sell fully tax-free with only a potential amount of depreciation recapture.
Hire a professional
Weyant says, “The home buying process can be very stressful. Between mortgage requirements, inspections, and making sure you buy at the right price, there’s a lot to remember! The tax issues on the other side are relatively simple, but if you’re ever unsure about something, consult with a qualified tax professional. A CPA (Certified Public Accountant) or EA (Enrolled Agent) is best.”
Whether or not you can take advantage of home-related tax benefits, remember that buying your first home is a major accomplishment and a huge step forward in your wealth-generating investment portfolio.