Long-treasured mortgage interest deduction may face changes

Los Angeles TimesDecember 15, 2012 

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SOUTH BARRINGTON, IL - DECEMBER 04: A home is offered for sale by Remax Realty in a Toll Brothers housing development on December 4, 2012 in South Barrington, Illinois. Toll Brothers beat fiscal fourth-quarter earnings expectations which CEO Douglas Yearley Jr. attributed to an increase in home prices, low interest rates and a pent up demand. Nationwide home prices increased 6.3% in October from a year earlier, the biggest year-over-year gain since 2006. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

SCOTT OLSON — Getty

— At 70, Frank White isn’t a typical first-time homebuyer. But a key reason he ditched his Altadena, Calif., apartment and bought a three-bedroom house in nearby Pasadena, Calif., has been common for decades: He wanted the tax break.

“I pay very high taxes and I have no deductions,” said White, who owns an apartment rental business with his two brothers. Now, after purchasing the $500,000 home in November, he’s looking forward to writing off the interest on his 30-year mortgage.

But the longtime tax break could face major changes as Washington policymakers search for ways to reduce the deficit as part of the debate on the “fiscal cliff.” And that’s sending shivers through homebuyers such as White and much of the housing industry.

“My deductions are important to me, what few I have,” White said. “We need to go after the corporations that don’t pay a … cent. Let’s go after those guys first. But leave me alone.”

The home mortgage interest deduction is one of the most cherished in the U.S. tax code. It’s also one of the most expensive, estimated to cost the federal government $100 billion this fiscal year.

For that reason, the deduction taken on income-tax returns is expected to be on the table in Washington’s search for more money to reduce the budget deficit and resolve the fiscal cliff.

But the specter of scaling back the tax break, particularly with the housing market still trying to recover from the collapse of the subprime mortgage bubble, is raising alarms among homeowners, Realtors and homebuilders. It’s also sparking a debate about the true effect of the deduction, which critics argue benefits the wealthy much more than the middle class. They contend that the break hurts first-time homebuyers by driving up house prices and that other countries that have no such deduction still have high homeownership rates.

“If we really care about homeownership, then the deduction is just the absolute wrong way to go,” said Dennis Ventry, a University of California-Davis law professor who has studied its effect.

Tax credit cap proposed

There is agreement that reducing the interest deduction – no one is talking about eliminating it – would cause prices to drop as buyers scale back the amount they could afford to spend.

The concerns are even greater in high-priced regions where homeowners benefit more from the deduction because their mortgages are larger.

“A lot of people buy rather than rent simply because, after the mortgage deduction, it’s more affordable,” said Syd Leibovitch, president of Rodeo Realty in Beverly Hills, Calif. “To limit it or take it away, I think you’re going to be surprised at the shocking effect it has on the real estate market.”

President Barack Obama’s deficit commission proposed lowering the limit on mortgage principal eligible for a deduction to $500,000 from the current $1 million, removing any break for interest on a second home and turning the deduction into a tax credit capped at 12 percent of interest paid.

A tax credit would allow homeowners who don’t itemize deductions to subtract the interest from the taxes they owe. But while more taxpayers could take advantage of the benefit, a cap would mean those with large mortgages on expensive homes couldn’t get a credit for all the interest they pay.

Other proposals have called for similar changes.

Priced out of market

Supporters of the tax break worry that proposed changes would not only push down prices but also spook potential buyers.

Lawrence Tang, 38, and his wife own a house in West Covina, Calif., but they are renting in San Gabriel, Calif., and looking for a house there, near where he works as a school technology director. They don’t want to sell the West Covina house because the drop in home values wiped out most of their equity.

The proposed changes would limit how much interest they could deduct on their first house and prevent them from deducting any interest on what would be their second home, Tang said.

“That would pretty much price us out of that market and push us back to the sideline,” Tang said. Just talk of changes to the mortgage interest deduction is making them hesitant to buy, he said.

The mortgage interest deduction is one of the most popular tax breaks. In a nationwide poll released recently by Quinnipiac University, two-thirds of respondents said they opposed eliminating it.

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