Jan192009

Tax Policy and Housing

Tax policy and its relationship to housing is a big topic. This post will not be a comprehensive treatise on the subject. I will look at several areas of tax policy and see what incentives they create and how changes in these areas would impact housing prices. This includes three broad areas: ownership taxes and subsidies, debt subsidies, and appreciation taxes.home mortgage interest deduction

  • Ownership taxes and subsidies include property taxes, special tax levies, and the impact of proposition 13.
  • Debt subsidies include the home mortgage interest deduction and its relationship to the personal exemption.
  • Appreciation taxes are capital gains and income taxes from the profitable sale of residential real estate.

Ownership Taxes and Subsidies

Property taxes have long been a source of local government tax revenues. Real property cannot be moved out of a government’s jurisdiction, and values can be estimated by an appraisal, so it is a convenient item to tax. In most states, local governments add up the cost of running the government and divide by the total property value in the jurisdiction to establish a millage tax rate. California is forced to do things differently by Proposition 13 which effectively limits the appraised value and total tax revenue from real property. Local governments are forced to find revenue from other sources. Proposition 13 limits the tax rate to 1% of purchase price with a small inflation multiplier allowing yearly increases.

Proposition 13 tends to limit move-up trading because it requires owners to increase their property tax bill, sometimes dramatically. There are basis transfers and ways around this problem for certain people who qualify, but there is a documented tendency among California home owners to stay in their homes because they end up trapped there by the tax savings. This Wikipedia article has a good discussion of the impact of Proposition 13.

Many people who bought at the peak are seeing property tax relief as prices fall. Most do not realize that their property tax bills will rise with appraised values until they hit their purchase price. They are not locked in to the new lower tax basis. New buyers who enter at lower prices are. For instance, say a peak buyer paid $1,000,000 in 2006. In 2011, his tax basis has been reduced to $500,000 with the surrounding property values. A 2011 buyer who pays $500,000 also shares this $500,000 tax basis. However, as property values rise back to $1,000,000, the peak buyer is going to be reassessed every year until his cap is hit at $1,000,000 plus annual allowed increases. The buyer at $500,000 will not face these same increases in property tax. Timing Does Matter.

Proposition 13 opponents point to the deterioration of California’s public schools since its passage as a big reason it should be repealed. However, since our property prices are so volatile, repealing proposition 13 is very unlikely. If we could reduce volatility in the housing market, the impact of Proposition 13 would be negligible, and there would be no need to repeal or reform it. That being said, there is one reform I believe would bring some fairness to this tax. Right now, the yearly allowed increases are less than wage and price inflation. If the escalator in Proposition 13 were tied to the Consumer Price Index, much of the subsidy given to long-term homeowners would be reduced, and tax revenues would better match inflation.

Mello Roos taxes are paid to service and retire development bonds taken out by the original land developer. These taxes come out of a potential buyers money available for a payment, so Mello Roos depress housing prices. One good strategy is to buy in a neighborhood where Mello Roos payments are about to end. The other potential buyers bidding on these properties will all be limited in their loan amounts by the Mello Roos payments, so imminent expiration will not have much impact on pricing. However, your future buyer will not face these payments, and when they do expire, you will see an increase in property value.

Debt Subsidies

Debt subsidies, in particular the home mortgage interest deduction, are seen as a great benefit to home ownership. The benefit is widely overestimated and misunderstood.

First, people fail to understand that to obtain a debt subsidy, you must have debt. You must be making an interest payment on this debt in order to qualify, and you get to reduce your tax burden by a small percentage of the interest amount. In short, you are paying a dollar to save a quarter. There are people who actually seek to maximize their interest payments in order to increase this subsidy. This is really, really foolish. Anyone out there who believes it is a good idea to spend $1 to receive $0.25 in return, please send me as much money as you wish, and I promise to send back 25% of it.

Realtors try to con people with the “throwing your money away on rent” argument. Homeowners buy into the fallacy. Interest is the rent on money. You throw away money on interest just like you throw it away on rent. In fact, people who overpay for housing throw away more money on interest than renters do to obtain the same property, even after the tax subsidy. The only argument one can make for paying extra interest is if you are receiving a return on that investment through property appreciation. We all see how that is turning out.

The main reason the benefits of the home mortgage interest deduction are overestimated is because people forget they must give up the standard deduction in order to obtain it. This is one area where tax policy can have hidden and indirect impact on housing. Changes in the standard deduction greatly impact the benefit of the home mortgage interest deduction. As the standard deduction is increased, the positive impact of the HMID is decreased. In fact, if the standard deduction were doubled, the average American holding a $150,000 mortgage probably would not bother itemizing to obtain the HMID because it would be of no tax benefit at all. This would certainly simplify people’s tax returns. A higher standard deduction is also a boon to renters who do not have the option of obtaining the HMID.

Another facet to the HMID is the cap level. Currently mortgages up to $1,000,000 are eligible for the deduction. Does anyone think this is right? Do you realize you as a taxpayer are subsidizing $1,000,000 mortgages? When the GSEs were set up, they established a conforming loan limit. The reason they did this is because they are mandated to subsidize mid and low income housing. Why is the limit on the HMID any higher than the conforming loan limit from the GSEs? Why are we subsidizing high income borrowers?

If we were to reduce the HMID cap level to $500,000 and adjust it by the CPI going forward, we are still subsidizing relatively high income borrowers ($500,000 is still almost triple the median home price in the US). A reduction in this cap would have the same impact as the lower GSE conforming limit is having: it would lower prices at the high end by eliminating the subsidies.

IMO, the government has no place in subsidizing house prices that are well above the median. One can argue that the government should not be subsidizing anything in housing, but the low and middle income subsidies are here to stay. If we raise the standard deduction and lower the HMID caps, we can greatly reduce the impact of the HMID and the cost we pay for it as taxpayers. This would have the effect of lowering prices on more expensive homes, but it would help stabilize the lower end of the market. That is what the market needs right now.

In a post last week, we examined a proposal from John Burns to subsidize housing further by temporarily doubling the HMID. The problem I have with this is the same one I have with all temporary subsidies: how do you end them? Anyone who buys under temporary terms will be hurt when the subsidies are removed. This will cause everyone involved to lobby Congress to make them permanent. Permanently increasing housing subsidies will only make the problem worse at taxpayer expense. In the short term, the Burns’ proposal probably would help stabilize the housing market. If it were not capped it would be a huge tax break for people with large mortgages. It might even ignite another unsustainable rally and postpone the crash temporarily. None of this benefits the housing market long term.

Appreciation Taxes

Should five per cent appear too small,
Be thankful I don’t take it all.

A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by an author named Bill McKim. He has written a pamphlet titled The Financial Crisis of 2008. In it he makes one simple, yet far-reaching proposal that would eliminate volatility in California’s residential real estate market: Tax capital gains due to irrational exuberance at a 100% rate. I must admit, that certainly would do it.

Our current system of calculating and enforcing taxes on property appreciation are a big part of the problem, and reform here is necessary. In short, gains on the sale of a primary residence are largely untaxed (there are complicated rules I will not go into here). There is no other asset class that receives such a generous government subsidy. If you sell most any other asset class for a profit, and you will be paying either personal income taxes or capital gains taxes depending on how long you owned the asset. With housing, most people either qualify for the tax break, or they claim they do and don’t get caught.

For most very long-term homeowners, much of the gain they recognize when they sell their houses is due to inflation. Taxing capital gains caused by inflation actually hurts the long term homeowner. A homeowner who sells after 30 years may not see any gain in value beyond inflation. The money returned to them has the same buying power as when it was put in to the asset. For the government to take a percentage of this inflation-induced gain is to rob the long-term homeowner of buying power. This is a valid reason not to tax capital gains on housing.

Unfortunately, when the Congress looked for a method of overcoming the tax problem of capital gains on long-term home ownership, the method they chose was deeply flawed. They simply put in a large tax break without regard to ownership period. It becomes a huge tax break for property flippers. Rather than benefiting long-term homeowners and encouraging that behavior, the government ends up encouraging frequent property turnover.

The solution to this tax problem is simple. Adjust the purchase price tax basis by the Consumer Price Index. Long-term homeowners would see a significant adjustment in the tax basis of their home while flippers would not.

The next issue is how much to tax the gain itself. Bill McKim proposes that the government should take it all. This would remove all incentive to buy for appreciation, and it would stop irrational exuberance in its tracks. That is probably not a tax policy that would ever get implemented. However, the idea is sound. Once the basis is adjusted for inflation, the tax rate on gains will greatly impact buyers and sellers. The higher the tax rate on capital gains, the less people will seek them, and the lower the market price volatility will be.

Another way to encourage long-term home ownership is to provide a lower capital gains tax rate only to long-term homeowners. For instance, a person who buys and sells a property and holds it for less than 3 years could be taxed at higher personal income tax rates. People who hold a property for more than 3 years would be taxed at lower capital gains tax rates. This would greatly inhibit the mindless flipping done by people who do not improve property.

Tax policy is complicated, and its impact on housing is important. The tax policies of The Great Housing Bubble contributed to its inflation, and there are many proposals to use tax policy to ease its deflation. There are some proposals I believe would be helpful, and some that would not. Now is a good time to take a hard look at the incentives these tax policies create and ask ourselves if the subsidies we provide as a society are providing us with the benefits we seek.