In 2008, the U.S. housing market was already cratering as the Great Recession took hold. To try and stop the bleeding, Congress passed a series of first-time homebuyer tax credits, each more generous than the last. First came a $7,500 tax rebate, to be repaid over 15 years with no interest. By early 2009, it had grown to $8,000, and required no payback whatsoever. And for most of 2010, even some repeat home buyers were eligible for a tax credit worth up to $6,500.
While those juicy homebuyer tax credits have long since expired as the economy and housing market have heated back up, Uncle Sam is still pretty keen to help you get into your first home. Here are some other tax breaks homebuyers can take advantage of.
Mortgage Interest Deduction
Let's start with the biggest tax break available to most homebuyers: You can deduct mortgage interest you pay in a given year — and it just so happens you pay the most interest in your first few years of home ownership.
"The banks want to make sure they get most of their interest, so they front load mortgages so more interest is paid in the beginning," says Marie Presti, owner and broker at the Presti Group in Newton, Mass. That means it takes awhile to build precious equity in your home, but it does help lower your tax bill in the early years of your mortgage.
Let's say you take out a $300,000, 30-year mortgage at a 4.25% interest rate. In your first year, your mortgage payments are mostly interest, and you'll have about $12,650 of it to deduct. So if you earn about $75,000, that last 12 grand or so falls in the 25% tax bracket — which means you've shaved about $3,160 off your tax bill.
Sort of. The IRS offers a "standard deduction" for people who don't itemize: In 2017, it's $6,350 for single taxpayers, or $12,700 for married couples filing jointly. So you need to be deducting more than that to make itemizing worthwhile; if the taxpayers in the example above are married, it's pretty much a wash. (That's one reason this $77 billion government giveaway benefits mostly middle- to high-income Americans, and why there's talk of changing or scrapping it.)
However, this has some corollary tax benefits as well. Unless you're self-employed or have an otherwise tricky tax situation, you've probably always taken the standard deduction when filing your taxes. Now that you own a home, and you can write off thousands of dollars in mortgage interest each year, it might make more sense to itemize your deductions going forward. And that opens up a lot of other little deductions you might not have bothered with before, like those for student loan interest, childcare costs, or the stuff you donate to Goodwill or the Salvation Army.
Mortgage Credit Certificate
This little-known tax break is a biggie — if you can qualify. Mortgage Credit Certificates (MCCs) are issued at the state or local level, so the rules can vary dramatically and they aren't available in all areas. However, because a tax credit is generally even more valuable than a deduction — instead of just lowering your taxable income, a credit is an actual dollar-for-dollar reduction in your tax bill — it's absolutely worth checking whether your state, city, or county offers MCCs.
While the specifics vary by state and even from city to city, an MCC basically allows you to get a tax credit for a certain percentage of the mortgage interest you paid, up to $2,000 a year (rates range from 20% to 50%).
This is an especially valuable tax break for lower- and middle-income homebuyers, or those whose homes don't cost enough to make the mortgage interest deduction worthwhile. In Texas, for example, an MCC allows you to claim 40% of your mortgage interest as a tax credit each year, up to that $2,000 cap. If you took out a $150,000 mortgage, you'd owe about $6,750 in interest in your first year - not enough to pass up the standard deduction and bother with itemizing, if you're married. But with an MCC, you'd recoup 40% of that interest paid in a dollar-for-dollar tax credit, up to the $2,000 cap. (What's more, you can still deduct interest paid beyond that $2,000 limit.)
To qualify, you must generally be a first-time homebuyer and use the house as your primary residence until you sell it; other eligibility requirements include limits on income and the price of the home. In California, for example, 2017 income limits ranged from $73,300 for 1- to 2-person households in a dozen or so counties to $154,057 for a family of three or more in Marin and San Francisco counties. In those costly counties and others, such as Los Angeles and San Diego, homes up to $585,713 were eligible, but eligibility in other areas topped out at $253,809.
The average American household paid $3,296 in local property taxes in 2016, according to an analysis by Attom Data Solutions, but your bill might be substantially higher in places with pricier homes or higher tax rates; the average bill in New Jersey was $8,549.
Gratefully, you can deduct those local levies from your taxable income. So if you deduct $4,000 in property taxes, and your earnings top out in the 25% tax bracket, that's a $1,000 discount on your federal tax bill.
Points — money you might pay your lender upfront for a better long-term interest rate - are basically prepaid interest, and therefore they're deductible just like mortgage interest. One point is 1% of your mortgage, so this might be another few thousand dollars to shave off your taxable income. You can deduct the full amount of points paid in the year that you bought your home; otherwise, you have to spread out the deduction over the life of the mortgage.
Until the end of 2016, there were some pretty lucrative federal tax credits available for making energy-efficient improvements around your home, from adding insulation to installing Energy Star-rated heating systems and appliances. Alas, those have all expired and, given the current leadership (er, if you can call it that) in Washington, they seem unlikely to make a comeback anytime soon.
However, many states still offer their own tax and financial incentives for installing old-school or cutting-edge energy improvements. Massachusetts, for example, will pick up 75% of the tab for adding insulation (up to $2,000) and offers rebates of up to $3,000 for replacing 30-year-old-plus boilers or furnaces with high-efficiency gas heating equipment.
Meanwhile, one very big, energy-related federal tax credit lives on: The 30% credit for solar energy systems. If you pay $20,000 for a rooftop solar installation, you'll get a $6,000 tax rebate, on top of any state incentives. This generous kickback, which has no upper limit, was extended through 2019, after which it begins to ratchet downward (to 26% in 2020, 22% in 2021, and then zilch). A site like EnergySage.com can help you price out a solar array and compare quotes from competing installers.
Penalty-Free IRA Withdrawals
Not that it's a great idea to do so, but if you need to tap your IRA for down payment money, you're allowed to withdraw up to $10,000 once in your life to put toward your first home without paying the usual 10% early withdrawal penalty (you'll still have to pay income taxes on it).
With a Roth IRA, you can always withdraw contributions for any reason, tax- and penalty-free, and you can also withdraw up to $10,000 of investment gains without penalty for a first-time home purchase. In each case, married home buyers can withdraw up to $10,000 apiece.
Tax Tip: Keep Track of Home Improvements
Finally, this isn't exactly a tax break but rather advice on avoiding a potential tax penalty down the line. Uncle Sam allows you considerable leeway when selling a primary residence you've lived in for at least two of the last five years, but if that home somehow appreciates more than $250,000 (or $500,000 for married couples), you would owe capital gains taxes on the profit.
That's a good problem to have, but still: Keep track of your home improvement costs, so that one day, when you sell your home, you can add those expenses to the baseline purchase price when determining your profit.
If you're single and bought a condo for $500,000, and sold it five years later for $800,000, you'd owe capital gains tax on that $300,000 in profit — unless you could prove that you spent more than $50,000 on home improvements. So keep those Home Depot receipts and contractor bills.
Tax laws are complicated and change often; check IRS.gov or consult a tax professional.