Will tax reform end the American dream of owning a home?

A real estate sign advertising a new home for sale is pictured in Vienna, Virginia
A real estate sign advertising a new home for sale is pictured in Vienna, Virginia, U.S. October 20, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing/File Photo - TM3ECAQ0TQ801

November 8, 2017

By Gail MarksJarvis

CHICAGO – People who buy homes soon could be setting themselves up to lose money.

If a U.S. tax reform measure targeting the popular mortgage interest deduction is adopted, values of homes could drop 10 percent on average nationally, Lawrence Yun told 20,000 real estate agents gathered for the National Association of Realtors conference last week.

Home owners would be leery of trading up to bigger, more expensive homes, because the cap would fall to $500,000 from the current $1 million, while renters would lose a tax benefit that could be a key incentive in the decision to buy, said Yun, chief economist of the real estate brokers group.

“This will greatly disincentivize buying homes,” he said. “There will steadily be fewer home buyers over time.”

The NAR is launching an offensive against the tax bill introduced last week by Republicans in the House of Representatives and anything similar that arises in the Senate. Finalizing a measure remains a long way off.

But real estate agents are worried. The potential change comes when many Americans still are reluctant to buy homes after the trauma of the 2008 housing crash, said Kenneth Rosen, chairman of Rosen Consulting Group. Home ownership remains near a 50-year low, with potential homebuyers still suffering from “post-foreclosure stress disorder,” he says.

Currently 63.9 percent households are homeowners, compared with the 69 percent pre-financial crisis.

Since a final tax change is a moving target that could disturb future housing prices, it may be prudent to put home buying on hold while awaiting clarity from Capitol Hill.

“If changes in your tax liability would make buying a house unfeasible, it probably would be worth sitting on the fence,” said Ralph McLaughlin, economist for Trulia, an online real estate service that is a unit of Zillow Group Inc.

BIGGER STANDARD DEDUCTION

To understand the potential impact, do not look directly at the mortgage interest deduction. Under the House plan, most middle class homeowners still will be allowed to take that popular deduction because the tax plan does not wipe it out for except for the portion of a mortgage over $500,000.

Still, the tax plan essentially renders the deduction worthless to the middle class, and that is what Yun expects to injure the housing market.

The reason for the mortgage deduction’s loss of power: a key part of the GOP tax plan almost doubles the standard deduction for taxpayers. Couples could claim a standard deduction of $24,400 rather than the current $12,700; singles could claim $12,200 rather than $6,350.

Instead of buying a house or scouring checking accounts for possible other deductions, a middle class taxpayer simply could claim a standard deduction that would protect a much larger chunk of income from taxes than current law provides.

With the higher standard deduction, the math turns the decision to buy or rent upside down from current conditions, said Trulia’s McLaughlin.

After a sharp rise in rents, buying has recently been a better deal in 100 of the nation’s largest markets. But the tax changes could make renting more economical, and real estate agents could find it more difficult to turn renters into buyers. Often the agents use tax deductions as a selling point when dealing with younger would-be buyers.

Eventually, however, there is potential for change and an improvement in housing market as young adults amass the down payments they have struggled to accumulate, McLaughlin noted.

In the association’s recent survey, about 25 percent of potential first-time homebuyers said amassing a down payment was a problem.

Renters who get an extra $11,700 each year from the higher standard deduction could sock away those tax savings, if they do not have to use it for student loans or decide on other purchases.

And homes could become more affordable if sluggish buying drives prices down. According to the National Association of Realtors, home prices rose 48 percent during the last six years, while incomes climbed just 15 percent. The nation’s median home price is $235,000.

For expensive homes, the standard deduction will be inadequate to make up for the mortgage deduction, and large families will face even more difficulty since the tax plan also takes away the $4,050 dependent exemptions for each person, according to McLaughlin.

“Realtors use the tax deduction to educate first-time home-buyers, and if they lose it, that could be detrimental for home buying,” said Elizabeth Mendenhall, chief executive of Re/Max Boone Realty in Columbia, Missouri and president-elect of the National Association of Realtors.

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters)

(Editing by Lauren Young and Steve Orlofsky)