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How Much House You Can Afford?

Farm House with Rising SunMore than one reader has emailed me in the last month asking how much house I thought they could afford in our sinking housing market. One reader, Chester (not his real name), lived in California where home prices still seemed like they were in the stratosphere despite lowered prices, and the other (Wilson, also not his real name) lives in the Washington D.C. region where demand has kept home prices relatively stable. In both cases, I think the question of “how much house can you afford” is independent of the local real estate market and more a product of their spending habits and local cost of living.

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 Government 
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$7500 First Time Homebuyer Tax Credit

Farm House with Rising SunUpdate 2/12: The $15,000 provision has been replaced by an $8,000 first-time home buyer credit, according to the Wall Street Journal. The credit is set to expire November 30th unless it is extended (which is currently being discussed).

Senate Republicans added a provision that would make the credit a $15,000 tax credit for all home-buyers, not just first time home-buyers. It would also be a true credit, not a “credit” you have to pay back over 15 years.

One of the big pieces of the housing rescue bill, passed and signed into law in July, was a $7,500 “tax credit” for first time homebuyers. While experts aren’t sure whether it’s “going to work,” these types of tax credits have been used in the past so they do have some history.

There is one aspect of this bill that is surprising and it has to do with one of the qualification rules. You can own a vacation home or a rental property and still qualify for this tax credit. I don’t know if it’s an oversight because of the strict determination of “primary residence” or if it was an intended rule. I don’t think individuals who own rental property or vacation homes necessarily need assistance on buying a primary residence.

First Time Homebuyer Tax Credit Rules

To qualify, you must satisfy these conditions:

  • The home much be purchased as a primary residence.
  • You must not have owned a primary residence in the last three years. For couples, both individuals must not have owned a primary residence in the last three years. Vacation homes and rental properties don’t affect this (you aren’t DQ’d if you have a vacation home or rental property).
  • Must not be a non-resident alien as defined by the IRS in Publication 519.
  • Individuals must have a modified adjusted gross income of less than $75,000 annually and couples MAGI of less than $150,000 to qualify for the full amount.
  • The phaseout range begins at $75,000 and ends at $95,000 for individuals, $150,000 and $170,000 respectively for couples.
  • The home must be closed between April 9th, 2008 and July 1st, 2009.
  • No mention of a credit score or history requirement, but knowing that will help when it comes to getting a mortgage. I recommend checking out myFICO.com, a service of Fair Isaac, the people who invented the FICO credit score.

How the “tax credit” works:

  • The tax credit is 10% of the home’s sale price with a maximum of $7500.
  • You can claim the credit on taxes filed in 2008 or 2009.
  • It’s a credit and not a deduction (difference between tax credit and tax deduction).
  • “Tax credit” is a misnomer because it’s really a zero percent loan with some qualifications.

Tax Credit Loan Repayment Terms

The tax credit isn’t really a tax credit, it’s really just a tax free loan with some qualifications. You have to start paying back this loan within two years and you make equal payments over 15 years. When you sell your home, any profits will go first into paying off that loan. If you sell at a loss, the difference will be forgiven… meaning you will not owe any money on the loan (though it should be recorded as income as is typical with most loan forgiveness agreements, so you will owe taxes on it).

Should You Do It?

I would, why wouldn’t you take an interest free loan? :)

(Photo: orvaratli)


 Government 
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Housing Stimulus Bill Explained

Foreclosure! Housing Stimulus BillThis week, the Senate passed a housing bill a little over a week ago (the House joined last Wednesday) that seeks to give the housing market a shot in the arm. With 1 in every 171 homes going into foreclosure, the cries for help are getting loud and loud and, with the next year’s deficit nearing half a trillion dollars, we might as well pile it on. What’s another few hundred billion? Personally, I don’t like the idea but economic turmoil doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t help the people who erroneously got themselves into bad loans, it doesn’t help the people who intelligently avoided them, and it doesn’t help everyone else standing on the sidelines. Considering we can’t pass energy legislation and likely won’t before Congress recesses in a week, we might as well take what we can get.

So, what’s going on? Here are the bits that are likely to affect you.

The Main Bailout

The FHA will be allowed to insure up to $300 billion in 30-year fixed mortgages for those at risk and who are living in owner occupied homes. The net result of this is that some loans will be restructured from their current state to an FHA insured loan. It’s help but it’s not a get out of jail free card, you’ll see why in the second paragraph of the gotchas section.

Who is qualified? You qualify if you have a loan that was issued between January 2005 and June 2007, must be spending at least 31% of your gross monthly income on mortgage debt, the total debt cannot exceed 95% of the home’s appraised value, and prove that they will not be able to continue to pay their mortgage. They can be defaulting or current, that won’t matter, but they have to retire all other debt on the home.

What happens? If you think you qualify, go to an FHA-approved lender and they will take it from there.
Any gotchas, catches, or tricks?There are two types of gotchas. First, in order for this go through, the lender will have to write down the value of the existing loan to 90% of the home’s current value and take the hit. Lenders won’t do this unless they think they’ll lose more than that, so you will probably really have to be in trouble to qualify.

The second type of gotcha is the restrictions and extra payments the borrower will have to bear. You can’t get a home equity loan for at least five years, you’ll have to pay the 1.5% annual insurance premium to the FHA for the guarantee, you’ll have to pay a 3% exit fee on the principal to the FHA if you sell or refinance, and finally you’ll have to give up all profits to the FHA if you sell or refinance within a year. After a year, you’ll only be on the hook for 90% of the profits and drops by 10% each year until it gets to 50%, where it will be forever. That’s a long time.

The Supporting Cast Measures

There are a few other additions to the bill that may be of interest.

Conforming Loans ceiling set to $625,500. A temporary measure increasing the maximum value of a “conforming loan,” or loans that would be guaranteed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, was increased and pegged to home prices in a geographic region. I mentioned it as the Little Footnote on the 2008 Tax Stimulus Package and it really was a boon for the higher end housing market. Well, it’s permanent now.

10% home-buyer “credit,” up to $7,500. It’s not really a credit, it’s a 15 year no-interest loan of up to 10% of a home’s purchase price, no greater than $7,500. I don’t know if this will induce many folks into buying, there’s no sense rushing to buy something if you think it’ll still go down in value. No one loses money by sitting on the sidelines in this market.

My Thoughts

Overall, I think the way the “bail out” was structured was reasonable. Borrowers might be bailed out, only if the lenders accept the writing on the walls, but they don’t get to reap any rewards on the back end. I like the idea that the government gets at least 50% of a bailed out home’s appreciated value if it’s sold or refinanced. That’s a hit and the cost of doing business. Qualified borrowers get to keep their homes, lenders don’t lose as much, both sides seem to win.

It appears that the only losers are those excluded from the deal (taxpayers included). Lenders may be stubborn and refuse to take the hit, borrowers may find themselves close but not quite over the 31% gross income rule, and others may be left out because of the date of issue on their loan.

You can’t save everyone.

(Photo: respres)


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