By John W. Schoen Senior producer
msnbc.com
updated 11/8/2009 6:53:11 PM ET 2009-11-08T23:53:11

Unemployed workers and homebuyers caught a break thanks to a new law signed by President Barack Obama on Friday. The law offers tax credits for homebuyers, extending and expanding a popular program, and extends jobless benefits up to 20 weeks for unemployed workers who can’t find a job. Here’s how the plans will work.

Where does New York state stand on the new unemployment extension?
— Lloyd S., New Windsor, N.Y.

The legislation signed by Obama on Friday will extend unemployment benefits for the roughly 50,000 people a week whose claims were expiring — along with some 3.4 million more who are still collecting on their insurance.

The plan adds 14 weeks of benefits; workers living in states where the unemployment rate is above 8.5 percent get an additional six weeks of benefits for a total of 20 extra weeks of benefits. (The most recent figures put New York's jobless rate at 8.7 percent, putting the state into the 20-week category.)

Before the recession began in December 2007, benefits typically ran out after 26 weeks. But because so many workers have been unable to find new jobs, Congress has extended eligibility four times, giving some people up to 79 weeks of benefits. The length varies from state to state, because some states have passed their own additional extensions.

The surge in claims has severely stretched state trust funds that cover these benefits. So far roughly half the states have had to borrow from the federal government to keep writing checks. To pay back the money, they’ll either have to raise taxes on businesses or trim benefits. Neither option will do much to get the economy back on track.

To qualify, workers have to meet minimum requirements, set by each state, for wages earned or time worked during what’s called the "base period." In most states, that’s the first four out of the last five calendar quarters before your claim is filed. You also have to have lost your job through no fault of your own. (If that’s in dispute, the unemployment office reviews the circumstances and decides whether you qualify.)

It’s important to check the rules carefully for each state. Though programs are similar — the states have to follow federal guidelines — there can be big differences in the level of benefits and eligibility rules. (You can check here for information on your state.)

In New York state, for example, the maximum unemployment benefit is $430 a week, compared with $564 in Pennsylvania and $609 in New Jersey. One big reason is that New York requires employers to pay into the unemployment insurance trust fund for just the first $8,500 for an employee’s annual wages. The national average is $11,800, and it's more than $14,000 in neighboring Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey.

For more information on filing a claim, check the Department of Labor’s Web site.

In the extension of the homebuyer tax credit there is the requirement that move-up homebuyers must have lived in their home for five years. I am curious how exactly that is defined. My wife and I bought our house on July 1, 2005, and are curious if we can qualify for the credit by closing on a new purchase on June 30, 2010 (the last day of the credit) — or will we fall just short of the 5-year home ownership requirement?
— Jeff L., New York

You never know with the IRS, but as far as we’re concerned a year that starts on July 1 ends on June 30. So you should be good to go.

The homebuyer tax credit the Senate tacked on to the extension of jobless benefits (which was one reason it took so long to extend benefits) expands the first-time homebuyer credit that has helped perk up the housing market.

You claim it when you file your taxes by deducting from the tax you owe. If the credit is bigger than your tax bill, you get a check back for the difference. And if you want an immediate refund, you can amend your 2008 tax return.

The credit is good for 10 percent of the purchase price of  a primary residence, up to $8,000 for “first-time” homebuyers — which are defined as people who haven’t owned a home in the past three years. “Repeat” buyers — who have owned their current home at least five years —can get up to $6,500.

To qualify, you have to sign a purchase agreement by April 30, 2010, and closed by June 30. (The deadline is extended by a year for members of the military who have served outside the U.S. for at least 90 days from Jan. 1, 2009, to May 1, 2010.)

There are some other limits on who is eligible. You can't claim the credit on a house that costs more than $800,000. If you earn more than $125,000 a year — or $225,000 for joint filers — you get a reduced credit that fully phases out when incomes hit $145,000 for individuals and $245,000 for joint filers.

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