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Fight looming on tax break to buy houses

When Congress passed an $8,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers, it was intended as shock therapy. Now the question is whether the market can function without it.
/ Source: The New York Times

When Congress passed an $8,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers last winter, it was intended as a dose of shock therapy during a crisis. Now the question is becoming whether the housing market can function without it.

As many as 40 percent of all home buyers this year will qualify for the credit. It is on track to cost the government $15 billion, more than twice the amount that was projected when Congress passed the stimulus bill in February.

In the view of the real estate industry and some economists, all that money is well spent. They contend the credit is doing what it was meant to do, encouraging a recovery in the housing market that is gathering steam. Analysts say the credit is directly responsible for several hundred thousand home sales.

Skeptics argue that most of the money is going to people who would have bought a home anyway. And they contend that unless it is allowed to expire on schedule in late November, the tax credit is likely to become one more expensive government program that refuses to die.

The real estate industry, including the powerful 1.1 million-member National Association of Realtors, wants Congress to extend the credit at least through next summer. The group hopes to expand the program to $15,000 and to allow all buyers, not just those who have been out of the market for at least three years, to qualify. The price tag on that plan: $50 billion to $100 billion.

‘A no-brainer’
Joseph and Chassity Myers are among the two million buyers eligible for the credit this year. The newlyweds heard they could get money from the government for something they were tempted to do anyway.

“It was a no-brainer,” said Mr. Myers, a commercial underwriter. “Owning something is the American family dream.”

The couple bought a two-bedroom condominium here in the spring for $171,000 and amended their 2008 taxes immediately, receiving their windfall by direct deposit a few weeks later.

Their home is now a monument to the government’s generosity. They bought a leather couch, a kitchen table, a bed, television stand, china cabinet, kitchen table, coffee table, grill and patio set.

“We did exactly what the government wanted us to do,” said Ms. Myers, a third grade teacher. “We stimulated the economy.”

Expiration of credit looms
Mortgage applications increased nearly 10 percent for the week ending Sept. 3 from late August, the largest gain since early April and the latest of many signs of life in real estate. The upturn can be attributed to several factors: the return of confidence, very low mortgage rates, and prices in some markets that are at decade-low levels.

But the looming expiration of the tax credit on Nov. 30 seems to be playing a role too, particularly in relatively low-cost markets like Phoenix, Las Vegas and Dallas.

The 50-year-old complex that the Myerses live in, grandly named the Lawn at Bluffview, provides a snapshot of the credit’s influence — and limitations. Two years ago, the buildings were converted from apartments to condominiums by their owner, a local developer. In January, before the credit, only 30 of the 70 units had sold.

Since then, another seven units have sold, including the one bought by the Myerses. Brian Denbow, who works for a subprime auto financing firm, also was spurred to action by the credit. He too intends to use the money for furniture. Five of the buyers did not qualify for the credit for various reasons.

The Lawn at Bluffview remains nowhere near full. Potential buyers “just want a deal,” said the sales agent, Beverly Bell. Two weeks ago, the price of the unsold units was cut 10 percent.

The National Association of Realtors estimates that about 350,000 sales this year would not have happened without the lure of the tax credit. Moody’s used computer modeling to put the number at 400,000.

The government’s efforts to directly reward home buyers began more than a year ago with a $7,500 tax credit that had to be repaid over 15 years. Last winter, amid fears of another Great Depression, the Senate came up with a much sweeter $15,000 package as part of the stimulus bill. That measure was ultimately reduced to the $8,000 credit.

Now the sponsor of the original Senate bill, Johnny Isakson, Republican of Georgia, is back with a new bill that would give a maximum $15,000 credit to any buyer who stays in a home for at least two years.

“The problem now is not first-time buyers, it’s the move-up market — the guy transferred from Chicago to Atlanta who can’t sell his house,” said Mr. Isakson, a former real estate agent.

Without a new and more generous credit, he warned, there would be a downward spiral of home sales and more foreclosures, provoking a second recession.

The real estate industry is lobbying heavily for the bill, but acknowledges that in an atmosphere that is less crisis-driven than last winter it will almost certainly have to settle for less.

“There will be a lot of water under the bridge, a lot of compromise, between now” and a final bill, said Richard A. Smith, chairman of the Business Roundtable’s Housing Working Group.

Economists are sharply split on the merits of another round of government help.

Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s, favors expanding the credit to all home buyers, even investors, into next summer. “The risks of not doing something like this are too great,” he said. “I don’t think the coast is clear.”

James Glassman of JPMorgan Chase echoed those views but said he favored continuing to restrict the credit to first-time buyers.

On the other side of the issue is the Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute. It labeled the original credit as one of the worst provisions of the stimulus package, on the grounds that the money is a bonus for people who would buy a house anyway. The center has an even dimmer view of extending the credit to all buyers.

“Is this the best way to spend money we don’t have?” asked senior fellow Roberton Williams.

Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research called the credit “a questionable redistributive policy” from renters to home buyers, but said that he used it himself when he bought a house.

He wrote on his blog: “Thank you very much, suckers!”

This article, “,” first appeared in The New York Times.

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