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Published: December 21, 2012
Deducting mortgage interest, as well as interest on home equity loans and HELOCs, can save money on taxes.
Deducting mortgage interest is a great tax benefit that can make home ownership more affordable. Your first mortgage isn’t the only loan that qualifies, either. In many cases, you can also deduct interest on home equity loans, second mortgages, and home equity lines of credit, or HELOCs.
You need to itemize your return to reap the benefits of these deductions. Calculations can be complicated, so consult a tax adviser.
Know your loan limits
A good place to check out what you can deduct before you borrow is the chart on page 3 of IRS Publication 936. It’ll walk you through the requirements you must meet to deduct all of your home loan interest.
The first hurdle you’ll run into is the total amount of your loan or loans. In general, individuals and couples filing jointly can deduct interest on loans up to $1 million ($500,000 if you’re married and filing separately). The money must have been used for acquisition costs — that is the cost to buy, build, or substantially improve a home, explains Scott O’Sullivan, a certified public accountant with Margolin, Winer & Evens in Garden City, N.Y. Any interest paid on loan amounts above the $1 million threshold isn’t deductible.
The same $1 million limit applies whether you have one home or two. Buying a vacation home doesn’t double your loan limits. And two homes is the max; you can’t deduct a mortgage for a third home. If you have a mortgage you took out before Oct. 13, 1987, you have fewer restrictions on claiming a full deduction. The calculations for “grandfathered debt” can get complex, so get help from a tax professional or refer to IRS Publication 936.
Whatever you do, don’t forget that you can also deduct the points and fees associated with a first or second mortgage when you initially buy your home, says Jeff Rattiner, a CPA with JR Financial Group in Centennial, Colo. If you refinance the same house, you have to deduct those costs over the entire term of the loan. If you refinance again, you can deduct all the costs from the earlier refi in the year you take out the new loan.
Spend loan proceeds wisely
The other limitation comes into play when you take out a home equity loan or HELOC, even if you don’t use the proceeds to buy, build, or improve your home. In that case, you can deduct interest on up to $100,000 ($50,000 if married filing separately) on outstanding home equity debt. This loan limit also applies in a cash-out refi, in which you refinance and take out part of the equity you’ve built up as cash, says John R. Lieberman, a CPA with Perelson Weiner in New York City.
That means if you decide to take out a $115,000 home equity loan to buy that Porsche, you can deduct the interest on the first $100,000 but not on the $15,000 that exceeds the limit. Use the same $115,000 to add a new bedroom, however, and the full amount is allowable under the $1 million cap. Keep in mind, though, that the $115,000 gets added into the pot of whatever else you owe on your other home loans. In many cases, points and loan origination costs for HELOCs are deductible.
Consider this simplified scenario: You borrow $250,000 against your home at 8% interest. That means you’ll pay $20,000 in interest the first year. Spend the $250,000 on home improvements, and all of the interest is deductible. Spend $150,000 on improvements and $100,000 on your kids’ college tuition, and all the interest is still deductible.
But spend $100,000 on improvements and $150,000 on tuition, and the improvement outlays are deductible, though $50,000 of the tuition expense isn’t. That’ll cost you $4,000 in interest deductions. Preserve the $4,000 deduction by coming up with the extra money for tuition from another source, perhaps a low-interest student loan or by borrowing from a retirement plan. For someone in a 25% bracket, a $4,000 deduction lowers taxes by $1,000, plus applicable state income taxes.
Beware the dreaded AMT
Even if you’ve followed all the loan limit rules, you can still get stuck paying tax on mortgage interest. How come? It’s all thanks to the Alternative Minimum Tax. Congress created the AMT, which limits or eliminates many deductions, as a way to keep the wealthy from dodging their fair share of taxes.
Calculating the AMT can be complex, but if you make more than $75,000 and have several kids or other deductions, you might well be subject to it. Problem is, if you fall into the AMT group, you may not be able to deduct interest on a home equity loan, even if the loan falls within the $1 million/$100,000 limit. If you’re subject to the AMT and borrow money against the value of your home, you’ll have to use it to buy, build, or improve your place, or you may not have a chance to deduct the interest, says Rattiner, the Colorado CPA.
This article provides general information about tax laws and consequences, but shouldn’t be relied upon as tax or legal advice applicable to particular transactions or circumstances. Consult a tax professional for such advice.
Published: January 5, 2015
Which tax benefits do homeowners miss? Will you get audited if you take the home office deduction? Find out the answers to these questions and more before Tax Day.
There are a lot of homeownership tax benefits — if you don’t forget to take them. To make sure you get your due, HouseLogic asked tax expert Abe Schneier, a former senior technical manager with the American Institute of CPAs, for tax-filing tips.
HouseLogic: What’s the most common home-related tax deduction or credit claimed by homeowners?
Abe Schneier: The mortgage interest deduction, [which the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® estimates amounts to about $3,000 in tax savings for the average itemizing homeowner] and [the deduction for] real property taxes.
HL: Which tax provision do homeowners often overlook?
AS: You can deduct mortgage insurance premiums [or PMI] if you were required to get PMI as a condition of receiving financing on your home. Some people will overlook that, although it’s typically disclosed on the 1099 that you receive from the bank, along with all the deductible information you need.
HL note: The PMI deduction expired in 2014, but Congress may renew it for 2015 by passing a bill that extends the deduction. That’s something they’ve done in past years.
[Another area of tax-filing confusion is] whether you’ve correctly treated any points you paid if you refinanced. In a new home purchase, the points can be deducted [in the tax year you paid them]. But typically in a refinancing, you have to amortize and deduct any points you paid over the life of the mortgage, and people tend to forget that after a couple of years.
HL: What’s the No. 1 mistake homeowners make when filing their taxes?
AS: Because you receive a statement from the bank with details [such as] how much mortgage interest you paid over the year, and how much the bank pays on your behalf in real estate taxes, the number of mistakes has dropped.
But if you’re in a state where you pay the real estate taxes on your own — the bank doesn’t handle it for you — [people] make mistakes because sometimes real estate tax bills include other items besides pure real estate taxes. It could be trash collection fees; it could be snow removal fees that the state or county is assessing on the real estate tax bill. Since the items are included in the same bill, homeowners sometimes deduct [those fees] regardless of whether the items are actually taxes.
HL: What’s the single most important piece of advice for people filing their taxes as a first-time homeowner?
AS: You have to take a look at your closing statement from when you bought the house. It’s commonly called the HUD-1 form and you receive it at the closing. Occasionally, there are fees such as prepaid taxes or interest at closing that can be deductible.
HL: What tax advice do you have for someone who’s owned their home for 10 or 20 years?
AS: If you’ve been a longtime homeowner and you’ve been through refinancings, you have to be careful about how much interest you’ve deducted, especially if you have a home equity loan or equity line. A lot of people who’ve refinanced have sizable equity lines. The maximum outstanding home equity debt on which interest is deductible is $100,000; the maximum loan amount on which interest is deductible is $1 million.
HL: What home improvement-related records should homeowners keep?
AS: Absolutely keep your receipts for couple of reasons:
1. You want to make sure — if there are any warranties attached to the work that was done — that you maintain those records and you have something to go back to the person who did the work in case something doesn’t function properly.
2. If you’ve added value to the home — you’ve added a deck, you’ve added a room, you’ve added something new to house — you’ll need to know what the gain is on that capital improvement when you sell the house.
HL note: Tax rules let you add capital improvement expenses to the cost basis of your home, and a higher cost basis lowers the total profit or capital gain you’re required to pay taxes on. Of course, most homeowners are exempted from taxes on the first $500,000 in profit for joint filers ($250,000 for single filers). So it doesn’t apply to too many people.
HL: How do I tell the difference between a capital improvement and a repair?
AS: Typically a repair is [done] to allow an item, like a home furnace or air conditioner, to continue. But if you were to replace the heating unit, that’s not a repair.
HL: Does taking any home-related tax benefits, such as the home office deduction, make a taxpayer more likely to be audited?
AS: Only if numbers look out of the ordinary — for instance, if one year you were writing off $20,000 in mortgage interest debt and the next year you’re writing off $100,000 in mortgage interest. Taking the home office deduction in and of itself doesn’t usually generate an audit. However, if you claim nominal income and significantly higher expenses in an effort to create artificial losses, the IRS will see that there’s something else going on there.
HL: Once filing season is over, when should homeowners start thinking about next year’s taxes?
AS: Well, hopefully, when you visit your CPA to give information about or pick up [this year’s] tax return, your CPA has spoken with you about your plans for [next year]:
- If any major improvements are scheduled
- If you’re planning on moving
- How to organize any expenditures for fixing up the home before sale
If you’re planning to do any of those things, talk with your CPA so that you’re prepared with documentation and so that the [tax pro] can help minimize your tax situation.
Like things easy? The new simplified home office deduction may be your salvation from the long form. But you might not save as much the easy way.
If you work from home, even on a part-time basis, you can probably save some dough come tax time by deducting your home office costs.
The challenge has always been the 43-line, MENSA-like IRS form home office workers had to complete, which may have kept some from even taking advantage of this home tax benefit.
Now, there’s an optional, simplified home office deduction: Take $5/sq. ft. up to 300 feet or $1,500 and, boom, you’re done.
What’s the catch? Trade-off is a better word: You may not be able to deduct as much compared with the regular method. The IRS says the average home office deduction has been around $3,000. So consider the value of your time against potential tax savings if you believe you’re eligible for more than the $1,500 cap.
Before you start spending your refund, however, there are a few rules you need to heed.
What Counts as a Home Office?
A room or defined area of your home that you use exclusively and on a regular basis for business and that meets either of these uses:
- It’s your principal place of business, or
- You see clients, customers, or patients there.
Exception to the “exclusive” rule: If you use your home as the sole location of your business and store products there, the room or area where you store products can be used for other things. Say you use a room in your basement to make and store jewelry that’s also a TV room. If it’s the only fixed location of your business, you can use it to also watch TV.
What If You’re on the Road a Lot?
You don’t have to do all your work from home to take the home office deduction. If you’re an outside salesperson, you probably spend most of your work time elsewhere. But the home office has to be essential to your business, and you must spend substantial time there. If you do your billing and other office work from your home office, and there’s no other location available to perform these functions, your home office should qualify for the deduction.
You can also qualify for the deduction if your employer requires you to work from home, as long as you don’t charge your employer rent.
A big catch: You must maintain the at-home office for your employer’s convenience, not your own. If you use your home office to finish reports at night or on weekends because you don’t want to work at your desk in your office downtown, you can’t claim the home office deduction.
But if your employer doesn’t have a headquarters and everyone works remotely, you’re good to go.
Also Covered Under the Tax Break
Separate structures on your property, like a detached garage you’ve converted to an office or studio.
Unlike an office inside your home, a separate structure doesn’t have to be your main place of business to qualify for a deduction. That’s because the IRS believes your family is less likely to use a separate structure as a part-time play area or den, says Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for tax and consulting at CCH.
Related: Check Zoning Laws Before Adding a Detached Workshop or Studio
Two Ways to Deduct Home Office Expenses
1. Simplified home office deduction. We talked about this one above, but there are a few other particulars to note:
- You can’t depreciate your home office, and your deduction is limited to your gross business income less business expenses.
- If you use this deduction, you can still claim the deductions every homeowner gets, like mortgage interest, real estate taxes, and casualty losses. Put those on Schedule A.
- Using the standard home office deduction won’t stop you from taking the deductions for other business expenses unrelated to your home, such as advertising, supplies, and employee wages.
- You don’t need to keep track of individual expenses with this option. You do with the actual cost method.
2. Actual costs, which you list on Form 8829. To use this method, you figure the proportion of your home’s overall space devoted to your office and use that to calculate how much of your overall home expenses went toward your home office.
Example: If your office is 300 sq. ft. and your home is 3,000 sq. ft., your office takes up 10% of your home. So you can deduct 10% of your utility, mortgage interest, property taxes, and other home expenses. However, certain expenses that aren’t related directly to the home office, such as lawn care, aren’t included in the calculation.
Not sure how big your house is? Check the documents you received when you bought your home — there’s probably a detailed rendering — or measure the outside of your home and multiply length times width.
Do You Have to Stick with the Same Deduction Method Each Year?
Nope. Each year, you get to decide whether to use the standard or the actual-expense deduction.
What Can You Deduct When You Use the Long Form?
If you’re using Form 8829 to report your actual expenses and you’ve figured out what percentage of your home you use for business, you can apply that percentage to different home expenses. These include:
- Mortgage interest
- Real estate taxes
- Utilities (heating, cooling, lights)
- Home repairs and maintenance (so long as they benefit both the business and personal parts of the home)
- Homeowners insurance premiums
Just take each expense and multiply it by your home office percentage to get the amount you can deduct as a business expense. So if you spend $150 a month on electricity, and your home office takes up 10% of your home, you can deduct $15 a month as a home office expense. That adds up to a $180 deduction per tax year.
Important limitation: Your home office deduction can’t exceed the amount of income you generate from the home office. So if you spend some of your work time on-site with a client and earn $1,500 there, you can’t claim more than $1,500 because it exceeds what you made at home.
Save bills or cancelled checks to prove what you spent in case of an IRS audit. Also, only repairs, like to the furnace, can be expensed; improvements must be depreciated.
Don’t Forget Depreciation
Depreciation is based on the idea that everything — even something like a home — wears out eventually. If you’re using the long form, figure home office depreciation by calculating the tax basis of your home:
1. Add the purchase price to the cost of improvements.
2. Subtract the value of the land it sits on.
3. Multiply that cost basis by the percentage of your home used for work. This gives you the tax basis for your home office.
4. Divide by 39 years.
- Purchase price: $100,000
- Value of land: $25,000
- Cost basis: $75,000, plus cost of improvements you’ve made
- Tax basis: $75,000 x 10% = $7,500
- Depreciation deduction: $7,500/39 years*
*Usually, depreciation deductions for a home office are figured over a 39-year period. There are caveats. For instance, if your business opened after Jan. 1 in its first year, you need to calculate a factor of 39. For a crash course, read IRS Publication 946 or talk to a tax pro.
Keep in mind that depreciation deductions on your home office may increase the amount of profit on a home sale that’s subject to taxes. Most taxpayers don’t owe income tax on up to $250,000 of profit if you’re a single filer, $500,000 for joint filers. Consult with a qualified tax professional on how depreciation deductions affect your tax liability when you sell.
Related: More on How Improvements Can Lower Your Cost Basis
Special Rules for In-Home Care Providers
If you provide in-home daycare services for children, the elderly, or disabled persons as a licensed or authorized business, you don’t have to use the home work space exclusively to take the home office deduction.
You calculate your deduction by dividing the number of hours you used your home workspace to provide daycare services during the year by the total number of hours during the year.
For example, if you do daycare 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year, that’s 2,000 hours a year, divided by the 8,760 hours in a regular year equals 22.8%. So you could take 22.8% of the $5 per sq. ft. simplified deduction for your daycare workspace.
Related: Don’t Miss These Other Home-Related Tax Deductions
This article provides general information about tax laws and consequences, but shouldn’t be relied upon as tax or legal advice applicable to particular transactions or circumstances. Consult a tax professional for such advice.
While you’d like to get the best price for your home, consider our six reasons to reduce your home price.
These six signs may be telling you it’s time to lower your price.
1. You’re drawing few lookers
You get the most interest in your home right after you put it on the market because buyers want to catch a great new home before anybody else takes it. If your real estate agent reports there have been fewer buyers calling about and asking to tour your home than there have been for other homes in your area, that may be a sign buyers think it’s overpriced and are waiting for the price to fall before viewing it.
2. You’re drawing lots of lookers but have no offers
If you’ve had 30 sets of potential buyers come through your home and not a single one has made an offer, something is off. What are other agents telling your agent about your home? An overly high price may be discouraging buyers from making an offer.
3. Your home’s been on the market longer than similar homes
Ask your real estate agent about the average number of days it takes to sell a home in your market. If the answer is 30 and you’re pushing 45, your price may be affecting buyer interest. When a home sits on the market, buyers can begin to wonder if there’s something wrong with it, which can delay a sale even further. At least consider lowering your asking price.
4. You have a deadline
If you’ve got to sell soon because of a job transfer or you’ve already purchased another home, it may be necessary to generate buyer interest by dropping your price so your home is a little lower priced than comparable homes in your area. Remember: It’s not how much money you need that determines the sale price of your home, it’s how much money a buyer is willing to spend.
5. You can’t make upgrades
Maybe you’re plum out of cash and don’t have the funds to put fresh paint on the walls, clean the carpets, and add curb appeal. But the feedback your agent is reporting from buyers is that your home isn’t as well-appointed as similarly priced homes. When your home has been on the market longer than comparable homes in better condition, it’s time to accept that buyers expect to pay less for a home that doesn’t show as well as others.
6. The competition has changed
If weeks go by with no offers, continue to check out the competition. What have comparable homes sold for and what’s still on the market? What new listings have been added since you listed your home for sale? If comparable home sales or new listings show your price is too steep, consider a price reduction.
More from HouseLogic
How to ready your home for sale at little cost
How to review offers on your home
Other web resources
More on setting the right price
When you buy a fixer-upper house, you can save a ton of money, or get yourself in a financial fix.
1. Decide what you can do yourself
TV remodeling shows make home improvement work look like a snap. In the real world, attempting a difficult remodeling job that you don’t know how to do will take longer than you think and can lead to less-than-professional results that won’t increase the value of your fixer-upper house.
- Do you really have the skills to do it? Some tasks, like stripping wallpaper and painting, are relatively easy. Others, like electrical work, can be dangerous when done by amateurs.
- Do you really have the time and desire to do it? Can you take time off work to renovate your fixer-upper house? If not, will you be stressed out by living in a work zone for months while you complete projects on the weekends?
2. Price the cost of repairs and remodeling before you make an offer
- Get your contractor into the house to do a walk-through, so he can give you a written cost estimate on the tasks he’s going to do.
- If you’re doing the work yourself, price the supplies.
- Either way, tack on 10% to 20% to cover unforeseen problems that often arise with a fixer-upper house.
3. Check permit costs
- Ask local officials if the work you’re going to do requires a permit and how much that permit costs. Doing work without a permit may save money, but it’ll cause problems when you resell your home.
- Decide if you want to get the permits yourself or have the contractor arrange for them. Getting permits can be time-consuming and frustrating. Inspectors may force you to do additional work, or change the way you want to do a project, before they give you the permit.
- Factor the time and aggravation of permits into your plans.
4. Doublecheck pricing on structural work
If your fixer-upper home needs major structural work, hire a structural engineer for $500 to $700 to inspect the home before you put in an offer so you can be confident you’ve uncovered and conservatively budgeted for the full extent of the problems.
Get written estimates for repairs before you commit to buying a home with structural issues.
Don’t purchase a home that needs major structural work unless:
- You’re getting it at a steep discount
- You’re sure you’ve uncovered the extent of the problem
- You know the problem can be fixed
- You have a binding written estimate for the repairs
5. Check the cost of financing
Be sure you have enough money for a downpayment, closing costs, and repairs without draining your savings.
If you’re planning to fund the repairs with a home equity or home improvement loan:
- Get yourself pre-approved for both loans before you make an offer.
- Make the deal contingent on getting both the purchase money loan and the renovation money loan, so you’re not forced to close the sale when you have no loan to fix the house.
- Consider the Federal Housing Administration’s Section 203(k) program, which is designed to help home owners who are purchasing or refinancing a home that needs rehabilitation. The program wraps the purchase/refinance and rehabilitation costs into a single mortgage. To qualify for the loan, the total value of the property must fall within the FHA mortgage limit for your area, as with other FHA loans. A streamlined 203(k) program provides an additional amount for rehabilitation, up to $35,000, on top of an existing mortgage. It’s a simpler process than obtaining the standard 203(k).
6. Calculate your fair purchase offer
Take the fair market value of the property (what it would be worth if it were in good condition and remodeled to current tastes) and subtract the upgrade and repair costs.
For example: Your target fixer-upper house has a 1960s kitchen, metallic wallpaper, shag carpet, and high levels of radon in the basement.
Your comparison house, in the same subdivision, sold last month for $200,000. That house had a newer kitchen, no wallpaper, was recently recarpeted, and has a radon mitigation system in its basement.
The cost to remodel the kitchen, remove the wallpaper, carpet the house, and put in a radon mitigation system is $40,000. Your bid for the house should be $160,000.
Ask your real estate agent if it’s a good idea to share your cost estimates with the sellers, to prove your offer is fair.
7. Include inspection contingencies in your offer
Don’t rely on your friends or your contractor to eyeball your fixer-upper house. Hire pros to do common inspections like:
- Home inspection. This is key in a fixer-upper assessment. The home inspector will uncover hidden issues in need of replacement or repair. You may know you want to replace those 1970s kitchen cabinets, but the home inspector has a meter that will detect the water leak behind them.
- Radon, mold, lead-based paint
- Septic and well
Most home inspection contingencies let you go back to the sellers and ask them to do the repairs, or give you cash at closing to pay for the repairs. The seller can also opt to simply back out of the deal, as can you, if the inspection turns up something you don’t want to deal with.
If that happens, this isn’t the right fixer-upper house for you. Go back to the top of this list and start again.
More from HouseLogic
What you need to know about foundation repairs
Budgeting for a home remodel
Tips on hiring a contractor
Other web resources
This Old House remodeling cost estimates