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Why Keep the Mortgage Interest Deduction Intact for Now

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Arguments over the mortgage interest deduction are not new and arise from both sides of the political spectrum. It’s important to remember that when Congress first imposed a federal income tax, they made all interest payments deductible. At the same time, the Tax Foundation contended that Congress wasn’t thinking about middle-class homeowners in the early part of the 19th Century. They excluded the first $3,000 for individuals and $4,000 for married couples, so only about one percent of the population of the country paid federal income taxes back then.

In those days, Congress may have considered business or farm interest but probably not typical home mortgages. As time passed, notions about interest deductions and exactly who would be impacted have obviously evolved. Today, the home interest deduction and the related property tax deduction remain as the two sacred cows in the tax code. It’s fair to say that they remained intact after other interest-related deductions had been gutted because lawmakers believe that they provided incentives for homeownership, and because homeownership was something that Congress hoped to encourage.

Why Keep the Home Mortgage Deduction Intact?

First, the latest tax code proposal doesn’t ask to completely do away with these two deductions, so it’s important to look at the latest bill to learn exactly what it does do.

This is a brief summary of the changes for home mortgage deductions:

  • You cannot deduct interest on a second home but only a primary residence.
  • You can still deduct home interest on any loan or part of a loan up to $500,000.
  • It’s worth noting that the related deduction for home property taxes would be capped at $10,000.

Arguments in favor of these changes usually underscore the additional revenues that the government can collect by eliminating these home deductions. Since the proposed changes aren’t eliminating all home deductions, it’s also easy to argue that they won’t impact the majority of Americans who only have one home, don’t have a mortgage over half a million dollars, or who pay more than $10,000 for property taxes each year.

How Could Changes to Housing Deductions Impact the American Economy?

A lot of Americans may not think that this sort of change to the tax code will impact them that much. Such expensive homes are rare in most counties and probably don’t represent more than four percent of all American homes. It would be possible to apply a similar argument to the property tax deduction. Lots of homeowners don’t pay $10,000 in property taxes every year, and many of those don’t even pay enough to allow them to itemize deductions.

However, the CBS report pointed out a couple of impacts that the news of the tax code has already had on the U.S. economy:

  • Home builder stocks: For example, the SPDR fund dropped by over five percent on the news reports. Even home-improvement retail chains like Home Depot and Lowes lost value.
  • Vacation homes: An analyst for Cowen named Jaret Spielberg said that his firm found the news negative for the market of vacation and second homes. Obviously, the tax code will also impact more homeowners in pricier markets. For instance, home prices average around $276,000 in Austin, Texas but over $1 million in San Francisco. This change may impose an additional burden on people who already struggle to afford housing in more expensive cities. Even if the old deductions get grandfathered in, the change is still likely to impact future home sales, and thereby the availability of different financing options. This, in turn, may affect the ability of these expensive housing markets to attract new people.

Also, the tax proposal included an increased standard deduction. It’s not accurate to only view the way these changes will impact future home buying decisions at the top end. More people with modest homes in areas that don’t have such high property taxes may also find that homeownership doesn’t give them the tax benefit that it used to.

In any case, the National Association of Realtors felt strongly enough about the impact of these changes on the real estate market to speak out. Because it can eliminate the tax incentive of purchasing a home for many taxpayers, they believe it will weaken the real estate market and result in higher taxes for many Americans. According to NAR’s president, William E. Brown, the changes would result in a “one-two punch” that would end up reducing America’s homeownership rate, which has certainly never been a goal stated by the political platform of either party.

A key resolution to consider…. If the intent is to make America greater than ever.

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