Lives tend to complicate homebuyer tax credits

Experts provide answers on frequently asked queries

April 04, 2010|By Eileen Ambrose |

Homebuyer tax credits on paper are simple, but as it turns out, our lives aren't.

Over the past year, the homebuyer credits generated more questions from readers than any topic on our Consuming Interests blog. Readers were unsure whether they qualified for a credit, often because of messy family situations or messy finances.

Congress complicated matters when it expanded the first-time buyer credit that's worth up to $8,000 for those who haven't owned a house in the previous three years. It added a credit worth up to $6,500 for long-time residents who have lived in their house for five years in a row during the previous eight years and who bought another principal residence after Nov. 6, 2009.

At the same time, the income limits have been raised for both credits for those buying a house after Nov. 6. A full or partial credit is available if income doesn't exceed $145,000 for singles and $245,000 for joint filers. Houses must be under contract by the end of this month, and the deal must close by the end of June.

The Baltimore Sun recruited tax professionals to answer readers' questions to the blog. Here are some responses to frequent kinds of queries:

Question: My husband and I purchased our home on June 16, 2005, and have used this as our primary residence since that time. If we enter into a purchase agreement for a new home before the end of April but delay closing until after June 16, 2010, will we qualify for the credit?

Answer: You'll be OK, says IRS spokesman Jim Dupree. You must show that you lived in your old home for five consecutive years during the eight-year period ending on the purchase date of your new home, so the June 16 settlement date will be fine. For qualifying purchases in 2010, taxpayers have the option of claiming the credit on either their 2009 or 2010 return.

Q: My grandmother died, and my aunt inherited her house. I am a first-time homebuyer, and my aunt is selling the house to me. Do I qualify for the credit?

A: Yes, you can buy a house from an aunt, says Mark Steber, chief tax officer for Jackson Hewitt Tax Service. You can't get the credit if buying a house from parents, grandparents, spouse, children or grandchildren.

Q: We lived in a house from 1998 through 2007 but turned over the property to the mortgage lender after filing for bankruptcy under Chapter 7. We closed on a new house in February. Can we qualify for the $6,500 credit?

A: The law does not specify any exception for Chapter 7 filers, says Michael Agetstein with the accounting firm of KatzAbosch in Timonium. As long as you meet the five-year residency requirement, you should qualify for a credit.

Also, keep in mind, if you gave up the ownership of your old residence before February 2007, you may qualify for the larger first-time homebuyer credit, as you would have had no present ownership interest in that residence for the 3-year period ending on the date you purchased the new house.

Q: I am going through a divorce and have never owned a home. My soon-to-be ex owns a home, but I was never on the title. To qualify for the credit, when does my divorce need to be finalized?

A: If you were married, the fact that your spouse owns a home would automatically disqualify you from claiming the credit even if you filed separately. However, if your divorce is finalized - not just legally separated - before you actually close on the purchase of a new residence, you should be able to qualify, Agetstein says.

Q: I purchased my first home with my boyfriend. Will we each receive a portion of the first-time homebuyer tax credit on our regular tax return?

A: As long as you meet the qualification criteria, you may split the $8,000 credit any way you like, Steber says.

Q; Some years ago when my father bought his house, he added my name to the deed. I'm planning to buy my first house. Will I qualify for the credit?

A: If you did not live in the home with your father at any time during the three years before buying the house, and you meet the other qualifications, you will qualify for the credit, Steber says.

Q: I was married in August 2008. We are buying a new home. I am a repeat buyer, but my wife has never owned a home. Do we cancel each other out? So we can't get the $8,000 that she would qualify for, and I can't get the $6,500 that I qualify for?

A: The law states that married couples must both meet the qualifications for either version of the credit. Because both versions of the credit have qualifications that you and your wife do not meet, no credit is available to you at this time, Steber says.

Q: I'm divorced and ordered by the state of Arizona to pay child support. I am concerned that the credit will be seized and applied toward back child support. Are my concerns valid or will I be buying some new furniture with that tax credit?

A: Don't buy the furniture - you will lose your refund to the state of Arizona, says Bob Meighan, TurboTax vice president of consumer advocacy.

If you are remarried, you may consider filing an injured-spouse claim. This is Form 8379, Injured Spouse Allocation. This way, the spouse who's not required to pay the past-due amount may receive all or a portion of the couple's refund.

Q: We just found out that we were 12 days' short on living in our previous house to get the $6,500 credit. Will the IRS count days or use the month and year?

A: The IRS will be counting days for the credit, Steber says.

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