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DEAR BENNY: Where can a person find the value of a home on a particular date? My last surviving parent passed away on Sept. 29, 2005, and my brother and I sold her house (as heirs) in December for $75,000. Each of us received a check for less than $31,000, due to tax escrow, commission concessions for electrical work, etc. This was not including out-of-pocket expenses such as a new roof, tuck-pointing, and the list goes on.

Our real estate person says at one time she was able to provide such information, but not anymore. We did receive comps from her and a verbal assessment that the house was valued at about $110,000 upon my mother’s death. I have checked Internet sites such as Zillow and can get a range, but no specifics. If you could direct us, I would appreciate it. –Gerri

DEAR GERRI: That’s an excellent question, but let me explain why you need this information before I give you an answer. The stepped-up basis is back as of this year (2011). That means that the value of the property on the date a person dies becomes the tax basis for their heirs.

So if your dad bought the house for $50,000 and sold it for $75,000, he would have a gain of $25,000. But if the property was worth $75,000 when he died, your basis for tax would be that amount, and if you sold it for that price, you would have no gain — and thus would not have to pay any capital gains tax.

So, the question is: Where and how can you find the value of the property on the date of death — especially since so many years have gone by?

The IRS will in most cases accept the tax assessment that the county uses to determine the real estate tax. You should be able to find the assessment from the county where the property is located, either online (some jurisdictions have this information going back several years) or directly from the county tax office.

That’s the best way. You can also hire an appraiser who should be able to assist. Good appraisers know how to determine market value.

Finally, if all else fails, you can rely on the information provided by your real estate agent.

DEAR BENNY: Some years ago I read an article stating that homes in a 55-and-over development should get a reduction in home insurance. Is this true? If so, how do I convince my insurance company? –Ray

DEAR RAY: I don’t know that much about insurance, but have not heard about this. I do know that insurance companies give discounts for such things as smoke detectors, good track record, or having other insurance coverage with the same company (such as auto and home). But I just don’t know the answer to your question. Perhaps my readers can assist.

DEAR BENNY: I want to pay extra on my principal. I remember you saying not to pay it with your regular payment. But I don’t remember what you said to do. I don’t just want to send it without any other paperwork. Should I call the company? I think they will just tell me to send it with my regular payment. –Judi

DEAR JUDI: If you can afford to make extra payments on your mortgage, your loan will be reduced faster, and you will end up paying a lot less interest.

I did not say not to pay it with your regular payment. What I said was to write on the bottom of your check "xxx$ extra principal payment." Also, all mortgage lenders have some form of voucher that you have to send in with your monthly payment. There will be a line for "extra payment," so fill it in.

If you are making your payments automatically through your bank, you should advise your lender — in writing — that you are making extra payments.

But, regardless of how you do this, at the end of each year, confirm by reviewing your mortgage balance that your extra payments have, in fact, been credited toward your loan.

DEAR BENNY: My husband passed away recently. I need to know what to do and where to go to have his name taken off the title to our house. It is in both our names and he left a will stating everything goes to me. Can I do this myself, as money is pretty short now? –Marcia

DEAR MARCIA: First, you state that the property was titled in both your names. I need to know exactly how title was held. There are three ways: (1) tenants by the entirety — this is reserved for husband and wife. When one spouse dies, the survivor is the owner and no probate is required; (2) joint tenants with rights of survivorship — while this can be used by husband and wife, usually it is used by nonmarried people.

Again, when one of the owners die, the survivor becomes the owner (by operation of law) and probate is not necessary; (3) tenants in common — if this is how title was held, on the death of one person, his/her interest goes by way of a last will and testament, and usually probate is required.

Most husbands and wives hold title as tenants by the entirety, so my answer is based on that assumption. As indicated, when your husband died, the property automatically went into your name.

I understand you would like to take his name off of the title, but it really is not necessary. Should you ever want to sell, so long as (1) title was in tenants by the entirety — which can be determined by looking at the land records — and (2) you have a death certificate showing that your husband died, you will not have a problem selling. You are now the full owner of the property.

But if it is important for any reason to put title in your own name, all you have to do is go down to the office of the recorder of deeds and show him/her the death certificate. From my experience, most recorders of deeds will assist you.

DEAR BENNY: My brother and I inherited our mother’s house when she passed away in January. We wanted to fix it up so we could rent it out. We were hoping to keep it and pass it on ourselves. We need approximately $50,000 to get it ready for rental.

Neither of us could ever qualify for a loan on our own. I thought because the house is paid in full, with no mortgage, we would easily get a loan based on the equity in the house. Also, the house was purchased in the 1950s and has incredibly low taxes. Doing research, I am being told that is not true. What options do we have to find the money for the remodeling? –Diedre

DEAR DIEDRE: In the good old days, because you have a house with no outstanding mortgage, you would not have had a problem getting a loan of at least 50 percent of the appraised value.

But times have changed. Lenders are scared, and are now very conservative.

No one really knows what lenders are willing to lend. However, all I can do is suggest that you shop around for a mortgage. I can’t believe that some lender will find your transaction favorable.

While I am not recommending this, there are what are called "hard money lenders" — lenders who take greater risks but with higher mortgage interest rates. If all else fails, you can consider such a lender.

DEAR BENNY: In connection with getting an appraisal for a house, you discussed the "three appraisal" method. You wrote: "If the appraiser’s values are far apart, the two parties together hire a third appraiser whose decision will be final."

This makes sense to me if the third appraisal is between the first two, which are more than 10 percent apart.

But, what if the third appraisal is outside of either of the range of the first two? To say that this outlier appraisal was final seems questionable to me. I may use this recommendation in a sibling situation with my sister for our mother’s home. Can you please clarify? –Jim

DEAR JIM: Appraisal is not a science, but perhaps an educated art. If the third appraisal is so out of line, you could arrange that the appraisals are all added together, and then divided in three. That would be the number.

However, while your situation could happen, my experience is that competent appraisers will come in fairly close to a market value. But if you want to cover this contingency, have your agreement spell out that if that third appraisal is too high, you will take the average of all three.

Benny L. Kass is a practicing attorney in Washington, D.C., and Maryland. No legal relationship is created by this column. Questions for this column can be submitted to benny@inman.com.

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