Q: How can real estate agents be a resource for buyers on tax issues, such as the tax benefits of buying vs. renting?
A: Unless a real estate broker or agent is a bona fide tax professional — for example, has an MBA or other specialized training in taxation — he or she should not give clients detailed tax advice. As a real estate professional, you are licensed to help your clients buy real estate — not serve as their professional tax adviser.
If you give tax advice and it turns out to be wrong, it could cost the client a bundle of money, and leave you with a lawsuit for malpractice.
If a client does ask you for tax advice, and you give it, a good practice is to have the client sign a statement providing that he or she has not relied on your advice and that the transaction is contingent on the approval of the client’s tax or legal counsel.
That said, the tax benefits of real estate ownership are something every buyer should understand. You need to understand them as well.
When it comes to the tax benefits of renting vs. buying, the benefits of buying are many, while there are few or no tax benefits for renting. This simple fact can help get renters motivated to take the plunge into homeownership.
The tax benefits of buying a home include:
Home mortgage interest deduction: The interest paid on a mortgage or mortgages of up to $1 million for a principal residence and/or second home is deductible as an itemized deduction. In the early years of a home loan most of the payments consist of interest, so this deduction is particularly substantial during the first years of homeownership.
Depending on the state a buyer lives in and his or her tax bracket, this deduction can reduce the cost of borrowing by one-third or more.
Home equity loan deduction: Homeowners can borrow up to $100,000 against the equity in their home and deduct the interest as an itemized deduction. The money can be used for any purpose, such as paying off high-interest credit card debt. In contract, the interest on credit card debt is not deductible.
Property tax deduction: Homeowners also get to deduct from their federal income taxes the state and local property taxes they pay on their home. This is another itemized deduction that renters don’t get.
Deductible homebuying expenses: Various closing costs ordinarily involved in a home purchase are also deductible as itemized deductions, including loan origination fees (points), prorated interest on a new loan, and prorated property taxes paid at settlement.
$250,000/$500,000 home-sale exclusion: Perhaps the greatest tax benefit of owning a home comes when a person sells it at a profit. Homeowners who lived in their home for two of the prior five years prior to its sale need pay no income tax on a substantial amount of their profit — $250,000 for single homeowners and $500,000 for married homeowners who file jointly. This exclusion can be used once every 24 months.
14 days of free rental income: Another little known tax benefit of owning a home is that the owner can rent it out for up to 14 days during the year and pay no tax at all on the rental income. In contrast, a renter who sublets his or her rental must pay income tax on all the rental income he or she earns.
Tax benefits of renting:
The only tax benefit that a renter can qualify for by virtue of being a renter is the home office deduction. This is a business deduction available to renters who own a business and have a home office they use regularly and exclusively for business purposes.
Some employees can qualify for this deduction as well. The deduction is limited to the amount of profit earned from the business each year. If a renter pays a lot of rent, this deduction can be substantial. Homeowners who are in business and have a home office can also qualify for the deduction.
Of course, the value of the tax benefits of buying a home depends on the state the buyer lives in and his or her tax bracket. Buyers who live in high tax states like New York or California get the most benefit.
This is why the blanket statement "it’s always better to buy than rent" is not always true. It all depends on the buyer’s individual circumstances.
You should encourage prospective buyers to run the numbers. There are some excellent websites you can refer clients to that have online calculators they can use to compare the costs of renting vs. buying a home.
A good rent vs. buy tool can be found on the Smart Money Magazine website: http://www.smartmoney.com/personal-finance/real-estate/to-rent-or-to-buy-9687/.
Freddie Mac also has a good online calculator: http://www.freddiemac.com/corporate/buyown/english/calcs_tools/.
Stephen Fishman is a tax expert, attorney and author who has published 18 books, including "Working for Yourself: Law & Taxes for Contractors, Freelancers and Consultants," "Deduct It," "Working as an Independent Contractor," and "Working with Independent Contractors." He welcomes your questions for this weekly column.