While reading this article about the aggressive — and ostensibly legal — tax reduction strategies of Ronald S. Lauder (son of Estée), I was struck by this quote from University of Colorado law professor Victor Fleischer: "There’s real truth to the idea that the tax code for the 1 percent is different from the tax code for the 99 percent."
The connotation? The super-rich have not only cash, but also elite access to loopholes and other advantages to which the 99 percent might aspire, but will never attain.
While the Occupy movement is on a mission to illuminate and shatter power imbalances between the 99 percent and the 1 percent, there’s another angle to take on the issue: Let’s call it the "If you can’t beat ’em, learn from ’em" school of thought.
Along those lines, here are four real estate lessons all of us can take from the 1 percent:
1. Take advantage of government programs/assistance. When the big banks — whose execs certainly belong to the 1 percent — began to experience the fallout of the subprime mortgage meltdown, they threw up their hands, pleaded their case, enrolled governmental advocates and got the bailouts we now know as the $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program, or TARP.
Yet many an individual American, whose personal finances have too much at stake to fail — at least as far as their household and local communities are concerned — struggle silently to make their monthly mortgage payment.
More than 20 million American households are upside down on their mortgages. The Obama administration’s foreclosure avoidance program, Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP), was designed to help 5 million homeowners refinance into lower interest rates and payments.
At last count, earlier this fall, HARP had actually helped only 62,500 seriously underwater homeowners, and fewer than 900,000 homeowners total — a number so low Congressional Republicans sought to wind the program down. The Obama administration revised the program in hopes of helping more homeowners. (In 2009, the administration projected 4 million HARP refinances by fall 2011.)
The Main Street bailout is here and, whether you think it’s sufficient or not, it seems indisputable that it is vastly underutilized.
In an effort to get more help to the homeowners who need it, the Obama administration loosened up qualifying criteria; the revised guidelines just kicked in on Dec. 1, 2011. The 1 percent looks to the government when they are down on their luck; so should you.
2. Take full advantage of the tax code. Many members of the 99 percent have decried the complexity of the tax code and its loopholes that favor the rich. Lauder’s son, for example, has reportedly deferred or avoided tens of millions in federal taxes by donating art to his own foundations, deducting of property taxes on an extensive real estate portfolio, making massive charitable donations, and derivative stock transfers — deductions accessible only to those rich enough to own such assets in the first place!
Besides the better-known federal mortgage interest and property tax write-offs, there are numerous, less well-known deductions of which "99 percent-ers" should take full advantage.
Some areas allow renters to take a property tax credit. Similarly, homeowners who switch to solar or installing a tankless water heater can get the federal government to help pay via tax credits, some of which expire soon, others of which will be longer lived. It won’t line your pocket with millions, but every little bit helps.
3. Pay for professional advice when it counts. You’d be amazed at the number of buyers, sellers and homeowners I’ve heard reference real estate advice they received from their parents, their mechanic and the other moms at day care — and that doesn’t even begin to count the folks who try to distill insights just from a headline in the national nightly news or from a story they overheard at the hairdresser about the amazing deal they were able to negotiate (and, by the by, everyone exaggerates at the hairdresser!).
I assure you, Mr. Lauder pays a virtual army of attorneys and accountants a pretty penny for his tax advice. And the rest of us should make the appropriate investment in obtaining experienced, local, professional advice when it comes to making potentially life-changing real estate, mortgage and tax decisions.
4. Don’t let emotion cloud your decisions. Members of the 99 percent often stay emotionally committed to a home or a list price despite the fact that it is absolutely a losing battle, the data completely contradicts our commitment, or that the living situation no longer works for the people who live in the household.
The 1 percent, on the other hand, will divest of a home or slash even millions of dollars off the list price of their home in a New York minute, if it makes business sense.
Obviously, it’s a bit easier to be detached from an asset when it’s not the only asset you have. As well, sometimes the 1 percent is a little too hasty to detach from all sorts of relationships that most of us in the 99 percent hold dear — from homeownership to marriage and beyond.
But we 99 percent-ers might do well to take a page from the 1 percent playbook when it comes to holding onto assets that have become toxic. Sometimes, it makes sense to short-sell the house, divest of it via a deed-in-lieu of foreclosure, or simply slash the list price, in the service of the household’s greater, long-term financial good.