After two weeks of delay, the Senate last night cleared the way to pass a seven month extension and expansion of the tax credit for homebuyers. By an 85 to 2 roll call vote, the Senate voted to cut off debate on a package of measures that includes the homebuyer credit, making it virtually certain that the legislation will reach President Obama for his signature this week.
The homebuyer tax credit, due to expire in 28 days, would be extended through April 30 of next year. First-time buyers who are in process of making a purchase would not need to worry about qualifying for the $8,000 credit if they close after the November 30 deadline.
For the first time, the legislation cleared last night makes move-up buyers as well as first-time buyers eligible for a credit. The $8,000 maximum first-timer credit will continue and will now available to couples with income up to $225,000, a nearly $55,000 increase above the level in existing law. A new $6,500 maximum credit would also be available to move-up homeowners who have lived in their current residence for five of the prior eight years.
The tax credit has fired the housing market, driving existing home sales to the highest level in over two years. The National Association Realtors reported sales jumped 9.4 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.57 million units in September and are 9.2 percent higher than the 5.10 million-unit pace in September 2008.
Only two Republicans voted against the credit. One of them, Senator Kit Bond (R-Mo.), said, “We’re kidding ourselves if we think we can prevent more fraud, more taxpayer losses,” “The most effective means of preventing fraud is simply to not extend the credit.”
The legislation included provisions added to address complaints of fraud. The Internal Revenue Service is given greater authority to oversee the process to root out fraud, and provisions are added in response to past abuses of false sales or underage buyers. An investigation by the Treasury Department’s Inspector General for Tax Administration found that more than 580 children, some as young as four years old, had received $627,000 in first-time homebuyer credits. The IRS has identified 167 suspected criminal schemes and opened nearly 107,000 examinations of potential civil violations of the first-time homebuyer tax credit.
A number of economists have voiced concern about the $16.7 billion.cost of the credit and the wisdom of spending up to $400,000 per homebuyer to stimulate real estate sales. The White House has been lukewarm at best. However, it is virtually certain that the President will sign the legislative package, which contains an expansion of unemployment benefits as well as the tax changes.
The legislation cleared last night also contains a provision supported by the National Association of Home Builders. It helps larger companies strapped for cash with net operating losses this year or in 2008.
Ordinarily these companies can carry back these losses for only two years to qualify for a tax refund. The provision would make this process extends the carry-back to five years for either 2008 or 2009. The tax break will now apply to losses in either 2008 or 2009, and the income cap will come off.
A similar provision, applying just to 2008, was included in the president’s economic recovery bill last winter but limited to smaller companies to keep down the cost to the Treasury.
Both tax breaks – the homebuyer credit and the change to net operating loss – will be offset by tax changes affecting foreign tax credits, chiefly important to large multinational corporations, according to the Senate Finance Committee.