10 Common Errors Home Owners Make When Filing Taxes

By: G. M. Filisko

Published: January 25, 2011

Don’t rouse the IRS or pay more taxes than necessary—know the score on each home tax deduction and credit.

Sin #1: Deducting the wrong year for property taxes
You take a tax deduction for property taxes in the year you (or the holder of your escrow account) actually paid them. Some taxing authorities work a year behind—that is, you’re not billed for 2010 property taxes until 2011. But that’s irrelevant to the feds.

Enter on your federal forms whatever amount you actually paid in 2010, no matter what the date is on your tax bill. Dave Hampton, CPA, tax manager at the Cincinnati accounting firm of Burke & Schindler, has seen home owners confuse payments for different years and claim the incorrect amount.

Sin #2: Confusing escrow amount for actual taxes paid
If your lender escrows funds to pay your property taxes, don’t just deduct the amount escrowed, says Bob Meighan, CPA and vice president at TurboTax in San Diego. The regular amount you pay into your escrow account each month to cover property taxes is probably a little more or a little less than your property tax bill. Your lender will adjust the amount every year or so to realign the two.

For example, your tax bill might be $1,200, but your lender may have collected $1,100 or $1,300 in escrow over the year. Deduct only $1,200. Your lender will send you an official statement listing the actual taxes paid. Use that. Don’t just add up 12 months of escrow property tax payments.

Sin #3: Deducting points paid to refinance
Deduct points you paid your lender to secure your mortgage in full for the year you bought your home. However, when you refinance, says Meighan, you must deduct points over the life of your new loan. If you paid $2,000 in points to refinance into a 15-year mortgage, your tax deduction is $133 per year.

Sin #4: Failing to deduct private mortgage insurance
Lenders require home buyers with a downpayment of less than 20% to purchase private mortgage insurance (PMI). Avoid the common mistake of forgetting to deduct your PMI payments. However, note the deduction begins to phase out once your adjusted gross income reaches $100,000 and disappears entirely when your AGI surpasses $109,000.

Sin #5: Misjudging the home office tax deduction
This deduction may not be as good as it seems. It often doesn’t amount to much of a deduction, has to be recaptured if you turn a profit when you sell your home, and can pique the IRS’s interest in your return. Hampton’s advice: Claim it only if it’s worth those drawbacks.

Sin #6: Missing the first-time home buyer tax credit
If you met the midyear 2010 deadlines, don’t forget to take this tax credit into account when filing.

Even if you missed the 2010 deadlines, you still might be in luck: Congress extended the first-time home buyer credit for military families and other government workers on assignment outside the United States. If you meet the criteria, you have until June 30, 2011, to close on your first home and qualify for the tax credit of up to $8,000.

Sin #7: Failing to track home-related expenses
If the IRS comes a-knockin’, don’t be scrambling to compile your records. Many people forget to track home office and home maintenance and repair expenses, says Meighan. File away documents as you go. For example, save each manufacturer’s certification statement for energy tax credits, insurance company statements for PMI, and lender or government statements to confirm property taxes paid.

Sin #8: Forgetting to keep track of capital gains
If you sold your main home last year, don’t forget to pay capital gains taxes on any profit. However, you can exclude $250,000 (or $500,000 if you’re a married couple) of any profits from taxes. So if you bought a home for $100,000 and sold it for $400,000, your capital gains are $300,000. If you’re single, you owe taxes on $50,000 of gains. However, there are minimum time limits for holding property to take advantage of the exclusions, and other details. Consult IRS Publication 523.

Sin #9: Filing incorrectly for energy tax credits
If you made any eligible improvement, fill out Form 5695. Part I, which covers the 30%/$1,500 credit for such items as insulation and windows, is fairly straightforward. But Part II, which covers the 30%/no-limit items such as geothermal heat pumps, can be incredibly complex and involves crosschecking with half a dozen other IRS forms. Read the instructions carefully.

Sin #10: Claiming too much for the mortgage interest tax deduction
You can deduct mortgage interest only up to $1 million of mortgage debt, says Meighan. If you have $1.2 million in mortgage debt, for example, deduct only the mortgage interest attributable to the first $1 million.

This article provides general information about tax laws and consequences, but is not intended to be relied upon by readers as tax or legal advice applicable to particular transactions or circumstances. Readers should consult a tax professional for such advice, and are reminded that tax laws may vary by jurisdiction.

G.M. Filisko is an attorney and award-winning writer who was once mortified to receive a letter from the IRS—but relieved to learn the IRS had simply found a math error in her favor. A frequent contributor to many national publications including AARP.org, Bankrate.com, and the American Bar Association Journal, she specializes in real estate, business, personal finance, and legal topics.

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Tax Tips For Homeowners Looking Ahead to 2010 Returns

By: Mike DeSenne

Published: February 22, 2010

From energy tax credits to vacation home deductions, check out these tax tips for homeowners looking ahead to 2010 returns.

 

Claim remaining energy tax credits

It’s time to get cracking if you didn’t exhaust your full allotment of residential energy tax credits during 2009. Although tax credits for big projects like residential wind turbines and solar energy systems have no upper limit and are good through 2016, energy tax credits capped at $1,500 expire at the end of 2010. Eligible capped projects include new windows and doors, insulation, roofing, water heaters, HVAC, and biomass stoves.

Here’s how it works with capped federal credits: You can earn energy tax credits worth 30% of the cost of qualifying improvements, but the total tax credits can’t exceed $1,500 combined for 2009 and 2010. So if you only took, say, $700 worth of capped energy credits on your 2009 tax return, you’re still due for another $800 in credits in 2010. Some projects include the cost of installation–a furnace, for example–while others, such as insulation, are limited to the cost of materials.

Max out tax benefits of a vacation home

Use a vacation home wisely, and it’ll provide a break from taxes as well as the hustle and bustle of everyday life. The rules on tax deductions for vacation homes can get a bit tricky, but understanding and adhering to them can yield many happy tax returns.

If your vacation home is truly a vacation home meant for your personal enjoyment, as opposed to a rental-only income property, you can usually deduct mortgage interest and real estate taxes, just as you would on your main home. You can even rent out the home for up to 14 days during the year without getting taxed on the rental income. Not bad.

Now, let’s say you want to rent out your vacation home for more than 14 days in 2010, but also use it yourself from time to time. To maximize the tax benefits, you need to keep tabs on how many days you use your vacation home. By restricting your annual personal use to fewer than 15 days (or 10% of total rental days, whichever is greater), you can treat your vacation home as a rental-only income property for tax purposes.

Why is that a big deal? In addition to mortgage interest and real estate taxes, rental-only income properties are eligible for a slew of other tax deductions for everything from utilities and condo fees to housecleaning and repairs. Deductions are limited once personal use exceeds 14 days (or 10% of total rental days), so get out your calendar now to strategically plot your vacations.

Take advantage of tax breaks for the military

In salute to members of the armed forces serving overseas who want to purchase a home, the IRS is extending a lucrative tax perk for military personnel. If you spent at least 90 days abroad performing qualified duty between Jan. 1, 2009, and April 30, 2010, you have an extra year to earn a homebuyer tax credit. In addition to uniformed service members, workers in the Foreign Service and in the intelligence community are eligible.

Thanks to this extension of the homebuyer tax credit, qualifying military personnel have until April 30, 2011, to sign a contract on a new home. The deal must close before July 1, 2011. Just like non-military buyers, first-time homebuyers can earn a tax credit worth up to $8,000, and longtime homeowners can earn a credit of up to $6,500. The same income restrictions and $800,000 cap on home prices apply.

Military personnel can also get a break if official duty calls and they’re forced to move for an extended period. Normally, the homebuyer tax credit needs to be repaid if you sell your home within three years, but this requirement is waived for uniformed service members, Foreign Service workers, and intelligence community personnel. The new extended duty posting doesn’t need to be overseas, but it must be at least 50 miles from your principal residence.

Challenge your real estate assessment

You can’t do much about the rate at which your home is taxed, but you can try to do something about how your home is valued for taxation purposes in 2010. The process varies depending where you live, but in general local governments conduct a periodic real estate assessment to determine how much your home is worth. That real estate assessment figure is used to calculate your property tax bill.

You can usually appeal your real estate assessment if you think it’s too high. Contact your local assessor’s office to find out the procedure, and be prepared to do some research. There’s often no charge to request a review of your assessment.

Look for errors. You probably received an assessment letter in the mail, and many local governments provide the information online as well. Make sure the number of bedrooms and bathrooms is accurate, and the lot size is correct. Also check the assessed value of comparable homes in your area. If they’re being assessed for less than your home, you might have a case for relief.

Even if your assessment is accurate and comparable homes are being taxed at the same rate, there might be another route to tax savings. Ask your assessor’s office about available property tax exemptions. Local governments often give breaks to seniors, veterans, and the disabled, among others.

This article provides general information about tax laws and consequences, but is not intended to be relied upon by readers as tax or legal advice applicable to particular transactions or circumstances. Consult a tax professional for such advice; tax laws may vary by jurisdiction.

Mike DeSenne is Online Managing Editor for taxes, finances, and insurance at HouseLogic.com, and the former Executive Editor of SmartMoney.com. He likes to do his taxes by hand, much to the dismay of his accountant.

 
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Can You Get the Home Buyer Tax Credit?

February 4, 2011

By Sandra Block

If you bought a home last year, you may be eligible for a tax credit of up to $8,000 when you file your 2010 tax return. But before you start shopping for hardwood floors, make sure you qualify. And even if you’re eligible, you’ll need to take extra steps to prove that your claim is legitimate.

Congress first enacted a home buyer’s tax credit in 2008 in an effort to revitalize the housing market. Since then, the credit has been revised and extended several times. Here are the factors that will determine your eligibility for the credit:

  • When you signed the contract to buy your home. To claim the credit on your 2010 tax return, you must have signed a contract to purchase your primary residence before May 1, 2010.
  • When you closed. Home buyers who closed as late as Sept. 30, 2010, qualify for the credit, as long as their original contract called for the purchase to be completed by June 30. Congress added the extension because many of last year’s home purchases involved short sales or homes in foreclosure, and banks have been slow to process those transactions, says John W. Roth, analyst for tax publisher CCH.
  • Where you lived before you bought the home. For homes purchased Nov. 7, 2009, to April 30, 2010, there are two tax credits: a first-time home buyer credit and a repeat home buyer credit.

The first-time home buyer credit is worth 10% of the purchase price of the home, up to a maximum of $8,000. The law defines a first-time home buyer as someone who hasn’t owned a principal residence in the three years before the purchase.

The repeat home buyer credit is worth up to 10% of the purchase price, up to a maximum of $6,500. The law defines a repeat buyer as someone who has owned and lived in the same home for at least five consecutive years of the eight years. If you’re married, both spouses must meet the residency test.

  • How much you paid for the home. The first-time and repeat home buyer credits are limited to homes purchased for less than $800,000.
  • Your income. The full credit is available to taxpayers with a modified adjusted gross income of up to $125,000, or $225,000 for joint filers. (Those limits apply to homes purchased after Nov. 6, 2009; there are lower cutoffs for homes purchased before that date.) A reduced credit is available for home buyers with MAGI of up to $145,000, or $245,000 for married home owners.

Payback time

Now comes the bad news for taxpayers who claimed the home buyer’s credit in 2008. Starting this year, they’ll have to pay it back.

That’s because the original first-time home buyer’s tax “credit” was in fact an interest-free loan that had to be paid in equal installments over 15 years. The law gave home buyers who claimed the credit a two-year grace period, which means the first installment is due this year. H&R Block estimates that more than 950,000 taxpayers claimed the credit in 2008.

The maximum 2008 “credit” was $7,500, so if you claimed the full amount, you’ll have to pay $500 when you file your 2010 tax return, Roth says. “A lot of people will end up owing a fair amount of taxes this year because of the additional $500 they’ll have to repay,” he says.

If you bought a house in 2008 then sold it, you could owe even more, because in that instance, you’re required to repay the entire amount of the credit all at once.

Tax credits claimed for homes purchased in 2009 and 2010 don’t have to be repaid, as long as the home remains your primary residence for three years. If you sell the home within 36 months after the purchase, you’ll have to repay the credit. The repayment can’t exceed the gain on the sale, so if you didn’t make any profit on the sale, you may not owe anything.

However, your “basis” for purposes of calculating the loss or gain on the sale is the amount you paid for the home minus your tax credit, says Kathy Pickering, executive director of H&R Block’s Tax Institute. For example, if you bought your house for $100,000 and claimed an $8,000 first-time home buyer’s credit, your basis is $92,000.

Be prepared to wait

The IRS is requiring taxpayers who claim the home buyer’s tax break to provide documents proving that they purchased a home within the required time frame. To meet that requirement, you must file your tax return by mail.

The IRS imposed the requirement to deter fraud. The Treasury Department’s inspector general reported last year that thousands of individuals, including nearly 1,300 prison inmates, had fraudulently claimed the tax credit.

Documents you may need to include:

  • A copy of your settlement statement. For most home buyers, that’s the HUD-1 provided at closing. Sign the settlement statement, even if the document doesn’t have a line for your signature.
  • For newly constructed homes, a dated copy of the certificate of occupancy that shows your name and the address of the home.
  • For repeat buyers, copies of documents showing that you lived in your previous residence for five consecutive years during the past eight years. Acceptable documents include mortgage interest statements, property tax records, or home owners insurance statements. You don’t need to provide five years of the same documents, the IRS says. You can use a combination of documents to verify the years you were in the home.

Paper-filed returns take the IRS up to six weeks to process, vs. less than two weeks for e-filed returns.

Returns that claim the credit may get extra scrutiny from the IRS, which could also delay your refund. “It’s worth it to get the credit,” Pickering says, “but people need to be patient.”

(c) Copyright 2011 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co.

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