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Happy Tax Day, Homeowners!

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By Allan Sloan
Tuesday, April 15, 2008

I won't be getting an economic-stimulus tax rebate check, but I'm not complaining about it. Not only am I fortunate to make too much money to qualify for a rebate, but I'm getting something far more valuable than the maximum $1,200 my wife and I could have gotten. Thanks to a relatively little-noticed portion of the stimulus package, we'll be able to refinance our house more cheaply than we otherwise could, or presumably sell it for more.

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This means that higher-income couples like us who don't qualify for rebates because we have an adjusted gross income of more than $174,000 ($87,000 for singles) are arguably getting a better stimulus deal than the 130 million taxpayers to whom Uncle Sam is sending payments.

Let me take you through it: The stimulus package raises the maximum size of a "conforming" mortgage to $729,750 from the previous cap of $417,000. A conforming mortgage is a mortgage that can be sold to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, and it carries a lower interest rate than "jumbo" loans that exceed those limits. Similarly, the maximum mortgage that can be insured by the Federal Housing Administration has also risen to $729,750. For people in high-home-price areas, including mine, these maximum mortgages are now high enough to matter. Being able to borrow $417,000 on the cheap doesn't help much when you're hoping to sell or refinance your house for, say, $750,000. But a $729,750 limit works out just fine. This higher limit translates into cheaper refinancing or a higher sales price, because the lower interest rate means buyers can presumably afford to pay a higher price.

If we assume a 5 percent down payment, we're talking about houses in the $450,000 to $765,000 range becoming eligible for these loans. The range rises if people make larger down payments or put second mortgages on top of these loans.

We're talking major money here, folks. In today's market, the interest difference between a conforming loan and a non-conforming loan for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is a whopping 1.27 percent a year, according to Keith Gumbinger, a vice president at HSH Associates, a mortgage research firm. So a $700,000 conforming loan at 6.01 percent would carry almost $9,000 less annual interest than a nonconforming loan (at 7.28 percent).

Gumbinger says that's an artificially high difference caused by the current freeze-up in credit markets. "The spread was about 20 basis points [20-hundredths of a percent] before things got ugly in June," he says. So even if normalcy returns -- alas, that doesn't seem imminent -- having a $700,000 conforming mortgage would cut a borrower's interest costs by $1,400 a year. Call it $1,000 a year after taxes if you itemize. That's worth much more than a one-time $1,200 nontaxable rebate payment.

Yes, as Washington geeks realize, I'm making a big assumption here, and a somewhat cynical one. The higher limits for Fannie and Freddie (which are government-sponsored enterprises) are scheduled to expire at the end of this year, and there's talk of reducing the maximum size of the loans insured by the FHA, which is a government agency.

But I'm assuming that when political forces such as homeowners, Fannie and Freddie get a "temporary" goody from Washington, it tends to become permanent. Politicians love to give out goodies but are loath to take them away. That's especially true in a case like this, where interest savings (or higher house prices) for high-income types don't show up as a cost to the federal budget the way rebates do. The cost of this benefit -- higher financial risks for the FHA, Fannie, and Freddie -- is hidden, unlike the projected $152 billion of stimulus payments.

I'm dubious about whether all this stimulus money will stimulate anything other than the amount Uncle Sam will have to borrow, primarily from foreigners, to close our budget deficit. But I could be wrong. I certainly hope so.

The one thing I liked about the stimulus package was that the government had enough sense to not send money to people like me. But then it turns around and hands me a housing subsidy. I'll gratefully accept the gift. But that's no way to run a country.

Allan Sloan is Fortune magazine's senior editor at large. His e-mail address isasloan@fortunemail.com.

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