Question: My wife and I rent an apartment because we haven't been able to come up with the down payment needed to buy a house. The landlord uses a part of our rent money to pay his property taxes. Why can't we get some kind of tax deduction for this, just as homeowners do?
Answer: A legion of renters have asked this question in the past, and some sympathetic members of Congress have proposed legislation to authorize just such a deduction.
But the situations are not really analogous. The deduction for property taxes and mortgage interest was intended to encourage the American dream of owning one's own home. Allowing a similar deduction to renters would be counterproductive.
Perhaps more significant is the general rule that the same deduction can't be taken by two different taxpayers. Your landlord now claims property taxes (along with interest, maintenance and all other costs) as an expense of operating the property, an offset to rental income.
If Congress were to take away the landlord's deduction for property taxes and allocate it instead to the tenants, you can be pretty sure that just as soon as it was legally possible, your rent would go up by a corresponding amount.
And I think such an increase would be justified, since the landlord's expenses would have risen suddenly. (For the record, I am neither tenant nor landlord. We own our home, but do not now own, and never have owned, rental property.)
I can see some justification for limiting the deductions now allowed to homeowners. Encouraging home ownership is a fine social idea, but it isn't entirely logical for all taxpayers to help pay the costs for the limited (though large) number of those who do own their own homes.
As a practical matter, however, I think most people prefer to leave these tax deductions intact. Even if they are renting now, people hope to join the ranks of homeowners some day, and they want the tax benefits to be there then.
In any case, much the same argument can be made against most other tax benefits -- such as deductions for medical expenses, charitable contributions, union dues, child care credit, etc.
The inherent inequities in these and other deductions and credits are a part of the price we pay for using the tax system as a vehicle for fostering goals considered beneficial to our society, rather than simply to raise money for the operation of the government.
Q. A real estate dealer told me that there is a special provision whereby there is no capital gains tax on sale of my residence if the proceeds of the sale are deferred and received in four or more payments of not more than 25 percent in any one year. Do you know of any such provision?
A: No. There are two possible tax breaks on a sale of a residence. If you buy a replacement residence (within specified time limits) costing as much as or more than the net selling price of the old home, then you must defer the tax on any gain.
If you are 55 or older at the time of sale, you may elect to use the once-in-a-lifetime $100,000 exclusion of capital gain on the sale.
For an installment sale of a residence on which there is a liability for capital gains tax, a pro rata share of the gain is reported for each year in which a payment is received.
If you expect your tax situation to change in future years, then deferring part of the gain by an installment sale may be advantageous. But I know of no special provision for escaping the tax altogether by deferring payment.
Real estate agents and brokers should be familiar with the tax rules governing sale of a residence. But they are not tax experts; you should always check their tax advice with the IRS or with your attorney or accountant to be sure you have correct information.
Q: Why do insurance companies exclude the premiums paid for double indemnity when they report the premium cost of an endowment policy? I have to report (and pay tax on) the difference between the face (endowment) amount and the cost -- but the cost would be a lot higher (and the income lower) if I used the total premium.
A: The additional premium for double indemnity is excluded because that extra premium did not contribute to generating the face amount of the endowment when it matured.
Instead, it bought you what was in effect a separate term policy for accidental death. As such, it was an annual expense and can't be included as a part of the cost of accumulating the endowment proceeds.