Two tax bills with important benefits for American homeowners and renters -- particularly older ones -- were given sneak previews on Capitol Hill in the closing moments of this year's legislative session.
Both bills would remove longtime disincentives for real-estate owners in the Internal Revenue Code. Both have bipartisan support, and both stand good chances of enactment in the new Congress next year.
The first bill--sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) -- would allow homeowners who take advantage of the $125,000 maximum tax-free exclusion available to home sellers 55 years or older to remain in the house indefinitely, rather than move out.
The owners could sell their property to cash in part of their equity tax-free but wouldn't be uprooted from their neighborhoods and friends. Instead they could remain in the house, and receive monthly installments of mortgage payments from the new owner. They'd also pay the owner a fixed monthly rent.
Large numbers of Americans in their 50s, 60s and beyond are "house rich and cash poor." They own their homes outright, and have $40,000 to $100,000 tied up in residential real estate. On paper they look strong financially. But in reality, they're barely scraping by.
Specter's approach to the equity-conversion problem wold give a big boost to so-called "sale-leasebacks." Under a sale-leaseback, owners would sell their home to an investor , who would then lease it back to them for life. Part of the proceeds of the sale would be used to purchase a deferred annuity -- an investment that would pay regular income to the elderly former owners and enable them to remain in the house.
Current federal tax law puts two key roadblocks in the path of such arrangements. The investors cannot be certain that they qualify for full depreciation deductions on the property occupied by "tenants" who have long-term, guaranteed-occupancy rights. The law also poses problems for elderly sellers, who may not be able to qualify for the tax exclusion as long as they retain a lifetime leasehold interest in their home.
Specter's bill would simply remove both roadblocks in the code.
The second significant real-estate bill that went into the legislative hopper this month involves condominium conversions. Reps. Fortney H. (Pete) Stark (D-Calif.) and Bill Archer (R-Tenn.) are cosponsoring amendments to the Internal Revenue Code that would allow apartment-building owners to sell condominium units directly to renters at cut-rate prices, without facing the heavy tax burden currently imposed on them for such sales.
Under present law, an apartment-building owner cannot sell condo units "retail" and still claim capital-gains tax status on his or her profits.
As a result, virtually all owners sell their buildings to professional "converters." The converters, in turn, are forced by short-term financing costs to sell out the project quickly, and to price units at the maximum level the outside market can handle -- rather than what the current tenants might be able to afford.
The Stark and Archer bill would effectively remove the necessity of middleman converters by amending the tax code. Such a change should cut prices to tenants, they argue, since longtime owners could slowly convert their buildings to condo, and not have to force out tenants who'd prefer to stay as renters.