DEAR BOB: We own a vacation home that was badly damaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Since we own the house free and clear we didn't carry any insurance on it. Now we realize that was a mistake. It has cost us over $70,000 to rebuild and now we have to furnish the house.
We talked to our tax preparer about deducting our loss on our income tax returns, but he says we cannot deduct the first 10 percent of our loss. Since we have about $200,000 annual income, we would only get to deduct about $63,000. Is this true? -- Peter H.
DEAR PETER: No. Your tax preparer is mistaken. Under current law a personal non-business casualty loss is only deductible to the extent it exceeds 10 percent of the property owner's adjusted gross income.
In your situation, if $200,000 is your adjusted gross income, that means the first 10 percent ($20,000) of your casualty loss is not deductible. Subtracting $20,000 from your $70,000 repair costs produces only a $50,000 tax deductible casualty loss. This is even less than your tax preparer estimated. Since your tax preparer is obviously not familiar with casualty loss tax deductions, I suggest you find a new tax preparer.
DEAR BOB: We recently sold our vacation home. Our profit was about $40,000. Can we avoid tax by investing that money in a Florida condominium we plan to buy in a few months? -- Henry T.
DEAR HENRY: No. Neither the "rollover residence replacement rule" of Internal Revenue Code 1034 nor the "over 55 rule" $125,000 home sale tax exemption of Internal Revenue Code 121 apply to secondary or vacation homes. Your $40,000 profit from your sale is taxable even if you reinvest the money in a Florida vacation condo.
DEAR BOB: Early in 1990 I was contacted by a "property tax consultant" who offered to save me money by getting a reduction of the assessed value of a commercial building I own. She wanted a $500 advance fee plus half of the property tax savings. But I felt this might be a scam. When I refused to pay, she agreed to go ahead anyway if I would let my name be used as a reference if she was successful. This was acceptable to me.
I thought you should know this so-called expert turned out to be totally incompetent. She didn't get my property tax reduced because all she said to the county tax assessor was my tax is higher than for similar nearby buildings. That is true. She didn't even obtain a professional appraisal of my building, which I would have been willing to pay for. -- Joyce D.
DEAR JOYCE: I'm sure some property tax consultants are successful in obtaining tax reductions, but your situation shows why they should not be paid any advance fee. They are entitled to a fee for a percentage of the tax savings, but not until the property tax is actually reduced.
DEAR BOB: At a cocktail party I met a lady who is a real estate appraiser. She said she does one or two appraisals each day for about $200 each. That sounds like pretty good income for interesting work. What training is required to become an appraiser? -- Tom W.
DEAR TOM: That is a good question, but without an easy answer. After July 1, 1991, appraisers must be licensed to appraise most properties. But the problem is these new license laws will be administered by the states, and most states have not yet established the license requirements.
At the recent National Association of Realtors convention I attended a session about these new appraiser regulations. I came away with the conclusion the situation is a mess. Here are the reasons:
Many states have enacted laws that don't conform with the new federal appraisal law.
To become a licensed appraiser will require at least two years of experience.
The exams have not been established.
Exact requirements for licensed appraisers and certified appraisers have not been established.
Until the license requirements become clear, I suggest you take a course in basic real estate appraisal at a community college. By the time you complete the class perhaps the new license rules will be established.
DEAR BOB: Like many other homeowners I'm afraid I've painted myself into a corner and I can't get out without paying big taxes on my home sale. My wife and I bought our home many years ago for $26,500. Today it is worth over $275,000.
We would like to sell and rent a nice two-bedroom apartment where someone else worries about the maintenance. But if we sell, I figure after we use our "over 55 rule" $125,000 exemption we will still owe tax on about $123,500 of profit. I hate to pay tax of around $34,000. Is there any way to escape this dilemma? -- Gordon W.
DEAR GORDON: Yes. The first step is to calculate your taxable sale profit. I'll presume you are eligible for the "over 55 rule" because you or your co-owner spouse are 55 or older on the sale date, have owned and lived in your principal residence any three of the five years before sale and have never used this $125,000 home sale tax exemption before. Subtracting the $125,000 exemption from the $275,000 adjusted (net) sales price leaves a $150,000 "revised adjusted sales price."
The second step is to subtract your $26,500 adjusted cost basis from the $150,000 revised adjusted sales price. However, if you made any capital improvements, such as a room addition, be sure to add the cost to your purchase price. Subtracting $26,500 from $150,000 leaves a $123,500 long-term capital gain profit. In a 28 percent tax bracket the tax will be about $34,000.
The third step is to avoid this tax. Within 24 months before or after the sale I suggest you buy a condominium costing at least the $150,000 amount of your "revised adjusted sales price." Using the "rollover residence replacement rule" of Internal Revenue Code 1034, available to taxpayers of any age, you can then defer the $34,000 tax on the $123,500 remainder of your profit. For details, consult your tax adviser.
DEAR BOB: My former husband got into trouble with the IRS for failure to pay the withholding tax for his employees. The IRS recorded a tax lien. Then we got a divorce. I want to sell our house, but the tax lien has attached to it. It is over $40,000 and our equity is only about $60,000. What can I do? -- Sharon McG.
DEAR SHARON: The IRS tax lien must be paid from the sales proceeds of the home, so marketable title can be delivered to your buyer. However, if you can prove to the IRS the tax obligation is only your husband's and not yours, you might be able to apply for "innocent spouse relief" to get the tax lien removed, so the home can be sold with your husband's share of the sales proceeds going to pay his tax obligation. For details, consult your tax adviser or attorney.
DEAR BOB: In early 1989, I bought my first rental house. It has a negative cash flow of about $200 per month. Since I bought this house it has gone up in value only slightly. I want to sell it, but after paying a sales commission I will show a loss. I thought you said real estate always goes up in value. What should I do? -- Scott P.
DEAR SCOTT: Real estate is a long-term investment, not a get-rich-quick scheme. I never said real estate always goes up in value. The long-term trend is for real estate values to rise, but there are peaks, valleys and plateaus along the way. Real estate usually goes in seven-year cycles, so your holding period of just a little over a year is not long enough to produce much profit.
If you wanted a short-term real estate investment you should have bought a fixer-upper house to renovate, thus forcing the market value up. I aim for $2 of increased market value for each $1 spent on improvements. If you want to make a profit, since you live in a good area with excellent long-term real estate potential, I suggest you keep your rental property for several more years.
DEAR BOB: I attended a weekend real estate seminar where the speaker advocated trading discounted junk bonds for down payments on real estate. Since I own some junk bonds, this idea sounds good to me. But when I talked with a real estate agent about the idea she said it is illegal. Is this true? -- Jon B.
DEAR JON: No. You can trade discounted junk bonds or anything else such as a car, boat or widgets as your down payment to buy real estate. It is perfectly legal. However, you and the agent must disclose to the seller the junk bonds are not worth their face amount and they may never be paid off if the company obligated to pay goes bankrupt. Ask your attorney to explain further.
DEAR BOB: I have almost $150,000 equity in my apartment building. If I refinance my mortgage or add a second mortgage, how will that affect my depreciation deductions? -- Geneva H.
DEAR GENEVA: There is no relationship between your mortgage balance and the depreciation schedule on your apartment building. You will continue the same depreciation schedule as before. Of course, your mortgage interest deduction will increase, since your interest payment will increase. For details, consult your tax adviser.
DEAR BOB: Several weeks ago you advised another reader not to buy vacant land because it is not considered a good investment. I fully agree. However, I have an opportunity to buy 10 acres of lakeside property where my wife and I want to build a vacation cabin.
Our bank will give us a mortgage when the cabin is completed, but they will not give us a loan to buy the property. Do you have any suggestions how we can finance the acquisition until we complete the cabin construction? -- Todd R.
DEAR TODD: Your banker is aware of the high risk of vacant land ownership and is wisely refusing to finance your purchase. Most banks and S&Ls now will not finance vacant land purchases because of the high risk and lack of liquidity.
Here are three finance ideas to consider: Obtain a purchase-money mortgage from the seller.
Lease the property for one year with an option to buy the land and with permission to build a cabin on the property.
Obtain a short-term, high-interest-rate loan from a private lender or individual.
DEAR BOB: I often see newspaper ads for VA and FHA foreclosed houses offered for sale. Several real estate brokers have told me these houses are not good deals because the buyer can't negotiate over price or terms and the houses often need substantial repairs. Do you think these foreclosures are good buys? -- Roger R.
DEAR ROGER: No. After the VA and HUD obtain title to foreclosed houses, they mark the prices up to full retail market value. The only advantage is the VA usually offers mortgage financing with a low cash down payment.
DEAR BOB: We found a fixer-upper house that the seller will finance with only a 10 percent down payment. But she insists on selling the house "as is." Her attorney drew up an agreement that says the seller has disclosed all defects in the house, but if any others become evident she is to have no liability. What do you think of such a situation? -- Evitte N.
DEAR EVITTE: I think the seller is very smart. Your best protection is to have the house professionally inspected before the purchase, so you are fully aware of all defects that can be discovered. Since you have found an excellent financing situation, and a property with profit potential, don't let the "as is" provision scare you away.
DEAR BOB: I recently bought a new home. When I applied for my mortgage, the lender made me sign a statement that I intend to occupy the house. However, I am now having second thoughts about the neighborhood. A friend has offered to rent the house from me. If I don't move into the house could I be in trouble with the lender? -- Scott R.
DEAR SCOTT: Yes. When you signed that loan application statement saying you intend to move into the house, the lender gave you the interest rate for owner-occupied residences. This is usually the best available rate because such mortgages have the lowest default rates. If you fail to occupy the home, you have defrauded the lender.
To prevent possible problems, I suggest you move into the house and try living there for at least a few months. The lender can't force you to remain there forever, especially if you don't feel comfortable in the neighborhood. But at least you won't have to worry about the lender checking up on you, as lenders often do, and learning you never moved into the house.
DEAR BOB: Perhaps your readers can benefit from my recent bad experience selling my home.
I decided to save the commission and sell it without a real estate agent. A couple offered to buy my home at practically my full asking price, which I knew was a little high. But their offer specified that they were to lease the house with full rent credit toward the down payment while they sold their old home and they were to obtain a VA mortgage.
That seemed all right because I had already moved out of the house and the rent would pay my mortgage payment. Little did I know a VA mortgage involves the home seller paying the loan fee, which was several thousand dollars.
While the buyers were living in my house, without my permission they started building a patio, swimming pool and spa. However, they got into a dispute with the contractor and he recorded a mechanic's lien against my house. The sale eventually closed last month, but it was a horrible nightmare.
Next time I sell a home I will hire a real estate agent who can earn the commission by taking the sale burdens off my back. Why don't you emphasize the importance for home sellers to hire a good real estate agent and to get everything in writing? -- Kevin G.
DEAR KEVIN: Apparently you haven't been paying attention because at every opportunity I emphasize the benefits of listing homes for sale with successful real estate agents. But then I get criticized by the "do-it-yourself" home-seller crowd who think selling a home without an agent is easy. As you discovered, a home sale without a professional realty agent can be a very expensive and frustrating undertaking.
Readers with questions should write Bruss directly at P.O. Box 280038, San Francisco, Calif. 94101.