Rising prices in the District have led many home buyers, especially first-timers, to either continue renting or to shift their house-hunting to outside the city either in Northern Virginia or suburban Maryland.
Jurisdictions in both of those areas generally have incentives for first-time buyers, while the District mainly offers help financing loans. Moreover, while the suburban jurisdictions’ annual property taxes are higher, their transfer taxes at closing are general less expensive than the District.
Now the D.C. Council is proposing incentives that could save first-time home buyers thousands of dollars. Earlier this month, the council gave preliminary approval to a proposal to reduce the recordation tax — what buyers pay to transfer the property from seller at the closing — to a flat rate of 0.750 percent of the sales price for all properties regardless of price. Currently, buyers pay 1.1 percent of the sales price for properties $400,000 or less and 1.45 percent of the sales price for properties higher. The council is scheduled to take a final vote on the measure Dec. 20.
At the same time, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is introducing more down-payment and closing-cost assistance for first-time buyers.
“The improvements we are introducing deliver on my promise to ensure safe and affordable housing for more Washingtonians,” Bowser said in a statement Monday. “Come Jan. 1, when these new enhancements go into effect, we will change the way home buying works in the District.”
The council’s proposal seeks to benefit not only buyers who’ve never owned a home, but people purchasing a principal residence in the city for the first time regardless of whether they have owned property elsewhere.
Under the current law, a person buying a $400,000 home would pay $4,400 in recordation taxes. Under the proposal, that same buyer would pay $3,000 in recordation taxes.
Currently, a person purchasing home at $800,000 would pay $11,600 in recordation taxes. Under the proposal, that same buyer would pay $6,000 in recordation taxes.
(In the District, sellers pay a transfer tax at the time of closing. That tax will remain at 1.1 percent of the sales price for properties $400,000 and less and 1.45 percent of the sales price for properties more than $400,000.)
In Maryland, first-time home purchasers are offered a credit that exempts them from the buyer’s portion of transfer tax of 0.25 of the sales price. This program significantly reduces the amount of cash Maryland first-time buyers need to bring to the closing.
Virginia’s transfer taxes are lower than those in Maryland and the District, but property taxes are much higher in comparison. Generally, this means that the cash to close a property for a buyer may be less while the monthly payment for your total mortgage may be slightly higher. Still, this lower barrier for ownership may lead first-time homeowners to purchase in Virginia rather than the District.
In the District, assistance for first-time home buyers mainly has been limited to financing programs, including DC Open Doors and the Home Purchase Assistance Program (HPAP). However, sellers found the stringent requirements tedious, thereby making buyers who use them less attractive.
The proposal to reduce the recordation tax, though, would have little negative impact on sellers. It could, however, prompt some sellers to offer fewer credits to first-time buyers. Often times, first-time buyers request a credit from the seller to assist with paying some of their closing costs. This weakened a buyer’s offer by reducing the seller’s bottom line after paying off their mortgage and real estate costs (such as transfer taxes and Realtor expenses) especially in competitive neighborhoods where multiple offers were common.
Bowser announced that the city plans to enhance four programs targeting first-time and low- and moderate-income buyers:
• The city will boost spending for home buyer programs by 50 percent, allowing 75 more families to participate in 2017 than in 2016.
• The city will increase the maximum loan amount under HPAP — which provides down-payment and closing-cost help — to $80,000 from $50,000.
• The city will make the repayment terms for the HPAP loans more attractive to low-income borrowers. Currently, the programs give borrowers a five-year deferral. But when the period is up, borrowers are hit with higher payments. For low-income buyers earning below a certain income threshold, the loans will be deferred until the property is sold or refinanced.
• The city will add a second HPAP administrator to implement the changes and help operate the program more efficiently.
Still, the changes aimed at increasing the number of HPAP buyers in the marketplace won’t help everyone. The changes will do little to help buyers seeking homes in areas of the District with higher price points in competitive markets given the time to close HPAP loans may be longer than competing conventional options.
Tim Savoy, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage Capitol Hill, writes an occasional column about the Washington-area housing market. He can be reached at Timothy.Savoy@cbmove.com and on Twitter @SavoyRealEstate.