Tax credit for home purchase could rise

By Stephanie Armour, USA TODAY

Lawmakers and businesses are calling for expansion of a tax credit for first-time home buyers that has helped spark home sales in an otherwise dismal real estate market.

With the tax credit scheduled to expire in fall, some business groups say the amount of the credit, now capped at $8,000, should be raised to $15,000 and applied to anyone who buys a home.

First-time buyers make up a hefty 40% of home purchases, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR), which is about 5 percentage points higher than the historical average.

The credit, introduced in July 2008, was expanded in February as part of the economic stimulus package. The proposals may face headwinds amid growing public criticism of government spending to rescue the economy and the widening budget deficit.

Some economists say a tax benefit is vital to spur home buying and help stabilize prices.

“I’m fairly confident that (Congress) will extend the tax credit, because it is so important that housing come back,” says Bernard Baumohl, an economist at the Economic Outlook Group. “But raising the tax credit will be difficult because it reduces taxes even more.”

The White House had no immediate comment Sunday.

Current proposals:

•A Senate bill to expand the tax credit to $15,000 for any home buyer regardless of income was introduced this month by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. It is co-sponsored by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, D-Conn.

“It would go a long way toward inducing trade-up buyers into the market,” says Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the NAR.

•A House bill to keep the $8,000 credit in place until June 2010 and expand it to all home buyers was introduced last month by Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Texas. It also would provide a $3,000 credit to homeowners who refinance.

•Another bill in the House, introduced by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, would extend the credit to all home buyers through 2010.

The Business Roundtable, a consortium of CEOs from large companies, urged Congress this month to expand the tax credit to $15,000 and make all home buyers eligible.

“The issue is how do we stimulate the move-up market, and that’s essential for the economy,” says Richard Smith, CEO of Realogy, the parent company of Century 21, Coldwell Banker, Sotheby’s International Realty and ERA.

“I think it’s going to be a bipartisan effort,” Smith says. “The issue is how to pay for it.”

The current tax credit does not apply to singles earning more than $95,000 a year and couples who earn more than $170,000. Some business leaders want the income caps eliminated.

Buyers do not have to repay the tax credit if they occupy the home for three years or more.

“A lot of people are taking advantage of it,” says David Thomas, a Realtor in Washington, D.C., who adds that expanding the credit would boost the market. “That would be a fantastic idea, to enhance and expand the incentives.”