WASHINGTON — What would happen to home values if the popular real estate deductions for mortgage interest and local property taxes were cut significantly? It's an issue you're likely to hear more about as Congress and the Obama administration wade deeper into "fiscal cliff" and comprehensive tax reform negotiations heading into 2013.
Any significant reductions in these long-established tax benefits would inevitably trigger declines in home values. Under some circumstances, they could be well into the double digits — 15 percent, according to Lawrence Yun, chief economist of the National Association of Realtors.
Other projections are more nuanced: Yes, cutting back on real estate write-offs could make homes less attractive financially, but other potential features of a tax compromise could counteract the loss of deductions, softening the net impact on values. Plus no one on Capitol Hill is talking about eliminating the mortgage interest or property tax write-offs.
So what can you believe? Here's a quick overview. Both President Obama and some Republicans hinted during pre-Thanksgiving preliminary fiscal discussions that they might be open to raising revenues in part by limiting unnamed deductions and "loopholes" in a tax reform package next year.
When it comes to deductions for taxpayers who itemize, there are hardly any bigger than the mortgage interest write-off (more than $90 billion a year in revenue costs to the Treasury) and local real estate property taxes (roughly $20 billion a year). They are high on the list of reformers who seek to streamline the sprawling federal tax code.
For much of his first term, President Obama advocated putting a cap on deductions by upper-income taxpayers — singles with more than $200,000 in adjusted gross incomes and joint-filing married couples with income in excess of $250,000. Under Obama's plan, these taxpayers could not take deductions beyond the 28 percent marginal bracket level, even though they might be in the 33 percent or 35 percent brackets. Mortgage interest, real property taxes, charitable and other write-offs would be affected by such a cap.
But would limiting real estate deductions lead to lower home prices? A 1995 study by the consulting firm Data Resources Inc. estimated that a consumption-based "flat tax" that repealed all deductions would lead to a 15 percent aggregate decline in home values, costing owners $1.7 trillion in equity holdings.
More recently, a 2010 study for the Tax Policy Center of the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute sought to model the effects of Obama's tax reform proposals for fiscal 2011 — limiting mortgage interest and property tax deductions to the 28 percent bracket level, and the simultaneous increase in the highest-income tax brackets back to the levels existing before 2001. In one scenario, when taxpayers in the 33 percent bracket had their mortgage interest deductions limited to 28 percent, with no other tax changes, housing values dropped by 6.9 percent to 15 percent, according to the study. The restrictions would have the heaviest effects on houses in areas of the country with relatively high local tax rates and where the costs of renting a home or apartment are favorable when compared with the costs of purchasing.
Nobody knows what shape tax reform will take. But for a segment of the economy such as housing, where asset values are tied in part to long-standing tax subsidies, almost any change that reduces those benefits appears likely to have some negative effect on pricing.