Home buyer tax credit might be extended for service members

HomesReal Estate BuyersPoliticsState BudgetsCredit and DebtInternal Revenue ServiceCharles B. Rangel

Will Congress extend the wildly popular $8,000 home buyer tax credit beyond its Dec. 1 expiration date?

That's a question generating huge pressure on Capitol Hill from would-be buyers who haven't found the right house as well as from realty agents, builders, lenders and squads of lobbyists working on their behalf.

But here's the first hint of an answer: On Sept. 17, the leadership of Congress' primary tax legislative committee introduced a tax credit bill that's likely to zip through the House and move to the Senate rapidly. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, sponsored the bipartisan Service Members Home Ownership Tax Act (H.R. 3590), which would extend the credit for another 12 months for thousands of military, Foreign Service and intelligence agency personnel who've been posted abroad during 2009.

Rangel's bill, with 29 cosponsors, would keep the credit alive through Nov. 30, 2010, for service members who had at least 90 days of overseas duty assignments during 2009 and who otherwise meet the eligibility requirements.

The bill would also prohibit the IRS from "recapturing" the $8,000 credit when service members are forced to sell or rent out their houses because they are ordered to deploy to a different duty station, overseas or inside the country.

Under the regular rules of the program, buyers who obtain the credit must use their houses as a principal residence for 36 months or repay the credit to the IRS.

As a result of the 36-month rule, many military and diplomatic employees have been hesitant to buy a house and claim the credit or are worried that their absence from the country could force them to repay the money.

For example, the spouse of a Foreign Service officer posted to the Philippines this summer for a two-year assignment wrote to Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) to alert him to a flaw in the tax credit program. The Oregon couple bought their first home earlier this year, encouraged by affordable prices and the $8,000 credit. But having now been posted abroad, they cannot claim to occupy the house as their principal residence. Under current rules, they face recapture of the full credit.

Blumenauer, who is a member of the Ways and Means Committee, said "it is absurd that thousands of Americans serving our country, away from friends and family, must choose between their service work and homeownership." He wrote corrective legislative language that was incorporated into Rangel's tax bill.

Though nothing is guaranteed on Capitol Hill, legislation eliminating tax penalties on the military during wartime looks like a good bet for early passage in both houses. Equally significant: It now appears likely that there will be an $8,000 tax credit available a year from now -- at least for some purchasers. Which raises the question: Why not leave it in place for all first-time buyers?

There's growing support for that on both sides of the Capitol, but there are also some complicating issues.

In the Senate, the most outspoken advocate for months has been a Republican, Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, a former real estate broker. He wants not only to extend the credit to Dec. 1, 2010, but also to raise the maximum to $15,000 and make it available to all home buyers next year.

But recently, key Senate Democrats produced their own version of an extension, limited to six months, keeping the ceiling at $8,000 and targeting only first-time purchasers. The bill's primary sponsor is Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.). Democratic cosponsors include Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. Republicans John Ensign of Nevada and Isakson have signed on as well.

Cardin raised what may prove to be the crucial issue affecting the scope and duration of any credit extension: cost. "A six-month extension is a fiscally responsible way to provide adequate time to nudge even more prospective home buyers off the sidelines," he said in a statement.

Estimates of the revenue costs of the current credit vary widely, from $3 billion to more than $8 billion.

How do you pay for any extension without worsening the budget deficit? The new Rangel bill includes an answer: You raise taxes somewhere else -- you "pay as you go." The Rangel bill would pay for most of the servicemen's credit extension by increasing IRS penalties on taxpayers who fail to file partnership or S corporation returns.

This would raise an estimated $327 million over the next 10 years. Where and how to raise taxes to cover the far larger cost of a six-month or 12-month extension of the current tax credit could prove much more controversial.

kenharney@earthlink.net.

Distributed by the Washington Post Writers Group.

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