WASHINGTON -- Missed out on Cash for Clunkers? Congress has another deal for you: Buy a home before May 1 and collect up to $6,500 from the government. If you're a first-time homebuyer, get up to $8,000.
As part of the government's efforts to encourage people to spend money to help revive the economy, the House voted 403-12 Thursday to expand a popular tax credit for homebuyers. The bill, which also extends unemployment benefits and expands a tax break for money-losing businesses, now goes to President Barack Obama, who plans to sign it today.
First-time homebuyers have been getting tax credits of up to $8,000 since January as part of the economic stimulus package. But with that housing program scheduled to expire at the end of November, the House voted to extend it into the spring -- and to expand it to many people who already own homes.
Buyers who have owned their current homes at least five years would be eligible, subject to income limits, for tax credits of up to $6,500. First-time homebuyers -- or people who haven't owned homes in the previous three years -- could get up to $8,000. To qualify, buyers have to sign purchase agreements before May 1 and close before July 1.
"It's huge. I think it's going to have a big impact," said Patti Ketcham, who owns a real estate firm in Tallahassee, Fla. "I hope I'm right. Golly, I hope I'm right."
Like housing markets across the country, Tallahassee's has been depressed since even before the nation's economy plunged into recession. There was no huge boom and bust like there was in many coastal areas, Ketcham said, "but ask anybody trying to sell a house and they'll tell you it's been no fun."
The credit is available for the purchase of principal homes costing $800,000 or less, meaning vacation homes are ineligible. The credit would be phased out for individuals with annual incomes above $125,000 and for joint filers with incomes above $225,000.
Real estate agents say the first-time homebuyers' tax credit that's already in effect has boosted sales, much in the same way the Cash for Clunkers program increased auto sales last summer by paying car buyers as much as $4,500 for exchanging their old gas guzzlers for new, more fuel efficient models.
Winter a slow season
The agents hope the expanded housing credit will help stabilize housing markets during typically slow sales months in the winter. Today, many would-be buyers are still worried that home values could drop further, said Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the National Association of Realtors.
"Once the consumer fear factor disappears, then housing can move into a sustainable recovery," Yun said. "I think we will be there by the middle of next year."
Yun said the tax credit has helped to increase demand and reduce inventory, enabling sellers to get higher prices than they would have otherwise.
About 1.4 million first-time homebuyers had qualified for the credit through August. The Realtors estimate that 350,000 of those buyers would not have purchased their homes without the credit.
The real estate industry, including Realtors, home builders and mortgage bankers, have lobbied hard for the expanded tax credit. Lawmakers said the program will not be extended again.
Critics say the tax credit is poorly targeted because the vast majority of people receiving it would have bought homes anyway.
"Essentially we're giving money to people for doing nothing different," said Ted Gayer, co-director of economic studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
But Susan Marvin, president of Marvin Windows and Doors in Warroad, Minn., near the Canadian border, said the economic benefits can be broad. She said, "If people are buying a home, they are far more likely to replace products or upgrade products."
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said, "This tax credit has created jobs in the housing industry and real estate, and it will continue to create more jobs throughout our country."
Extending and expanding the tax credit for homebuyers is projected to cost the government about $10.8 billion in lost taxes.
The credit is equal to 10 percent of the purchase price of a primary residence, up to a maximum of $8,000 for first-time homebuyers and $6,500 for others.
Taxpayers can claim the credit on their federal income tax returns. If the credit exceeds their tax bill, the government will issue a payment. Taxpayers who want immediate refunds can amend their tax returns for 2008 to claim the credit.
Also on Thursday, the government-controlled mortgage company Fannie Mae announced a new program that could allow thousands of borrowers on the verge of foreclosure to have the option of renting their homes for a time from the company.
But the effort is likely to affect a relatively small number of people in comparison to the number of homes being repossessed.
The homebuyers tax credit is one of two tax breaks totaling more than $21 billion that were included in a bill extending unemployment benefits for those without jobs for more than a year. The other tax break would allow money-losing companies to use current losses to offset taxable profits earned in the previous five years.
That break would help industries that have suffered big losses in the recession, including retailers, homebuilders and newspapers.
Expanding the tax credit for money-losing companies is projected to cost $10.4 billion.
The tax breaks would be paid for largely by delaying a tax break for multinational companies that pay foreign taxes. It was passed in 2004 and originally was to have taken effect this year, but would now be delayed until 2018.
The bill is H.R. 3548.