What the housing bill means for you

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac don't allow sellers to indirectly give down payments to buyers. But the FHA has allowed this type of transaction for years. The FHA has long complained that down payment assistance programs artificially inflate house prices, and that loans using down payment assistance are more likely to default. But prominent congressional democrats have protected the down payment assistance programs on the grounds that they allow many minority families to become first-time homebuyers.

House democrats wanted to keep the loophole open, and Senate leaders wanted to close it. With this law, the Senate won.

Property tax deductions for all homeowners
Under current law, you can deduct your property taxes from federal income tax -- but only if you itemize deductions on Schedule A. That leaves out people who don't have enough deductions to warrant filling out Schedule A. They have to take the standard deduction -- and that means they can't deduct their property taxes.

The housing rescue bill, soon to be law, changes that. For homeowners who pay property taxes, it increases the standard deduction by $500 for single filers and $1,000 for couples filing jointly. This will be a boon to people, such as retirees, who own their houses outright, and therefore don't pay any mortgage interest, so they can't itemize.

You can't increase the standard deduction by more than the property-tax bill. So if you're married filing jointly and you pay $800 in property taxes, you get an $800 deduction, not a $1,000 deduction.

Loan limits extended permanently
There are maximum amounts for loans that the FHA will insure, and that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will guarantee. Those limits were raised temporarily this year. The new law raises limits permanently.

For FHA-insured mortgages, the new limit will be 115 percent of the median home price in that area, up to $625,500. That provision will affect loan limits in higher-cost areas. In lower-cost areas, the current FHA limits won't decrease.

For conforming mortgages -- those eligible to be bought by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- the conforming limit will remain at least $417,000 for a single-family home. It can be higher than that. Starting next year, the new limit is either $417,000 or 115 percent of the area's median home price, whichever is higher -- up to $625,500. After that, the limits go up or down according to a price index.

More regulations on reverse mortgages
A reverse mortgage is an advance against home equity. It's for homeowners age 62 or older, and the reverse mortgage doesn't have to be repaid until the borrowers die or move out.

Because reverse mortgages are for elderly borrowers, there is concern that dishonest lenders and brokers take advantage of borrowers. Borrowers are required to get counseling first, to learn the pros and cons of reverse mortgages. The law will result in strengthened qualifications for counselors.


The law bars insurance salesmen from originating reverse mortgages and prohibits originators from requiring homeowners to buy annuities or insurance products. (There's one big exception: The FHA insures reverse mortgages, and borrowers will buy that coverage.)

Finally, the law limits origination fees on reverse mortgages. They can't exceed 2 percent of a reverse mortgage of up to $200,000. For a reverse mortgage amount above that, the limit is $4,000, plus 1 percent of the loan amount above $200,000. Origination fees can't exceed $6,000 in any case. In future years, this upper limit is indexed to inflation.

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Claes Bell

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