Real Estate Guide 2009
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Bailout help for struggling homeowners

The fact that these incentives are credits rather than deductions makes them even more appealing, says Smith.

"It is well worth taking advantage of a tax credit (as opposed to a deduction), since you get 100 percent back on your taxes from a credit," he says. "In this case, the homeowners will also have the benefit of reduced utility bills in future years."

Michael Dooley, a financial planner with The Patriot Financial Group in Beverly, Mass., agrees the home-improvement tax credit could motivate some homeowners to make energy efficiency improvements. But he also cautions that people who fear unemployment are less likely to take advantage of the incentive.

"The theory is great, but people need to be able to pay for these improvements upfront," says Dooley.

Higher FHA reverse-mortgage loan limits. Loan limits for reverse mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration have been increased to $625,500 across the country.

"The loan limits for reverse mortgages have been too low for some time, so this increase could have a big impact," says Gibran Nicholas, chairman of the CMPS Institute, which certifies mortgage banker and brokers.

The previous limit was $417,000 across the country, which meant that in markets where homes are more costly -- such as the San Francisco area, New York City and its suburbs, and Washington, D.C. -- FHA-insured reverse mortgages were not available for many homes.

Many private reverse-mortgage programs have disappeared, making FHA loans "virtually the only game in town," Nicholas says.

Nicholas says the higher FHA reverse-mortgage limits are especially important in light of the "HECM for Purchase" program passed into law as part of 2008 federal stimulus legislation.

The program -- which took effect Jan. 1 -- allows older homeowners to use the proceeds from a reverse mortgage to purchase a new principal residence. To qualify for a new-purchase reverse mortgage, buyers need to be seniors over age 62 and have to presently own a home.

"Senior citizens who want to move have been stuck in this market, but now they can take a reverse mortgage on a new purchase and pay it off when their existing home sells," Nicholas says. "They don't have to wait until their current home sells to move."

Nicholas thinks the changes to reverse mortgage rules could improve markets in places popular with retirees, such as Florida and Arizona.

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