4 tips for the homebuyer tax credit

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The new-and-improved federal homebuyer tax credit can benefit not only first-time homebuyers but also homeowners who want to sell their current home and buy a new one.

The credit is reasonably straightforward, but there are some tips for those who want to take advantage of it. Here’s what you should know:

1. Deadline: April 30, 2010

The most important tip is to be aware of the deadline. Buyers who want to use the tax credit must have their new home under contract (i.e., in escrow) by April 30, 2010, and must close the transaction within 60 days after that date.

That deadline is much sooner than it may seem: Many buyers take months to locate a house, and closing a transaction typically takes 45 to 60 days.

First-time buyers should get started soon because they may face a lot of competition from other buyers who also want to purchase a moderately priced home, according to Ann Pettijohn, a broker and owner of Oaktree Realtors in Orange, Calif. That price range is “very popular” and those homes tend to sell more quickly than higher-priced homes, she says.

Buyers who wait until 2010 may also find fewer homes on the market from which to choose, according to Allyson Bernard, broker and owner of Real Estate Professionals of Connecticut.

“Smart buyers will be out during the holidays when other people are preoccupied,” she says.

The short deadline may create even more of a crunch for homeowners who need to sell their current home and purchase a new one, Pettijohn says. Sellers need to be realistic about the value of their current home and put their home on the market as soon as possible, so they’ll feel confident about buying their next home, she says.

“Smart buyers will be out during the holidays.”

Buyers who get behind the curveball shouldn’t count on another extension to keep them in the game since Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., a former Realtor and the principal supporter of the legislation that extended and expanded the credit, has said in a statement that the tax credit won’t be extended again.

2. Credit up to $8,000 or $6,500

Buyers also need to understand that the tax credit is equal to 10 percent of the sale price of the home, which could be less than the maximum of up to $8,000 for first-time buyers and up to $6,500 for repeat homeowners.

For example, if a first-time buyer purchased a small condominum that cost just $70,000, the tax credit would be $7,000. And by the way, if the home costs more than $800,000, the credit now drops to zero.

3. Get good advice

Homebuyers who want to take advantage of the tax credit should consult the right people for help, including:

  • A tax preparer, who can help them ensure they meet all the requirements to use the credit.
  • A mortgage lender, who can help them choose a loan program that will fit their needs.
  • A Realtor, who can help them locate a home they can afford and want to purchase.

Buyers should be aware that not all loans allow the borrower to finance closing costs or accept a contribution from the seller toward those costs, Bernard says. Many loan programs do allow those options, but that “certainly is not a blanket opportunity,” she says. Buyers whose savings won’t stretch to cover all the out-of-pocket costs to buy a home should discuss that constraint with their loan officer or mortgage broker.

4. Beware of tax fraud

According to Patti Ketcham, broker and owner of Ketcham Realty Group in Tallahassee, Fla., homebuyers should educate themselves about the tax credit and learn the lingo.

“It is critical that buyers educate themselves and that they not fall for the slick smoke and mirrors,” she says. “Anytime you have found money, it brings out all the rats.”

Three Web sites that may be helpful are:

Buyers and sellers should be wary of any advice that sounds suspicious or overly complicated, Ketcham says. For instance, buyers who are told to conceal any information from their lender should “get away” from whoever offered that advice, she says.

One final tip: The IRS has found such a high incidence of fraud and creative tax accounting associated with the homebuyer tax credit that taxpayers who take the credit will now be required to attach a copy of the settlement statement to their federal tax return as proof of purchase. Buyers should keep their paperwork handy.