The housing crisis has a silver lining: It brought tax relief to many homeowners.

Bankrate's 2010 Tax Guide

Over the last few years, lawmakers have created new housing tax laws and tweaked existing ones to give beleaguered homeowners some relief at filing time. Even nonproperty owners who aren’t in financial straits get some breaks, such as help in buying a first home.

And some homeowners have more options when it comes to selling. Plus tax breaks for energy-efficient home improvements also made it back onto the books.

But not all the changes help homeowners save money. The law affecting vacation-home sales was designed to put a bit more cash into the U.S. Treasury. This new tax money source was created primarily to pay for other home-related tax breaks.

As with most taxes, whether the residential tax law changes will help or hurt you depends upon your individual circumstances. Check out these seven recent real-estate-related tax measures to gauge their possible effects, for good or ill, on you.

1. Cancellation of debt income

One of the first housing-related tax relief measures was the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007. Enacted Dec. 20, 2007, the law’s main provision allows taxpayers to exclude debt forgiven on their principal residence when the mortgage is restructured or the property goes into foreclosure.

7 housing tax laws
  1. Cancellation of debt income.
  2. First-home buyer credit.
  3. PMI deduction.
  4. Property tax addition to standard deduction.
  5. Surviving spouse home sale tax exclusion.
  6. Energy-saving home improvements.
  7. Second-home sale limits.

Previously, when a homeowner renegotiated a home loan and convinced the lender to reduce the amount of principal owed, the homeowner owed taxes on the amount of forgiven mortgage debt. A similar canceled debt situation occurred in foreclosure situations.

So that these financially strapped homeowners wouldn’t face taxes on top of their property debt problems, the law now enables them to exclude the mortgage debt from their taxable income. Up to $2 million in forgiven debt is now untaxed.

As the scope of the housing crisis expanded, Congress modified the original debt forgiveness law. The latest change came in the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, the bailout bill enacted in October 2008. Now, mortgage loan debt canceled in 2007 through 2012 is not taxed.

Your lender should send you a Form 1099-C, Cancellation of Debt, showing any forgiven debt. You need to report the eligible canceled mortgage debt on Form 982 and send it in with your personal tax return.

2. First-home buyer credit

Washington has worked overtime on this tax break. Since it was created in 2008, it’s been modified several times and now is available to more than first-time buyers.

What began as an interest free loan from Uncle Sam is now a true credit of up to $8,000 for first-time homeowners as well as a possible $6,500 credit for folks who’ve previously or now own a residence.

This tax break also was extended. Under the Worker, Homeownership and Business Assistance Act of 2009, signed into law Nov. 6, 2009, you have until April 30 to buy or sign a contract to buy a principal residence. You then get two more months, until June 30, to close on the property.

You also get the option of claiming the credit on either your 2009 tax return or waiting until you file your 2010 taxes next year. If you want to use the tax break on your 2009 return but your home purchase isn’t completed until after April 15, you can file for an extension and then finish your taxes, including the credit, from the comfort of your new home.

In addition to the purchase deadlines and taxpayer ownership qualifications, income and home price limits also apply to the credit. You can find details in Bankrate’s story, “Home tax credit extended, expanded.”

3. PMI deduction

Typically, if your home down payment is less than 20 percent, your lender will require you to buy private mortgage insurance, or PMI. This policy protects the lender if you default, but you must pay the premiums, usually as part of your monthly mortgage payment.

However, on certain home loans issued since 2007, these premium payments have been deductible as an itemized expense. This tax break is in effect for eligible new home loans issued through the 2010 tax year.

The Form 1098 or similar year-end statement you get from your lender should show the amount of PMI premiums you paid during the tax year. Enter that figure in the “Interest You Paid” section (line 13) of your Schedule A.

The amount of PMI you may deduct is limited if your adjusted gross income is more than $100,000 ($50,000 if married filing separately). You’ll get no deduction if your adjusted gross income is more than $109,000 ($54,500 if married filing separately). A work sheet on Page A7 of the Schedule A instruction book, or your tax software, will help you calculate your exact PMI deduction amount.

4. Property tax addition to standard deduction

Another popular home-related tax break, the property tax deduction, also has been expanded.

Previously, real estate taxes were a welcome tax deduction for homeowners who itemized. These annual payments to county and local governments could be claimed on Schedule A to increase the taxpayer’s deduction total.

Now, however, homeowners who do not itemize will get to claim at least a portion of their real estate tax payments as part of their standard deduction. Up to $500 for single homeowners, double that for joint filers, can be added to the taxpayer’s standard deduction amount. This year, you’ll also have to complete the new Schedule L to claim this amount as part of your standard deduction. You can find details on doing so in “2 big homeownership expenses to deduct.

5. Surviving spouse home sale tax exclusion

A widow or widower has many difficult decisions to make soon after losing a spouse. But a provision in the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007 now offers surviving spouses some tax relief in connection with one of those decisions, the sale of the family home.

In most cases, a seller can exclude up to $250,000 in profit from the sale of a primary residence. The tax-free amount is $500,000 when the home is sold by a married couple filing a joint return.

Under previous law, when a spouse died, the surviving husband or wife could take advantage of the full $500,000 sale exclusion only if the home was sold in the same year the spouse died. If the sale took place after that year, the surviving husband or wife was entitled to only the $250,000 exclusion amount.

Now, however, a surviving spouse can exclude up to the full $500,000 as long as the sale occurs within two years of spouse’s date of death. The surviving spouse still must meet the regular ownership and use requirements; that is, the widow or widower must have lived in the property as his or her primary residence for two of the five years before the sale.

There is no sunset date for this tax law. The surviving spouse home sale exclusion relief is permanent.

6. Energy-saving home improvements

Tax breaks for making a home more energy efficient first appeared in the 2005 energy bill. In 2009, those tax benefits were expanded.

For qualifying improvements made to your home between Feb. 17, 2009 — the date the latest stimulus act in which they were included became law — and the end of this year, you can claim a tax credit of up to 30 percent of the product’s cost. There is, however, a maximum credit cap of $1,500 per homeowner for all improvements combined.

Taxpayers who take advantage of common energy upgrades, such as installing storm windows and doors, adding insulation and buying a new energy-efficient air conditioner or heat pump, should be able to take this $1,500 credit. Others who install more elaborate energy-saving options, such as fuel cells, wind energy and geothermal and solar heating equipment, will get even bigger tax savings.

Tax credits in 2009 and 2010 for energy-efficient home improvements
Product category Product type
Windows Exterior windows and skylights and storm windows
Doors Exterior doors and storm doors
Roofing Metal roofs, asphalt roofs
Insulation Insulation
HVAC Central A/C

Air source heat pump

Gas, oil, propane furnace or hot water boiler

Advanced main air circulating fan

Water heaters Gas, oil, propane water heater

Electric heat pump water heater

Improvements must meet or exceed specific energy-saving standards. Additional product and tax savings guidelines can be found at the U.S. government’s Energy Star Web page.

For all tax years and all types of home energy improvements, you’ll need to file IRS Form 5695 to claim your credits.

7. Second-home sale limits

In order to help pay for many of the new housing-related tax breaks, the tax law affecting second-home sales was changed beginning in 2009.

Thanks to a provision of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008, the U.S. Treasury now should make more money off second home sales. Previously, owners of multiple properties could move into one of their other homes, live there as their primary residence for two years and then sell the house and pocket any gains tax-free, up to $250,000 if single, $500,000 for a home owned by a married couple who files a joint return.

Now, however, the time that the property was a second home or investment property must be taken into account. The owners now will owe tax on part of the sale money based on how long the house was used as a second, rather than their main, home.

As with the surviving spouse home sale exclusion change, the taxation of second home sale profit also is a permanent tax law change.

Of course, “permanent” doesn’t always mean forever on Capitol Hill. Neither is there any guarantee that temporary tax breaks will be extended.

So keep an eye on all these home-related tax changes. If any can help you, be sure to take advantage of them while they still are on the books.

<< Back to Bankrate’s 2010 Tax Guide table of contents.