It is almost here: the dreaded end of the federal short sale tax breaks, also known as the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act. Come December 31, sellers who have not yet closed escrow on their short sales will no longer escape the capital gains tax on the difference between the sales price (of their home via a short sale) and the amount owed on their mortgage…UNLESS the tax breaks are extended. Will this happen, and if not, what will happen to short sales?
First of all, I have to say that I think the tax will be extended. It simply does not make sense at this critical economic time to not extend the tax break. Doing so wreaks all kind of havoc, including surges in foreclosures and bankruptcy filings, which neither the government nor the banks want to see.
Failure to extend the act would undermine everything that is improving in the real estate market and cause us to jump many steps backwards. The fact that an extension has not yet been announced makes people nervous, but due to the Presidential election and other important issues on the proverbial table, I think it has been put on the backburner for a short time.
Lets take a look at the main arguments for not extending the tax break:
1. Too costly. There are some who believe that the law will not be extended, as they feel the alleged $2.7 billion it will cost to do so is not justified due to the deficit. To this I would say it will be a lot more costly if millions of homes go into foreclosure again, as people find they have no other solution and cannot afford to stay in their homes. The lenders will be stuck with tons of inventory that they have to sell, many that will be trashed, and the market will drop again, creating another real estate nightmare. Just when we are coming out of the bad market is not a good time to cause it to dive again.
2. Easy escape for homeowners – ? Another argument in favor of not renewing the tax savings is that doing so encourages people to default on their loans. In other words, if people know they can short sale their homes and walk away without financial ramifications, it makes it easier than staying in a home they cannot afford and trying to make it work. I do not agree with this argument, as I think the stress would just lead to more bankruptcy filings and foreclosures, which in the end is even worse for the lending institutions (not to mention for millions of families).
It remains to be seen what will happen come the end of the year. The bottom line is this: if you are contemplating a short sale and your house is not yet listed on the market, or if your home is listed but you have not yet sent any offers over to your short sale lender, it is a good time to discuss your options with both your agent and a financial adviser, CPA and/or attorney. You must understand your options and what could happen if the law is not extended, because it could effect your decision whether to close your short sale.
If you are in the middle of a short sale and you have obtained or are soon to obtain lender approval, you need to make sure that the lender(s) release you in writing from any financial liability once escrow closes, if it is to close after December 31.
[Note that regardless of when your short sale is closing, you should ALWAYS make sure the lender approval letter has language to this effect...most lenders automatically state such in the approval letters, but if not you need to have your agent or negotiator ask that it be included]. You also need to check your state laws to determine state tax liability with short sales, as laws do vary. For more information about short sales you can visit my website.