The fiscal-cliff compromise on New Year's Day made substantial changes to existing tax law and permanently implemented a number of decade-old tax breaks for the vast majority of taxpayers. Yet even though some lawmakers have argued that the tax increases they agreed to marked the full extent to which they were willing to concede for the sake of higher government revenue, many believe that further revenue-generating measures may come in future battles over sequestration, the debt ceiling, and the passage of a federal budget.
One place that many policymakers have looked to as a potential source of revenue is to eliminate the mortgage interest deduction. With the housing market having suffered so greatly in the past five to seven years, fears that taking away the deduction would lengthen housing's decline deterred lawmakers from seriously considering cutbacks on mortgage interest. But if there were ever an ideal time to get rid of the deduction, it's now, because a number of factors are lining up perfectly to make its disappearance as painless as it's ever going to be.
What the deduction means
In simple terms, the mortgage-interest deduction allows taxpayers to write off the mortgage interest they pay as an itemized deduction. Interest on up to $1 million in mortgage debt is generally deductible, with the deduction available either for a principal residence or a second home.
The mortgage-interest deduction is a relic from pre-1986 tax law. Before then, all interest on personal loans was deductible, but the Tax Reform Act of 1986 took away deductions on interest on credit cards and most other personal debt, leaving mortgage loans as a concession to encourage home ownership.
Why now's the right time to kill the deduction
Proponents of the deduction argue that it's a key component to keeping home prices up. Especially in high-cost areas, the amount of interest has historically been quite significant, and the deduction can cut interest costs for high-income taxpayers by more than a third. Given what many perceive as the fragile state of the housing recovery, eliminating a tax deduction on mortgage interest could throw housing back into a dive.
Yet when you look at some of the factors that have driven the housing recovery, it's far less clear what impact getting rid of the mortgage-interest deduction would have. Consider the following:
- Mortgage rates are still near all-time lows, with 15-year mortgages available for less than 3% and 30-year mortgages hovering well under 4%. As a result, thanks to depressed home prices and low rates, the amount of interest you'll pay is lower than ever and may not even save you anything on your taxes. For a $400,000 mortgage at 3%, you'd pay roughly $12,000 in interest. That's actually less than the standard deduction of $12,200 for joint filers in 2013, meaning that if the only expense you can itemize is your mortgage interest, you won't get any benefit at all from the deduction.
- Even in high-priced areas, more people are paying cash for their homes than ever before. In California, nearly a third of all home purchases were done without any mortgage at all. With savings account balances paying next to nothing in interest, paying even 3% to 4% for a mortgage doesn't make much sense to those who have the financial resources to pay upfront. Moreover, those buyers are helping push home prices higher overall.
- As much as homebuilders argue that eliminating the deduction would hurt them, economists agree that the biggest impact would be on the highest-priced homes, with more reasonably priced real estate seeing little or no impact from getting rid of the deduction. As a result, Toll Brothers (NYSE:TOL) and other high-end homebuilders might take a hit. But Lennar (NYSE:LEN) and other homebuilders that tend to provide entry-level homes might not see any impact at all, while Pulte (NYSE:PHM), which provides a mix of different home types, would fall somewhere in the middle.
- Moreover, homebuilders have already taken steps to survive the rise in rentals that could result from the loss of mortgage interest deductibility. Beazer Homes (NYSE:BZH) joined Wall Street's Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (NYSE:KKR) to create a REIT that buys homes and rents them out, while Lennar and Toll Brothers have made similar purchases through related divisions.
Think about it
It's never going to be an entirely comfortable time to get rid of mortgage interest as a tax deduction. But with the need for more tax simplicity, looking at ways to eliminate specialized provisions of the tax code is worth a further look. If we're ever going to move toward tax reform, now's the best time to look at phasing out and eventually getting rid of the mortgage-interest deduction.