The housing industry is crying Bah! Humbug!

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Congress may eliminate mortgage interest deduction

Mike Goodwin, the “Bow Tie Comedian” based here in Columbia, mike-goodwin-bowtie-comedianentertained us during lunch at our recent Chicago Title seminar. A joke that bubbled up through his very funny presentation was a line his mother used to keep him on the straight and narrow during his childhood, “what you NOT gonna do is…..”

For example, she would say, what you NOT gonna do is to stand there and hold that refrigerator door open while you try to decide what you want to eat. During one lull in the laughter, Mike said to us, “what you NOT gonna do is sit there and not laugh at my jokes.” (So we laughed.)

While some of us believe America is about to be made great again, some of us might like to borrow Mike’s line to deliver a Bah! Humbug! message to Congress:  What you NOT gonna do is to eliminate, or effectively reduce the effectiveness of, the mortgage interest deduction. Many homebuilders, lenders and real estate agents (and South Carolina dirt lawyers) believe that’s one thing we don’t need 2017.

The mortgage interest deduction is a major driver of the housing market. One reason American dreamers strive for home ownership is to take advantage of this tax break. That, along with the property tax deduction, the points deduction, the PMI deduction and the home office deduction, make owning a home a wise move from a tax standpoint. Eliminating or reducing the effectiveness of the home interest deduction, which many consider as American as apple pie, might put a damper on the improved economy we have been experiencing in 2016.

But that approach is definitely going to be under consideration by Congress, and players in the housing industry are preparing to defend the deduction. The plan under consideration involves not a direct elimination of the deduction, but an indirect attack via an increase of the standardized deductions, now at $6,300 for a single taxpayer and $12,600 for married taxpayers filing jointly. By doubling these standard deductions, many taxpayers would have no need to take the mortgage interest deduction.

The mortgage interest deduction is the largest deduction currently available to homeowners, allowing a write-off of interest from up to a $500,000 loan for a single taxpayer and up to a $1 million loan for joint filers. The deduction is especially important during the early years of a mortgage when the majority of payments are applied to interest rather than principal.

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“Congress … what you NOT gonna do is … “

If a single taxpayer pays mortgage interest of $8,000 in the first of home ownership, for example, that amount exceeds the current standard deduction of $6,300, and that taxpayer would itemize to claim a better tax break. If the standardized deduction is doubled, itemization is much less likely.

President-Elect Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin, has stated that the administration is planning to create the largest tax change since Reagan. Simplifying the tax code is one of the stated objectives, and a larger standard deduction is one method of simplification. In addition to the mortgage interest deduction, the charitable deduction would be affected in a similar manner.  Some say that as the standard deduction goes up, the incentive to give is reduced.

Any step that would reduce incentives for homeownership would likely encourage renting rather than buying. Home values might suffer, and the housing industry might suffer as well.

All Americans are interested in the changes that are about to happen, and those of us in the housing industry may be more interested than most! I have already seen prognosticators reducing their optimism about 2017, but I just got off the phone with a local wise man. He said that I should relax. 2017 is going to be a banner year, he said, because America is going to be great again. I hope he’s right!

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Wells Fargo distributes new settlement agent memo

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Wells Fargo circulated a new Settlement Agent Communication on December 15, addressing several points that may be of interest to South Carolina closing attorneys. 

  • The Seller Closing Disclosure must be delivered to Wells Fargo prior to closing, and Wells’ performance reports of settlement agents will soon include proper receipt of the Seller CD.
  • Wells Fargo is adamant that the Borrower Closing Disclosure must be the form provided to the closing attorney by the lender. Wells will not tolerate substitutions or additions to the Borrower CD.
  • Closing attorneys are encouraged to communicate with the lender before, during and after closing to insure the accuracy of signing and disbursement dates on the borrower CD.
  • Closing attorneys are instructed to refrain from adding per diem interest charges in the payoff calculations of a Wells Fargo first mortgage when that mortgage is being refinanced with Wells. These payoffs will be net funded and will be the responsibility of the lender.
  • When a title insurance policy is delivered to the lender electronically, there is no need to also provide a paper copy.

The memo also contained a brief RESPA update indicating that despite the July 11 ruling against the CFPB by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in the PHH Corp. v. CFPB case, Wells will continue to adhere to the 2015 bulletin distributed by the CFPB indicating Marketing Service Agreements are in disfavor.

BBC reports on South Carolina “heirs’ property” saga

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A December 5 article in BBC News Magazine entitled “Gullah Geechee: Descendants of slaves fight for their land”, outlines the struggles of property owners in Jackson Village to save their homes.

Jackson Village is one of three black communities in Plantersville, an unincorporated area of Georgetown County located about six miles north of the Town of Georgetown on Highway 701. The area is described as consisting of neat brick bungalows, set back form the road and protected from Highway 701 by a dense forest.

The BBC article, written by Brian Wheeler, describes 20 homes in Jackson Village being put up for auction because of the failure to pay taxes on a new sewer system. Local authorities apparently required residents to pay for hooking up to the new system because septic tanks were contaminating drinking water and becoming a health hazard. The residents complain that they were forced to pay even if their septic tanks were working well. The cost for each resident is $250 per year for the next 20 years.

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Photo courtesy of BBC.com

The land is heirs’ property, land that has been passed down through the generations, usually without the benefit of deeds or probated estates. Many heirs’ property owners can trace their roots back to West African slaves who gained property rights during Reconstruction. These owners often allowed their properties to pass through the generations without formalities because they were denied access to the legal system, or because they didn’t understand it or trust it or could not afford it.

Where generations of landowners own property as tenants in common, maintaining ownership can become a risky proposition. All of the heirs own the property, whether or not they ever set foot on it.  Living on the land and paying taxes on it is certainly not a prerequisite.

Many of these properties are in or near valuable coastal areas where developers are eager to gain access.  A developer can buy the interest of one tenant in common to gain the same rights as the tax-paying residents. But distant family members looking for money can also create havoc. Partition actions are instituted, legal fees are incurred, and the result may be that the property is sold quickly and for less than fair market value.

Photo courtesy of Chicago Tribune

Thankfully, our legislature has recognized and addressed this problem. On September 22, Governor Haley signed legislation that honored the memory of Senator Clementa C. Pinkney, a victim of the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church mass shooting in Charleston on June 17, 2015. The new law is now known as the Clementa C. Pinckney Uniform Partition of Heirs’ Property Act, and it will become effective January 1, 2017.

The new law requires independent appraisals and open-market sales to ensure heirs receive fair prices. The new act would not prevent sales for the failure to pay taxes as described in the BBC article, but it should make sales begun by developers and distant heirs more impartial and advantageous for all property owners.

New DOI rule: SC title insurance agents must be fingerprinted (Lawyers included!)

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Listen up, South Carolina dirt lawyers!

All title insurance agents must be fingerprinted for their next license renewals! The Department of Insurance has passed a new rule, effective January 1, 2017, requiring fingerprinting for all resident producers.

The DOI published a bulletin which you can read here. South Carolina Law Enforcement Division has established a contract with IdentoGo by MorphoTrust to handle the fingerprinting process. All title insurance agents will need to go to this company’s website, www.IdentoGo.com, to set up an appointment to be fingerprinted. Your zip code will be used to find the most convenient location.

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It is important that you do not wait until the month your license renews to begin this process. The bulletin advises that scheduling and processing may take up to ninety days. The cost for fingerprinting is $50.50.

Every lawyer’s first question is going to be, can’t they use my fingerprints from my Bar application?  The answer, we have been told verbally, is absolutely not. The DOI is emphatic that it will not accept fingerprinting from any other agency nor any other vendor. Every lawyer’s second question is going to be, does this apply to my staff members who are licensed agents?  It does.

Nonresident producers are not required to be fingerprinted.

As a reminder, licenses are renewed in your birth month. If you were born in an odd-numbered year, your next renewal will be in 2017.  If you were born in January or February of an odd-numbered year, you may be late if you haven’t already begun this process.  For those born in even-numbered years, you are safe until 2018.

Good luck!  Call your title insurance company if you have questions or need assistance.

Into the mystic: Fannie and Freddie predict what is in store for housing in 2017.

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In a sign that the average cost of houses is increasing across the country, the conforming loan limit for loans to be purchased by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will increase in 2017 for the first time in ten years.

The Federal Housing Finance Agency has announced the maximum conforming loan in most parts of the country (including South Carolina) will increase from $417,000 to $424,100. Stated another way, a borrower will not have to qualify for a “jumbo loan” unless the amount to be borrowed exceeds $424,100.

This change should help qualified buyers, particularly in our coastal areas where home prices are higher, obtain mortgages backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, even though credit remains tight and interest rates are likely to increase.

This is the time of the year when all of us involved in the housing industry are charged with looking into the proverbial crystal ball and projecting how we think the real estate market for the new year will compare with the current year.  For what it’s worth (and this and $5 will buy you a cup of coffee at Starbucks), I’m projecting around a 3 percent increase for next year in South Carolina. Let me know what your crystal ball is disclosing!