Goodbye old friend

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And hello 2017!

I bought a car on the first business day of 2017.

For most folks, buying a car is not a big deal, but I am definitely not a car person!  I drove my mother’s last car for almost eleven years after her death in 2006 and was embarrassed to shed a few tears at the dealership when I sentimentally traded it in on January 2. That car has 200,000 miles on its odometer! It’s still in great running condition, and I hope it finds a good home with someone, maybe a teenager, who needs safe and inexpensive transportation. Before my mother’s car, I drove a car I bought from a deceased friend’s estate. Are you detecting a pattern in my vehicular history?  Until this week, no car dealership had made a dime on me in the past 15 years!

My colleague and friend, Tom Dunlop, on the other hand, is definitely a car person. He currently drives a bright red late model Mercedes which he will upgrade this spring for the mere reason that two years have passed. His dealership loves him! In addition to trading every two years, Tom takes donuts to the staff when his car is serviced. What a nice guy! We’ve enjoyed that shiny red Mercedes as our lunch vehicle and can’t wait to see what Tom decides will be our new fancy ride in the spring.

new-year-new-startWhy is this car talk relevant to dirt law in 2017? It’s relevant because our success in the housing industry this year may depend on whether Americans and specifically South Carolinians are really home ownership people.

There are some reasons for concern. Interest rates are climbing. The mortgage interest rate deduction is under attack in Congress. The future of the CFPB may be precarious under the new administration and because of pending litigation challenging its constitutionality.  Some financial advisers are recommending renting as a better economic alternative for many Americans. Some retirees are being advised to sell the large homes where they raised their families in exchange for nifty, low-maintenance town homes, condominiums and even rental apartments.

But unlike my personal lack of thirst for new cars, I believe many Americans and many South Carolinians have an enduring thirst for new and upgraded residences. And I believe their thirst is most often quenched only by purchasing those residences. We have been taught that home ownership is an excellent investment vehicle coupled with a tax advantage. This advice goes back several generations. This wisdom is so ingrained that the counsel to retirees to rent shocked me! I had to read it from several sources to believe it was serious and sound advice for some folks.

And, thankfully, the economy is continuing to improve. Zillow is reporting that the U.S. housing market has regained all the value it lost during the housing crisis. South Carolina is particularly poised for success. Charleston is one of the fastest growing markets in the country. Hilton Head is digging out and rebuilding from Hurricane Matthew. The Rock Hill/Fort Mill area is growing toward Charlotte rapidly. It is impossible to ride around Myrtle Beach, Greenville and even Columbia without dodging construction activity. My own office’s numbers have improved during 2016, and I budgeted up for 2017. I suspect most South Carolina dirt lawyers are looking for a better year in 2017 than in 2016 assuming they can maintain their momentum and sustain the excellent staffing that momentum requires.

I am optimistic!  Here’s hoping Americans and South Carolinians continue to be home ownership people. And here’s hoping 2017 is a healthy, happy and prosperous year for you!

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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!