Tax Impact of Principal Reduction

With the Obama administration and private lenders actively considering mortgage-principal-reduction programs to help financially distressed homeowners, the Internal Revenue Service has issued an advisory to taxpayers who receive — or seek to receive — such assistance if it’s offered.

Editor’s Note: The only thing I would add to this, for the moment, is that any principal reduction is basically an admission that your property is not worth the amount of the mortgage. If you have made demand for damages or relief based upon appraisal fraud or other causes of action in or out of court, the taxpayer can take the position that the debt reduction is also in lieu of payment of damages which often is not taxable. Under this theory — which may or may not apply — you would NOT be limited to your principal residence to claim an exemption. Consulting with a licensed attorney or accountant familiar both with federal and state tax law would be strongly advisable.

The reason I mention state law is that the reduction of principal might be the basis for contesting the assessed valuation of your home for real estate taxes, property insurance etc.

IRS tells homeowners how to get tax relief if a lender forgives part of their debt

Reduction of mortgage principal, usually considered taxable income, is expected to become more prevalent as the Obama administration and banks seek ways to prevent foreclosures.

By Kenneth R. Harney

March 14, 2010

Reporting from Washington

With the Obama administration and private lenders actively considering mortgage-principal-reduction programs to help financially distressed homeowners, the Internal Revenue Service has issued an advisory to taxpayers who receive — or seek to receive — such assistance if it’s offered.

The IRS gets involved in mortgage principal write-downs because the federal tax code generally treats any forgiveness of debt by a creditor in excess of $600 as ordinary taxable income to the recipient.

However, under legislation that took effect in 2007, certain home mortgage debt cancellations — such as through loan modifications, short sales or foreclosures — may be exempted from tax treatment as income.

Sheila C. Bair, chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., recently confirmed that her agency was working on a new program to expand the use of principal mortgage reductions to keep underwater borrowers out of foreclosure.

Most major banks and mortgage companies have preferred monthly payment reductions and other loan modification techniques over cuts of principal balances, but a handful have made limited use of the concept.

One of the largest servicers of subprime home loans, Ocwen Financial Services of West Palm Beach, Fla., has strongly advocated principal reductions to keep people out of foreclosure, and claimed broad success with them. Ocwen President Ron Faris testified to a congressional subcommittee this month that borrowers with negative equity were as much as twice as likely to re-default after a standard payment-reduction loan modification than those who receive partial forgiveness on their principal debt.

But what are the tax implications when your lender essentially says: OK, we recognize that you’re underwater, maybe you’re thinking about walking away, and we’re going to write off some of what you owe to keep you in the house?

IRS guidance issued March 4 spelled out step by step how financially troubled and underwater borrowers can qualify for tax relief when a lender agrees to lower their debt. Here are the basics, should you be considering a short sale or loan modification involving principal reduction.

First, be aware that the federal tax exclusion only applies to mortgage balances on your principal residence — your main home — and not on second homes, rental real estate or business property. The maximum amount of forgiven debt eligible under the law is $2 million for married taxpayers filing jointly and $1 million for single filers.

But there are some potential snares: Your debt reduction can only be for loan amounts that you’ve used to “buy, build or substantially improve your principal residence.” This includes refinancings that increased your total mortgage debt attributable to renovations and capital improvements of your house. But if you used the proceeds for other personal purposes, such as to pay off credit card bills, buy cars or invest in stocks, the mortgage debt attributable to those expenditures is not eligible for tax exclusion.

When your lender forgives all or part of your mortgage balance, the lender is required by law to issue you an IRS Form 1099-C, a “Cancellation of Debt” notice, which is also sent to the IRS. The form shows not only the amount of debt discharged but the estimated fair market value of the house securing the debt as well.

A few other noteworthy features of the IRS rules: If you’ve been foreclosed upon or you do a short sale and lose money in the process, don’t claim a tax loss on your federal filing. The IRS will turn you down. However, if you go to foreclosure and your lender agrees to cancel all or part of the unpaid mortgage balance as part of the deal, then you can file for an exemption from the IRS.

What if your lender reduces the debt on your house but you continue to own the property and live in it? There’s a tax wrinkle in the fine print: The IRS will require you to reduce your “basis” in the house — your “cost” for tax purposes — by the amount of the forgiven debt. But that’s not likely to be a big concern for most homeowners digging their way out.

Finally, if you want to claim the debt-forgiveness exemption, download IRS Form 982 at www.irs.gov and attach it to your return for the year in which the debt was forgiven. And don’t assume that this tax code benefit to homeowners will be around forever. It expires at the end of 2012.

kenharney@earthlink.net.

Distributed by the Washington Post Writers Group

Mortgage Meltdown: Enough Distress to go Around

It is hard to compute the total damage to everyone, but it seems pretty clear at this point that EVERYONE is effected. Every government agency involved with real estate taxes, and government service funded by real estate taxes, every homeowner who sees his home equity decline, every neighborhood that turns into a “deferred maintenance” junkyard with organized crime and vandals destroying unoccupied homes, every borrower who got roped into refinancing when he/she had not need or intention to refinance, every buyer of a home from a developer who got nailed by their reliance on the appraised value of the home, every investor who bought an ABS, every pension holder or shareholder in an entity that invested in ABS instruments as “cash equivalent” etc.

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Abandoned homes distressing
Untended eyesores hurt local values

The view from Tina Osborne’s backyard isn’t pretty.

From her deck in Florence, she overlooks several feet of grass and weeds – a serious eyesore in the cul-de-sac of her Carters Mill subdivision where neighbors have a tradition of putting down mulch and working together in their yards each summer.

A few weeks ago, the front yard of that same abandoned home didn’t look much better – until a neighbor took it upon himself to cut the grass. He fears the untidy conditions will turn away potential buyers from his home, which is up for sale.

• Search foreclosure listings, repossessed properties, and other real estate in distress.
• Survey: Tell us how the economy is affecting you
• See our special section on foreclosures

Similar scenes are playing out all across Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky as the surge of home foreclosures has led to a surge in complaints about vacant, unkempt properties.

In the last month alone, Colerain Township trustees were asked to declare 115 properties as nuisances. Liberty Township had nearly 60 complaints in May. Neighboring West Chester identified 19 problem homes late last month, and the township’s community development director says he expects more to be added to the list in June.

Delhi Township officials plan a special meeting to discuss the issue.

Not every nuisance complaint is linked to a foreclosed house, but officials say that’s the driving force behind the increase in complaints.

“Ohio is one of the leading states in foreclosure. When people leave their homes, they usually leave their responsibilities behind. That’s where we come in,” said Ronnie Caldwell, code enforcement officer in Deerfield Township, where about 30 complaints have been filed this year.

“This is a problem everywhere; we’re no different,” Caldwell says.

Compounding the problem: Heavy rainfall through May has led to an explosion of grass and weeds, making vacant homes especially noticeable.

For the first six months of the year, many communities say they are seeing twice as many high-grass complaints as they did during the same period last year. In some areas, nuisance complaints have already surpassed all of 2007.

But according to an Enquirer request for e-mails about the foreclosure fallout, the concerns go beyond unmowed grass. People are complaining about landscaping disasters, mosquito-infested swimming pools, collapsed ceilings, burst pipes, and foul odors.

The unkempt properties are frustrating on several levels.

Some say their own yard work goes for naught because people get distracted by the unsightly house next-door.

Some are frustrated by the slow responses – if they get any at all – when making complaints.

Some people get so irritated they end up doing the yard maintenance themselves.

EYESORES ABOUND

Jane Young moved into her Hickory Woods subdivision almost a decade ago. Over the years, the Mason resident has watched as homes were built around hers.

Recently, she noticed an overgrown yard and a utility notice on the front door of an empty home across the street, a home that had been valued at just under $300,000.

“This is not a dandelion neighborhood. We don’t do dandelions,” Young said. “Right now, this house sticks out – a lot.”

In Lebanon, neighbors complain about a house that has been vacant for months in a neighborhood where homes had been selling for $250,000 and up.

Cold weather caused the pipes to burst this winter. Water spilled all over, leading to black mold staining the walls, fungus growing on soggy carpet, and a buckled floor pushing the back door open – exposing the house to rodents.

The stench is so bad that neighbors noticed a bank representative wearing a mask to go inside and evaluate the property. The recent 90-degree heat has made the smell worse, says neighbor Ann Stengl.

“What used to be a great house is awful for the neighborhood. … I think it’s getting worse by the day,” she said.

In an already soft real-estate market, people find it becomes even more difficult to sell a house that is near a vacant property.

Rose and Jeff MacInnis did everything they thought had to be done to sell their Burlington home. They painted, replaced the carpet, planted flowers and kept their yard carefully mowed and edged.

Yet, nearly one year later, they’re paying two mortgages and maintaining two yards – their old home in the Pebble Creek subdivision and their new place in Cincinnati’s Bridge Point.

“The comments are always the same: ‘The house is nice, but we don’t like other people’s yards.’ We get the negative feedback even though our house is in perfect condition,” said a frustrated Rose Mac- Innis.

In Madisonville, Heather Poe has had her house on the market for 18 months. Part of the problem, she says, is the abandoned house next door.

The lender who holds the lien for the house has started to cut the grass occasionally, she said. But that does nothing for the pool falling apart in the backyard or the stair railing that was ripped from concrete and now leans against the side of the house.

“Even if they like your house, that place is the deal killer almost every time,” she said.

WHO CUTS THE GRASS?

The process to declare a property a public nuisance varies from community to community. Complaints get official attention once the grass reaches certain heights, or if the conditions can be deemed a public health risk.

Then the process begins.

First, the property owner receives notice, usually a letter, from the local government. If the government knows who is responsible for the property, a letter is enough to get maintenance work started in most cases.

But if property owners don’t act within the allotted time, typically a couple of weeks, the grass is cut by public crews or private contractors hired for the job.

Owners will either get a bill in the mail, or the county auditor places a lien on the property. Charges could range from rental costs for mowing equipment to worker compensation and administrative fees. Total price is anywhere from $200 to $400.

Most communities set a high rate on purpose. “We don’t want to become a lawn mowing service,” said Brian Elliff, director of community development in West Chester Township.

WHERE TO CALL OFTEN UNCLEAR

All of this assumes that neighbors know where to call – which varies from place to place.

People who contacted The Enquirer said they often did not know whom to call. They’ve been bounced from homeowners associations to local governments, health departments, sheriffs’ offices and banks.

“It’s just kind of annoying. We have no idea who’s supposed to do it,” Tina Osborne said of the problem in her Florence neighborhood. “If we want to stop looking at it, we have to get out there and do it ourselves. … But then we’re told we’re not supposed to do that. And we’re right back at square one.”

Meanwhile, the increased number of complaints either strains public budgets, bogs down response time, or both.

In Covington, officials added $7,000 to the maintenance budget this year to handle this kind of work; the same will be done next year. In Boone County, a two-person code enforcement team has been overwhelmed with 144 nuisance complaints since April, said Brad Horn, code enforcement supervisor.

“We’re way behind right now,” Horn said. “We’re barely keeping our head above water.”

In Ohio, some of the delays related to property upkeep may improve in the months to come.

Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland signed a bill last week that requires sheriffs to record deeds within 14 days of a judge signing off on a foreclosed sale. The goal is reduce the legal limbo period for vacant homes as ownership is transferred.

Neighbors say they’ll be waiting to see if the grass gets cut.

Staff writers Kari Wethington, Cliff Radel, Scott Wartman, Mike Rutledge and Cindy Schroeder contributed to this story.

Abandoned homes distressing
Untended eyesores hurt local values

The view from Tina Osborne’s backyard isn’t pretty.

From her deck in Florence, she overlooks several feet of grass and weeds – a serious eyesore in the cul-de-sac of her Carters Mill subdivision where neighbors have a tradition of putting down mulch and working together in their yards each summer.

A few weeks ago, the front yard of that same abandoned home didn’t look much better – until a neighbor took it upon himself to cut the grass. He fears the untidy conditions will turn away potential buyers from his home, which is up for sale.

• Search foreclosure listings, repossessed properties, and other real estate in distress.
• Survey: Tell us how the economy is affecting you
• See our special section on foreclosures

Similar scenes are playing out all across Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky as the surge of home foreclosures has led to a surge in complaints about vacant, unkempt properties.

In the last month alone, Colerain Township trustees were asked to declare 115 properties as nuisances. Liberty Township had nearly 60 complaints in May. Neighboring West Chester identified 19 problem homes late last month, and the township’s community development director says he expects more to be added to the list in June.

Delhi Township officials plan a special meeting to discuss the issue.

Not every nuisance complaint is linked to a foreclosed house, but officials say that’s the driving force behind the increase in complaints.

“Ohio is one of the leading states in foreclosure. When people leave their homes, they usually leave their responsibilities behind. That’s where we come in,” said Ronnie Caldwell, code enforcement officer in Deerfield Township, where about 30 complaints have been filed this year.

“This is a problem everywhere; we’re no different,” Caldwell says.

Compounding the problem: Heavy rainfall through May has led to an explosion of grass and weeds, making vacant homes especially noticeable.

For the first six months of the year, many communities say they are seeing twice as many high-grass complaints as they did during the same period last year. In some areas, nuisance complaints have already surpassed all of 2007.

But according to an Enquirer request for e-mails about the foreclosure fallout, the concerns go beyond unmowed grass. People are complaining about landscaping disasters, mosquito-infested swimming pools, collapsed ceilings, burst pipes, and foul odors.

The unkempt properties are frustrating on several levels.

Some say their own yard work goes for naught because people get distracted by the unsightly house next-door.

Some are frustrated by the slow responses – if they get any at all – when making complaints.

Some people get so irritated they end up doing the yard maintenance themselves.

EYESORES ABOUND

Jane Young moved into her Hickory Woods subdivision almost a decade ago. Over the years, the Mason resident has watched as homes were built around hers.

Recently, she noticed an overgrown yard and a utility notice on the front door of an empty home across the street, a home that had been valued at just under $300,000.

“This is not a dandelion neighborhood. We don’t do dandelions,” Young said. “Right now, this house sticks out – a lot.”

In Lebanon, neighbors complain about a house that has been vacant for months in a neighborhood where homes had been selling for $250,000 and up.

Cold weather caused the pipes to burst this winter. Water spilled all over, leading to black mold staining the walls, fungus growing on soggy carpet, and a buckled floor pushing the back door open – exposing the house to rodents.

The stench is so bad that neighbors noticed a bank representative wearing a mask to go inside and evaluate the property. The recent 90-degree heat has made the smell worse, says neighbor Ann Stengl.

“What used to be a great house is awful for the neighborhood. … I think it’s getting worse by the day,” she said.

In an already soft real-estate market, people find it becomes even more difficult to sell a house that is near a vacant property.

Rose and Jeff MacInnis did everything they thought had to be done to sell their Burlington home. They painted, replaced the carpet, planted flowers and kept their yard carefully mowed and edged.

Yet, nearly one year later, they’re paying two mortgages and maintaining two yards – their old home in the Pebble Creek subdivision and their new place in Cincinnati’s Bridge Point.

“The comments are always the same: ‘The house is nice, but we don’t like other people’s yards.’ We get the negative feedback even though our house is in perfect condition,” said a frustrated Rose Mac- Innis.

In Madisonville, Heather Poe has had her house on the market for 18 months. Part of the problem, she says, is the abandoned house next door.

The lender who holds the lien for the house has started to cut the grass occasionally, she said. But that does nothing for the pool falling apart in the backyard or the stair railing that was ripped from concrete and now leans against the side of the house.

“Even if they like your house, that place is the deal killer almost every time,” she said.

WHO CUTS THE GRASS?

The process to declare a property a public nuisance varies from community to community. Complaints get official attention once the grass reaches certain heights, or if the conditions can be deemed a public health risk.

Then the process begins.

First, the property owner receives notice, usually a letter, from the local government. If the government knows who is responsible for the property, a letter is enough to get maintenance work started in most cases.

But if property owners don’t act within the allotted time, typically a couple of weeks, the grass is cut by public crews or private contractors hired for the job.

Owners will either get a bill in the mail, or the county auditor places a lien on the property. Charges could range from rental costs for mowing equipment to worker compensation and administrative fees. Total price is anywhere from $200 to $400.

Most communities set a high rate on purpose. “We don’t want to become a lawn mowing service,” said Brian Elliff, director of community development in West Chester Township.

WHERE TO CALL OFTEN UNCLEAR

All of this assumes that neighbors know where to call – which varies from place to place.

People who contacted The Enquirer said they often did not know whom to call. They’ve been bounced from homeowners associations to local governments, health departments, sheriffs’ offices and banks.

“It’s just kind of annoying. We have no idea who’s supposed to do it,” Tina Osborne said of the problem in her Florence neighborhood. “If we want to stop looking at it, we have to get out there and do it ourselves. … But then we’re told we’re not supposed to do that. And we’re right back at square one.”

Meanwhile, the increased number of complaints either strains public budgets, bogs down response time, or both.

In Covington, officials added $7,000 to the maintenance budget this year to handle this kind of work; the same will be done next year. In Boone County, a two-person code enforcement team has been overwhelmed with 144 nuisance complaints since April, said Brad Horn, code enforcement supervisor.

“We’re way behind right now,” Horn said. “We’re barely keeping our head above water.”

In Ohio, some of the delays related to property upkeep may improve in the months to come.

Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland signed a bill last week that requires sheriffs to record deeds within 14 days of a judge signing off on a foreclosed sale. The goal is reduce the legal limbo period for vacant homes as ownership is transferred.

Neighbors say they’ll be waiting to see if the grass gets cut.

Staff writers Kari Wethington, Cliff Radel, Scott Wartman, Mike Rutledge and Cindy Schroeder contributed to this story.

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