Buying a house: The tax impact of your new home

Happy young couple relaxing while unpacking after buying a home.Image: Happy young couple relaxing while unpacking after buying a home.

In a Nutshell

Buying a house for the first time can be exciting. Your new home is an investment that will affect your taxes. Here are some things homebuyers should know about taxes and their big purchase.
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This article was fact-checked by our editors and Christina Taylor, MBA, senior manager of tax operations for Credit Karma. It has been updated for the 2019 tax year.

Buying a house can affect virtually everything about your life, from the amount of storage space you have for all your stuff to how much you’ll pay in taxes next year.

If you’re a first-time homebuyer, you may be aware that it’s possible to deduct mortgage interest. But what about the tax impact of buying a house? What are the tax ramifications of the actual transaction?

Warm-weather months can be a great time to buy a home. But before you take the plunge for the first time, here are some things you should know about taxes and buying a home.

Sales tax? That’s a no.

While the federal government doesn’t have a sales tax, most states do. In fact, Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire and Oregon are currently the only states that don’t collect a statewide sales tax.

States that do have a statewide sales tax generally tax a range of purchases, and what’s taxed varies from state to state.

For example, California taxes retail sales of merchandise in the state, but not tickets to movie theaters or sporting events. While North Carolina’s sales tax does apply to movie tickets (among other items), it excludes the purchase of lottery tickets. Additionally, counties and cities may charge their own sales taxes.

With so many types of purchases subject to sales tax, it may be surprising to learn that when you’re buying a house, some states don’t apply their sales tax to home purchases. However, states can have idiosyncrasies in their tax law. For example, California may charge sales and use tax if you buy a mobile home. So make sure to check your state and local sales taxes to get a better idea of the taxes you may be responsible for.

And, depending on the state in which you buy, you may face another kind of purchase-related tax — real estate transfer taxes.

Real estate transfer taxes

States, counties and municipalities can choose to levy taxes when a piece of real property — like your new home — changes hands, or when recording a mortgage. These taxes are often known as documentary or “stamp” taxes.

Many states that charge these taxes base the tax amount on a percentage of the purchase price of the property. Each state and its taxing body have different rules for how their real estate transfer taxes work.

Here’s an example of how state and local real estate transfer taxes can affect the ultimate cost of buying a house.

Colorado charges a transfer tax of .01%, which means you’ll owe the state a penny per $100 of the purchase price. What’s more, if your new home is in Telluride, Colorado, the town will tack on an extra 3% real estate transfer tax for any home purchase of more than $500. It’s up to the buyer to pay the town’s tax. So if you buy a $500,000 home there, you’ll owe a transfer tax of $5,000 to the state and another $15,000 to the town.

Even states that don’t have sales tax can have real estate transfer taxes. In Delaware, where there’s no state sales tax, real estate transactions can be subject to a transfer tax of 3% of the property value. However, if you’re buying in a county or municipality that has its own real estate transfer tax, the state tax drops to 2.5%. And Delaware state law says the tax will be divided between buyers and sellers equally.

So in Delaware, your $500,000 home could come with transfer taxes of $15,000 (if you buy in a city without its own transfer tax) or up to $20,000 in state and local taxes . In either case, you’d split the tax with the seller, so your share as the buyer could range from $7,500 to $10,000, respectively.

A lot depends on where you buy

On its website, the National Conference of State Legislators provides a list of real estate transfer taxes that shows how widely such costs can vary from state to state.

For example, the list shows that 12 states — Alaska, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wyoming — do not currently have real estate transfer taxes.

Others charge a single, simple transfer tax — for example, a $2 flat fee in Arizona and a 0.1% mortgage registration tax in Kansas.

And others have more complex transfer tax rules.

For example, Hawaii’s state conveyance tax increases as the property value increases, with the tax rate starting at 0.1% for properties valued at less than $600,000. New Jersey has multiple fees on top of the state and county fees, including additional fees for properties over a certain dollar amount.

Who’s gonna pay for all this?

Who’s responsible for transfer taxes when you buy a home? That depends.

Some taxing jurisdictions may specify whether the buyer or seller must pay transfer tax, or if both parties in the transaction must share it. Or you may be able to negotiate with the seller to pay transfer taxes as part of the sales contract for your new home.

If you end up paying transfer taxes as a buyer, you can’t deduct them from your federal income taxes the way you might deduct property taxes. However, you can include them in your cost basis, which is basically the value of a home for tax purposes. Down the road, if you sell your home, your cost basis will be a factor in figuring out your gain or loss on the sale. Your gain or loss in turn may affect how much (if any) tax you’ll owe on the money you receive from the sale.

Now for the good news …

Transfer taxes can be a painful part of an already-daunting process, but buying a home can deliver tax benefits as well.

Here are some deductions and credits you may qualify for as a homeowner.

Mortgage interest deduction

If you’ll be taking out a new mortgage to buy a house this year, you might be able to take a mortgage interest deduction on your federal income tax return provided …

  • You itemize your deductions
  • Your mortgage is for your principal residence or one other qualified residence
  • You paid or accrued the interest during the tax year
  • You used the loan proceeds to buy the home that secured the mortgage
  • Your total mortgage debt (including home equity) was $1 million or less — or $500,000 or less if you were married but filing separate returns

If you bought your home in 2018 (or later), the maximum amount of mortgage debt for which you can claim an interest deduction is $750,000 if you’re married filing jointly or $375,000 if you’re married filing separately. That means if you’re married filing jointly and your mortgage is for $1 million, you won’t be able to claim a mortgage interest deduction for $250,000 of your principal.

State and local property tax deduction

Every year, you’ll pay any property taxes on your home to your state and local governments. Whether you pay your property taxes directly or do so through an escrow account with your lender. Beginning with the 2018 tax year, you may be able to deduct up to $10,000 ($5,000 if you’re married filing separately) of your property taxes, plus state and local income taxes combined. Or, you could choose to use sales tax instead of income tax. This is known as the SALT deduction. For example, if you paid $5,000 in property tax and $7,0000 in state and income tax, you can only take a $10,000 deduction toward that total $12,000 cost.

You’ll need to itemize your deductions on Schedule A to take this deduction, and you’ll have to decide which taxes you want to deduct — property and income taxes or property and sales taxes.

If you live in a state with high property taxes, your property tax bill could account for all your allowed SALT deduction, leaving you no room to deduct income or sales tax. Or if your property taxes are lower, there may be money left in the deduction limit to deduct some state income or sales taxes as well.

Deducting points

Buying a house can involve paying “points” — charges you pay to obtain a mortgage. Your lender may also refer to points as loan-origination fees, maximum loan charges, a loan discount or discount points.

You may be able to deduct the full amount of points you paid in the same year you paid them if …

  • The mortgage is secured by your main home (your main home is generally defined as where you live most of the time)
  • Paying points is common in the area where the loan was made and you didn’t pay more than the going rate for points in that area
  • You report income the year you receive it and deduct expenses in the year you pay them (known as the cash method of accounting)
  • The points didn’t replace other fees that normally appear separately on a settlement statement, like appraisal fees, title company fees, attorney fees and property taxes
  • The cash you paid at or before closing on your house for costs like a down payment or earnest money, plus any points the seller paid, were at least equal to the points charged (you can’t have borrowed this money)
  • You used the loan to buy or build your main home
  • The lender computed your points as a percentage of your mortgage principal
  • Your settlement statement clearly shows the points charged for the mortgage

If you don’t meet all these criteria, you’ll have to deduct your points over the life of the mortgage as prepaid interest.

Mortgage interest credit

If you’re a homebuyer making a lower annual income, you may be able to qualify for the mortgage interest credit.

Before you get a mortgage, contact the state or local government for your area to find out if you can qualify for a Mortgage Credit Certificate. The IRS requires you to have an MCC to be eligible for the credit.

If you qualify for an MCC and are eligible for the credit, it’s a dollar-for-dollar reduction in the amount of tax you owe. Your credit will be based on the certificate credit rate on your MCC (10%–50%), and you’ll need to calculate the actual credit amount on Form 8396.

You can still take a mortgage interest deduction if you also qualify for a mortgage interest credit. However, if you itemize your deductions you’ll have to reduce your home mortgage interest deduction by the amount of the mortgage interest credit you claim, even if that amount is partially carried forward.

Each state or agency can have different rules for MCCs, so it’s important to find out exactly what the qualifications are for your area.

State and local tax breaks

Property taxes can be a huge cost of homeownership. States, counties and municipalities may offer tax breaks that can help defray this cost. Eligibility can be based on factors such as income, whether you’re a veteran or a disabled veteran, where you live in the state, or whether you’re retired or disabled.

For example, Washington state offers deferral programs for qualifying applicants to help with their property taxes. Homeowners with household disposable income of $57,000 or less may be able to qualify to defer some property tax payment, although they’ll owe interest on the deferred amount.

In Georgia, homeowners may be able to get a standard homestead exemption of $2,000 off their county and school taxes ($4,000 if they’re 65 and older), as long as they actually live in their home and it’s their legal residence, subject to some exceptions.

Contact your state’s taxing authority or department of revenue to find out about any state or local tax breaks that might be available to you.

Bottom line

Depending on the state where you’re buying a house, real estate transfer fees can be complicated and costly. You could find yourself wishing your home purchase was subject to something as simple to understand as a basic sales tax.

However, tax implications shouldn’t necessarily be the driving factor in any financial decision, including where you live. Fortunately, qualifying for federal-level tax breaks like the mortgage interest deduction can help reduce your tax burden.

If you’ll be buying a home this year, be sure to keep all important purchase-related documents organized in one place. Having your home purchase information on hand when it’s time to file your federal income taxes can help ensure you make the most of every home-related credit or deduction you’re eligible for.

Relevant sources:

Alaska Department of Revenue, Tax Division: Sales and Use Tax | Delaware Division of Revenue, Learn About Gross Receipts Taxes | Montana Department of Revenue, General Sales Tax | New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration | Oregon Department of Revenue Sales Tax | North Carolina Department of Revenue Sales and Use Tax: Admission Charges | North Carolina Department of Revenue Sales and Use Tax Frequently Asked Questions | Telluride, Colorado Municipal Code: Chapter 4, Revenue and Finance | State of Delaware, Delaware Code Online: State Taxes, Commodity Taxes | IRS Publication 530, Tax Information for Homeowners (2019) | IRS Publication 523, Selling Your Home (2019) | IRS Form 8396, Mortgage Interest Credit (2019) | Washington State Department of Revenue, Property tax exemptions and deferrals | Georgia Department of Revenue, Property Tax Homestead Exemptions

Christina Taylor is senior manager of tax operations for Credit Karma. She has more than a dozen years of experience in tax, accounting and business operations. Christina founded her own accounting consultancy and managed it for more than six years. She co-developed an online DIY tax-preparation product, serving as chief operating officer for seven years. She is the current treasurer of the National Association of Computerized Tax Processors and holds a bachelor’s in business administration/accounting from Baker College and an MBA from Meredith College. You can find her on LinkedIn.

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