The GOP tax overhaul, if it becomes law, would reduce itemized mortgage-tax benefits for new owners of expensive homes — like the typical house selling today in Seattle or the Eastside.
Aspiring homeowners in the Seattle region, dealing with the hottest housing market in the country, would be hit especially hard by the new GOP tax plan unveiled Thursday.
The proposal would cap the federal mortgage-interest deduction at $500,000 for new-home purchases, down from the limit of $1 million. Basically, new homeowners would only be able to deduct the interest on the first $500,000 of their mortgage.
This won’t impact most Americans because they don’t own homes that expensive. But it’s a big deal locally, where the median single-family house selling today is worth $725,000 in Seattle and $855,000 on the Eastside.
Even with a regular down payment, lots of buyers here take out a mortgage that’s over half-a-million dollars, and they would lose out on some of their itemized tax benefits if the Republican tax plan passes.
The change wouldn’t apply to current mortgages — only new sales going forward. And it wouldn’t impact anyone who takes the standard deduction, which would nearly double under the tax plan, because the mortgage-interest break is only used by people who itemize their deductions.
But the potential impact going forward — combined with proposed limits on two other tax breaks, for home flippers and mansion owners — looks large.
So far this year, 30 percent of all sold homes and refinances in King County used mortgages above $500,000, according to Attom Data Solutions, which tracks home data nationwide. Looking at single-family houses, 36 percent of new mortgages this year were above half-a-million dollars. Those rates are likely to rise in future years as home prices here go up faster than anywhere in the country.
In all, more than 11,000 King County homebuyers so far this year took out a mortgage over $500,000, including 4,500 in Seattle, 1,090 in Bellevue, 760 in Kirkland, 660 in Redmond and 560 in Issaquah, according to Attom. Most of those are single-family houses, but also about 1,200 condos in Seattle, mostly downtown.
Homes with mortgages over $500,000 made up half of new sales this year in Sammamish, 35 percent in Bellevue, Redmond and Issaquah, and 29 percent in Seattle. On the other end, less than 5 percent of new mortgages this year topped half a million dollars in Tukwila, SeaTac, Kent and Des Moines.
The savings from the tax break can add up. Across the Seattle metro area, the typical homeowner who used the deduction claimed $11,540 last year, the 16th-most of any region in the country, and the 4th-highest outside California, according to LendingTree. About 29 percent of all filers here claim the deduction, also among the highest in the nation.
There are two other possible impacts from the tax plan that would serve to make housing more unaffordable, said Windermere chief economist Matthew Gardner.
First, homeowners could be less likely to sell, preferring instead to benefit from their grandfathered tax credit on their current home. That would starve a market of homes for sale at a time when inventory is at record lows.
Second, interested buyers might rush to purchase to be eligible for the tax credit before the plan could pass, increasing demand during what is typically a slow time of year.
“The longer-term effects could be substantial,” he said.
He noted that homebuilders and other special-interest groups have or are likely to come out against the plan, and called the proposal a “first stab at a remarkably complex issue.”
Gardner said he wouldn’t bet on it passing by the end of the year.
The changes would impact people the most in the early years after they buy, since mortgage payments initially are mostly interest, which is what the tax break is used for.
There is a certain irony to the change, as well. Seattle has long been called one of the most regressive city in the country for taxes, largely because there is no state income tax and the high local sales tax disproportionately impacts the poor. In Seattle, lower-income people pay a higher share of their income toward taxes than the rich do.
But the changes to the mortgage-interest deduction, on its own, would make the homeowner tax code more progressive on a national scale — taking away benefits from wealthier taxpayers without directly harming the poor — even though it disproportionately hurts people in pricey markets like Seattle.
The mortgage-interest deduction makes it easier for middle-class people to own homes, but in reality, most of its benefits go to the rich, since they own bigger, pricier homes with higher mortgages.
Of the $70 billion in total annual benefits generated by the mortgage-interest deduction, the richest 20 percent of Americans take 73 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The poorest Americans — who can’t afford to buy a house — get nothing. Limiting the benefit’s cap, on its own, would harm only people who can afford pricey homes.
Looking more broadly, however, the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a critic of the mortgage interest deduction, called the overall tax proposal a “non-starter.” That’s because the potential savings generated from capping the mortgage deduction would be used to balance out other tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations under the broader proposal.
Two other elements of the tax overhaul could cost local homeowners as well.
The proposal would also limit capital-gains-tax breaks on home sales. Currently, homeowners can generally exclude from gross income up to $500,000 profit on a home sale if they’ve used the house as a principal residence for two out of the previous five years. The GOP proposal would change that so the exemption would be applied only if people lived in the home as their primary residence for five out of the prior eight years. And they’d be able to use the exemption only once every five years, targeting speculators and home flippers.
What’s more, the plan would cap property-tax deductions at $10,000. Most locals wouldn’t be affected. The average homeowner in King County pays about $5,600 in property taxes; even on expensive Mercer Island, the typical tax bill is $8,800. But some owners of large homes have bills that top $10,000; in Medina, the typical homeowner pays $15,200 a year in property taxes, and on Hunts Point, where the typical home value tops $3 million, homeowners pay $22,300 in property taxes.