$8,000 home credit still in play

Negotiations about whether and how to extend and expand the tax credit for homebuyers are moving quickly. Here are the latest developments.

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By Jeanne Sahadi, CNNMoney.com senior writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Confused about whether lawmakers will extend the $8,000 first-time homebuyer credit and what it would look like?

That's understandable, since the situation is still very fluid.

Here's where things stand.

Support for the credit: There is still bipartisan support in Congress for extending the credit past Nov. 30 and making it available to more homebuyers.

The Obama administration wants the credit extended for a "limited period," Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan said Thursday. They did not elaborate.

What's on the table now: There appears to be a compromise deal that falls between the most and least generous proposals that have been put forth so far.

"There is bipartisan compromise to extend the credit through spring and expand it to existing homeowners who are stepping up to a different home," financial policy analyst Jaret Seiberg wrote in a research note for Concept Capital's Research Group.

The latest idea under discussion is a credit worth up to $8,000 for first-time homebuyers and up to $6,500 for homeowners looking to trade up to a bigger primary residence and who have already lived in their current home for five years. (CNN: Senate compromise may be in the works.)

To qualify for the full credit, however, homebuyers must have adjusted gross income of less than $125,000 ($225,000 for married couples filing jointly).

In addition, the credit would only apply to homes sold for $800,000 or less. Contracts to buy a home must be signed by April 30, 2010, and the deals must close by June 30 in order for a buyer to qualify for the credit.

Rationale for extending the credit: Supporters of the credit say it has helped to boost existing home sales in recent months. Extending the credit would help further support sales, stabilize housing prices and generate jobs in the face of an expected rise in foreclosures next year, which is expected to put downward pressure on prices.

If the credit is allowed to expire, they say, the housing market and the broader economy will grow moribund again.

"The most fundamental argument for the credit is that nothing works in the economy if housing is falling -- it hurts household wealth and credit becomes tight," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com. "[The credit] is a good insurance policy. It's vital to stem the housing price declines."

What critics say: Though extending the credit has bipartisan support, it is not without its critics.

Critics, while acknowledging that the credit has helped to generate additional home sales, say it has been poorly targeted and therefore not cost-effective.

They point to estimates that only 10% to 20% of the nearly 2 million homebuyers who will have gotten the credit by Nov. 30 bought solely because of the tax break.

In other words, a large majority of homebuyers who benefited from the credit would have bought their homes without it.

By one economist's estimate, the government may have spent $43,000 for each sale that occurred strictly because of the credit.

In a position paper published this week, the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said making the credit available to existing homeowners would not help stabilize housing prices or reduce inventory.

"When [they] purchase a new home, they simultaneously put their current home up for sale. As a result, there is no net effect on supply or demand in the housing market."

Timing on a vote: An amendment to extend and expand the credit could be attached to a bill that would extend unemployment benefits and which could pass the Senate by next week.

However, there's a chance the housing credit will be dealt with separately.

The credit could be attached to another piece of legislation or put in a standalone bill with other proposals to extend tax breaks.

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