Foreclosed? The tax man may want his cut

By Les Christie, staff writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Did you lose your house to foreclosure this year? Did your lender forgive some of your mortgage debt because the house sold for less than it the mortgage balance?

If so, you could be facing a big tax hit.

It is IRS policy to tax forgiven debt you are personally responsible for as if it is income. Say, for example, your credit card company settled a $10,000 debt for 50 cents on the dollar. You'd have a debt forgiveness of $5,000, which the IRS would count just like your wages.

The same policy held true for most mortgage debt until 2007, when Congress passed the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act. That ended the liability for many homeowners -- but not all.

In general, if you lose your home to foreclosure or short sale, where you sell your home for less than you owe, the IRS won't add insult to injury by counting the difference as income, at least until 2012, when the act expires.

There are four major exceptions to the rule:

1. You did a cash-out refinance and splurged.

Many homeowners took cash out when they refinanced their homes and used the extra dough to pay for new cars, boats, vacations or other spending.

Say you did that and then got into trouble, losing the house through a foreclosure or short sale. Even if your lender waived the remaining debt, the IRS will treat as income the portion of the forgiven debt that you took out as cash and spent.

Only the funds used to actually improve your home won't be taxed (plus the costs of refinancing the loan). Yes, even if you spent the money on paying off your student loans or credit cards.

The IRS' reasoning is that only the money spent on home improvement actually added to your home's value. And that, presumably, diminished the difference between what you owed on your mortgage and the value of your home when it was foreclosed.

Beware: Some lenders made refinancing offers contingent on homeowners paying off credit card debt, according to Kent Anderson, a Eugene, Ore.-based attorney and tax expert. If you took one of those deals, the refinance money will be reported to the IRS and you will owe taxes on it.

2. You have a home-equity line of credit.

The same rules that apply to refinancings also apply to home-equity loans: The IRS will only forgive the tax liability if the loan money was spent on home improvements. And, tax experts advise, be prepared to show receipts to prove it.

3. You lost your vacation home or investment property.

So the market tanked and you lost your vacation home. Unfortunately, if you didn't use it as your primary residence for at least two of the previous five years, you're going to pay the tax man.

More common, however, may be the case of investment properties gone sour. During the housing boom, buying homes for investment purposes soared, accounting for 28% of all sales during 2005, according to the National Association of Realtors. (Vacation homes made up 12%.) And many of these purchases were made with little down payment.

When the bust hit, second home prices cratered. The median price for investment properties fell nearly in half to $94,000 by 2010, according to NAR. For vacation homes, the median price paid dropped 26% to $150,000.

If an investor bought a property in 2005 at the median price and sold it in 2010, she could have run up almost $90,000 in forgiven debt. If she's in the 25% tax bracket, that would add more than $22,000 to her tax liability. Ouch!

4. You owned a multi-million-dollar home.

It may be hard for Americans struggling in this weak economy to sympathize with anyone wealthy enough, at one time, to afford a multi-million-dollar home, but owners losing one could be on the hook for a huge tax bill.

Only the first $2 million in forgiven debt will be voided under the relief act; all the overage is taxable as income.

So, say, for example, you're ex-ballpayer and self-styled stock-picker Lenny Dykstra and paid $18.5 million to Wayne Gretzky for a mansion in Thousand Oaks, Calif. When you defaulted on the loan in 2009 and the house was auctioned in 2010 for $10.5 million, you could be on the hook for $6.5 million of the $8.5 million in forgiven debt.

Other ways out

The good news? Even if you fall under any of these four scenarios, you may have a way out, according to Anderson. "If the taxpayer was insolvent at the time of the foreclosure, the forgiven debt can be excluded for tax purposes," he said. "It can also be discharged in a bankruptcy and approved by court order."

People like Dykstra could elude taxes because California is a "non-recourse" state. Lenders there accept homes as the collateral for the debt and when a bank forecloses, the loan is regarded as paid in full. Since there's no debt to forgive there's no taxable income.

It's not always that simple, though. Many homeowners in California and other non-recourse states have refinanced their mortgages and refis are, as a rule, recourse loans, according to attorney Bill Purdy in Santa Cruz,. "A refi destroys your non-recourse status," he said. If a big debt is forgiven, borrowers may owe taxes.

Purdy also explained that banks often file 1099 forms with the IRS that mistakenly list debt forgiveness when there was none.

"People need to regard the 1099s with suspicion," he said. "I've had clients in here who have been making payments to the IRS when they had non-recourse loans."

As long as the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act stays in effect, only borrowers for the most expensive properties in foreclosure will have to worry. After that, though, it may pay for any homeowner in foreclosure to be very aware of their tax exposure -- and plan accordingly. To top of page


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