Tired of paying rent and enticed by a first-time home buyer tax credit, 25-year-old Garrett Rebel began his search for a home in August, scouring the suburbs of Dallas for a house to meet his current and future needs. And he’s already running out of time.
The federal tax credit for first-time buyers is “a huge motivator” for Rebel, and he may end his search if the Nov. 30 deadline arrives and he still hasn’t closed on a deal. He unsuccessfully submitted an offer on one house; after going back and forth with the seller couldn’t come to a price agreeable to both parties. “I haven’t found anything that I’ve fallen in love with,” Rebel said.
Timing is everything for many first-time buyers today. For those who purchase a home this year, the tax credit is for 10% of the purchase price, up to $8,000. Those who have owned a home in the past three years aren’t eligible. Buyers also have to meet eligibility requirements regarding income; the current credit begins to phase out for singles who make more than $75,000 and couples who make more than $150,000.
Unless it is extended, this credit will expire on Nov. 30. “We are seeing an increase in buyers wanting to get closed prior to the tax credit closing deadline,” said real-estate agent Amy Downs, who represents Rebel. “We are seeing an increase in sellers wanting to get their homes on the market and closed by this deadline. I feel that if we can get the homes priced accordingly and a strong offer by mid-October, we can beat this deadline with a reputable lender working the buy side.”
Some real-estate agents and mortgage brokers are recommending that first-time buyers close no later than the week before Thanksgiving to ensure that no holiday-related office closings or abbreviated schedules interfere with the process. That means finalizing a purchase on or before Nov. 20. In fact, to make sure you can take advantage of the credit, it’s probably best to go under contract no later than the first or second week of October, said Jim Sahnger, mortgage planner with Palm Beach Financial Network in Florida.
The National Association of Realtors reports that it’s taking about two months to complete a home sale in the current market, as lenders scrutinize borrower paperwork and issues with appraisals pop up. In short, first-time buyers probably need to select a property and make an offer by the end of this month. But rushing to meet the deadline is a double-edged sword. The purchase of a home—let alone your first one—isn’t a decision that should be taken lightly.
“For anyone, the decision to buy a house has to be a right one,” Sahnger said. “While the $8,000 can be great to have, I wouldn’t let that force you into a decision. But there is something that works and you want to take advantage of the credit, you can’t afford to delay the decision.”
For buyers who don’t make the deadline, there is a chance the credit will be extended. There are at least 20 bills drafted regarding the credit; one-third of them have been introduced recently, said Lucien Salvant, managing director of public affairs for NAR. Some proposals would not only extend the first-time buyer credit into next year, but would also expand it to include all home buyers, remove income restrictions and raise the maximum amount of the credit, up to $15,000.
By including all buyers, there could be more of a ripple effect as more Americans spend money on moving vans, lawn equipment — any items or services associated with making a move, said Jerry Howard, president and CEO of the National Association of Home Builders. NAHB and NAR have been lobbying heavily for the extension. “The first priority is going to be to renew the $8,000 credit, but we have some good arguments for expanding it,” said Jerry Giovaniello, senior vice president and chief lobbyist for NAR. He argues that the credit doesn’t cost much but has a huge impact.
If you’re a first-time buyer, however, waiting is a gamble. “What you have in front of you now is a tax credit. After that, you don’t know what you have,” Salvant said. “This thing can go all different kinds of ways.”
NAR estimates that about 1.8 million to 2 million first-time buyers will take advantage of the tax credit this year, and says that roughly 350,000 sales wouldn’t have taken place without the credit.
But the effectiveness of the credit will eventually peter out because there are only so many potential first-time buyers, said Richard Green, director of the Lusk Center for Real Estate at the University of Southern California. He said that the credit is likely getting many first-time buyers to make their purchases six months to a year earlier than they would have anyway. “In terms of how effective it is, I don’t think it does any harm at this point. It’s pushing sales forward that would have happened anyway,” he said. “You’re giving money to people who were going to buy anyway.” Increasing the credit amount to $15,000 and expanding it to everyone, however, could end up translating to higher home prices, he added.
Still, there is growing Capitol Hill support for the extension of the credit. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said it needs to be extended by the end of the year, according to a spokesman from his office. And Washington Research Group, a unit of securities firm Concept Capital, recently put the chance of extension at 60 percent.
Yet with Congress currently focusing on other issues, and concerns about the country’s rising deficit, some wonder how difficult it will be for housing to garner attention anytime soon. “All eyes are on health care,” said Bruce Hahn, president of the American Homeowners Grassroots Alliance.
According to Realtor.com, first-time buyers on average search 12 weeks to find a home. But there are ways for buyers to expedite their journey to closing: Sign up for automatic alerts for properties that fit your criteria. Many buyers start their search online, and it’s possible to sign up for e-mail alerts when properties that meet your criteria are added, Realtor.com points out. If you’re working with a real estate agent, he or she also may be able to register you for automatic alerts when homes are listed. But make sure the information you receive is fresh — you don’t have time to look at unavailable homes.
Do all you can to ensure a smooth mortgage process. Collect pay stubs, bank statements and tax returns to prove income. Get prequalified. And while your loan is in process, don’t make major purchases on credit cards — that could delay closing, said Julie Reynolds, a spokeswoman for Realtor.com.
Prepare for closing costs early. Get your insurance company and, if applicable, your homeowner association, to forward a cost estimate to the escrow company early, Realtor.com recommended in a news release. In many states, closing costs must be paid — in cash — at closing.
(c) 2009, MarketWatch.com Inc.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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