Foreclosures and Short-Sales – Part IV – Primary Residence

Originally published in the Pacific Grove Hometown Bulletin

August 3, 2011

The last three issues I went over the basic concepts of foreclosures and short-sales, an overview of ways to exclude the resulting taxable income, and the effects of recourse/nonrecourse debt. If you missed these articles they are re-published on my website at www.tlongcpa.com/blog. This issue I will specifically discuss the exclusion available to people losing a principal residence.

Due to the tsunami of defaults anticipated when the markets began to fall in late 2007, Congress enacted the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act  on December 20, 2007 which resulted in an additional exclusion in IRS Code Section 108 trying to help people going through short-sales, foreclosures, or mortgage reductions on a principal residence. There is a lot of incomplete and incorrect tax advice that floats around regarding this exclusion – not only from water-cooler talk and media blurbs, but from ill-trained tax preparers as well.

As discussed in my previous articles, cancelled debt on recourse loans is taxable income to you. The Qualified Principal Residence Indebtedness exclusion allows you to exclude the resulting income if the home was your principal residence (you can only have one and it is determined by facts and circumstances) subject to limitations. One of the common oversights is not understanding that only “qualified” debt is eligible for the exclusion. Generally speaking, this is the original debt to purchase or construct the property as well as debt subsequently obtained to improve the property (such as additions or remodels). If you refinanced your home to get cash out, and used the money for a new car, vacations, for a down payment on another home or rental property, education, to pay down other debts, or to pay your living expenses or even the mortgage on your home, or anything else – none of this is qualified for the exclusion. Yikes! In addition there are different Federal and California limits for how much qualified debt you can exclude. Any amount you cannot exclude will be taxable as ordinary income to you unless you can qualify for another exclusion.

Any amount you can exclude reduces your cost basis in the home. When the home is sold or the bank forecloses, you also have to calculate your gain or loss on the disposition. If you bought the home shortly before prices fell significantly, chances are that even with the basis reduction, the sales price will be less than your cost basis resulting in a nondeductible personal loss. (In a foreclosure the “sales price” is the fair market value of the home when foreclosed.) In cases where the calculation results in a gain, you may be able to exclude the gain, or part of the gain per Section 121, if you lived in the home for two out of the last five years.

If your loan was nonrecourse, you do not have cancellation of debt income, but you still have to calculate the gain/loss on disposition. Unfortunately, the “sales price” in these cases is the amount of debt outstanding when the home was disposed – and not the low, actual sales price (or fair market value if foreclosed). This can create taxable gains, but Section 121 may help you here as well.

This is just a summary. There are many other circumstances and specific rules that could affect you, and you need to consult with a qualified professional to review your situation. Consult as soon as you can foresee the possibility of losing a home in order to plan the most tax efficient way to lose it.

If this exclusion does not help you completely, you may be eligible for the insolvency exclusion – next issue’s topic!

IRS Circular 230 Notice: To the extent this article concerns tax matters, it is not intended to be used and cannot be used by a taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed by law.

Travis H. Long, CPA is located at 706-B Forest Avenue, Pacific Grove, CA, 93950. He can be reached at 831-333-1041.

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