President Trump’s tax cuts encouraged homeowners to stop deducting mortgage interest on their taxes, and there is no sign that the change has lowered house prices.
PLAINFIELD, Ill. – The mortgage interest deduction, a beloved tax benefit that was closely linked to the American dream of home ownership, once seemed politically invincible. Then it almost disappeared in middle class neighborhoods throughout the country and it seemed that almost no one noticed it.
In places such as Plainfield, a southwestern outpost in the area known locally as Chicagoland, the housing market is buzzing. The people who sell and buy houses don’t seem to care that President Trump’s characteristic tax reform has effectively, though indirectly, evaporated a long-term source of government support for homeowners and house prices.
The 2017 law nearly doubled the standard deduction – to $ 24,000 for a couple applying together – on federal income taxes, giving millions of households an incentive to stop claiming specified deductions.
As a result, far fewer families – and in particular far fewer middle-class families – claim the specified deduction for mortgage interest. In 2018, approximately one in five taxpayers claimed the deduction, according to statistics from Internal Revenue Service. This year, that number dropped to less than one in 10. For families earning less than $ 100,000, the decline was even stronger.
The benefit, as it remains, is largely for high earners, and more limited than it ever was: the 2017 law limited the maximum value of new mortgage debt that was eligible for the $ 750,000 deduction, a decrease of $ 1 million. There has been no audible public protest, which has led some people in Washington to completely scrap the tax break.
If the fall in the deduction would cause some commotion, it would be in cities like Plainfield, where the typical family earns around $ 100,000 a year and the typical home sells for around $ 300,000. But home professionals, home buyers and sellers – and detailed statistics on the housing market – show no signs that the decline in tax benefit use weighs on prices or activity.
“From the perspective of selling and trying to buy, I don’t see any evidence of that,” said Paul Forsythe, who provides physical education and coaches football at a high school.
Mr. Forsythe and his wife, Kylie, sell their four-bedroom and two-bathroom home on a quarter-hectare site in one of Plainfield’s older developments, which dates back to 1997. They move with their two daughters to a nearby suburb, closer to the schools where they work. They have had homes due to the ups and downs of the local housing market, which boomed in the early 2000s and crashed in the midst of the financial crisis.
“Right now,” said Mrs. Forsythe, a fourth grade teacher, “people are excited that the market is finally good again.”
Such responses challenge a lengthy American political consensus. For decades, the deduction of mortgage interest has been promoted alternately as a pivot in supporting home ownership (by the real estate sector) and is being scorned as a symbol of the fiscal policy that has gone wrong (by economists). What almost everyone agreed was that it was politically unassailable.
Nearly 30 million taxpayers in 2018 depreciated a collective mortgage interest of $ 273 billion. Withdrawal of the deduction, assumed the conventional wisdom, would in fact mean that taxes are levied on millions of middle-class families scattered throughout every convention district. And when someone was tempted to try it, an army of real estate agents, homebuilders and developers – and their lobbyists – were ready to rush to the defense of the deduction.
Now critics of the deduction feel encouraged.
“The rejoinder was always,” Oh, but you would never be able to get rid of the mortgage interest deduction, “but I certainly would never say,” said William G. Gale, an economist at the Brookings Institution and a former adviser from President George HW Struik. “This used to be a middle class civil birthright or something like that, but it’s hard to say that when only 8 percent of households make the deduction.”
Gale, like most left and right economists, has long claimed that the mortgage interest deduction was contrary to any good policy rule. It was regressive and benefited rich families – who own a house more often and have larger mortgages – more than poorer ones. It disturbed the housing market and encouraged Americans to buy the largest possible house to get maximum benefit from the deduction. Studies have repeatedly found that the deduction has actually reduced property rates by raising house prices, making homes less affordable for starters.
But the real estate sector said that scrapping the deduction could undermine the value of what most American households have as their most important asset. In the 2017 tax legislation debate, the industry warned that the legislation could lead to house prices falling by 10 percent or more in some parts of the country.
Price growth has cooled in many markets, including New York and Seattle, but not nearly as much as the most alarming estimates suggested, and not in a pattern that suggests that the deduction loss was a primary factor. For example, places where a large proportion of middle class taxpayers deducted mortgage interest rates have not seen a meaningful difference in price increases in less affected areas, according to a New York Times analysis of data from the Zillow real estate site.
Skylar Olsen, an economist at Zillow, said the slowdown in the housing market probably had little to do with tax legislation. House prices have risen much faster than wages in recent years, creating a affordability crisis in many cities that probably made slower price growth inevitable.
“Housing markets were burning so hot at an untenable rate and they had to come down,” Mrs. Olsen said.
Tax legislation may have had a different effect: state and local tax deductions were limited to $ 10,000, which had a particularly large effect in coastal cities and other places where property taxes and property values are both high. Those places did see a slowdown in house price growth after the law came into force, although it is not clear whether the two were connected.
The national real estate sector states that the two tax changes together played a role in weakening the housing market.
“It is clear that the housing market is underperforming in terms of economic fundamentals of job growth, wage growth and mortgage interest,” said Lawrence Yun, chief economist of the National Association of Realtors.
Economists like Mr Yun and Mrs Olsen are likely to discuss the impact of the law for years. It is possible, and even probable, that advanced analysis will ultimately conclude that limiting mortgage interest relief has led to somewhat slower price growth.
But for most home buyers and sellers, those subtle effects will be washed away by forces that have a much greater impact: changes in mortgage rates, construction costs and supply and demand trends that vary from city to city and from neighborhood to neighborhood.
Tax legislation has also reversed the mortgage interest deduction in a way that minimized the chance that taxpayers would not notice it. The congress did not take away the tax benefit; it simply changed the law in a way that would benefit fewer people – and buried the change in a much broader revision of tax legislation.
But although the Washington think tanks are planning the demise of the deduction, the real estate sector still hopes to restore it in one form or another. Mr. Yun of the National Association for Realtors said that as the housing market weakened, pressure for Congress would increase to restore some of the tax benefits that homeowners have historically enjoyed, although not necessarily in the same form.
For the time being, real estate agents and developers do not see that the erosion of the mortgage deduction plays a major role.
The Plainfield housing market has been shaped by abrupt changes in the last 30 years. In 1990 a tornado leveled parts of the city, killing more than two dozen people and forcing a massive reconstruction. At the start of the millennium, the city had fewer than 10,000 inhabitants. It has quadrupled since then, with more growth ahead.
During the home madness of the mid-2000s, developers developed cornfields and turf companies to make way for dead ends. When the crisis struck, activity in many of the new subdivisions froze, said Ellen Williams, a broker at Coldwell Banker in Plainfield, who has been selling homes in the area for nearly two decades. Only in recent years has construction started seriously again.
Mrs. Williams helped the Forsythes to buy their home a few years ago, when the home crash still weighed on the market and the couple were submerged in a mansion that had become too small for their growing family. They rent the mansion now, which means they still specify their deductions, including for mortgage interest. They said the deduction did not play a role in selling their house this summer or when buying a new one.
Mrs. Williams said this was the case throughout the market. “I don’t know if it has been a big enough change,” she said. “People are more concerned about Illinois taxes.”
In the zip code of the Forsythes, house prices are 2 percent higher than last year, according to data from the online real estate agent Redfin. Homes are selling fast, Mrs. Williams said, giving a brief tour of a recently listed four-bedroom home and backed up to a pond in a nearby community. The hardwood floors were well maintained, the kitchen hardware dated back to the mid-1990s and the house was listed for $ 267,000.
“There is not much available in this subdivision,” Mrs. Williams said, “so I expect it will sell soon.”