As we mark the one-year anniversary of the financial meltdown's most gut-churning period—Uncle Sam's takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the downfall of Lehman Brothers, the hasty sale of Merrill Lynch—signs of optimism in the housing market are everywhere. Existing home sales rose in July for the fourth time in as many months, something the market hasn't seen since 2004. Inventory totals are off their record levels of a year ago. And prices, while still declining sharply, are no longer in free fall. However, the looming expiration of a popular federal tax credit has some worried that the housing market may give back its recent gains, and the real estate and home building industries are pushing lawmakers to extend the incentive. Here's a look at the impact of the $8,000 first-time home buyer tax credit, and the political outlook for its extension:
[Check out 15 Great Underpriced College Towns.]
1. The specs: In an effort to stimulate housing demand, President Barack Obama included a tax credit of up to $8,000 for certain first-time home buyers in the $787 billion economic stimulus package he signed in February. Only buyers of principal residences who make purchases before December 1 and have an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or less (or $150,000 for married couples) are eligible for the full credit. "The thinking about this tax credit is that it helps to support sales when the job market is still a mess," says Mark Zandi, the chief economist of Moody's Economy.com.
2. Impact: The tax credit is one of a number of factors that have worked to bolster the housing market in recent months. Even more important than the government's incentive has been the increasing affordability of real estate, says Mike Larson of Weiss Research. Rates on 30-year fixed mortgages fell to just above 5 percent this week, according to Freddie Mac. Meanwhile, home prices at the national level have plummeted more than 30 percent from the second quarter of 2006. The first-time home buyer tax credit "is the icing on the cake, not the cake itself," Larson says. "Falling home prices have worked their magic. That's why we are where we are." Still, Larson believes that the tax credit has played a key psychological role in pushing buyers off the sidelines and that its expiration would take some of the wind out of the market's sales. For his part, Zandi estimates that the credit will add nearly 400,000 new and existing home sales by the time of its scheduled expiration.
3. Extension efforts: Although the credit's deadline isn't until the end of November, buyers may need to make an offer on a house by the end of September to take advantage of it, according to the National Association of Realtors. (That's because it's taking longer to complete transactions these days, the trade group says.) In the face of this looming deadline, housing and real estate interest groups have stepped up their efforts to convince lawmakers in Washington to extend the credit. Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican who worked in the real estate business before turning to politics, has been pushing for an expansion of the credit for some time. "December through February is historically the worst time for home sales anyway because of the winter months, so with the credit ending November 30, you have a double whammy" on the market, Isakson says. On Wednesday, he and several other lawmakers—including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat—introduced a bill that would extend the tax credit for an additional six months. (Isakson had previously introduced legislation to extend the credit by a year.)
4. Opposition: Supporters of an extension of the credit will have to overcome mounting concerns about budget deficits and rising government spending. "There is no doubt about it that, compared to when we were working on this last winter, people are asking questions about the cost, when before it was not as much of a factor," says Jerry Howard, the president of the National Association of Home Builders. Zandi estimates that it would cost between $15 billion and $17 billion to extend the tax credit for another six months, which he considers money well spent. "If you extended it to mid next year . . . by then the job market will be stable enough that we can allow the tax credit to expire and it won't totally submarine the housing market," he says.
5. Odds: Senator Isakson believes lawmakers will eventually move to extend the credit in one form or another. "I don't believe either this administration or the current leadership would look November 30 in the eye and let this thing die," he says. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said this week that the administration is evaluating the credit's impact and will make a recommendation to the president, the Associated Press reported. The outlook for an extension appears to have brightened. Scott Talbott, a top lobbyist at the Financial Services Roundtable, put the odds of its extension at 50-50 earlier this week, but he said that the chances improved to 75-25 after Reid endorsed the six-month extension. Still, as lawmakers remain consumed with other matters, such as healthcare reform, action on the tax credit is unlikely to take place until the expiration date nears, Talbott says. "Congress works best on deadlines and crisis," he says. "And we sort of will have both with this one."