From Spotlight: Get Ready for Tax Filing–the Easy Way

Can I Claim The Mortgage Interest Deduction?

Details can be tricky. Double-check yourself with these tax rules affecting homeowners.

Connect-the-dots of a house with a red pen lying on top
Image: Ikon Images/Offset

Note: In light of COVID-19 crisis, the IRS has extended the income tax payment and filing deadline for individual and business returns from April 15, 2021, until May 17, 2021. This relief does not apply to estimated tax payments for tax year 2021 that are due on April 15, 2021. You don’t need to file additional forms to qualify for this extension.

Like most homeowners over the past couple of years, you may have discovered that you can no longer write off your property taxes or claim the mortgage interest deduction.

That doesn’t necessarily mean your taxes went up. The change is because the standard deduction nearly doubled starting in 2018, negating many homeowners’ need to itemize their home-related expenses. Here's a roundup of the rules affecting homeowners.

Related: Are Closing Costs Tax Deductible?

Standard Deduction

The standard deduction is the amount everyone gets to claim whether they have actual deductions or not. It skyrocketed after the 2017 tax law changes, and has gone up again, incrementally, for tax year 2020. It's now $24,800 for married, joint-filing couples (up from $24,000 in tax year 2018). It's $18,650 for heads of household (up from $18,000). And $12,400 for singles (up from $12,000).

Many more people now find the standard deduction is higher than their itemizable write-offs. In fact, the proportion of homeowners who now find it advantageous to itemize their deductions (including mortgage interest and property taxes) under the new rules has fallen from about one in three to around one in 10. 

"This doesn't necessarily mean that those who no longer itemize will pay more taxes," says Evan Liddiard, a CPA and director of federal tax policy for the National Association of REALTORS® in Washington, D.C. "It just means that they'll no longer get a tax incentive for buying or owning a home."

So are you still itemizing, or are you now in standard deduction land? This calculator can give you an estimate.

If the answer is standard deduction, you'll find that your tax forms are slightly simpler when you don't itemize, says Liddiard. But the trade-off is that our tax system no longer gives most homeowners a tax advantage over those who rent. Find instructions for IRS Form 1040 here.

Personal Exemption

The increase in the standard deduction for homeowners and nonhomeowners also has another downside: There's no longer a personal exemption. You can no longer exempt from your income $4,150 for each member of your household. And that might temper the benefit of a higher standard deduction, depending on your particular situation. 

For example, single filers and married couples without children might still come out ahead. This is because their increase in the standard deduction is more than the amount lost by the personal exemption repeal.  

However, families with two or more dependent children over age 16 are likely to come out losers from the loss of the personal exemption. This is because the loss of the personal exemption is greater than the extra amount included in the increased standard deduction.

Families with children under age 17 received an additional $1,000 in child credits, which, depending on their tax bracket, is more valuable than the loss of the personal exemption.

The takeaway: Your household composition will probably affect whether you gained or lost under the 2017 tax law.

Mortgage Interest Deduction

The tax law caps the mortgage interest you can write off at loan amounts of no more than $750,000. However, if your loan was in place by Dec. 15, 2017, the loan is grandfathered, and the old $1 million maximum amount still applies. Since most people don't have a mortgage larger than $750,000, they won't be affected by the limit.

But if you live in a pricey place (like San Francisco, where the median housing price is well over a million bucks), or you just have a seriously expensive house, federal tax laws may mean you're not going to be able to write off interest paid on debt over the $750,000 cap.

State and Local Tax Deduction

The state and local taxes (SALT in CPA lingo) you pay — including income (or sales in states without a state income tax), and property taxes — are itemizable write-offs. But, the tax rules say you can't deduct more than $10,000 for all your state and local taxes combined, whether you're single or married. (It's $5,000 per person if you're married but filing separately.)

The SALT cap is bad news for people in areas with high taxes. The majority of homeowners in around 20 states have been writing off more than $10,000 in SALT each year, so many will lose some of this deduction. "This is going to hurt people in high-tax areas like New York and California," says Lisa Greene-Lewis, CPA and expert for TurboTax in California. Typical New Yorkers, for example, were taking SALT deductions around $22,000 a household.

Rental Property Deduction

If you're a landlord, there are no limits on the amount of mortgage debt interest or state and local taxes you can write off for rental property. And you can write off operating expenses, like insurance, lawn care, and utilities on Schedule E.

Home Equity Loans

You can still write off the interest on a home equity or second mortgage loan (if you itemize). But you may do so only if you used the proceeds to substantially better your home and only if the total, combined with your first mortgage and any mortgages on a second home, doesn't go over the $750,000 cap ($1 million for loans in existence by Dec. 15, 2017). If you used the equity loan to pay medical expenses, take a cruise, or anything other than major home improvements, that interest isn’t tax deductible.

Here's a big FYI: If you took out an equity loan before the 2017 tax changes and used it to, say, pay your child's college tuition, you can no longer write off that interest. 

Mortgage Debt Forgiveness and Mortgage Insurance Premiums

Two deductions that have come and gone a number of times have been enacted yet again.

If you sold your primary residence short and had part of your mortgage debt forgiven by the lender, you don’t have to pay tax on the amount of debt discharged, at least through the end of 2025.

Also back through tax year 2021 is the deduction for private mortgage insurance. Keep in mind, however, that it’s only relevant to itemizers making not more than $109,000 per year.

4 Tax Tips for Homeowners

If the mortgage interest deduction and others elude you, these strategies might help reduce your tax obligation.

1. Single people may get more tax benefits from buying a house, Liddiard says. "They can often reach [and potentially exceed] the standard deduction more quickly than can married couples. This is because a house for one is not half the price of a house for two." You can check how much you're likely to owe or get back under the new law on this tax calculator.

2. Student loan debt is deductible, up to $2,500 if you're repaying, whether you itemize or not.

3. Charitable deductions and some medical expenses are itemizable. If you're generous or have had a big year for medical bills, these, added to your mortgage interest and state and local taxes, may be enough to bump you over the standard deduction hump and into the write-off zone.

4. If your mortgage is over the $750,000 cappay it down faster so you don't eat the nondeductible interest. You can add a little to the principal each month, or make a 13th payment each year.

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Leanne Potts

Leanne Potts is an Atlanta-based journalist and serial home remodeler. She's tackled five fixer-uppers and is working on a sixth. She's written about everything from forest fires to dog-friendly decor and spent a decade leading the digital staff of HGTV.