Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Gimme shelter ... and maybe tax credits up front?

Auto industry forecasters are starting to sound almost giddy about cash for clunkers. Some predict that an estimated 16,000 sales in the few-days-old plan may push July's annual sales rates into 10-million unit territory.

Now some real estate executives are urging ramping up the current potential $8,000 tax credit so that first-time homebuyers can come up with more scratch for shelter. A $4,500 tax break on a median price $28,000 auto works out to a 16 percent subsidy for car buyers. An $8,000 tax credit on a median $198,000 home only equals four percent.

Fair's fair, say proponents of expanding the credit. But raising it to even $15,000 might seem greedy, worries National Association of Realtors President Charles McMillan. They likely will talk amongst themselves for a while.

There is another approach to consider. First-time buyers in 14 states, including Missouri, but not Kansas, can use bridge loans from state housing commissions to collect the $8,000 credit now, in time to increase their down payments. Mechanically, it works like tax refund loans that consumer advocates gripe about.

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan said a couple months ago that his agency was exploring a national expansion of the program. Officials will be racing the calendar though. Depending on where you live, you may need to buy by mid-October to complete all the necessary paperwork in time to close before the Dec. 1 tax credit deadline.

I think that raises another question. Will HUD overhaul national lending rules for what effectively would be a 10-week or shorter lending window? Or will there be an expanded Scratch for Shelter plan to buy garage space for clunker replacements?

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