Tax credit, grants help homebuyers

Posted July 16, 2009, at 8:06 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Real estate agents say the combination of the federal tax credit for first-time homebuyers of up to $8,000 and additional state incentives has rekindled the Maine housing market.

“We have seen a big impact on first-time homebuyers,” said Linda Gifford of the Maine Association of Realtors. “It’s both the federal tax credit and the incentive the [Maine State] Housing Authority has put together that has really increased activity.”

She said agents from across the state are also crediting “historically low” interest rates for improving the market. She said the incentives came at the right time with spring and summer the most popular times to buy and sell homes in Maine.

The federal recovery act created a tax credit of up to $8,000 for first-time homebuyers.

The Maine State Housing program provides a grant to a first-time buyer of up to $5,000. The program and the federal tax credit have spurred a sharp increase in loans at the agency. In May, Maine State Housing processed just six loans. In June that rose to 77, and so far in July, 80 loans are in the pipeline.

But Gifford said it would take awhile to evaluate if the first-time buyer incentives are enough to stimulate the overall housing market in the state.

“We lobbied hard at the federal level with the National Association of Realtors to have this an all-buyer tax credit,” she said. “Certainly it would help even more to have the sellers eligible for a credit to buy their new home as well as the first-time buyer.”

Modifying the credit is an issue under discussion in Congress. Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, said spurring the housing market is something the panel should consider.

“We should help people to take advantage of those opportunities because that activity creates more confidence in the economy,” she said. “We will have to look at what works.”

Snowe said the existing homebuyer tax credit, or a modified measure that extends to all homebuyers, is an area that lawmakers may want to consider if there is evidence the current tax credit is helping to stimulate economic activity.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said there are measures pending in the House to extend that program and to modify the credit to include all homebuyers with some income limitations.

“I think without taking it all the way out to luxury home buyers, which there is some concern about, making sure we expand that pool of buyers would be very good for Maine,” she said.

Pingree said any additional stimulus measure, including an expansion of the homebuyer tax credit, will face tough scrutiny because of its cost. She said there likely would be a major debate with dueling economists over its effectiveness when the bills are considered in committee or on the floor.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the tax credit was designed to be of limited duration, and she is worried its impact as a stimulus could be reduced if it were extended. But she said the housing sector is critical to the economy.

“In order for our economy to improve, our nation’s housing market must continue to recover,” she said.

Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud said as Congress considers what further steps may be needed to help the economy recover, the homebuyer tax credit should be considered.

“The first-time homebuyer tax credit has helped a lot of people realize their dream of home ownership,” he said. “The tax credit has also helped the housing market stabilize.”

While several measures concerning the housing tax credit are pending before Congress, none has yet made it to the floor.

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