There’s a new political party in charge in Washington, D.C., one that hopes to make some big changes in the U.S. economy, including tax reform. While the initial priorities of the Biden administration and Congress focus on mitigating the devastating impact of the pandemic, the new political dynamic could eventually create a shift in the luxury housing market.
“The luxury market has done very well in recent years thanks to low mortgage rates and to the performance of the stock market, which is influenced by politics,” said Danielle Hale, chief economist for realtor.com in Washington, D.C.
Political actions have both a direct and an indirect impact on the housing market.
“We’ve never been at a time when the political landscape has continued to seem so uncertain,” said Frederick Peters, CEO of Warburg Realty in New York City. “Politics has an effect on the stock market, which in turn has an effect on the luxury real estate market.”
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While most of the Biden administration’s initial housing policies focus on the affordable housing crisis, Marco Rufo, a partner with The Agency real estate brokerage in Los Angeles, said that the possible extension of the federal eviction moratorium beyond the current date of March 31 could have implications for the higher end of the housing market in the future.
“Most of our buyers are extremely wealthy and many of them own lots of property that they rent to tenants,” Mr. Rufo said. “If policies are put in place that reduce their ability to collect rent on multiple properties, that could have a negative impact on their net worth and willingness to upgrade into more expensive properties.”
Another political issue that’s already had a major effect on luxury housing markets is tax reform.
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Tax Reform and the Luxury Residential Market
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that went into effect in 2018 has several provisions, such as lower tax rates, a higher lifetime estate and gift tax limit, and a higher standard deduction that are set to expire at the end of 2025. Democrats are anticipated to address those expiring provisions and other tax issues eventually.
“Most of the tax reform ideas impact people with incomes above $400,000 and capital gains of more than $1 million, the demographic that matches our homebuyers,” Mr. Rufo said. “If everything was enacted, it probably wouldn’t mean that people won’t buy homes, but it could mean that they pause a little to consider their options.”
Some potential tax reforms include:
· Lifting SALT deduction limitations. The 2018 limitation on the deductibility of state and local taxes (SALT) to $10,000 was significant in markets like New York and California, said Mr. Peters, who anticipates a positive impact on those tax-heavy locales if that limit is lifted by Democratic tax reform efforts.
“It’s not just a matter of money and getting a larger tax deduction, it’s also the perception,” he said. “It would make people feel less anxious about buying in states with higher taxes.”
In the Washington, D.C. area, where the luxury market mostly centers on homes priced between $1.5 million and $2.5 million, the SALT deductibility cap slowed the pace of sales, reduced luxury listings and reduced home buyers’ budgets, said Jeff Detwiler, president and CEO of Long & Foster Real Estate in D.C.
“We saw $2 million homes sit on the market for a year or longer,” he said. “Now we have only a two-month supply of luxury homes because of migration trends and a frothy market in 2020. If the SALT cap is lifted, we’d see even more demand because those deductions directly impact the finances of our buyers.”
Migration trends after the SALT cap meant that more people left high-tax states to move to lower tax states like Florida and Texas.
“If your SALT deductions aren’t limited, then you can be agnostic over where you live,” said Melissa Cohn, executive mortgage banker with William Raveis Mortgage in New York City.
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· Higher income tax rates. Increasing income taxes always has a negative impact on the luxury market, Ms. Cohn said. However, she doesn’t expect tax rates to rise in the near future.
“The pandemic changed everything, and the focus now is on rebuilding the economy. So even if the Democrats want to raise taxes eventually, now is not the time,” she said.
An increase in tax rates for high earners probably won’t take buyers out of the market, said Mr. Detwiler, but it could reduce their price point by several hundred thousands dollars or more.
“The good news about tax reform that would cause wealthier people to pay more is that it would be a federal issue that people can’t escape by moving to Florida,” Mr. Peters said.
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· Higher capital gains tax rate. While home sellers can exclude up to $250,000 in profit if they’re single and up to $500,000 if they’re married from a capital gains tax on their primary residence, an increase in the long-term capital gains tax rate could still hurt the luxury housing market. Currently, the highest capital gains tax rate is 20%.
“If the capital gains tax rate is increased, that could have negative repercussions,” Ms. Cohn said. “People wouldn’t want to sell their homes, especially if they hoped the rates would roll back again in the future, and that would limit the supply of homes.”
Mr. Detwiler said he thinks a higher capital gains rate could have a bigger impact on the second-home market. Currently, the long-term capital gains tax rate depends on your income and is either 0%, 15% or 20%. Single taxpayers who earn $441,450 or more and married taxpayers who earn $496,600 pay the top rate.
“Sellers have to pay capital gains taxes on the profit of the sale of a home that’s not their primary residence,” Mr. Detwiler said “In addition, if people have to pay more taxes on other gains, that shrinks their portfolio and changes how much they’ll want to pay for a house.”
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· Elimination of 1031 Exchange option. A 1031 Exchange allows investors to swap one property for another and postpone paying capital gains tax on the sale until you sell the next property.
Without the 1031 Exchange, investors would have less money to put into their next deal, Ms. Cohn said.
“Getting rid of the 1031 Exchange would have a direct impact in our area because we have a lot of luxury rentals at $40,000 to $50,000 a month in Los Angeles,” Mr. Rufo said. “Owners of these properties would pull back from buying and selling them if they had to pay capital gains on the transaction, and that would have a direct impact on property values.”
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Broader Impact of Politics on the Housing Market
Real estate market performance is tied to the fundamentals of supply and demand, which can also be influenced by political policies, realtor.com’s Ms. Hale said. (Mansion Global is owned by Dow Jones. Both Dow Jones and realtor.com are owned by News Corp.)
“Demand is based on income and consumer confidence,” Ms. Hale said. “If wealthy households see their income go down due to a higher tax burden, it’s conceivable that their spending could decline and that would impact the housing market.”
However, a growing economy, especially one that drives stock gains, could mean after-tax incomes are higher for wealthy households, she said.
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“The way politics matters the most is how it makes people feel,” Mr. Peters said. “As real estate agents, we’re selling people a belief in their future. That’s a lot harder to do when people feel freaked out by the present. They’re less likely to take on large financial commitments when they’re concerned about the future.”
Personally, Mr. Peters is optimistic about the impact of the new power configuration for his market in New York.
“It’s not entirely irrelevant that the new Senate majority leader [Charles Schumer] is from New York,” he said.