As a follow-up to his $2.3 trillion infrastructure package, President Joe Biden has rolled out a $1.8 trillion plan to address other priorities including education and child care.
To pay for the plan, the White House has proposed increasing taxes on wealthy Americans, describing its tax reform package as one that “rewards work — not wealth.”
“The President’s tax agenda will not only reverse the biggest 2017 tax law giveaways, but reform the tax code so that the wealthy have to play by the same rules as everyone else,” the White House said in a fact sheet describing the American Families Plan. “Importantly, these reforms will also rein in the ways that the tax code widens racial disparities in income and wealth.”
The focus on wealthier Americans means that most households will not be directly affected by the proposed changes.
“Some have speculated that this will hit middle-class home sellers who sell a home in an expensive market and have more than $1 million of capital gains from real estate, but this is very rare,” said Taylor Marr, senior economist at real-estate brokerage Redfin
“Even in markets where home prices are over $1 million, most of that is still serviced by debt, not all equity.”
Nevertheless, some of the proposed changes to the tax code could have an impact on real estate. Here’s what homeowners and investors need to watch out for:
Which of Biden’s tax proposals could affect real-estate
Biden has proposed hiking the tax rate on capital gains for households making over $1 million. The White House proposes raising the rate to 39.6% for millionaires, up from 20% where it current stands for the country’s top earners.
Additionally, the Biden administration has called for ending the ability to “step up” the cost basis for real-estate when it is inherited. The stepping up allows heirs to calculate capital gains on the sale of a home or other property using the market value at the time they inherited it, rather than when it was originally purchased. Stepping-up the basis can reduce the tax burden for heirs considerably in these circumstances.
Finally, Biden is calling on Congress to eliminate a special tax break for real-estate investors, called a Section 1031 exchange. Under this tax break, if owners of investment and business properties use the proceeds of the sale of one property to purchase another property within 180 days, then they can forgo paying capital-gains and depreciation-recapture taxes. The Biden plan would eliminate the ability to do this when capital gains are greater than $500,000.
The capital-gains rate hike could be ‘a double-edged sword’
By design, the increase in the capital gains tax rate won’t directly affect most Americans. But among those it does affect, it could prompt two conflicting results, economists say.
“The current proposal to increase the capital-gains tax may impact a broader segment of Americans than initially anticipated,” said George Ratiu, senior economist at Realtor.com. And that has a lot to do with the state of the housing market right now.
Many homeowners among the Silent and Baby Boom generations purchased their properties decades ago, when prices were “reflecting a different economic environment,” Ratiu said. Today’s housing market is defined by strong demand — driven mainly by millennials and low interest rates — and low supply as a result of decades of under-building. Home prices are rising at a record pace consequently, increasing the likelihood that a homeowner who bought their home years ago could see significant capital gains should they sell.
‘The current proposal to increase the capital-gains tax may impact a broader segment of Americans than initially anticipated.’
— George Ratiu, senior economist at Realtor.com
The proceeds of selling a home on top of these homeowners’ other income “could push more of them into the $1 million-plus bracket, leading to a noticeable loss in appreciation if the current proposal were enacted,” Ratiu said.
Should that happen, homeowners will likely respond in one of two ways, said Ralph McLaughlin, chief economist and senior vice president of analytics at real-estate finance company Haus.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” McLaughlin said. “For those that were thinking about selling in the next few years, the policy may entice them to sell their investment properties sooner.”
That could pump some much-needed supply into the housing market at a time when buyers are struggling to find any homes to buy. But it could have the opposite effect in the longer term, McLaughlin warned.
“I fear the policy may lock in investors for a much longer period of time than with the current rate, and thus be counter-productive in helping free up investor inventory,” McLaughlin said.
Alternatively, some argue the higher tax rate could simply cause wealthier Americans to re-evaluate where to park their money. “I speculate this raises the incentive of high-earners to roll investments into Opportunity Zone funds and therefore could spur additional development there,” Marr said.
Eliminating the 1031 exchange could lower property prices
The 1031 exchange “has been a cornerstone of commercial real-estate investments,” Ratiu said. A 2020 report from the National Association of Realtors found that 12% of sales transactions involved a like-kind exchange between 2016 and 2019.
By and large, the beneficiaries of these policies were small investors, the report noted. Nearly half (47%) of the properties involved were held by investors in sole proprietorships, while 37% were owned by S-corporations.
Around 84% of properties involved in 1031 exchanges were owned by small investors, according to data from the National Association of Realtors.
“Eliminating this provision would likely lead to a downward adjustment in property prices,” Ratiu said, adding that investors may hold onto properties for longer as result. Residential real-estate markets would be impacted. Slightly more than half of the properties involved in 1031 exchanges were residential properties, including single-family rental homes, apartment buildings and condominium units.
Past tax reforms offer reasons for optimism
This wouldn’t be the first time that changes to the tax code stirred fears of a real-estate downturn. It was the same case when President Donald Trump signed the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act into law. The Republican tax-reform package reduced the mortgage-interest deduction and eliminated the ability to deduct state and local taxes.
“There was concern of negative effects on high-cost markets, but these seem to have been overcome by the more important supply and demand dynamics,” said Tendayi Kapfidze, chief economist at LendingTree.
Some projected that the tax burden could spark a larger wave of out-migration from expensive coastal real-estate markets than was already happening at the time. But the 2020 Census data presents a murky picture, and it’s not clear that high taxes alone prompted much change in people’s real-estate decision-making.