A tax credit's shortcomings
While the federal tax-credit program to kick-start homebuying helped several million Americans, audits by the Treasury Department have documented some foul-ups, ranging from credits granted to prison inmates and kids as young as 3.
WASHINGTON — Remember the federal tax-credit programs offering $7,500 and later $8,000 to first-time homebuyers? The credits were designed to deliver a jolt to the reeling housing industry and they did: More than 4 million people applied for and have received nearly $30 billion worth of them.
Most of the credits, according to the IRS — the federal agency that administers them — went to people who legitimately qualified for the credits.
But a series of audits by the Treasury's inspector general for tax administration has documented foul-ups by the IRS, ranging from credits granted to prison inmates and dead people, fraud schemes involving claimants who never bought a house and even credits for alleged home purchases by teenagers and kids as young as 3.
Far more commonplace, according to auditors, were shortcomings by the IRS in distinguishing between taxpayers who were supposed to repay their credits over a 15-year period — as required under the original $7,500 program in 2008 — and people for whom there was no such requirement under later versions of the program allowing credits up to $8,000.
The agency also had trouble determining whether recipients of the nonrepayable credits might have violated rules by selling their homes before the three years of required residency and earning a profit on the sale.
Now a new audit has turned up still more homebuyer tax-credit problems. According to the inspector general, IRS has been sending "incorrect" notices to thousands of taxpayers that say they owe no repayments on their credits when they do, or demand repayments from recipients who legally owe nothing.
The latest audit found that 61,427 homeowners were sent erroneous notices including in part:
• 27,728 who bought homes in 2009 under the nonrepayable program but were told to send in payments.
• 12,495 who received the 2008 version of the credit, which was essentially an interest-free loan, but were told no repayments are due.
• 832 dead people who were asked for repayments on their credits despite the fact the law waives any repayment requirements for deceased taxpayers.
An additional 18,220 owners who were supposed to receive notices of repayments due on their credits never were sent letters.
The audit also found an IRS-hired vendor, retained to help identify those who may have sold their homes too early, used faulty data that led to 53,558 taxpayers receiving notices erroneously demanding credit repayments.
A key contributor to the early IRS snafus was that the original version of the credit rules required essentially no documentation of home purchases. J. Russell George, Treasury's inspector general for tax administration, told a congressional hearing this year that "we estimate that at least $485 million of the more than $513 million of potentially erroneous claims we identified were issued with no IRS scrutiny, such as an examination or steps to validate the claim. These erroneous credits might have been denied if documentation requirements were in place."
After audits turned up signs of taxpayer misunderstandings — along with outright fraud — Congress required that documentation be submitted with all credit claims, including a HUD-1 settlement sheet showing the date and other purchase details.
The repayment issue — both for people who sell their houses too early or who are supposed to be making regular annual payments because they purchased using the $7,500 credit in 2008 — appears to be an ongoing problem for the IRS.
Of particular concern are the agency's difficulties in keeping track of taxpayers' current addresses and home sales. The unidentified vendor hired to help with the process provided "incomplete and/or inaccurate" information in 41 percent of cases in a statistical sampling, triggering incorrect notices to taxpayers, according to auditors.
For its part, the IRS says the tax-credit program has "posed administrative challenges."
In response to the latest audit, Richard Byrd Jr., the IRS commissioner for wage and investment, cited the multiple legislative versions of the program and its "unprecedented" scope.
A subsequent IRS statement noted that the agency proactively has sent out information to households affected by repayment rules and that "despite some data and programming errors" has achieved a "99 percent accuracy rate" in providing correct information.
Nonetheless, the agency plans for the upcoming tax-filing season include a shift to a "Web-based tool" that will help people determine if they have a repayment requirement.
In the meantime, if you're one of the estimated million-plus taxpayers in this category, watch for the revised IRS notification approach.
And if you get an official demand for a credit repayment that you know is wrong, don't sweat it. You are probably not alone. Talk to your tax adviser to get it all straightened out.
Ken Harney's email address is email@example.com.