The Real Deal New York

IRS may be stepping up scrutiny of mortgage deductions

The lack of crucial data points in the older 1098 form posed more challenges to the agency
By Kenneth Harney | February 17, 2017 11:15AM

If you’re like millions of homeowners, you recently received a familiar, innocuous-looking document from your lender. It’s called Form 1098 and it totes up how much interest you paid on your mortgage last year. Your lender is required by law to fill it out and send it to the IRS.

But there are key differences in this year’s form that are easy to miss yet potentially important to you — and could trigger an audit by the IRS. Under an obscure statutory change buried in a federal highway bill that passed Congress in the summer of 2015, your lender must now disclose more information to the IRS about your loan, including the amount of the outstanding principal balance at the beginning of the year, the origination date of your mortgage and the address of the home securing the loan.

What’s up with these changes? Though the IRS had no immediate comment when I asked whether it is ratcheting up its scrutiny of home mortgage interest deductions, that appears to be the case. As one of the largest write-off in the tax code — with a projected $357 billion revenue cost between fiscal years 2016 and 2020 — the mortgage deduction is a fat target. Plus the rules governing eligibility for taking deductions are complex, and government watchdog agencies have been critical of the IRS’s oversight of this area in years past.

The lack of crucial data points in the previous version of the 1098 form made it challenging for the IRS to determine whether some properties qualified for interest deductions, or whether the claimed amounts were in sync with reported incomes or based on mortgage amounts that exceeded the tax code’s limits of $1 million in “home acquisition debt” and $100,000 of “home equity debt.”

Acquisition debt, according to IRS Publication 936, is the mortgage amount you use to “buy, build or substantially improve” your principal residence or second home. Home equity debt is mortgage money secured by your residence that you can use “for reasons other than” buying, building or improving your primary or second home. If your acquisition debt exceeds the $1 million limit, you can use up to $100,000 of home equity debt to extend the total deductible limit to $1.1 million.

Among the areas of potential exposure with the new Form 1098 for some homeowners, say tax professionals, are certain refinancings. Charles Benway, a CPA and certified financial planner with Main Street Financial LLC in Mt. Kisco, New York, told me many owners are not aware that when they pay down their original mortgage amount over a period of years, their acquisition debt for federal tax computation purposes declines. When they later refinance into a larger loan and use the proceeds for purposes other than buying, building or improving, a portion of the mortgage interest they pay to the lender may not be deductible.

Benway offered this hypothetical example, which was also included in an article he wrote for Kiplinger.com. Say you buy a house with a $500,000 mortgage and, over time, you pay down the principal to $300,000. Meanwhile your home increases in value to $700,000 and you refinance into a new loan of $500,000, paying off the $300,000 balance. But you spend the $200,000 remaining proceeds on student loan debt, a new car, new furniture and credit card bills.

In this scenario, your acquisition debt remains at $300,000 and your home equity debt limit is $100,000, giving you $400,000 in mortgage debt that qualifies for interest deduction. But that’s $100,000 short of the $500,000 amount you borrowed in the refinancing. The $400,000 is 80 percent of your $500,000 mortgage balance, and that means “only 80 percent of the interest is deductible” on the tax return you’re filing.

It’s complicated, Benway says, “but I think it’s going to hit people” once the IRS begins feeding this year’s 1098 data into its computers. Greg Rosica, a tax partner with accounting firm Ernst & Young in Tampa, Florida, agrees that some refinancings will attract more attention from the IRS, but he says the most likely targets initially will be taxpayers with large mortgage balances.

Bottom line for you: Be aware of the important changes to Form 1098. Just because your 1098 says you paid a certain amount of interest last year doesn’t automatically mean that’s what you can deduct. Download a copy of the IRS’s Publication 936 at IRS.gov to review the mortgage interest deduction rules, and consult a tax professional if you’re not certain how you might be affected.