San Diegans who have lost their homes through foreclosure or short-sales thought they had emerged from the dark times and could start rebuilding their lives.
Then the state tax man came calling.
With less than six weeks before taxes are due, an estimated 16,000 former homeowners statewide will owe $15 million in extra income taxes this year and $29 million through 2012.
The tax applies to what is called the “cancellation of debt” that occurs when property owners lose their homes through foreclosure or arrange a short-sale in which they sell for less than the mortgage balance. The lender sends them a form itemizing the forgiven debt, and the amount is subject to income tax.
Congress exempted most homeowners from the extra federal tax through 2012, and the state followed suit for 2007 and 2008 but did not extend the provision last year. The state Assembly may vote tomorrow on a bill to repeal the tax, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed such a bill last year over unrelated provisions.
“They’re probably stuck,” San Diego tax attorney Bob Kevane said of former homeowners facing the tax. “The biggest way around it is if you’re insolvent.”
Brad Nemeth, another tax attorney, said he doubts the tax will be eliminated.
“The state of California is seriously upside down financially, and I think the governor will probably veto it again,” Nemeth said.
H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the Department of Finance, said Schwarzenegger remains opposed to the bill in its present form but has not announced whether he will veto it again. Other versions of the tax repeal are in the hopper and could be passed next month, legislators’ analysts said.
Failure to halt the tax could cost Jack and Phyllis Roth of Fletcher Hills as much as $20,000 in state income taxes this year — they paid $781 last year — because of the home they sold short in Flinn Springs in November. They bought it in 2004 for $545,000, invested $50,000 in improvements, and then saw its value fall by one-third before they sold it for $410,000. The result was about $190,000 in net loss that was forgiven by the Roths’ lender.
Phyllis Roth, 63, a tax preparer, said she did not realize until recently that the state would treat the short-sale differently than the Internal Revenue Service would. She estimates her state taxes at $15,000 to $20,000.
“I didn’t call anybody,” she said. “I was looking online and didn’t see anything. That’s what happens when you rely on yourself.”