Taxes, Laws & Regulations - A Primer for New Homeowners

While owning a home is a reward beyond compare, it does have a significant say when it comes to taxes. Below is a look at the details of taxes due:
  1. Property Taxes:  Most everybody is alert to this tax due twice a year (November & April). The actual tax rate varies with state and county. In Alameda County, our property tax rate stood at 1.25% of the assessed value of the home in 2010 – the basic property tax rate is capped at 1% but miscellaneous provisions tallied up to another 0.25%. 
  2. Transfer Taxes: In some states, this is split between the buyer and seller. In California, it is a negotiable item, although for the most part, the seller meets it. The actual taxes vary by county and city. For Alameda County and City, the rates were 0.11% at the county level and 1.2% at the city level.

Depending on the area, some laws can have a huge financial impact when it comes to owning a home. In California, two of the leading laws every home owner should be aware of are:
  1. Proposition 13: This law signed in 1978 aims to protect long-term homeowners from being taxed out of their homes – in essence this is built-in property tax relief for long-term homeowners. The law limits the annual increase of property taxes to an annual inflation factor that cannot exceed 2%, essentially bringing automatic property tax relief as long as home ownership is maintained. In effect, homeowners can figure out their maximum property tax liability for any year in the future, as long as they are in the same house. Prior to this law, houses were reassessed annually and the rates followed suit, allowing arbitrary annual increases to the property tax amount. The enormous effect of this law on homeowners is best illustrated by Warren Buffett’s multimillion-dollar property ($4M or so) in the Laguna Beach area in California. Buffett is taxed in the $2K range, while an average 350K new-construction home in the suburbs is subjected to almost twice that amount in taxes – this huge property tax relief enjoyed by Buffett is solely because he took charge of the property in the early 70s, while the 350K home was a recent purchase – Buffett’s property reaps the benefit of Proposition 13 in its entirety.
  2. Anti-deficiency laws: This California foreclosure law (similar laws exist in Arizona and in other states as well) limits the lenders ability to obtain a deficiency judgment, when a borrower defaults on a loan used to acquire and occupy a residential dwelling for four or fewer families. The law bars the lender from laying claim to the borrower’s assets following a foreclosure or a short sale. California foreclosure law is aimed at protecting the borrower’s assets against the vagaries of the housing market and at achieving relative home price stability by dis-incentivising lenders from getting deficiency judgments. Exceptions exist and an important one is that protection from deficiency judgments based on California foreclosure law is lost on refinanced loans. Other exceptions include unsecured loans and loans for construction after handover.

Regulations exist for all kinds of remodeling or enhancements to the house – replacing the flooring and paint jobs are the only exceptions – HOA permits may still be necessary for outside paint jobs. City permits were mandatory for most everything in the area we lived in. Significant losses in both time and money can be the consequence of neglecting to get these permits before the work is done. The general impression imparted by the service providers is that these will be handled by them in a transparent fashion, but in our experience, it is the homeowner’s responsibility to ensure the service provided conforms with the guidelines and/or regulations. We were extremely naive and caught unawares when it came to permits/regulations the first time around. We are yet to figure out whether our contractor was plain clueless or could not be bothered to go through the permit approval process. We filed applications after the fact – fines are egregious (5x) when forced to do it this way. From that point on, we proceeded with work only after the permits were in place and in almost all the cases, the contractors got the permits as part of their work-order.

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Last Updated: 03/2012. 


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