Over the River and Through the Woods
Ernie Neve III, CPA
November 30, 2016
Thanksgiving is a time for homecoming, and some of us are fortunate to return to a place where we've spent decades of holidays. Who wouldn't relish celebrating in a cozy farmhouse out of a Norman Rockwell print, with an overstuffed chair in front of a crackling fire and a warm kitchen smelling of pumpkin pie?
But these days, more Americans spend their Thanksgiving in a different setting. Who wants grandma's cramped parlor when they can welcome guests in a two-story foyer with dueling spiral staircases and a faux-crystal chandelier? We're talking, of course, about the design mishmash that critics have dubbed "the McMansion."
A McMansion is more than just a big, new house. It's a special breed of architectural jumble that favors sheer size and showiness over quality. You may not be able to define it, but you sure know it when you see it! Blame them, if you like, on the eager builders who sell them and the feckless zoning boards that greenlight them. But there's one more more enabler that makes them possible, and that's our beloved U.S. tax code.
When Congress birthed the income tax back in 1913, they made all interest deductible. But the tax itself hit less than one percent of Americans. And most buyers in that day paid cash for their homes. So there was no specific intent to subsidize mortgage interest for the masses.
Since then, however, mortgages have become indispensable to the homebuying economy and the mortgage interest deduction has become central to the tax code. In 1986, Congress eliminated tax breaks for most personal interest, but kept the deduction for interest on up to $1.1 million of mortgage debt. Today's code also lets you exclude up to $500,000 of capital gains from your income when you sell your primary residence.
Given our progressive tax system, these tax breaks tend to favor the wealthy. Mortgage interest is deductible only for the highest-earning third of Americans who itemize deductions. And the capital gains exclusion helps the most in high-cost markets clustered on the east and west coasts. One study found that just five high-cost urban areas snagged 87% of the net tax benefit, with over half going to California alone.
So . . . combine imperfect tax subsidies with the general decline of aesthetic integrity, and what do you get? Crimes against architecture. You can love stately brick courses, homey wood shingles, and even grand stone accents, without mashing them all into a single facade. You can admire the Greeks' taste in columns without slapping stick-on foam imitations on your bathroom wall like a suite at Caesars Palace. You don't need to know what a hipped roof, a gable, and a jerkin-head are to know they don't all belong on the same house.
Making fun of McMansions has even become part of popular culture. There are several web sites dedicated to mocking the form. In House of Cards, Frank Underwood gave homebuyers his own brand of homebuying advice: "Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after ten years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries."
We don't care if your dream home is a suburban estate, a city loft, or a condo at the beach. Our job is to help you navigate the jumble of tax laws that make even the gaudiest McMansion look balanced and proportional. So call us when you're ready for a blueprint — we'll be here to help you build the tax shelter you need!