Tax Credit Extension Could Help Tax Cheaters

By James R. Hagerty

As we reported Thursday, Congress is considering a proposal from Sen. Harry Reid (D., Nev.) to extend the closing deadline on the tax credit of up to $8,000 for home buyers.

One risk of this proposal: It could help people who are trying to cheat Uncle Sam.

To qualify for the credit, buyers must have made a contract to buy the home by April 30. They are then supposed to complete the transaction by June 30. Because of the rush of people to close by then, mortgage companies and closing agents may have a hard time getting all the paper work done on time. So Realtors are pushing Congress for an extension. Sen. Reid has proposed to extend the deadline for closings to Sept. 30, so long as the buyers were under contract in April.

The danger is that this extension would also give more time to people who are merely pretending they were under contract in April and intend to backdate their documents.

Some real estate brokers see signs of dubious behavior. Glenn Kelman, chief executive of Redfin Corp., a Seattle-based broker that operates in nine states, says he started to wonder if tax fraud was on the agenda after hearing from some customers who were very insistent on closing by June 30 even though they went under contract after April 30.

Schahrzad Berkland, an agent for Fidelity Pacific Real Estate in San Diego, who helps produce analyses of that market, found that the number of homes listed as pending sales agreed upon in April continued to rise over the past few weeks. Normally, that number should decline as some deals fall through. Ms. Berkland thinks some buyers are backdating to April.

Beware: The Internal Revenue Service wants to see the paper trail. A spokesman for the IRS says people claiming the credit are required to “attach a copy of the pages from a signed contract to make a purchase showing all parties’ names and signatures, the property address, the purchase price, and the date of the contract.”

Backdating a contract would be both wrong and risky. “That would be fraud on the federal government,” notes Mark Fiedler of Coldwell Banker Legacy, Rio Rancho, N.M. “As a broker, I would not participate in that activity, although there may be others who might. My license enables me to earn a living, and the FBI is not someone I want to cozy up to.” Besides, Mr. Fiedler says, the FBI is “busy putting people in jail for mortgage fraud right now, so let’s not overwork them.”

Terry Smith, an agent at ReMax Integrity, Fort Worth, Texas, also thinks backdating is a bad idea. She says the IRS could demand to see fax dates on contracts, dates of emails discussing the deal and the date that the buyer put up a deposit as “earnest money.”

And is there really honor among thieves? Kevin Duffy, an analyst at ReMax Unlimited in Cincinnati, says: “First you would have to have all parties in agreement to fudge the dates, then hope no one gets mad and turns the (other) party into the IRS.”

Even without cheating, the tax credit will be expensive for Uncle Sam. The National Association of Realtors estimates that 4.4 million people will seek the credit at a cost of more than $30 billion.