‘First-Time’ Homebuyers: A Window of Opportunity

If you’re in the market for a new home, your IRA might be a source of funding, thanks to a special exception in the tax law.

Background: Normally, you’re required to pay a 10 percent tax penalty if you withdraw funds from an IRA before reaching age 59 1/2. But the tax law has several exceptions that allow IRA owners to escape the penalty tax. Case in point: No penalty will be assessed if the funds are used for qualified first-time homebuyer expenses.

This special tax law exception encompasses more situations than you might think. For instance, the home you’re acquiring technically doesn’t have to be your first home. The exception applies as long as you haven’t owned a principal residence at least two years before the acquisition date of the new home. So you can be a “first-time” homebuyer several times during your lifetime.

The exception even extends to a new home being purchased or built for a child, grandchild or parent. In other words, you don’t necessarily have to be the first-time homebuyer – even though the funds are coming out of your retirement account.

On the downside, there are some limitations:

  • There is a lifetime dollar cap of $10,000 on first-home homebuyer expenses. Therefore, if you withdraw more from an IRA to buy a new home and you otherwise qualify under the exception, you still must pay a penalty on the excess. For example, if you withdraw $15,000, you would owe $500 (10 percent of $5,000) for the early withdrawal penalty, in addition to income tax due on the amount.
  • The funds must be used to pay “qualified acquisition costs” within 120 days of the distribution
    When is the date of acquisition? Under tax law, it is the date that you enter into a binding contract to buy the home for which the distribution is being used, or the date the building or rebuilding of the home begins.

Note: The exception for first-time homebuyer expenses does not excuse you from regular tax liability. Even if you qualify, or you have already attained age 59 1/2, you still must pay regular income tax on a distribution from an IRA. You only escape the 10 percent penalty on up to $10,000.

What About a 401(k) Plan?

The first time homebuyer exception applies to distributions from IRAs. If you are under the age of 59 1/2, you cannot withdraw funds from your 401(k) plan to purchase your first home without being subject to a 10 percent penalty tax on early distributions. However, depending on the rules for your 401(k) plan, there might be a couple of options:

Option #1 – You might be able to borrow money from your 401(k) plan to purchase your first home, if it is allowed. Your plan administrator should have written information about your 401(k) that explains whether or not you can borrow funds.

Taking out a plan loan might be a smart financial move because you gain access (within limits) to your retirement account money without having to pay taxes. Plus, when the loan is repaid with interest (which is generally at a reasonable rate), you are effectively paying the interest to yourself rather than a commercial lender.

Option #2 – You might be able to roll over a distribution from a 401(k) plan to an IRA. Then, you could take an IRA distribution under the first time homebuyer exception, if you meet the qualifications. Again, your 401(k) plan administrator can tell you if a distribution is eligible to be rolled over into an IRA.

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