“Credit challenged” home loan programs

The tax lien finally gets removed from your credit report.

The bankruptcy is behind you, and you’re moving forward with your life.

One day you have a thought: Maybe it’s time for your family to move out of your brother’s basement.

Regardless of your past credit history, including the presence of tax liens, charge offs, late pays, even bankruptcy and foreclosure, it may still be possible for you to purchase a home sooner that you might otherwise think.

I’ve recently become very interested in this topic because of my own homebuying process. Back in 2008, I had ridden the real estate market to the bottom, and ended up filing bankruptcy. In and of itself, filing bankruptcy was the second best financial decision I’ve ever made, but of course it destroys your credit score.

In the wake of the burst of the housing bubble, some government backed loan programs were changed, and some new ones were created. This was largely done in order to dispose of the sudden inventory of foreclosed homes that came into possession of banks and the government.

These loan programs have their various pros and cons. The biggest thing to keep in mind is that you have shouldn’t take a bad mortgage loan product simply for the sake of getting into a house. Make sure that the loan program terms and conditions will help you meet your personal finance goals, rather than work against you.

I ended up using my VA loan guarantee, rather than one of the much newer programs. The reason for this was to preserve my cash stockpile, but I definitely considered other loan programs for the “credit challenged”. I spent quite a bit of time educating myself (much to the chagrin of my mortgage broker, I’m sure), and determined that, despite a slightly higher loan cost, my VA benefits provided other benefits over some other, cheaper government backed loan products for those of us with credit challenges.

The bottom line: Make sure you understand your loan program, and make sure it fits into the bigger financial picture of your life (to include your taxes, of course!).

Bankruptcy vs IRS Offer in Compromise

If you have a large amount of other debt besides just tax debt, bankruptcy may be an option you end up considering. Is this the right thing to do when you have tax liabilities?

For some people, bankruptcy can be the right way to go. While bankruptcy will not erase most tax debt, the bankruptcy court determines what you pay each creditor, and may remove some of the penalties and interest, depending on the case.

The interest rate that the IRS charges, to be honest, isn’t that bad. The rate is adjusted several times per year, and it currently sits at 4%. What kills people are actually the penalties. It is not uncommon for our clients to max out all their penalties, which tacks on a whopping 45.5% to their principal, and THEN interest accrues on the whole thing.

To determine whether bankruptcy is the best route for you, you’d have to consult with a bankruptcy attorney, as I am not a lawyer and cannot provide any sort of legal advice. If *all* you have is IRS debt, and don’t have significant other creditors and/or don’t want the bad credit associated with bankruptcy, but you cannot otherwise go on a monthly payment plan, then I would encourage you to consider an Offer in Compromise with the IRS. It’s a good non-bankruptcy alternative for folks that might otherwise have no other choice but to file Chapter 7, but would only be filing chapter 7 because of their IRS debt.

If you do choose to file for bankruptcy, it’s important to have a contingency plan for those taxes that cannot be discharged. For example, Trust Fund Recovery Penalty assessments, property taxes, and sales taxes will not generally be flushed in a Chapter 7. So, if your tax liability consists of those tax types, you need to be looking at other options.

Personal income taxes (1040 taxes) can be discharged in bankruptcy if they meet certain criteria. In general, income taxes must be at least three years old to be discharged in bankruptcy, and the tax return on those tax debts must have been filed at least two years ago. So, if you haven’t filed the actual tax returns that will incur the tax debt you want to discharge in bankruptcy, you’re going to have to file the returns and then wait two years.

Filing bankruptcy is obviously not a decision to be taken lightly, and you must consider the tax debt implications of doing so. However, bankruptcy isn’t nearly as bad of a thing to go through as many people think it is (and I’m talking from experience, by the way). Consult with both your tax professional and your bankruptcy attorney regarding this important decision.

10 Questions To Ask When Choosing An Accountant

The vast majority of small businesses could use the services of an accountant. The number of ways in which it is possible to introduce errors into your business through accounting practices is staggering. Your accounting includes issues related to payroll, monitoring profitability, inventory control, avoiding penalties and interest on taxes, and much, much more. It is wise to select a competent professional in this field to help you navigate the minefield of accounting pitfalls. Selecting such a professional can be difficult, especially since not all accountants are created equal. Here are some questions to ask to help ensure that you are selecting the best accountant you can for your business.

1. Are they recommended by a trusted colleague?

One way to start the search for an accountant is to ask people that you already trust for suggestions. Your banker, insurance agent, attorney, and financial planner most likely know and work with accountants on a regular basis. Also inquire to the companies that you do business with, such as you barber, florist, butcher, and plumber. Chances are, these sorts of business owners use an accountant for some business functions, since these tend to be the types of business owners that are excellent at what they do, but not so great with dealing with the complexities of taxes and accounting.

2. Ask around your Chamber of Commerce.

If you are familiar with your local Chamber, they can be an excellent resource. You can ask at Chamber events for referrals to accountants, and you are likely to meet many such service providers at Chamber functions, trade events, and leads groups. Also, many Chambers have an internal complaint system and can let you know whether or not complaints have been issued locally against an accountant or firm.

3. Do they have any complaints with the Better Business Bureau?

When many individuals decide to take action and make a complaint against a firm, they often think first of the BBB. Check with your local division, or look them up online, and make sure that the company you are considering hiring has a good record with the BBB. If they have a Gold Star award from the BBB, then you’re on the right track to working with a company that is reputable and stands by their word. The BBB’s new letter grading system can also help you in selecting a good firm.

4. Have they ever been investigated by your state Attorney General’s office or state board of accountancy?

This is another place to do your own due diligence. Complaints with the state AG or Board of Accountancy is an automatic red flag and should be highly considered before selecting a firm.

5. What services do they provide, and what services do you NEED?

Think about exactly what you’re looking for in a service provider. Do you need full service accounting, outsourcing all functions to another person or firm? Or do you just need year-end tax preparation? Knowing the answer to what services you need will help you pick the best person to do what you need, and will affect your budget for getting it done. For example, if you just need tax preparation, then you might be better off with an experienced tax preparer instead of a CPA firm that mostly does auditing and general accounting. If you only need payroll services, then you might want to hire a payroll company rather than a bookkeeper that does payroll on the side. If you need the books updated weekly or monthly, most communities have competent, independent full charge bookkeepers that you can hire.

If you’re looking for somebody to come set up your books and show you how to use your accounting software, you may want to consider a general CPA or a competent bookkeeper. If you do all your own books using Peachtree, Quickbooks, MS Money, or another popular commercial software package, it can be very helpful to have somebody to call should something go wrong. The large commercial accounting software publishers all provide some sort of certified expert rating system for individuals that are experts on using their software. You may want to look for and consult with such a certified expert on your particular accounting software. For example, Intuit offers its Quickbooks Certified ProAdvisor program to consultants. Finding one of these certified individuals can really help you a lot if you’re doing the books yourself.

If your only interest is in tax compliance, look for a CPA that specializes in taxation, or an Enrolled Agent (EA). An EA is an individual licensed directly by the U.S. Treasury to handle tax matters, and this individual can represent you before the IRS just like a CPA or an attorney. By nature of the credential, EAs are dedicated tax professionals and are generally more competent in areas of tax issues than a general CPA, unlicensed tax preparer, or bookkeeper.

Selecting the type of professional you need is a serious consideration in this process, and depends largely on what you plan on doing yourself, and what you expect to need help with.

6. Are they licensed in some way?

Credentials are not always the most important thing to consider, but they do reflect at least a minimum level of professional competency, in theory. If they are a CPA, they’ve passed a rigorous four part examination and have at least a bachelor’s degree in accounting and two years of professional experience, at a minimum. If they are an Enrolled Agent, they have passed a very rigorous three part exam covering individuals, businesses, and practices and ethics that is administered directly by the Internal Revenue Service.

The individual preparing your tax returns, doing your books, or processing your payroll doesn’t necessarily need credentials in order to do the tax and do it right, so experience is a critical piece of the puzzle you’ll want to inquire about.

Do keep in mind that if you’re audited by the IRS, only CPAs, EAs, or attorneys can represent you, unless you wish to represent yourself, which is not recommended.

7. How much experience do they have?

How many years have they been doing what they do? What type of companies do they generally work with, such as which industries and what size companies? Inquire as to how many of each of your type of entity they work with each year. If they’re experienced working with your type of legal entity, within your industry, or your size of company, they might be a good fit.

8. How do they charge, and how much?

Don’t be afraid to ask about the money. Some firms will charge by the hour, or on a piece rate for the type of work being done. Bookkeepers will usually charge an hourly rate, while tax preparers often charge a flat rate per form and schedule. If your tax return is pretty complex, expect to pay more, which could be a base rate plus an hourly rate for doing accounting work to generate the numbers needed for various line items on the return. If you’ll be seeking software assistance, find out what they will charge for this, usually at an hourly rate. It can’t hurt to know whether you’ll be over your head in terms of what you can reasonably afford for the services you are seeking.

A word of caution: Price should not be the ultimate determining factor when decided who to use and what services to do yourself. If you’re genuinely over your head when it comes to certain tasks, don’t be afraid to spend the money. There’s an old saying that goes like this, “Do what you do best, hire out the rest.” Accounting can be one of the most frustrating aspects of owning a business, and trying to do it all yourself can take time away from what you should be doing, which is running your business to the best of your ability to generate a profit.

9. Are you comfortable with the individual?

Even if you hire a large firm to do your accounting, there is still going to be an individual person that will be doing the work and with whom you will work with almost exclusively. You need to sit down with this person and make sure that you are comfortable working with them. If anything makes you uncomfortable in any way, you need to find somebody else. Think about it: This person is going to have access to an incredible amount of private financial information, so it has to be somebody you feel comfortable trusting.

10. Don’t be afraid to make a change.

Even after selecting somebody to work with, don’t be afraid to find somebody else if things aren’t working out. Your accounting is too important to the success of your business to leave it in the hands of an incompetent person or somebody you don’t completely trust. Problems with your current accountant could range from having just plain bad interpersonal chemistry to gross incompetence on their part, or perhaps you have the wrong specialist to meet your needs. Regardless, don’t hesitate to take your business elsewhere, since your accounting, bookkeeping, and taxes are simply that important to the life of your business.

Using the ten steps outlined in this article will give you a great start towards finding the accountant that is right for you. Identify the type of professional that can best provide the services you need, ask around for referrals, then check them out and interview them personally. This process will ensure that you get the best accountant for your business needs.

How the IRS views your cost of living

In general, the IRS appears to take a cynical view at people’s cost of living, and can be fairly judgmental about how we spend our money. This cynicism obviously increases dramatically the moment you have an outstanding tax debt.

Before delving into specifics, I’d like to make two points regarding the IRS personnel you’d normally be discussing your personal finances with. First, IRS field personnel such as Revenue Officers and Settlement (Appeals) Officers typically have higher salaries than the IRS National Standards for the areas in which they are assigned. In other words, even as public servants, they make more money than their own standards set for a middle class lifestyle.

Second, keep in mind that these people are public servants. In fact, most senior IRS personnel are lifetime bureaucrats, meaning that they have never had to work in the private sector. Some senior Revenue Officers, Revenue Agents (Auditors), and Settlement Officers have actually never worked a day in their lives outside of the government, and don’t even have finance or accounting backgrounds.

Combining these two things, you can see that it’s very possible that the IRS person you are explaining your finances to has an interesting view on the world: They’ve always made an above average salary, and lack any personal experience running a business or dealing with the reality of private sector employment. This skewed perspective becomes readily apparent in talking to senior IRS personnel if you’re a middle class taxpayer or “mom and pop” small business owner.

Now, with that said, let’s talk about the IRS National Standards. The government uses national and local cost of living data to establish norms for the cost of living across various categories. Some cost of living standards are the same for everybody, while others, such as housing and transportation, are adjusted by region.

These standards are based entirely on the government’s definition of a middle class existence. In other words, for purposes of determining how much of your income the IRS expects you to fork over in monthly payments on a tax debt, they only allow you to claim a middle class lifestyle.

It is not uncommon for me to have a conversation with a client where I’m explaining this, and they get frustrated. When you’re in IRS collections, they don’t like seeing that you’re making $1500 per month car payments on a Hummer and a Corvette, or have two people living in a 4200 square foot home. If you are used to a certain lifestyle, you may not quite understand why these things would piss off the government when you owe back taxes.

The main thing to remember is that the IRS National Standards are calculated from a middle class lifestyle standard. While you may consider yourself middle class, statistically you may in fact be upper-middle or even upper class. Keep in mind that the median household income in the US is about $52,000 per year. This means half of households make more, half of households make less. This number, by definition, represents middle class America, and is what the IRS National Standards are based on.

If you owe the IRS a substantial amount of money, and are living above the IRS National Standards, it is possible to negotiate up to a 12-month “stay of execution” against you with IRS Collections. This time period is designed to allow you to reduce your lifestyle to a middle class existence. This would include downsizing to a smaller home, selling cars, boats, and recreational vehicles, etc.

It wasn’t until March 2012 that the IRS finally allowed taxpayers to claim their minimum credit card and student loan payments as allowable expenses. At the same time, the IRS made a major change in how an Offer in Compromise is calculated, drastically reducing the amount they expect you to fork over in a reduced settlement situation. These changes have made literally hundreds of thousands of tax debtors now eligible for the OIC program that previously were not, so it’s worth looking into.

When it comes to discussing your standard of living and associated expenses with an IRS field agent, understand that you are both going to be frustrated, and for very different reasons. If you live a higher than middle class lifestyle, I would definitely suggest having a representative work on your behalf with the IRS, not only to avoid you frustration with these types of conversations, but also because a representative is going to be more knowledgeable regarding what expenses can be negotiated for inclusion with the IRS.

Let’s talk credit card debt

I realize that this is a blog about tax debt, but if you have tax debt, I assume that you have other debts as well. It has only been within the last few months that the IRS has softened their stance on allowing you to claim your minimum credit card payments as an allowable expense, so it’s a topic worth addressing.

Credit card debt in general is one of the biggest problems in our society. If you rack up a lot of it, and can’t pay it, life starts to suck when the creditors start calling. Five years ago, when I was heading into bankruptcy, one of my favorite days was the day that Qwest cut off my phone service because I couldn’t pay the bill. That was when the credit collection calls finally stopped!

If you’re looking to address your credit card debt, and other consumer debts as well, there is a simple and often repeated formula for paying down and eliminating those debts. You’ve probably heard two variations of this before, but I think they’re worth hearing again now and then.

The process is pretty simple: Make a list of all your debts, and rank them by priority based on either interest rate from highest to lowest, or by debt amount from lowest to highest. Then, take any extra money you have each month and put it towards the first item on the list.

Mathematically speaking, it’s best to rank them by interest rate. Most of the time, if you owe the IRS money, they’re going to be at the very tippy top because the combined interest and penalty rate can exceed 60% APR. However, many personal finance experts suggest doing it a little different, and paying off your smallest balances first. The rationale behind this is largely psychological, because paying off a smaller debt and being able to say, “It’s paid off!” gives a mental boost to the whole process.

After debt #1 is paid off, the money that was going towards it every month is now applied to debt #2. This accelerates payoff of that debt. Once debt #2 is paid off, the entire monthly amount from that goes to debt #3 until it’s paid off, etc. Eventually, everything is paid off.

While you’re making this debt paydown process, you’re generally making your minimum payments on your other credit cards. If you’re in a situation where money is extremely tight and you’re already several months behind on some bills, it may be worth considering stopping paying on them. If your credit score is already destroyed by being 90 days behind, being 9 MONTHS behind isn’t really going to make it much worse.

This is the strategy that I ultimately went to before my personal bankruptcy. Barely able to pay the mortgage and put food on the table, I started by no longer paying on my credit cards and unsecured lines of credit. It was more important to keep a roof over my head, the lights on, and food in my belly than to worry about my credit score and credit cards. The simple reality was that I didn’t have enough money coming in to pay everything, so I had to start making decisions about what was NOT going to get paid.

Hopefully, you aren’t or won’t get to that point, but it’s nice to know that it’s an option. Remember, debtors prison no longer exists in America, and sometimes you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.