The OECD Says Imputed Rent Should Be Taxed

When homeowners own their property with equity, they get a tax benefit as important as the mortgage interest deduction: the imputed rent they pay to themselves goes untaxed. To think about how this works, consider two nieghbors who own their houses free and clear. Suppose the houses are identical, and that the nieghbors swap houses, paying rent to each other. They now have a tax liability that they would not have had they remained in their houses. Avoiding this liability is tantamount to a tax expenditure–a benefit to those who own their houses without debt. The OECD is correct that countries rarely tax imputed rent, and argues that this lack of taxation has tilted investment toward housing to the detriment of more productive uses. It also argues that the benefits to homeownership are overstated. I am not sure that this is true (see here and here), but I will leave that for another time.

The question is how does one go about taxing imputed rent? It is not easy. One could start by imposing an ad valorem tax on property values (such as a local property tax), but that doesn’t tax imputed rent per se, because it does not take into account expected inflation (if one person expects her house to go up in value, and another does not, the rent the first person pays is lower than the second). Alternatively, one could find comparables in the rental market and attribute rents found there to the owner market. But owner and rental markets are so segmented that this would be difficult to do.

This has implications for fairness; if we don’t know what we are taxing, it is hard to know how much to tax it.

About Richard K. Green 102 Articles

Affiliation: University of Southern California

Richard K. Green, Ph.D., is the Director of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate. He holds the Lusk Chair in Real Estate and is Professor in the School of Policy, Planning, and Development and the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.

Prior to joining the USC faculty, Dr. Green spent four years as the Oliver T. Carr, Jr., Chair of Real Estate Finance at The George Washington University School of Business. He was Director of the Center for Washington Area Studies and the Center for Real Estate and Urban Studies at that institution. Dr. Green also taught real estate finance and economics courses for 12 years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was Wangard Faculty Scholar and Chair of Real Estate and Urban Land Economics. He also has been principal economist and director of financial strategy and policy analysis at Freddie Mac.

His research addresses housing markets, housing policy, tax policy, transportation, mortgage finance and urban growth. He is a member of two academic journal editorial boards, and a reviewer for several others.

His work is published in a number of journals including the American Economic Review, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Journal of Real Estate Finance and Economics, Journal of Urban Economics, Land Economics, Regional Science and Urban Economics, Real Estate Economics, Housing Policy Debate, Journal of Housing Economics, and Urban Studies.

His book with Stephen Malpezzi, A Primer on U.S. Housing Markets and Housing Policy, is used at universities throughout the country. His work has been cited or he has been quoted in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and the Economist, as well as other outlets.

Dr. Green earned his Ph.D. and M.S. in economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He earned his A.B. in economics from Harvard University.

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