The Recession: What’s In It for You?

The sluggish economy isn’t all bad—tax incentives and seller discounts mean bargains for consumers

The architects of the federal stimulus package think the way to goose the economy is to increase everyone’s spending. And nothing gets consumers spending like a good deal. Incentives from the government—and from individual businesses—make it a great time to do a little stimulating yourself.

Under the federal package (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), first-time homebuyers who plan to make their purchase their primary residence for at least three years will qualify for an $8,000 tax credit. “Unlike the 2008 homebuyer credit for $7,500, this one does not have to be paid back,” says Michael Calahan, a CPA with Blackman Kallick in Chicago. “It’s basically $8,000 off of the price of the home.” On their own, sellers facing a soft market have tacked on incentives, too. Around Chicago in the past few months, enticements to buy real estate have included plasma TVs, new appliances, free parking, and, at a new condo project in Lincoln Park, one year of school tuition.

The stimulus package allows buyers of a new car or motorcycle to deduct accompanying state and local taxes from taxable income. Hybrid cars qualify for a tax credit of up to $3,150, depending on their fuel economy, weight, technology, and purchase date—anything purchased on or after January 1, 2006, may qualify. And for the greenest drivers, “the plug-in hybrid tax credit most likely offers the greatest return on investment,” says Brad Lazarus, founder of Omega Advisors LLC, a financial-planning firm in Chicago. The credit ranges from $2,500 to $7,500 depending on the battery capacity of the vehicle.

Scott Bernstein, president of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, advises taking advantage of the stimulus package benefits toward energy efficiency. Individuals can claim a credit of 30 percent—up to $1,500—of the cost of windows, insulation, and appliances that result in greater energy efficiency. The stimulus also provides $6,500 worth of weatherization services for low-income households. Those who don’t qualify should consider borrowing money to do the same. Lenders such as the Cook County Energy Savers Fund offer credit at below-market rate for weatherization work, which gives households about a 15 percent annual return on investment in the form of reduced utility bills. “Energy efficiency is probably the only thing you can invest in that has that kind of return in this economy,” says Bernstein.

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