When Congress passed the housing rescue bill (The Housing Assistance Act of 2008) in July, we published an article about some of the tax traps contained in the bill, waiting in hiding for the unwary.

The article reported on information contained in an article in MarketWatch written by Eva Rosenberg, a tax authority and author of "The 100% Home-Based Business Tax Solution." Rosenberg urged special caution vis-à-vis the new $7,500 tax credit for first-time homebuyers.

In brief Rosenberg warned that the tax credit is not a gift or a grant but essentially a 15 year loan to the homebuyer and, while it is interest free, will require filing a tax return and will carry the same IRS penalties for non-payment as accrue to delinquent taxes.

Warnings duly noted, further information and the regulations regarding this tax credit are now available. If you have an interest in the program, here are some basic facts.

The credit is available only to first-time home buyers defined as buyers who have not owned a principal residence for three-years prior to the subject purchase. The ownership test applies to both partners in a marriage; i.e. if a husband has not owned a home in the past three years but the wife has, neither spouse qualifies for the first-time home buyer tax credit. (It appears that this would be the case even if the husband is purchasing the property only in his own name.) A buyer can still be eligible for the credit even if he owns a vacation home or rental property not used as a principal residence.

Single taxpayers with "modified adjusted gross income" up to $75,000 and married couples with incomes up to $150,000 qualify for the full tax credit. Individuals and couples with incomes above the thresholds may still qualify for a lesser credit, however, taxpayers with adjusted gross income above $95,000/ $170,000 phase out of the program completely.

There is no need to fill out an application to qualify for the tax credit. First-time homebuyers merely claim the credit when filing the tax return for that year. No pre-approval is necessary, but if you are relying on this program to purchase a home you may want to check your eligibility. Your tax advisor may be able to help you with this.

The credit is available even to those with little or no federal income tax liability to offset. This usually means that the government will send a check for part or all of the credit. Otherwise the credit is used to offset any unpaid taxes or increase a refund.

The credit is available for homes purchased between April 9, 2008 and July 1, 2009 and applies to both new and existing homes whether attached or detached, condominiums, mobile homes, or houseboats. A homebuyer contracting for a custom built home can qualify for the credit as long as the home is first occupied between the April 2008/June 2009 dates. (For newly-constructed homes bought from a home builder, eligibility for the tax credit is determined by the settlement date.)

The $7,500 credit represents 10 percent of the purchase price of a low cost home. Most who use the program will be able to claim this full amount, however, in the event a home is purchased for a lesser amount, the 10 percent cap will apply. That would mean that a $65,000 purchase would result in a $6,500 credit.

There are other refinements to the program. For example, if it is to his benefit, a taxpayer can apply for the credit in a different year than the home is purchased. There is also a possible forgiveness of debt for homeowners who sell the home before the loan is repaid and do not received sufficient gain from the sale to cover the loan balance. Information on these and other details of the program can be researched on a website maintained by the National Association of Homebuilders at www.federalhousingtaxcredit.com.