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Sun Starts Setting On Solar Tax Credit From Uncle Sam

The sun is shining on the tax credit for solar power but this federal tax credit that lightens your tax burden significantly starts sunsetting in 2020.

The good news is that the cost of solar panels and equipment is dropping, down about 6.5% in 2018, and putting in solar panels can cut your utility bills by a lot. The bad news is the upfront cost isn't cheap — an average of $13,188 in 2018, according to EnergySage, a marketplace for solar equipment.

Luckily, federal tax credits can cut your cost. That $13,188 upfront cost is after taking the tax credit. Far more valuable than a deduction against your taxable income, a credit reduces your tax dollar for dollar. But you better hurry to beat the phase-out of the credits.

Currently, the tax credit reduces the net cost of a solar system in residential and commercial properties by 30%. In 2020, that drops to 26%, and drops again in 2021 to 22%. The credit then zeroes out in 2022. The break for commercial use does remain, but only at 10%.

One small saving grace is that some states, local governments, and utilities also offer rebates and other tax incentives that can further lower the solar system costs. In the meantime, while the credit lasts, qualifying expenses include the panels themselves, the wiring to connect them to your home electrical system, and the cost of the labor in the installation.

If you don't have a big enough tax liability to use the full credit to cut your tax bill, the amount left over can be carried forward to the next tax year. The home served by solar power does not have to be your principal residence, and no limit is placed on the dollar amount of your credit, which is good if you own a large home.

A caveat: Should you rent out your home for part of the year, you have to reduce the credit for the time you're not present. In an example from TurboTax, if you live in the house for just three months, your credit is one quarter of the amount you'd benefit by had you lived in the place year-round: So, for a system costing $10,000, the 30% credit is $3,000, but you as a part-time resident and landlord get only $750. Rent out the house for the entire year, and you get zilch.

Certainly, some systems cost more than others. For instance, if you have a rectangular south-facing roof, your installation is simple. Yet if the roof is broken up by dormers, skylights and multiple levels, putting in a system is trickier, and more expensive. Nonetheless, whatever you end up paying, the shiniest deals are available now, so you may want to act before the sun starts to set on solar tax credits from Uncle Sam.