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Couple gets homestead exemption on Star Island property — even though house is gone

Pop quiz: Under Florida law, do you have to live in your home to claim a homestead tax exemption on it?

“Not necessarily,” said Miami-Dade County Property Appraiser Lazaro Solis.

Case in point: 42 Star Island.

The address has become synonymous with preservationists’ fight against a celebrity couple to preserve an 89-year-old mansion perched on one of Miami Beach’s most prominent islands.

Leonard and Lisa Hochstein — he, a plastic surgeon known as the “boob god,” and she, a cast member of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Miami — bought the home in foreclosure in late 2012, paying nearly $8 million. But they never actually lived in it. The couple claimed the mansion was structurally unsound — though that didn’t stop the socialites from throwing a few parties there.

The Hochsteins recently won their battle to tear down the 1925 home, designed by Walter De Garmo, Florida’s first registered architect. Last week, bulldozers reduced the old manse to rubble. The couple continue to live in their nearly 10,000-square-foot home — seven bedrooms, four baths, two half baths — on Miami Beach’s posh Sunset Islands.

And yet, for tax purposes, the Hochsteins claim the toppled home is their primary residence. They have a $50,000 homestead exemption on the Star Island property, according to county records, after transferring it over from their Sunset Islands home. (The law allows for only one property to receive the exemption, and it can’t be an income-producing property.)

The Hochsteins’ Star Island exemption is perfectly legal, the property appraiser said. Why? Because the Hochsteins intend to live on the property, according to the property appraiser.

In order to qualify for a homestead exemption, Florida law says two things have to happen:

•  You have to legally own the property.

•  You have to make the property your permanent residence, or the permanent residence of legal dependents — say, your children.

The second part — whether you’ve made a property your permanent residence — is not a question of law. According to state statutes: “Intention to establish a permanent residence in this state is a factual determination to be made” by your county property appraiser.

What’s important here is the word “intention.” You have to show that you intend to make a property your permanent residence. Solis, the property appraiser, said you don’t have to even move in to establish your intention to live somewhere.

The property appraiser takes into account factors such as where your children are registered to go to school, where you’re registered to vote and the address listed on your driver’s license and bank accounts to determine whether you really plan to live somewhere.

“It’s an ‘all-the-facts-and-circumstances’ test,” said Tallahassee lawyer Tom Findley, who has represented the Florida Association of Property Appraisers. “You don’t necessarily have to reside there, but you do have to have the intent to make it your permanent residence.”

Many of the records that the property appraiser would use to figure out whether the Hochsteins intend to live at 42 Star aren’t public. But voter registration records are, and Leonard Hochstein’s shows his Star Island address, as do county property records.

The couple has said repeatedly they want to build their home on the 42 Star Island lot. They have plans to erect a 20,000-square-foot estate with six bedrooms, seven bathrooms, a home theater, game room, wine cellar, five-car garage and guest house.

So, even though they’ve never lived there, and there isn’t a house on the lot, the Hochsteins have a legal homestead exemption because the property appraiser has determined it’s the couple’s intention to one day live there permanently.

There’s no financial advantage to claiming the homestead on one of their properties over another, since the exemption is worth the same amount.

So, there you have it: You don’t have to actually live in your home to make it your homestead. You just have to convince your local property appraiser that you want to live in it.

Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.

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