The home loan from hell

The home loan from hell

Exclusive investigation: Jackie Pearson reports on nightmare mortgages and how you can avoid ending up with the home loan from hell.

September 21, 2009

In March 2008, Alan and Esther found the home of their dreams. They needed a $300,000 home loan to pay for the property and were worried about finding a loan that would give them repayment certainty for the next few years.

At the time, the Reserve Bank had increased official interest rates 11 times in a row and it looked like variable mortgage rates were certain to hit double digits in the near future. Alan and Esther thought the best thing they could do was to lock in their loan at a fixed rate of 9 percent for five years.

Their decision seemed clever at the time but within six months it had turned into a nightmare. From September 2008 the official cash rate was slashed to the historic low of 3 percent and the average standard variable home loan rate had fallen from a high of 9 percent to around 6 percent.

Currently, the lowest advertised standard variable rates available are as low as 4.79 percent p.a. Alan and Esther still have well over three years before they come off their fixed rate and are paying up to $728 extra per month in interest.

The couple have also discovered that they would need to pay $35,000 in break costs to get out of their fixed rate loan early.

Always check break costs
At the time of taking out their loan, Alan and Esther was certain rates would continue to rise for at least the next couple of years – the economy was booming, inflation was on the rise and there was no way of knowing the Global Financial Crisis was around the corner.

They knew fixed home loans came with break costs but didn’t think they would need to refinance until at least the end of their five-year term. They are now stuck and frustrated by the savings they’re missing out on.

The Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) has recently reported a large increase in the number of complaints about break fees, particularly about the lack of information about such costs provided at the time borrowers have taken out their loans.

Different lenders have their own ways of calculating break costs so check your mortgage agreement carefully and ask questions if you don’t understand the way break costs will be calculated if you want to get out of your fixed rate loan early.

The amount you’ll have to pay in break costs is determined by the number of years your fixed term has left to run, the current interest rates and the loan amount.

Because Alan and Esther wish to break their contract with three years left to run, the lender will charge them the remaining three years worth of 9 percent interest minus the current interest rate (benchmark five-year fixed rate is 7.72 percent p.a.), multiplied by the original loan amount. So the lower interest rates go, the higher your break costs.

For example, if your original fixed rate was 9 percent p.a. but rates have fallen to 5 percent p.a., with one year to go on a $300,000 loan your break costs would be around $12,000, with two years left the amount goes up to around $24,000, three years $36,000 and four years almost $50,000.

It pays to shop around
Esther and Alan are also lumped with a $10 monthly service fee and their total repayments over the 25 year life of the loan will be around $593,000.

If they decided to pay the break costs, shop around and refinance with a variable rate home loan of 5.2 percent p.a. for instance, the couple would reduce their monthly repayments from their current $2,517 to $1,789. The total cost of their 25-year loan would be reduced by more than $56,000. With the $35,000 break cost, Alan and Esther would still be $21,000 better off.

The risk with shifting to a variable rate is the uncertainty of the interest you will pay as it rises and falls to the lender’s discretion.

Beware of hellish loans with incredible fees and charges. It pays to shop around for the best rates and the most flexible, inexpensive terms and conditions before signing that dotted line.

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Learn more about home loans

What is a fixed home loan?

A fixed rate home loan is a loan where the interest rate is set for a certain amount of time, usually between one and 15 years. The advantage of a fixed rate is that you know exactly how much your repayments will be for the duration of the fixed term. There are some disadvantages to fixing that you need to be aware of. Some products won’t let you make extra repayments, or offer tools such as an offset account to help you reduce your interest, while others will charge a significant break fee if you decide to terminate the loan before the fixed period finishes.

What is the difference between fixed, variable and split rates?

Fixed rate

A fixed rate home loan is a loan where the interest rate is set for a certain amount of time, usually between one and 15 years. The advantage of a fixed rate is that you know exactly how much your repayments will be for the duration of the fixed term. There are some disadvantages to fixing that you need to be aware of. Some products won’t let you make extra repayments, or offer tools such as an offset account to help you reduce your interest, while others will charge a significant break fee if you decide to terminate the loan before the fixed period finishes.

Variable rate

A variable rate home loan is one where the interest rate can and will change over the course of your loan. The rate is determined by your lender, not the Reserve Bank of Australia, so while the cash rate might go down, your bank may decide not to follow suit, although they do broadly follow market conditions. One of the upsides of variable rates is that they are typically more flexible than their fixed rate counterparts which means that a lot of these products will let you make extra repayments and offer features such as offset accounts.

Split rates home loans

A split loan lets you fix a portion of your loan, and leave the remainder on a variable rate so you get a bet each way on fixed and variable rates. A split loan is a good option for someone who wants the peace of mind that regular repayments can provide but still wants to retain some of the additional features variable loans typically provide such as an offset account. Of course, with most things in life, split loans are still a trade-off. If the variable rate goes down, for example, the lower interest rates will only apply to the section that you didn’t fix.

Who has the best home loan?

Determining who has the ‘best’ home loan really does depend on your own personal circumstances and requirements. It may be tempting to judge a loan merely on the interest rate but there can be added value in the extras on offer, such as offset and redraw facilities, that aren’t available with all low rate loans.

To determine which loan is the best for you, think about whether you would prefer the consistency of a fixed loan or the flexibility and potential benefits of a variable loan. Then determine which features will be necessary throughout the life of your loan. Thirdly, consider how much you are willing to pay in fees for the loan you want. Once you find the perfect combination of these three elements you are on your way to determining the best loan for you. 

What happens to my home loan when interest rates rise?

If you are on a variable rate home loan, every so often your rate will be subject to increases and decreases. Rate changes are determined by your lender, not the Reserve Bank of Australia, however often when the RBA changes the cash rate, a number of banks will follow suit, at least to some extent. You can use RateCity cash rate to check how the latest interest rate change affected your mortgage interest rate.

When your rate rises, you will be required to pay your bank more each month in mortgage repayments. Similarly, if your interest rate is cut, then your monthly repayments will decrease. Your lender will notify you of what your new repayments will be, although you can do the calculations yourself, and compare other home loan rates using our mortgage calculator.

There is no way of conclusively predicting when interest rates will go up or down on home loans so if you prefer a more stable approach consider opting for a fixed rate loan.

What is a variable home loan?

A variable rate home loan is one where the interest rate can and will change over the course of your loan. The rate is determined by your lender, not the Reserve Bank of Australia, so while the cash rate might go down, your bank may decide not to follow suit, although they do broadly follow market conditions. One of the upsides of variable rates is that they are typically more flexible than their fixed rate counterparts which means that a lot of these products will let you make extra repayments and offer features such as offset accounts.

How do I refinance my home loan?

Refinancing your home loan can involve a bit of paperwork but if you are moving on to a lower rate, it can save you thousands of dollars in the long-run. The first step is finding another loan on the market that you think will save you money over time or offer features that your current loan does not have. Once you have selected a couple of loans you are interested in, compare them with your current loan to see if you will save money in the long term on interest rates and fees. Remember to factor in any break fees and set up fees when assessing the cost of switching.

Once you have decided on a new loan it is simply a matter of contacting your existing and future lender to get the new loan set up. Beware that some lenders will revert your loan back to a 25 or 30 year term when you refinance which may mean initial lower repayments but may cost you more in the long run.

How does Real Time Ratings work?

Real Time RatingsTM looks at your individual home loan requirements and uses this information to rank every applicable home loan in our database out of five.

This score is based on two main factors – cost and flexibility.

Cost is calculated by looking at the interest rates and fees over the first five years of the loan.

Flexibility is based on whether a loan offers features such as an offset account, redraw facility and extra repayments.

Real Time RatingsTM also includes the following assumptions:

  • Costs are calculated on the current variable rate however they could change in the future.
  • Loans are assumed to be principal and interest
  • Fixed-rate loans with terms greater than five years are still assessed on a five-year basis, so 10-year fixed loans are assessed as being only five years’ long.
  • Break costs are not included.

What is a comparison rate?

The comparison rate is a more inclusive way of comparing home loans that factors in not only on the interest rate but also the majority of upfront and ongoing charges that add to the total cost of a home loan.

The rate is calculated using an industry-wide formula based on a $150,000 loan over a 25-year period and includes things like revert rates after an introductory or fixed rate period, application fees and monthly account keeping fees.

In Australia, all lenders are required by law to publish the comparison rate alongside their advertised rate so people can compare products easily.

What is a split home loan?

A split loan lets you fix a portion of your loan, and leave the remainder on a variable rate so you get a bet each way on fixed and variable rates. A split loan is a good option for someone who wants the peace of mind that regular repayments can provide but still wants to retain some of the additional features variable loans typically provide such as an offset account. Of course, with most things in life, split loans are still a trade-off. If the variable rate goes down, for example, the lower interest rates will only apply to the section that you didn’t fix.

What is a standard variable rate (SVR)?

The standard variable rate (SVR) is the interest rate a lender applies to their standard home loan. It is a variable interest rate which is normally used as a benchmark from which they price their other variable rate home loan products.

A standard variable rate home loan typically includes most, if not all the features the lender has on offer, such as an offset account, but it often comes with a higher interest rate attached than their most ‘basic’ product on offer (usually referred to as their basic variable rate mortgage).

What's wrong with traditional ratings systems?

They’re impersonal 

Most comparison sites give you information about rates, fees and features, but expect you’ll pay more with a low advertised rate and $400 ongoing fee or a slightly higher rate and no ongoing fee. The answer is different for each borrower and depends on a number of variables, in particular how big your loan is. Comparisons are either done based on just today or projected over a full 25 or 30 year loan. That’s not how people borrow these days. While you may take a 30 year loan, most borrowers will either upgrade their house or switch their home loan within the first five years. 

You’re also expected to know exactly which features you want. This is fine for the experienced borrower, but most people know some flexibility is a good thing, but don’t know exactly which features offer more flexibility than others. 

What is the flexibility score?

Today’s home loans often try to lure borrowers with a range of flexible features, including offset accounts, redraw facilities, repayment frequency options, repayment holidays, split loan options and portability. Real Time Ratings™ weights each of these features based on popularity and gives loans a ‘flexibility score’ based on how much they cater to borrowers’ needs over time. The aim is to give a higher score to loans which give borrowers more features and options.

They’re not always timely

In today’s competitive home loan market, lenders are releasing new offers almost daily. These offers are often some of the most attractive deals in the market, but won’t get rated by traditional ratings systems for up to a year. 

The assumptions are out of date 

The comparison rate is based on a loan size of $150,000 and a loan term of 25 years. However, the typical loan size is much higher than that. Million dollar loans are becoming increasingly common, especially if you live in metropolitan parts of Australia, like Sydney and Melbourne. It’s also uncommon for borrowers to hold a loan for 25 years. The typical shelf life for a home loan is a few years. 

The other problem is because it’s a percentage, the difference between 3.9 or 3.7 per cent on a $500,000 doesn’t sound like much, but equals around $683 a year. Real Time Ratings™ not only looks at the difference in the monthly repayments, but it will work out the actual cost difference once fees are taken into consideration. 

Does Australia have no cost refinancing?

No Cost Refinancing is an option available in the US where the lender or broker covers your switching costs, such as appraisal fees and settlement costs. Unfortunately, no cost refinancing isn’t available in Australia.

Can I change jobs while I am applying for a home loan?

Whether you’re a new borrower or you’re refinancing your home loan, many lenders require you to be in a permanent job with the same employer for at least 6 months before applying for a home loan. Different lenders have different requirements. 

If your work situation changes for any reason while you’re applying for a mortgage, this could reduce your chances of successfully completing the process. Contacting the lender as soon as you know your employment situation is changing may allow you to work something out. 

Can I get a home loan if I am on an employment contract?

Some lenders will allow you to apply for a mortgage if you are a contractor or freelancer. However, many lenders prefer you to be in a permanent, ongoing role, because a more stable income means you’re more likely to keep up with your repayments.

If you’re a contractor, freelancer, or are otherwise self-employed, it may still be possible to apply for a low-doc home loan, as these mortgages require less specific proof of income.