Federal home loan initiative flops

The federal government put valuable information in the hands of homebuyers on January 1 when it introduced home loan ‘key facts sheet’ legislation. But two months on, the initiative has come under criticism from consumer groups, which have highlighted one major flaw in the regulation.

Canberra’s banking reform legislation now makes it compulsory for lending institutions to supply a home loan facts sheet to prospective borrowers. However, consumers need to ask for one – and it’s this catch that is proving difficult, according to a new study by Choice.

Choice ‘shadow shopped’ 18 banks and credit union branches in a variety of locations in Sydney during January and February, posing as a first-home buyer seeking to borrow a $300,000 mortgage.  The mystery shoppers were instructed to ask for comparative fee and interest information they could take away and purposely did not use the phrase ‘key facts sheet’ during their visit.

Results were “unpleasantly surprising” with just one, of the 18 branches visited, providing the customer with a facts sheet. The majority of bank staff had “little or no idea that key facts sheets for home loans even exist”.

Matt Levey, head of campaigns at Choice said: “We don’t think consumers should have to come up with three magic words – key facts sheet – to get access to clear information to help them find the best mortgage on offer”.

“It seems the last thing the big banks want to do is help consumers compare products,” said Levey.

A spokesperson from the Australian Securities and Investments Commission responded: “[ASIC] is monitoring compliance with the new reforms by looking at individual complaints and industry-wide conduct”.

Important information is highlighted within the facts sheets, including headline and comparison interest rate, fees and charges, the total financial cost over the life of the loan and information about the impact of rate changes.

Damian Smith, chief executive of RateCity, said the facts sheets should make it easier for borrowers to compare apples with apples before they apply for a home loan.

“This initiative helps first-time borrowers in particular to compare loans side by side, and give them just a little more bargaining power – which is a good thing,” he said.

“Anything that simplifies the lending process and encourages greater transparency in the home loans market is a good thing for competition.”  

Borrowers should always refer to the product disclosure statement before taking up any financial product and RateCity recommends using the ‘comparison rate’, which includes ongoing fees and charges, rather than the headline rate when comparing home loans.

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Learn more about home loans

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 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 can I get a home loan with bad credit?

If you want to get a home loan with bad credit, you need to convince a lender that your problems are behind you and that you will, indeed, be able to repay a mortgage.

One step you might want to take is to visit a mortgage broker who specialises in bad credit home loans (also known as ‘non-conforming home loans’ or ‘sub-prime home loans’). An experienced broker will know which lenders to approach, and how to plead your case with each of them.

Two points to bear in mind are:

  • Many home loan lenders don’t provide bad credit mortgages
  • Each lender has its own policies, and therefore favours different things

If you’d prefer to directly approach the lender yourself, you’re more likely to find success with smaller non-bank lenders that specialise in bad credit home loans (as opposed to bigger banks that prefer ‘vanilla’ mortgages). That’s because these smaller lenders are more likely to treat you as a unique individual rather than judge you according to a one-size-fits-all policy.

Lenders try to minimise their risk, so if you want to get a home loan with bad credit, you need to do everything you can to convince lenders that you’re safer than your credit history might suggest. If possible, provide paperwork that shows:

  • You have a secure job
  • You have a steady income
  • You’ve been reducing your debts
  • You’ve been increasing your savings

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. 

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.

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. 

How do I take out a low-deposit home loan?

If you want to take out a low-deposit home loan, it might be a good idea to consult a mortgage broker who can give you professional financial advice and organise the mortgage for you.

Another way to take out a low-deposit home loan is to do your own research with a comparison website like RateCity. Once you’ve identified your preferred mortgage, you can apply through RateCity or go direct to the lender.

How will Real Time Ratings help me find a new home loan?

The home loan market is complex. With almost 4,000 different loans on offer, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to work out which loans work for you.

That’s where Real Time RatingsTM can help. Our system automatically filters out loans that don’t fit your requirements and ranks the remaining loans based on your individual loan requirements and preferences.

Best of all, the ratings are calculated in real time so you know you’re getting the most current information.

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 are exit and discharge fees?

The Federal Government banned exit fees in 2011, removing one of the biggest barriers to taking switching home loan providers. Lenders can still legally charge a discharge fee, which is payable when you come to the end of your home loan, however these fees are relatively small at an average of $304 while 134 products don’t have them at all.

Are bad credit home loans dangerous?

Bad credit home loans can be dangerous if the borrower signs up for a loan they’ll struggle to repay. This might occur if the borrower takes out a mortgage at the limit of their financial capacity, especially if they have some combination of a low income, an insecure job and poor savings habits.

Bad credit home loans can also be dangerous if the borrower buys a home in a stagnant or falling market – because if the home has to be sold, they might be left with ‘negative equity’ (where the home is worth less than the mortgage).

That said, bad credit home loans can work out well if the borrower is able to repay the mortgage – for example, if they borrow conservatively, have a decent income, a secure job and good savings habits. Another good sign is if the borrower buys a property in a market that is likely to rise over the long term.

How do I know if I have to pay LMI?

Each lender has its own policies, but as a general rule you will have to pay lender’s mortgage insurance (LMI) if your loan-to-value ratio (LVR) exceeds 80 per cent. This applies whether you’re taking out a new home loan or you’re refinancing.

If you’re looking to buy a property, you can use this LMI calculator to work out how much you’re likely to be charged in LMI.

What happens when you default on your mortgage?

A mortgage default occurs when you are 90 days or more behind on your mortgage repayments. Late repayments will often incur a late fee on top of the amount owed which will continue to gather interest along with the remaining principal amount.

If you do default on a mortgage repayment you should try and catch up in next month’s payment. If this isn’t possible, and missing payments is going to become a regular issue, you need to contact your lender as soon as possible to organise an alternative payment schedule and discuss further options.

You may also want to talk to a financial counsellor.