Could interest rate rises put Australia's economy in mortgage stress?

Could interest rate rises put Australia's economy in mortgage stress?

The risk that household debt and mortgage stress represents to Australia’s wider financial stability may be smaller than expected, according to the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA), though a percentage of owner occupiers and investors could be impacted by changes to economic conditions, with the risk to investors expected to increase over the coming years.

Speaking at the Responsible Lending and Borrowing Summit, RBA assistant governor, Michele Bullock, said that Australia’s historically high levels of mortgage debt has been of concern to many, due to the roll-on effects that changes to interest rates could have on the nation’s broader economy:

“The more debt households have, the more sensitive their cash flow, and hence consumption, is likely to be to a rise in interest rates. Households with higher debt levels may also sharply curtail their consumption in response to an adverse shock such as rising unemployment or large falls in house prices, amplifying any economic downturn.”

Looking at mortgage stress

According to the RBA, the average household mortgage debt-to-income ratio has risen from around 120% in 2012 to around 140% at the end of 2017. Approximately 40% of this debt was understood to consist of interest-only loans, partially made up of property investors seeking tax incentives, and owner occupiers seeking more affordable repayments.

While regulations implemented by APRA and ASIC have helped to strengthen mortgage lending standards and limit the growth of risky home loans, there remains a substantial stock of mortgage debt at risk in the market.

Using the guideline that households paying more than 30% of their gross income towards servicing their mortgage can be considered to be in mortgage stress, only 25% of Australia’s owner-occupiers could be considered to be in mortgage stress as of the end of 2016, according to the survey of Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA). These findings fall in line with Census data, which found that the number of stressed households declined from around 28% in 2011 to around 20% in 2016.

The RBA also found that a significant proportion of owner-occupier households are ahead on their mortgage payments, which could serve to help insulate them from the effects of mortgage stress if rates or conditions were to change. Buffers against mortgage stress, including balances in offset accounts and redraw facilities, were found to have been rising over the past few years, with total owner-occupier buffers being at around 19% of outstanding loan balances or around 2 ½ years of scheduled repayments at current interest rates in 2017.

“My overall interpretation of these myriad pieces of information is that, while debt levels are relatively high, and there are owner-occupier households that are experiencing some financial stress, this group is not currently growing rapidly. This suggests that the risks to financial institutions and financial stability more broadly from household mortgage stress are not particularly acute at the moment.” – Michele Bullock

Mortgage stress for investors

According to the RBA, investment in housing has been growing strongly in recent years, to the point of representing approximately one third of outstanding housing debt. According to the ATO, in 2014/15, around 11% of the adult population, or just over 2 million people, had at least one investment property and around 80% of those were geared. 

The risks to these investors were found to be different to those facing owner occupiers, as investors as a group were found to be more likely to have higher incomes, and lower loan to value ratios (LVRs), thanks to larger deposits and ownership of other assets.

However, because investors have less incentive than owner-occupiers to pay down their loan’s principal over time, these borrowers may find themselves at greater risk of ending up in negative equity if housing prices were to crash. What’s more, any rush to sell investment properties and minimise capital losses could risk exacerbating house price falls across the market, and risk seeing the housing market end up in oversupply, according to the RBA.

Recent intervention from the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA), was found by the RBA to have bumped up variable interest-only loan rates by 60 basis points since 2016. However, considering that many lenders assess investors based on their ability to service a loan at a minimum interest rate of at least 7%, many borrowers should be in a position to absorb these rate rises, according to Michele Bullock.

The RBA found that the risk of mortgage stress for investors could increase between 2018 and 2022, which is when a significant proportion of existing interest only loans are due to expire. This could lead to some borrowers failing to meet the requirements to extend their interest-only period, but struggling to afford principal and interest repayments.

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Learn more about home loans

What is mortgage stress?

Mortgage stress is when you don’t have enough income to comfortably meet your monthly mortgage repayments and maintain your lifestyle. Many experts believe that mortgage stress starts when you are spending 30 per cent or more of your pre-tax income on mortgage repayments.

Mortgage stress can lead to people defaulting on their loans which can have serious long term repercussions.

The best way to avoid mortgage stress is to include at least a 2 – 3 per cent buffer in your estimated monthly repayments. If you could still make your monthly repayments comfortably at a rate of up to 8 or 9 per cent then you should be in good position to meet your obligations. If you think that a rate rise would leave you at a risk of defaulting on your loan, consider borrowing less money.

If you do find yourself in mortgage stress, talk to your bank about ways to potentially reduce your mortgage burden. Contacting a financial counsellor can also be a good idea. You can locate a free counselling service in your state by calling the national hotline: 1800 007 007 or visiting www.financialcounsellingaustralia.org.au.

How much debt is too much?

A home loan is considered to be too large when the monthly repayments exceed 30 per cent of your pre-tax income. Anything over this threshold is officially known as ‘mortgage stress’ – and for good reason – it can seriously affect your lifestyle and your actual stress levels.

The best way to avoid mortgage stress is by factoring in a sizeable buffer of at least 2 – 3 per cent. If this then tips you over into the mortgage stress category, then it’s likely you’re taking on too much debt.

If you’re wondering if this kind of buffer is really necessary, consider this: historically, the average interest rate is around 7 per cent, so the chances of your 30 year loan spending half of its time above this rate is entirely plausible – and that’s before you’ve even factored in any of life’s emergencies such as the loss of one income or the arrival of a new family member.

How long should I have my mortgage for?

The standard length of a mortgage is between 25-30 years however they can be as long as 40 years and as few as one. There is a benefit to having a shorter mortgage as the faster you pay off the amount you owe, the less you’ll pay your bank in interest.

Of course, shorter mortgages will require higher monthly payments so plug the numbers into a mortgage calculator to find out how many years you can potentially shave off your budget.

For example monthly repayments on a $500,000 over 25 years with an interest rate of 5% are $2923. On the same loan with the same interest rate over 30 years repayments would be $2684 a month. At first blush, the 30 year mortgage sounds great with significantly lower monthly repayments but remember, stretching your loan out by an extra five years will see you hand over $89,396 in interest repayments to your bank.

What happens to your mortgage when you die?

There is no hard and fast answer to what will happen to your mortgage when you die as it is largely dependent on what you have set out in your mortgage agreement, your will (if you have one), other assets you may have and if you have insurance. If you have co-signed the mortgage with another person that person will become responsible for the remaining debt when you die.

If the mortgage is in your name only the house will be sold by the bank to cover the remaining debt and your nominated air will receive the remaining sum if there is a difference. If there is a turn in the market and the sale of your house won’t cover the remaining debt the case may go to court and the difference may have to be covered by the sale of other assets.  

If you have a life insurance policy your family may be able to use some of the lump sum payment from this to pay down the remaining mortgage debt. Alternatively, your lender may provide some form of mortgage protection that could assist your family in making repayments following your passing.

Which mortgage is the best for me?

The best mortgage to suit your needs will vary depending on your individual circumstances. If you want to be mortgage free as soon as possible, consider taking out a mortgage with a shorter term, such as 25 years as opposed to 30 years, and make the highest possible mortgage repayments. You might also want to consider a loan with an offset facility to help reduce costs. Investors, on the other hand, might have different objectives so the choice of loan will differ.

Whether you decide on a fixed or variable interest rate will depend on your own preference for stability in repayment amounts, and flexibility when it comes to features.

If you do not have a deposit or will not be in a financial position to make large repayments right away you may wish to consider asking a parent to be a guarantor or looking at interest only loans. Again, which one of these options suits you best is reliant on many factors and you should seek professional advice if you are unsure which mortgage will suit you best.

What percentage of income should my mortgage repayments be?

As a general rule, mortgage repayments should be less than 30 per cent of your pre-tax income to avoid falling into mortgage stress. When mortgage repayments exceed this amount it becomes hard to budget for other living expenses and your lifestyle quality may be diminished.

How do I calculate monthly mortgage repayments?

Work out your mortgage repayments using a home loan calculator that takes into account your deposit size, property value and interest rate. This is divided by the loan term you choose (for example, there are 360 months in a 30-year mortgage) to determine the monthly repayments over this time frame.

Over the course of your loan, your monthly repayment amount will be affected by changes to your interest rate, plus any circumstances where you opt to pay interest-only for a period of time, instead of principal and interest.

What are the responsibilities of a mortgage broker?

Mortgage brokers act as the go-between for borrowers looking for a home loan and the lenders offering the loan. They offer personalised advice to help borrowers choose the right home loan for their needs.

In Australia, mortgage brokers are required by law to carry an Australian Credit License (ACL) if they offer credit assistance services. Which is the legal term for guidance regarding the different kinds of credit offered by lenders, including home loan mortgages. They may not need this license if they are working for an aggregator, for instance, as a franchisee. In both these situations, they need to comply with the regulations laid down by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC).

These regulations, which are stipulated by Australian legislation, require mortgage brokers to comply with what are called “responsible lending” and “best interest” obligations. Responsible lending obligations mean brokers have to suggest “suitable” home loans. This means loans that you can easily qualify for,  actually meet your needs, and don’t prove unnecessarily challenging for you.

Starting 1 January 2021, mortgage brokers must comply with best interest obligations in addition to responsible lending obligations. These require mortgage brokers to act in the best interest of their customers and also requires them to prioritise their customers’ interests over their own. For instance, a mortgage broker may not recommend a lender who gives them a commission if that lender’s home loan offer does not benefit that particular customer.

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.

Interest Rate

Your current home loan interest rate. To accurately calculate how much you could save, an accurate interest figure is required. If you are not certain, check your bank statement or log into your mortgage account.

Do mortgage brokers need a consumer credit license?

In Australia, mortgage brokers are defined by law as being credit service or assistance providers, meaning that they help borrowers connect with lenders. Mortgage brokers may not always need a consumer credit license however if they’re operating solo they will need an Australian Credit License (ACL). Further, they may also need to comply with requirements asking them to mention their license number in full.

Some mortgage brokers can be “credit representatives”, or franchisees of a mortgage aggregator. In this case, if the aggregator has a license, the mortgage broker need not have one. The reasoning for this is that the franchise agreement usually requires mortgage brokers to comply with the laws applicable to the aggregator. If you’re speaking to a mortgage broker, you can ask them if they receive commissions from lenders, which is a good indicator that they need to be licensed. Consider requesting their license details if they don’t give you the details beforehand. 

You should remember that such a license protects you if you’re given incorrect or misleading advice that results in a home loan application rejection or any financial loss. Brokers are regulated by the Australian Securities & Investment Commission (ASIC), as per the National Consumer Credit Protection (NCCP) Act. 

How to break up with your mortgage broker

If you find a mortgage broker giving you generic advice or trying to sell you a competitive offer from an unsuitable lender, you might be better off  breaking up with the mortgage broker and consulting someone else. Breaking up with a mortgage broker can be done over the phone, or via email. You can also raise a complaint, either with the broker’s aggregator or with the Australian Financial Complaints Authority as necessary.

As licensed industry professionals, mortgage brokers have the responsibility of giving you accurate advice so that you know what to expect when you apply for a home loan. You may have approached the mortgage broker, for instance, because you have questions about the terms of a home loan a lender offered you. 

You should remember that mortgage brokers are obliged by law to act in your best interests and as part of complying with The Australian Securities and Investments Commission’s (ASIC) regulations. If you feel you didn’t get the right advice from the mortgage broker, or that you lost money as a result of accepting the broker’s suggestions regarding a lender or home loan offer, you can file a complaint with the ASIC and seek compensation. 

When you first speak to a mortgage broker, consider asking them about their Lender Panel, which is the list of lenders they usually recommend and who may pay them a commission. This information can help you decide if the advice they give you has anything to do with the remuneration they may receive from one or more lenders.

How much are repayments on a $250K mortgage?

The exact repayment amount for a $250,000 mortgage will be determined by several factors including your deposit size, interest rate and the type of loan. It is best to use a mortgage calculator to determine your actual repayment size.

For example, the monthly repayments on a $250,000 loan with a 5 per cent interest rate over 30 years will be $1342. For a loan of $300,000 on the same rate and loan term, the monthly repayments will be $1610 and for a $500,000 loan, the monthly repayments will be $2684.

What is the best interest rate for a mortgage?

The fastest way to find out what the lowest interest rates on the market are is to use a comparison website.

While a low interest rate is highly preferable, it is not the only factor that will determine whether a particular loan is right for you.

Loans with low interest rates can often include hidden catches, such as high fees or a period of low rates which jumps up after the introductory period has ended.

To work out the best value for money, have a look at a loan’s comparison rate and read the fine print to get across all the fees and charges that you could be theoretically charged over the life of the loan.