In its submission to the royal commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Finance sector, the not-for-profit consumer organisation, the Consumer Action Law Centre (CALC) said the number of Aussie households facing mortgage stress has “soared” nearly 20 per cent in the last six months, and argued that lenders are to blame.
Referencing Digital Finance Analytics’ prediction that homes facing mortgage stress will top 1 million by 2019, CALC said older Australians are at particular risk.
The organisation explained: “Irresponsible mortgage lending can have severe consequences, including the loss of the security of a home.
“Consumer Action’s experience is that older people are at significant risk, particularly where they agree to mortgage or refinance their home for the benefit of third parties. This can be family members or someone who holds their trust.”
Continuing, CALC said a “common situation” features adult children persuading an older relative to enter into a loan contract as the borrower, assuring them that they will execute all the repayments.
“[However] the lack of appropriate inquiries into the suitability of a loan only comes to light when the adult child defaults on loan repayments and the bank commences proceedings for possession of the loan in order to discharge the debt,” CALC said.
The centre referred to a Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) case study in which retiree and pensioner, Anne, entered into a loan contract with her son Brian. The repayments were to be made out of Brian’s salary and Anne’s pension. The loan was requested in order to extend her home so that Brian could live with her.
Following loan approval, the lender provided more advances under the loan contract. The advances were used to pay off Brian’s credit debt and buy a car.
When Brian left his job to travel, Anne could no longer afford the repayments and the lender said it would repossess her home.
“Anne lodged a dispute with FOS. After considering the dispute, FOS concluded that Anne was appropriately a co-debtor in the original loan contract, as she had received a direct benefit from the loan (the extension to her home and therefore an increase in its value),” CALC said.
“However, FOS considered that she was not liable for the further advances as she did not directly benefit from the application of the funds. Even though the repayment of Brian's credit card debts may have provided more towards the household income, FOS concluded that this was not a direct benefit to Anne.
“Neither was the purchase of a car for Brian, as there was no information to show that Anne used the car or relied on Brian to transport her.”
CALC also expressed concern that the Household Expenditure Measure (HEM) is not a robust enough living expense test.
Noting that the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority shares their concern, the centre said the reliance on the HEM test raises concerns about the robustness of the actual measure.
“APRA states that it has concerns about whether these benchmarks provide realistic assessments of a borrower’s living expenses.
“In the same vein, ASIC has issued proceedings against Westpac in the Federal Court for failing to properly assess whether borrowers could meet repayment obligations, due to the use of benchmarks rather than the actual expenses declared by borrowers.”
CALC warned that over-indebtedness has ramifications for the economy but also for individuals and families.
Highlighting the link between high levels of debt and lower standards of living, CALC said it can have significant long-term effects as well, with the capacity to damage housing, health, education and retirement prospects.