8 June 2007

Sydney defaults hidden away

THE number of home repossessions around the nation is up to four times higher than reported figures because lenders are disguising the nature of forced sales to prop up property prices.

Australia's biggest private debt collector, Prushka, yesterday said about three-quarters of sales forced by bank and non-bank lenders were co-ordinated with the consent of home owners, meaning they were not recorded in court repossession figures.

"By far the most popular way for lenders is to sell the property with the consent of the borrower to avoid advertising the property as a forced sale," Prushka chief executive Roger Mendelson said.

"The idea is to work with the seller because if they sell the property as a mortgagee in possession that will slaughter the price because you're going to attract the bargain hunters."

Mr Mendelson said statements by Peter Costello yesterday that Australia had a low home loan "default rate" - where borrowers can't meet mortgage repayments - failed to address the impact of increasing unreported levels of repossessions.

During a discussion about US default rates hitting an all-time high in the first quarter of 2007, the Treasurer had told Macquarie Regional Radio: "The default rate in Australia is much, much lower than it is in the US ... in fact, we have one of the lowest default rates in the world."

Experts said rising interest rates, coupled with the prevalence of low-documentation loans that do not force borrowers to disclose their income, had caused a spike in mortgage defaults in Australia.

Ian Graham, chief executive of PMI Mortgage Insurance, which insures about one million home loans, said Australia had no register for compiling total home repossessions.

"We would like to see a register introduced - I think the Reserve Bank would be one body in particular that would benefit from more complete data," Mr Graham said.

State "writs of possession" registers record only sales where lenders are forced to apply for repossession orders.

Sydney's outer western suburbs are being hardest hit by the surge in repossessions.

In NSW, 5363 writs of possession were issued last year - up 10 per cent on 2005.

Figures from the Victorian Supreme Court show there were 2791 repossession claims lodged last year, up from 2578 in 2005. The figure has more than doubled since 2003, when there were 1225.

"In southwest, west and northwest Sydney, property prices are weakest and in forced-sale situations property price declines of between 20 and 25 per cent are not unusual," Mr Graham said.

Dara Dhillon, principal of Dhillon Real Estate in Ingleburn in Sydney's outer southwest, said 90 per cent of properties coming to the market were forced sales, and the number of homes hitting the market was rising.

"It's actually getting worse by the month - in one family I was working with, the elderly mother had to return to work to keep a roof over their heads," he said.

But he said that with high employment and healthy wages growth, it was last year's interest rate rises and lax lending policies of non-bank lenders - especially "low-doc" loans where borrowers are not required to prove their income - that were to blame for the current fallout.

"It's a joke - if it was my money I wouldn't lend it but I believe lenders are still doing it," he said. "Low-doc, no-doc, whatever doc - doc doesn't even come into the picture."

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