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Bank’s big move as mortgage cliff looms

One of Australia’s major banks has made a big change to its refinancing policy, which will be welcome news to homeowners battling spiking interest rates.

Westpac will lower the stress test for homeowners looking to refinance in a bid to help borrowers avoid “mortgage prison”. Nearly 900,000 Australians who secured record low interest rates on a fixed term mortgage during the Covid-19 pandemic will have come off the rate and face significantly higher levels of interest on their new repayments.

Making matters worse, some looking to refinance their loan with a new bank in the hope of a lower interest rate are finding they are trapped where they are, as they cannot pass a financial stress test.

Under the standard test, a bank checks a borrower’s finances to ensure they would still be able to make repayments if interest rates rose by 3 per cent more than the rate they are currently looking to borrow at.

From next week, Westpac will allow some people looking to refinance their mortgage to be tested under a “modified Serviceability Assessment Rate” if they do not pass the standard serviceability test.

To be eligible, customers must have a credit score of more than 650 and a good track record of paying down all existing debts over the last 12 months. The move has been lauded by RateCity, which has called on the banking regulator to lower the assessment rate for people looking to refinance existing loans. “The current buffer of 3 percentage points helps ensure new borrowers don’t take out excessive debts compared to their incomes,” a statement from the financial comparison website reads. “However, the test is locking some existing borrowers into mortgage prison.

“These are often households that borrowed at or near capacity when rates were at record lows and the APRA stress test was at 2.5 per cent. Yet it is these borrowers that are likely to need rate relief more than ever to help stay afloat. “While different stress tests for new and existing borrowers would be more complicated for the banks to implement, enabling people in mortgage prison to refinance could potentially help prevent some from defaulting on their loan.”

Data from the Reserve Bank of Australia in April predicted about 880,000 Australians who had fixed their mortgage when interest rates were at record lows would have come off the rate and faced huge increases to the interest payments on their loans by the end of 2023.

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