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    Irish homeowners need to act fast for decent fixed rate mortgage

    Anyone attempting to weigh up their mortgage options lately would have been kept on their toes, with barely a week passing without a big change of one sort or other being announced.

    Finance Ireland temporarily suspended its long-term fixed rates of ten years or more, just over a year after it introduced them. Meanwhile, the Central Bank of Ireland relaxed its lending rules and AIB increased its fixed rates by half a percentage point — with other lenders expected to follow suit in the near future.

    Mark Coan, the founder of moneysherpa, described it as a “whirlwind few weeks”, noting that the latest European Central Bank (ECB) rate increases have pushed the average tracker rate above 3 per cent.

    “The refinance rate is now at 2 per cent, the highest level since 2008. This is important because, when this rate goes up, around 240,000 tracker and variable-rate mortgages are likely to go up as well,” Coan said.

    Higher ECB rates also put pressure on the pricing of lenders’ fixed-rate offers for new business, he added, which would have fed into AIB’s fixed-rate increases and Finance Ireland’s suspension of long-term products.

     

    Lending limits

    The Central Bank’s easing of lending rules — due to kick in from January — means that first-time buyers will be able to borrow up to four times their income, while second-time and subsequent buyers will be able to borrow 90 rather than 80 per cent of the purchase price.

    Coan said the change for first-time buyers should give renters who have been “frozen out” of the property ladder more access to credit. He recently compared average rents with average mortgage repayments and found that renters would pay an average of €306 a month less if they had a mortgage on the same property. “So not only would they have more cash at the end of the month, they would also build up equity in their home,” Coan said.

    “The 3.5 loan-to-income limit stopped many households from building family wealth in this way and was deeply unfair.”

    However, Martina Hennessy, chief executive of doddl, said that, in this environment of rising rates, the relaxing of rules might be countered by lenders’ credit assessments, which stress-test mortgage applicants for affordability.

    “The stress test is generally based on two [percentage points] above prevailing rates, so the higher the rate, the harsher the test,” she said. “The lenders’ own stress tests may mean that the four times cap cannot be reached by many, particularly those on more modest incomes.”

     

    Fixed and variable rate customers

    The ECB’s rate hike in October was the third in just four months and was unwelcome news for the 200,000-plus tracker mortgage holders who would have seen their repayments rise by €100 a month for every €100,000 owed, Hennessy said. “The indications are that there are more increases to come — the only question being the pace and magnitude of those increases,” she added.

    Michael Dowling, managing director at Dowling Financial, noted that the markets were pricing in another 0.5-point increase on December 15, with a strong possibility of another 0.5-point rise before June next year.

    To anyone on a tracker, he advised checking the remaining term and the margin being charged above the ECB base rate before contacting banks to ask about fixed-rate options.

    Dowling said he was getting many calls from tracker holders wondering whether to move to a fixed rate. While he felt there was no definitive answer, he suggested asking whether people could afford the higher repayments over the next few years. “Some can but others cannot, and they will have to forgo the tracker for a cheaper fixed rate,” he said.

    As a general rule of thumb, however, Dowling said anyone paying a margin of no more than 1.25 points above the ECB rate should think carefully before leaving their tracker.

    “Yes, the repayments are higher but we have had 11 years of relatively benign rates,” he said. “We are now in a cycle of higher rates, which may last three or five years, but they will come down again at some stage and [tracker holders] will benefit immediately.”

    By contrast, Dowling advised anyone on a standard variable rate to lock into a fixed rate now. Note that if you have already applied to AIB, you can avail of its pre-increase rates as long as you draw down by November 14. Even those already on good-value fixed rates may want to assess their options.

    “There are 127,000 mortgage holders with fixed rates for less than three years,” Coan said. “They might want to consider refixing on to five-year [or longer] deals in order to avoid potentially coming off on to the highest variable rates seen in the last 20 years, with possibly worse fixed-rate options than on offer today.”

     

    Good value options

    The good news is that there is still value to be had in fixed rates. Coan cited four-year fixed rates as low as 1.9 per cent and seven-year fixed from 2.25 per cent.

    Meanwhile, holders of Ulster Bank or KBC mortgages may want to think twice before jumping ship just because these lenders are quitting Ireland.

    “People’s immediate thoughts are that they have to move [their mortgage], but both of these banks have attractive fixed options,” Dowling said. He gave the examples of KBC’s five-year fixed rate of 2.6 per cent and Ulster Bank’s five-year rate of 2.2 per cent, saying customers should not be overly concerned that the loans will be taken over by another financial institution because the terms and conditions must remain the same.

    Customers do not necessarily have to switch; ask about their fixed options. For example, one married couple, both aged 46, owed €305,000 on a tracker rate of the ECB basis plus 1.75 points with AIB. With 20 years left on the mortgage, their home was valued at €675,000 and their monthly repayments in June were €1,507.

    In stark contrast, their repayment in November will be €1,808, given an interest rate of 3.75 per cent.

    “Based on market pricing today, which suggests that the interest rate next June will be 4.75 per cent, their repayments at that stage will be €1,971,” Dowling said.

    There are various fixed-rate alternatives for this couple while staying with their current lender, as long as they act by November 14. For example, if they took a three or five-year rate of 2.35 per cent, their repayments for that term would be €1,594 a month. Alternatively they could opt for a seven-year fixed rate of 2.95 per cent, which would put their monthly repayments at €1,684, or fix for ten years at 3.1 per cent, putting their repayments at €1,707 a month.

     

    Long, long term

    While you can get fixed-term mortgages of up to 30 years from Avant, it is the only lender offering terms beyond ten years. “It means less choice at a time when there is also less competition as a result of the departure of KBC and Ulster Bank mortgage products,” Hennessy said.

    Brokers Ireland went a step further, describing the suspension of Finance Ireland’s more long-term mortgages as “worrying”. Rachel McGovern, director of financial services at the industry body, said it was “disappointing” to see the market losing products giving borrowers security over the long term.

    “The real worry is that other lenders could follow suit,” she said. In America, McGovern added, 30-year mortgages are still available despite rising rates.

    Dowling said Finance Ireland’s more long-term mortgages were a “breath of fresh air” when they arrived on the market — particularly with the extra flexibility they offered. “I’m a great believer in long-term fixed rates, which most Europeans are already on,” he says. “Hopefully Finance Ireland can address its funding issues and bring them out again.”

     

    Timing matters

    Every adviser had a sense of urgency on mortgages. Coan said attractive fixed rates were “unlikely to be around for much longer”. Dowling added that “time is not on people’s side” when it comes to getting moved over to a different rate.

    And as Hennessy put it, the window to take advantage of decent fixed rates is shutting.

     
     
    News by thetimes.co.uk, (Eithne Dunne).

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