Why the best home loan may not be the cheapest

Falling interest rates have brought housing loans back into the spotlight and many borrowers are even considering changing lenders to take advantage of what may seem to be an even cheaper rate. Unfortunately it is not as simple as it sounds.

Even if you did find a friendly bank you will almost certainly end up confused as there are now more than a thousand different home loan products in the market. Sorting through them is just as tricky as working out which phone plan is best for you.

A useful guide is the comparison rate sheet that all lenders are required by government legislation to display, but keep in mind that it is only a starting point. Even though it includes the basic loan costs such as set up fees, interest rates and ongoing charges, it does not include bank fees that are only charged in certain circumstances. These include fixed loan early termination fees and redraw fees.

But there is more to a loan than the interest rate and the fees and charges. One of the most important things to consider is flexibility. Now you might believe that a no-frills loan with low fees is perfect for you right now because your affairs are simple and your present intentions are to stay in the one house for many years, but keep in mind that change is always with us and your present loan may not be appropriate if things change.

What happens if you decide to move house, or borrow some money for renovations or investment, or need to reduce your repayments while the kids are at high school? If you have one of the no-frill loans it generally won't have a redraw facility and you may be required to take out a second mortgage for the extra money. Naturally the bank will be looking for a higher interest rate on the second mortgage.

Offset accounts are a highly desirable feature. If you deposit money in a normal interest bearing account you will probably earn less than 1.5 per cent a year. However, when you deposit money in an offset account the notional interest credited should be the same as that charged on the housing loan.

But it gets even better; instead of being credited to your account and leaving you liable for tax, the interest is taken off the principal on your non-deductible home loan. Therefore funds in an offset account earn you the same as the loan rate (currently around 5 per cent) after tax.

You can put offset accounts to good use if you intend to change residences and retain the old one. This is because you can build up funds in the offset account instead of paying them off the housing loan. There is no difference in the interest costs, as the offset account is credited at the same rate as being charged on the housing loan, but there can be a huge difference when you decide to make the move.

Think about two neighbours who started with a housing loan of $300,000 some years ago. One used all their resources to reduce the loan as fast as possible, while the other banked all their spare money into the offset account leaving the original loan high. Today, the first person owes only $100,000 - the other has a debt of $295,000 with almost $200,000 in the offset account. They both decide to upgrade to another residence, but want to keep the old one as a rental.

The second couple would be far better placed for tax purposes as they can simply withdraw the $200,000 they have in the offset account for a deposit on the new home, leaving a deductible debt of $295,000 on the existing one. In contrast, the other couple will be paying tax on a large portion of the rents from the original property as it has a very low debt, while suffering the burden of a huge non-deductible debt on their new home.

(Noel Whittaker is the author of Making Money Made Simple and numerous other books on personal finance. His advice is general in nature and readers should seek their own professional advice before making any financial decisions.)

July 22 2016 / Sydney Morning Herald