Sunday, 16 December 2012

Interest rates: are your investment decisions sending you to an early grave?

On the first Tuesday of every month something happens that gets every property investor and commentator curious.

I am talking about the meeting that the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) has every month to talk about all things interest rates. 

It may seem insignificant to change interest rates by 0.25%, but 0.25% means millions of dollars for banks and financial institutions. If property owners are treading that fine line of only just being able to service their loans, then one rate change in the wrong direction could leave them struggling to make ends meet, and a couple rate changes could leave them close to having to sell their home or even facing bankruptcy.

This is why it is so important that people take into consideration the potential consequences of rate changes before they sign up to a new loan. A property loan is a long-term deal. Even with refinancing you could still be locked in for up to three years - and facing 30 potential rate changes in that period.

It's a matter of needing to hope for the best but plan for the worst.

I still remember when I got my first home loan ... the standard variable rate at the time was about 5.80% per annum and with that rate I was comfortable making the repayments, even being able to manage some extra repayments. But before I finally signed off on the contract, I wanted to make sure that changes to the interest rate wouldn’t leave me bankrupt. Having done the sums, I would have still been able to make the repayments if the interest rate rose to 10.00% per annum.

A simple way to check is to add 3.00% to the current standard rate and see if you are still able to make repayments. If you can then you should have no problems servicing the loan.

It’s interesting to note that most financial institutions don’t advise you to carry out this sort of simple, yet very important, check. I was given pre-approval for a loan amount way out of my limit. Add to that a few rate changes in the wrong direction and I would have been on the brink of not being able to service the loan.

In my opinion, this is just pure greed on the part of financial institutions and is plain negligent. A lot of people will take the pre-approval amount and start looking for properties up to this price range, completely unaware of the precarious position they are putting themselves in. Add to this the tendency for Australians (at least in the past) to live way above their means and you have a perfect recipe for disaster.

At the end of the day, however, people still need to take accountability for their own actions and should take a greater interest in their finances. Getting finance is the most powerful tool property investors have in regards to building wealth, but, like most things, it is a double-edged sword. You need to take stock of your current situation and plan for the different circumstances that could arise in the future.

I have watched my parents worry about bills as they come in and get stressed at the increases to grocery prices. One of the things that they did do right was to pay off their home loan as fast as they could. Couple that with a large deposit and they didn’t need to wait for RBA’s monthly interest rate announcement with sweaty palms.

It is this mentality that I have emulated. When I see the interest rates change, I know my large buffer will keep me going before things get tight. As I increase my investment property portfolio, I make sure that I use these ideals in every investment decision. The last thing that I want is to be watching the news once a month, praying that the RBA does not increase interest rates, knowing that if they do, it would lead to financial catastrophe.

Investing is about growing wealth, not about growing stress.

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