Sunday, 27 January 2013

Banks need to be transparent on housing loan

STANDARDISING and simplifying housing loan documents is a step forward. Kudos to Pemudah (Special Taskforce to facilitate business), Bank Negara and the Association of Banks in Malaysia (ABM). It will be an excellent move to reign in the rogue banks, financial institutions (FIs) and development financial institutions (DFIs).

The National House Buyers Association (HBA) views the recent standardisation of loan agreements for housing loans below RM500,000 positively. For many years, HBA has been calling for greater protection for house buyers when they buy from developers and for borrowers when taking a housing loan.

As a typical housing loan ranges between 20 and 30 years, borrowers are stuck with the terms and conditions (T&Cs) of the housing loan for a long time. Unfortunately, most borrowers do not really understand the T&Cs of housing loan, as:

(i) The loan agreements are lengthy, running between 20 and 30 pages;

(ii) They are filled with legal terms and jargon that even borrowers with a law degree will still need their legal dictionary for reference.

Even for borrowers who are law-savvy, the loan agreement is a one-way traffic; the borrower must accept all the T&Cs or find another bank, as the banks will not vary any T&Cs. However, the scenario is the same for all banks and borrowers are at their mercy. (banks in this context includeFIs and DFIs).

Another grave injustice is that the cost of legal fees for the said housing loan is borne by the borrower although the lawyer is in fact, representing the banks and on its panel, and is in no position to advise the borrower. The borrower will be required to appoint his own lawyer should he require any legal advice. But this will be futile as banks will not agree to vary any T&Cs of the loan agreements.

Standardised Loan Agreement

HBA has been urging banks in Malaysia to be fair and transparent in their dealing with borrowers. Hence, credit must be given to “participating banks” for finally agreeing to adopt a standardised template for housing loans with simplified language which is easy for the layman to understand.

Based on our quick analysis of the Standardised Loan Agreement which can be downloaded from the website of the Association of Banks in Malaysia (www.abm.org.my), the agreement does appear to contain less legal jargon and is written in a manner which is easier for the borrower to understand.

The agreement also does away with unnecessary and ridiculous restrictions that certain bank previously impose on borrowers taking housing loans, such as:

● Borrowers cannot rent out the property without the consent of the banks;
● Borrowers cannot undertake any renovations without the consent of the banks; and
● Hidden clauses which impose various hidden charges and penalties such as late payment charges on borrowers

Based on our preliminary assessment, HBA views the agreement positively and we urge the banks and Bank Negara to further improve on the following areas:

Remove the RM500,000 cap

HBA calls for the RM500,000 limit for the Standardised Loan Agreement to be removed. This agreement should be applicable for all housing loans regardless of the amount, as the nature of the housing loan is the same. Already, most landed properties in areas such as Puchong and Kota Damansara are in excess of RM500,000. Even strata-properties in locations such as Bandar Utama, Ara Damansara are already in excess of RM500,000. Why not extend the coverage to all housing loans per se?

All industry players must adopt the standardised loan agreement

It would appear that the standardised loan agreement is being used by certain participating banks on a voluntarily basis and not all commercial banks which give out housing loans are adopting this agreement. Why is this the case? Bank Negara should compel all commercial banks to adopt this standardised agreement. In addition, non-banking Institutions that give out housing loans, such as DFIs, insurance companies must also be compelled to adopt the agreement. Why shouldn't the house buyers offered similar protection here?

Non-members of ABM such as DFIs include Bank Islam, Bank Muamalat, Bank Rakyat, Agro Bank, Bank Industri, Bank Simpanan Nasional and EXIM Bank which are formulated under their respective legislations.

Remove unnecessary fees and charges imposed on borrowers 

Certain banks currently impose unnecessary fees and charges on borrowers when they request for bank statements which are needed when sthey want to settle/refinance their housing loans, or when making EPF withdrawals to reduce their housing loans. While the fees of up to RM50 may not seem much to some people, it still is an exorbitant amount as it cost banks next to nothing to produce such statements. Moreover, it is the borrowers' right to settle/refinance the loan and/or to make EPF withdrawals to reduce their loans. A bank statement showing the principal sum outstanding is required to facilitate such transactions.

By imposing fees of up to RM50 to prepare such simple statements, banks are blatantly taking advantage of their customers as they have no choice but to pay the charges just to ensure that the transaction goes through.

HBA is calling for banks to be prohibited from charging fees for these statement to facilitate repayment, refinancing or to make EPF withdrawals to reduce their loans. Some Banks are already charging RM10 for “reprint” of a bank statement on current accounts. Can you imagine a situation where the customer has not received his monthly bank statement for whatever reason and has to pay RM10 for a “reprint” of his own bank statement?

Banks can unilaterally vary theinterest rate

However, upon closer inspection of the standardised template, HBA noticed that a clause currently found in most housing loans has been carried forward. .

Even if the borrower had faithfully paid all his dues and installments' on time, the bank is entitled to vary the interest rate unilaterally at any time during the loan tenure. There is no such thing as sanctity of a binding contract between the borrower and the banks.

As we know, the current interest rates for housing loans are competitive, with some banks willing to go as low as BLR less 2.50%. So, what this can mean is that a few years down the road, when the banks realise that such low interest rates are no longer feasible, they can vary the interest rate from say BLR less 2.50% to BLR PLUS 2.50% and the borrower is obliged to pay the new interest rate. Furthermore, if the previous installment was only RM1,500 a month and the new installment due to the revised interest rate is RM2,500, the borrower must pay the new rate or risk the bank repossessing his house.

HBA urgently calls for Bank Negara to repeal this clause to prevent banks from having the upper hand to victimise unsuspecting borrowers. Banks must not be able to unilaterally vary the interest rate if the borrower had not defaulted on his obligations' under the loan agreement. Banks may say that they will not normally invoke/exercise the said clause. But, covenanted terms and conditions are binding upon both parties.

Lawyers have to purchase standard forms from banks

Nowadays, law firms undertaking banks' work have to purchase standardised pre-printed forms from banks. The price ranges from RM150-RM350. Would printing cost be so expensive or are banks making a profit or “mark-up” from such sales to law firms?

Such “expenses” are nevertheless passed down to customers/ borrowers as disbursements. Couldn't a “soft copy” be made available to law firms to adopt and print at their own cost and expense? Printing charges are only limited to RM50 as approved by the Bar Council.

Apportionment of payment to interest and principal shrouded in secrecy

Another grave injustice to borrowers is the allocation of monthly installments towards the settlement of principal and interest as this is not disclosed anywhere in the Loan Agreements' or even in the Standardised Template.

To illustrate a real life example, we had a complainant who took a 20-year housing loan about six years ago. After diligently paying his loan for five years, the complainant assumed that the principal amount outstanding should only be about 75% of the original amount. Unfortunately, the complainant had personally experienced, the amount was closer to 83%.

There need to be greater transparency on how the allocation of monthly repayments for interest and principal is done and this must be disclosed in the loan agreement. Moreover, the allocation must be done on a “straight line basis” so, after paying five out of a 20-year housing loan, the principal outstanding must be 75% of the original amount.

Conclusion

HBA calls for banks to continue to take cognisant of their borrowers' hardship and protect the interest of their borrowers instead of just focusing on profitability. Without the borrowers and customers, banks will not have any profits to show.

HBA also calls on Bank Negara to continue the close monitoring of banks to ensure that they do not take advantage of borrowers. The battle of borrowers against banks is akin to David vs Goliath. Timely intervention from Bank Negara is needed to balance the scale of power.

BUYERS BEWARE
By CHANG KIM LOONG

Chang Kim Loong is the honorary secretary-general of the National House Buyers Association, a non-profit, non-governmental organisation purely manned by volunteers. You can log in to www.hba.org.my

Related Articles:

ABM: Standardised housing loan agreements help consumers
KUALA LUMPUR: The standardised documentation adopt...

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