Mortgage debt for older Australians is a growing obligation

Mortgage debt for older Australians is a growing obligation
Mortgage debt for older Australians is a growing obligation

Mortgage debt obligations for older Australians is a growing concern. 

The average mortgage debt of those aged 55 and older has grown by almost seven times since the late 1980s, according to research by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI).

Their mortgage debt, after accounting for inflation, rose from $27,000 in 1987 to $186,000 to 2015.

Back in 1987, only 14% of Australians over 55 had a mortgage.

But it doubled to 28% by 2015, AHURI found.

There has been a severe increase in repayment risk, although low interest rates have mitigated the level of current concern.

The mortgagor older population is more prone to material deprivation than outright property owners.

Nearly 8% of older mortgagors have been unable to pay their utility bills on time between 2006 and 2016, compared to around 3% of outright owners.

The blow-out has been made worse by the practice of redrawing equity on their home loans and also extending the length of their home loans.

Between 1987 and 2015, the growth in mortgage debt outstripped both house price and income growth among older mortgagors.

With reduced incomes approaching and on retirement, the average mortgage debt-to-income ratio was 71% in 1987, and 211% by 2015.

The research by found mortgage indebtedness was uncommon among the 55–64 cohort as recently as the 1990s.

The report's lead author, Rachel ViforJ, professor of economics at Curtin University, says these days the mental health effects on the older Australians with mortgages are "comparable to those resulting from long-term health conditions".

The Curtin and RMIT research concluded when older mortgagors experience difficulty in meeting mortgage payments their wellbeing declines. It's more so for women than men. Single status, marital breakdown, ill health and poor labour market engagement all adversely affect women’s mental health more than men.

"There is already significant concern in policy circles about older people’s vulnerability to poverty, particularly single elderly women, who have longer life expectancies than men, but lower superannuation balances," the report noted.

Older retired mortgagors are increasingly drawing down their limited superannuation balances.

As their average superannuation balances tumbled from $471,000 to $271,000 between 2010 and 2014, average equity stakes in their property rose from $621,000 to $667,000. 

The ARUHI modelling predicts an "increasingly tenure polarised seniors population".

Outright ownership will remain an important but weaker pillar supporting living standards in old age.

Outright ownership status will be attained later in life and with lower incomes.

The projections suggest that 1.88 million older Australians could be in before-housing poverty in 2031.

This count falls by 730,000 to 1.15 million on an after-housing cost basis.

The report urges long-term planning for a mortgage debt repayment strategy.

It may prove especially worthwhile for those particularly "vulnerable to biographical disruption, or with weak labour market engagement, or those with higher levels of debt throughout their life course as financial innovations enabled home owners to draw down on the wealth stored in their family home without moving".

Downsizing is, of course, one obvious strategy.

But the report warns stamp duties, pension income and the asset means tests that penalise downsizers, along with a lack of suitable smaller dwellings in the neighbourhoods of older empty nesters and lone persons households, are important issues for state and federal governments.

Home ownership has often been dubbed the fourth pillar of the retirement incomes system.

However, this pillar may be crumbling due to rising mortgage indebtedness, the report concludes.

This article first appeared in The Daily Telegraph. 

Jonathan Chancellor

Jonathan Chancellor

Jonathan Chancellor is one of Australia's most respected property journalists, having been at the top of the game since the early 1980s. Jonathan co-founded the property industry website Property Observer and has written for national and international publications.

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