Losing a job can be one of life’s big stressors, especially when you’re paying off a home loan.

Retrenchment, redundancy, or workplace dismissals are often entirely unexpected, sending mortgage holders into a blind panic about servicing their loan repayments.

Although unemployment figures in Australia have been relatively low since the end of the pandemic, currently 3.9%, analysts are widely predicting the unemployment rate to rise during 2024.

In its employment forecasts for 2024 and 2025, Deloitte Access Economics predicts Australia's unemployment rate will jump to 4.5% by June.

It says new hiring in white-collar jobs is currently “falling off a cliff” while there will also be very soft growth in blue collar jobs.

Check your entitlements

The first step an employee should take is to ensure they are being paid the correct entitlements from their previous employer. The Fair Work Ombudsman sets out rights and obligations regarding notice periods, final pay provisions, and redundancy entitlements when employment ends.

There are different rights according to the terms of an employee’s appointment; also when a position has been made redundant or when a business becomes bankrupt.

Services Australia also offers advice for the recently unemployed, including how to access government support payments according to eligibility. However, even when eligibility is established, Legal Aid Queensland says it is generally around eight weeks before Centrelink payments begin.

Time for the emergency savings fund

Ideally, home loan holders should have an emergency savings fund set aside for such occasions to tide them over until they find their feet again.

The average Australian has around $34,500 in savings, according to National Australia Bank’s Australian Wellbeing survey, released in November 2023. However, with the cost-of-living crisis, fuelled by rising interest rates and inflation, many Australians have been dipping into their savings to meet their mortgage repayments and living expenses.

The latest household savings figures, released in December 2023, show Australian households were able to save just 1.1% of their disposable incomes over the quarter to September 2023. That put the savings ratio into decline for eight straight quarters, making it the lowest household savings ratio since 2007.

Understandably, some homeowners may feel the squeeze if their income stream is unexpectedly halted.

Make a budget

Australia’s largest home lender, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia recommends the newly unemployed make a budget for the next three months, listing all essential expenses. The bank says it’s also a good opportunity to distinguish what costs are needs and what are wants. Even if savings cover the next three months of costs, CommBank recommends cutting back on non-essential expenses anyway to provide breathing room.

It also suggests considering short-term work to help make ends meet during the job-hunting period. Even if short-term work just covers the grocery bills, it’s money that won’t have to come out of savings or be repaid further down the line.

Other places to seek short-term financial assistance can include a partner, family, or friends. However, many people may feel reluctant to ask for help from personal contacts. Losing a job, and facing financial pressure as a result, is often accompanied by feelings of shame and guilt. However, there is a viable alternative.

Letting your lender know

A good place to seek assistance is lenders themselves. Community legal group Financial Rights Legal Centre says many banks and non-bank lenders routinely consider what are called ‘hardship variation’ requests.

A hardship variation is generally a temporary arrangement with a lender until a borrower can get back on their feet. These short-term variations to the terms of a loan are designed to cover a few months until normal repayments resume. Under a hardship request, lenders may consider:

  • postponing or reducing repayments for a few months

  • reducing or freezing the interest rate for a few months

  • extending the term of the loan so the missed payments are added to the end of the loan

  • waiving default or other penalty fees

Even if the loan was taken out with another person, a borrower can still ask for a hardship variation even if the joint loan holder doesn’t agree. When applying for a variation, the Financial Rights Legal Centre advises having a plan for how and when normal repayments can resume.

What to know about hardship requests

A hardship variation will not fix any late payments already reported to the consumer credit reporting agency. Any late payments remain on a person’s credit report for two years from the time they were reported.

This is why it’s imperative to ask for a variation as early as possible, either via phone or email. It’s advised to keep records of all dealings and correspondence with the lender. Bear in mind too, many lenders are legally required to work with people in financial hardship. These include:

  • banks, credit unions, and building societies

  • members of the Mortgage and Finance Association of Australia

  • members of the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (ACFA). (All consumer lenders are members.)

How do lenders generally respond?

A lender may or may not agree to a hardship variation, or request more information. Sometimes a lender may propose an alternative variation than what was requested. In any case, it’s essential to keep a record of the decision and get in writing the exact conditions of any variations granted. These may include the amount and frequency of repayments, interest or fees charged, start and end dates, and what happens after that time.

If a lender doesn’t agree to a request, it is obliged to explain why and also how to make an internal complaint. It also must advise a borrower of their right to complain to the watchdog body, the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA).

As well, if the lender doesn’t respond within 21 days (as consumer credit lenders are obliged to do by law), it’s best to go back to the lender. If that is unsuccessful, the matter can be pursued via AFCA.

What if the income in your new job doesn’t meet the income of your old one?

If a borrower’s income level is not as high as it was previously, their home loan can be refinanced with the existing lender, or by looking around for a more suitable deal among other lenders. A homeowner might also consider renting out the property if they can arrange an alternative living situation that allows them to cover their mortgage repayments and live with lower costs, for example, moving in with family or shifting to a lower-cost rental area.

Alternatively, the homeowner may consider selling, ideally when the sale provides a lump sum of cash to pay off the existing home loan and leaving enough left over to purchase another property where the loan is more easily serviced at the new income level. However, there are many steps to take before considering such a step.

Savings.com.au’s two cents

Losing a job certainly creates short-term stress, both financially and emotionally, but it rarely triggers long-term unemployment. It’s worth noting research by Seek, Australia’s leading job site, found 93% of employers said candidates being made redundant in a previous role wasn’t a negative in hiring them.

A LinkedIn survey also found 80% of people who unexpectedly lost their jobs said it takes more than three months to find another position. The best advice is to hang in there.

Image by Valeriia Miller on Unsplash

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