The latest in Reserve Bank of India’s measures to protect customers with home loans is a proposal to change the way banks determine their `base rate’ – the benchmark for all floating rate loans. The need for a re-look arose because customers have been complaining of a raw deal in pricing.
In recent years RBI has taken a number of measures to provide a better deal for home loan borrowers. The introduction of base rate ensured that banks do not reduce rates only for new customers by playing with the interest spread. In the past banks could play with the spread as they would lend below the prime lending rate (their earlier benchmark) for new customers while old customers continued to pay over the PLR. This was not possible with the `base rate’ which was also the floor rate for pricing. In June 2012 RBI forbade banks from imposing a penalty on pre-payment of home loans irrespective of whether the loans were being refinanced or repaid. This made it possible for disgruntled borrowers to move away to rivals if their loans were not re-priced when interest rates were falling.
But there are a number of areas RBI could look into as part of its consumer protection initiative. Here are a few.
Compulsory insurance: Banks have an interest in the property mortgaged with them and they need to ensure that it is protected against any eventuality. At the same time banks also gain by selling insurance policies. But what needs to be insured is the cost of construction and not the cost of land. A 1000 square foot house may cost Rs 2 crore in Mumbai but the cost of construction would be around Rs 20 lakh. So there is no need of buying property insurance for the whole loan amount. Yet many banks insist that the buyer pay 15-year insurance premium upfront based on the market value of the property rather than the construction cost. Also in cities like Mumbai, the property is owned by the cooperative society which is required to insure the property. It is therefore not clear whether the bank’s insurance policy will pay a claim when the housing society is also making a claim for the property damage.
Non-intimation of interest rate changes: Most Property Loan borrowers focus on the interest rate at the time of availing home loans. But floating rates are dynamic and vary from time to time. The borrower is not aware of this because while rates vary, the equated monthly installment or EMI does not. Banks merely change the tenure of the loan. So in a rising interest rate regime it is not unusual for borrowers to find that their principal loan amount is unchanged even after years of repayment. Very rarely does a bank communicate to the borrower changes in interest rates.
Notice of intimation of mortgage: In Maharashtra the government has made it compulsory for all mortgage interests to be registered. This is aimed at preventing fraudulent sale of the property even as a loan is outstanding. While the objective is laudable, the trouble is with the process. Although the law actually protects the bank’s interest lenders have shifted the onus on the borrower. Rather than use their institutional clout to facilitate smooth registration, borrowers are forced to approach agents and spend a few thousands to complete this process.
No refinancing of existing loans: Lenders often poach from home loan borrowers of other institutions. But when it comes to their existing customer they do not offer them the benefit of new rates. If there is a special scheme running in the bank, existing borrowers are not informed of it. Also banks charge customers a processing fee even when their loan is refinanced within by their own bank but under a different scheme.
Complex pricing: Some banks have resorted to complicating the pricing of home loans introducing interest free years in middle of the tenure of the loan. Innovation in financial products are good only as long as they do not obscure pricing. Borrowers need to have the opportunity to compare the cost of one home loan against another. One way to make the pricing transparent is to disclose the cost in the form of annualised yield to the lender based on prevailing rates.