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When interest-only is OK

interest only loan

The Australian Securities & Investments Commission (ASIC) is cracking down on interest-only loans. After an eight-month investigation, the regulator found many lenders had been falling short of legal standards in assessing applications.

I’m all for responsible lending and in most cases I’d say you should pay principal and interest (P&I) on your loan. But let’s be real here. The combination of negative gearing and concessional capital gains tax means interest-only (IO) loans can make sound financial sense. Here are three strong reasons to pay interest-only:

Flipping your home loan
When you flip your home into an investment you want to be able to claim the highest possible tax deduction. Paying P&I while it’s a home loan will reduce later interest payments and hence the possible deduction.
Smartline mortgage adviser Scott McCray suggests you pay interest-only on your home loan and put extra repayments in an offset account. This may mean a slightly higher rate, about 0.27% more. “For tax effectiveness it is better to put the extra funds into a linked offset account instead of the loan,” he says.

Let’s say you have a $450,000 loan. If over time you put an extra $100,000 into your offset account, you still have a $450,000 loan but only pay interest on $350,000. If you convert the property to an investment, you’d have a $450,000 loan and you could claim the interest as a tax deduction. But if you’d put the $100,000 directly into the loan, it would be cut to $350,000 and, when you convert, you can claim only the interest on $350,000.

Cut non-deductible debt
On a $450,000, 30-year investment loan with an interest rate of 4.25%, the difference in monthly repayments between P&I and IO repayments is $519 a month (assuming a loading of 0.27% on the IO loan). If you put this extra cash back into your $450,000 home loan you could save $120,000 in interest and shave nine years off your term. Plus, you’d maximise the tax benefits on your investment loan. Not a bad reason to be paying interest only!

Mortgage Choice CEO John Flavell says this strategy applies even if you don’t have an investment loan but do have other personal debts at a higher rate.

“The interest rates charged on unsecured debt like car loans, personal loans and even credit cards are, generally speaking, considerably higher than the interest rate charged on a home loan,” he says. “It makes sense for property owners to use the money they save by making interest-only mortgage repayments to pay down their various non-tax-deductible debts with higher interest rates first.”

You plan to sell in a year or so
This could backfire if the property market slumps sharply but the idea here is that you minimise your mortgage repayments in the short term while your property value and your equity grow (or after your equity has grown). Hotspotting reports numerous Sydney suburbs are up more than 20% in the past year, including Carnes Hill, Liverpool and Moorebank, so this strategy would have worked well.

Of course, hindsight is wonderful but not something you can rely on for future strategies. There are drawbacks to interest-only loans, which is why ASIC is concerned. As Flavell says, “paying interest-only frees up your cash flow  but if you end up using that extra cash to pay for day-to-day ‘stuff’ rather than for additional investment or to pay down other debt, it could well be wasted money”. Then there’s also the risk that if rates go up and property prices down, an interest-only loan could leave you with negative equity. Plan IO loans wisely.

Spend your Christmas wisely
 Avoid festive financial strife this year by following these few tips to make sure Christmas is about only family, friends and fond memories:
1. Set a budget and stick to it. The Christmas tree can still be full of gifts, even if they all come within budget.
2. Shop with what you’ve got. Avoid dipping into savings or using credit cards to buy gifts with money you don’t already own.
3. If you do shop on a credit card, pay it off quickly and within the interest-free period, otherwise your budget will automatically blow out because of the interest owed on your credit card.
4. Better still, shop with loyalty points or on rewards programs. If you never use your rewards program, make the most of it at Christmas and redeem rewards for gifts.
5. Hold on to your receipts so you have a realistic idea of how much this Christmas cost you. It’ll make it much easier to plan for next year.

Written by Effie Zahos

Effie Zahos

Editor Effie Zahos started out as a graduate trainee for one of Australia’s major banks. She moved to TV in 1997, kick-starting her career in finance journalism as head researcher for Channel Nine’s Money Show. A regular finance commentator on TV and radio, she is the author of The Great $20 Adventure.

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