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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 March 2008, 00:35 GMT
Mortgage woes hit Sydney suburbs
By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

These are bleak times in Australia's mortgage belt.

Eddy Ajami
I had to cut down so much on the food shopping.
Eddy Ajami, taxi driver
Official interest rates are up again to 7.25%.

They haven't been this high for 12 years as the country's Reserve Bank seeks to curb creeping inflation and high commodity prices.

The pain is felt keenly in Sydney's blue collar western suburbs.

Eddy Ajami, a 58-year-old taxi driver, is working 14-hour days to stay ahead.

"I pay Australian $1,200 (US$1,109, UK 550) monthly on the mortgage, so I had to work very hard," he told the BBC.

"I had to cut down so much on the food shopping. That's me but what about the others? They can't even afford to eat."

Australian home owners with a AUD $300,000 (US$277,000, UK 140,000) mortgage will face extra repayments of about $50 a month following the rise in the cost of borrowing.

Mortgage stress

While that might seem a relatively small amount, there have now been a dozen rate increases in the last six years.

For sale sign, Sydney
House prices are falling and mortgage defaults rising

It's estimated that 300,000 Australians risk losing their homes if the cost of loans continues to spiral upwards.

Many more are suffering from mortgage stress where at least 30% of their income is spent paying off the debt.

"It's getting very difficult," said Ziba Chohali, a jewellery store owner in the Sydney district of Bankstown.

"It's not just mortgages - bread, milk and petrol are all more expensive."

Financial counsellors are reporting record numbers of mortgage defaults and bankruptcies.

Michael Burk
I've got a family of two sons and I can't afford to pay a mortgage

There are fears the latest rate hike will push more families over the edge.

Many are hanging on, but only just.

"I have to increase my work hours to five days a week just to keep on top of the mortgage so it's been a big struggle," explained Rose, a lunchtime shopper in Bankstown.

Others are seeing their hopes of buying a home slip away.

"I can't afford to buy to be honest," said Michael Buck, a 35-year-old painter.

"I've got a family of two sons and I can't afford to pay a mortgage."

The problem is most people don't have enough self-control to deal with all this ready cash and they go down the gurgler
Barry Burke, building surveyor

Mansour Kaddissi, a child care student, shares that sense of frustration.

"Buying a place would be like climbing Everest. I'd have to work for another five years before I could even raise a deposit," he said.

"I'm 31 now so it's a grim situation."

About a third of Australians own their homes outright, while a similar number has a mortgage.

The final third either rents or lives with friends and relatives.

Falling property prices

Some homeowners in Sydney's west are trapped by falling property prices and more expensive loans, according to Professor Bill Randolph from the University of New South Wales.

Home Loan sign
Easy loans meant many people may have borrowed too much
"People are stuck in housing that is devalued or potentially devaluing yet the interest rate hikes are cranking up the mortgage payments.

"If you came into the market at the top and you mortgaged up to the hilt, then you're going to be in trouble," he says.

"There certainly was a phase in the early part of this decade where money to buy property was very easy to get hold of," Professor Randolph explained.

"Easy cash was being piled into the market. Finance has been cheap and there have been plenty of people willing to flog you it if they can," he said.

Loans may well been easily obtained, but experts don't believe this prolific lending was reckless.

"Clearly there is a credit squeeze and the banks are feeling that m but the downturn in the housing market here happened before the crunch in the US.

"We weren't anywhere near as over-extended in that sub-prime market here," Bill Randolph added.

Too greedy?

America's credit crisis has affected Australian banks.

Many have raised the cost of borrowing above official rates to cope with the problems they have raising funds on international markets.

In the short term at least that can only mean one thing - more grief for homeowners.

Not everyone though is sympathetic.

"I think people are basically a bit greedy and have fallen into the consumerism trap," said Ruth Cornell, a Bankstown office worker.

"So they have gone way over what they are able to handle and unfortunately they have got in too deep."

Barry Burke, a building surveyor, told the BBC that easy credit was to blame for Australia's mortgage crisis.

"The money is out there," he said. "The problem is most people don't have enough self-control to deal with all this ready cash and they go down the gurgler".



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