Spirit of boom-time mortgages lives on in Europe

ATHENS/BERLIN Sun Aug 18, 2013 9:16am BST

A weathered wooden sign advertising new luxury housing is seen in Lansingerland August 14, 2012. REUTERS/Michael Kooren

A weathered wooden sign advertising new luxury housing is seen in Lansingerland August 14, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Michael Kooren

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ATHENS/BERLIN (Reuters) - Remember the days when you could take a mortgage big enough to buy the house and furnish it, a car to park outside and a holiday to celebrate - all on a repayment schedule that only Methuselah could honour?

Those days have never gone away in pockets of Europe.

While countries like Spain and Ireland battle to reform the boom-era mortgage lending that has left millions of borrowers at risk of losing their homes, corners of the continent better known for their sturdy finances seem to be still lending as if the financial crisis never happened.

In the AAA-rated Netherlands, home to one of the earliest and biggest bailouts of the crisis - ABN Amro's 2008 rescue ultimately cost 30 billion euros - first-time buyers can still borrow up to 105 percent of the value of their new home and can get up to five and a half times their gross salary.

A deflating housing bubble means the Dutch government is now cutting back on some of the riskier mortgage products so the maximum amount lent will fall by 2018, but still only to 100 percent.

And in AAA-rated Sweden, a mortgage will outlast the youngest buyer, and their grandchildren.

Such disparities show the lack of coherence in the 28 lending markets that will become part of the region's grand banking union, which is designed to create a more harmonised financial system, though it is unlikely to have a direct impact on access to credit for citizens.

In Greece, banks will now only fund 70 percent of the house price compared with 100 percent before the crash, putting home purchase beyond the reach of most after six years of recession.

With an unemployment rate of nearly 27 percent, twice the euro zone average, young Greeks have to rent, if they can, or lean upon the hospitality of their parents - an uncomfortable compromise in a country that traditionally has had one of the highest home ownership rates in Europe.

"You have dreams and plans of starting a life together, and then reality hits you," said Vasiliki Dimitriadou, who lives with her husband in her parents' small, three-bedroom apartment in Athens.

Vasiliki, 32, lost her job at a nursery a year ago, and her husband, who works at a small construction company, fears for his job, too. Without cash, they can't afford to rent, let alone buy.

"There were things we took for granted, like having your own house, that are now a luxury," she said. "I don't see any light, our generation has been destroyed."

FORENSIC LENDING

In Ireland, where the housing collapse all but took the country with it, lenders are taking a much tougher line.

Where once a borrower could take up to five times gross salary, banks are now offering two to three times net income. The maximum loan is capped at 92 percent of the price of the house, down from pre-crisis peaks of 120 percent.

Transactions that used to be completed in four weeks now take three times as long.

"In the boom time there was no paperwork ... You'd tell the bank what your salary was and they wouldn't check up on it," said one Dublin-based broker. "Now it's all about the paperwork. You should see our files. It is like 'Lord of the Rings'."

Bailed-out Permanent TSB, once Ireland's biggest mortgage lender, has been leading the paperwork charge by getting all borrowers to fill out a household expenditure form to see if they can really afford the repayments.

Red flags for all the banks include pre-school kids - monthly crèche fees can top 800 euros a month in parts of Dublin - and any hint of online gambling, said the broker.

"The buzzword now is 'forensic lending'. Back during the boom it was, 'How much do you want?'," he said.

CIVIL SERVANTS SOUGHT

In Europe's periphery, home ownership is more culturally ingrained, with around 80 percent of people in Greece and Spain owning their home, compared with a 70 percent EU average, according to the European Mortgage Federation.

With lending standards tightening and unemployment stubbornly high in both countries, that looks certain to drop.

"We've gone from a world in which mortgages were dispatched as easily as someone going into a bakery to buy a loaf of bread, to the complete opposite," said Pedro Javaloyes, director of family financing research at Madrid-based mortgage broker Agencia Negociadora.

"Banks are now focused on your minimum income. They want people in certain jobs; civil servants are very highly prized, for example."

Where once, loans were made for 50 or 60 years, terms are now capped at 40 years, Javaloyes said, while loan-to-value ratios have fallen from 110 percent to 70 percent, or 80 percent "on rare occasions".

In Italy, where 72 percent of people own their homes, mortgage lending fell by 37 percent in 2012, according to the Italian statistics office, as the country reels from its longest recession since World War Two.

Borrowers in Italy now borrow an average of just 50 percent of their property's price, though some banks continue to offer 40-year mortgages.

That might sound like a long time, but in Sweden, where there were no direct bank bailouts after the 2008 crisis, it takes an average of 140 years to pay down home loans. Children or next of kin assume the debt when the mortgage outlives the original buyer, though policymakers there are considering changes to encourage speedier repayment, and a maximum loan to value of 85 percent was introduced in 2010.

A DIFFERENT WORLD

In Europe's 'core', home ownership is less significant. Just 46 percent of Germans own their homes, 59 percent of the Dutch and 63 percent of the French.

In Britain, nearly two thirds of people own their own home, and lending standards have been tightened as capital-conscious banks think long and hard about who they trust with their precious cash. Borrowers have reported higher due diligence from the banks, and the average deposit has also risen to around 17 to 20 percent, according to the Council of Mortgage Lenders.

Attitudes to savings and deposits are markedly different. While some southern Europeans would gasp at being asked to stump up a 10 percent deposit, it is routine to the Germans and French.

Fixed-rate mortgages are also popular in the core, with around 90 percent of mortgages structured that way in Germany and over 95 percent in France. Terms of 20 years or more are common.

In many other European countries, fixed mortgages that long simply aren't available, though in the UK a niche lender Manchester last year introduced a 25-year fixed mortgage.

Oliver Thoben, a market researcher and gallery owner, borrowed 200,000 euros to build his house in Berlin. He paid all the other costs, including buying the land, from savings, so his loan came to around 75 or 80 percent of the property value.

The 41-year old had to disclose all financial receipts for the past three years - bills, invoices, his profit and loss account, as well as proof of income. His wife, a salaried employee, had to show proof of income for the last six months as well as her open-ended job contract.

"I realise they aren't doing this to frustrate me, but only to be certain that I can pay off the loan," he said.

A point that only needs making because for five or six years before disaster struck, banks barely seemed to care.

(Additional reporting by Carmel Crimmins in Dublin, Sarah White and Sonya Dowsett in Madrid, Mia Shanley in Stockholm, Thomas Leigh in Paris, Silvia Aloisi in Milan, Sebastian Salek and Laura Noonan in London and Gilbert Kreijger in Amsterdam; Editing by Carmel Crimmins and Will Waterman)

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