DUBLIN (Reuters) - Irish banks are set to ramp up repossessions of homes whose mortgage holders are struggling as they tackle the major lasting issue of Ireland's financial crisis, a parliamentary committee heard this week.
The spectacular property crash that pushed Ireland into a bailout has left almost one in five home loans, worth 25 billion euros (20.28 billion pounds), in distress with a further 11 billion euros of investment property loans also not being fully repaid.
While the number of homeowners in arrears for more than 90 days has begun to fall, repossessions are set to rise from low levels, the chief executives of Allied Irish Banks (ALBK.I) (AIB), permanent tsb IPM.I and Royal Bank of Scotland's (RBS.L) Ulster Bank said over three days of hearings.
Bank of Ireland, which like the other lenders has begun legal proceedings against thousands of mortgage holders in trouble, said it did not have a forecast for how many repossessions would result from the process.
"The key here is that it is not our intention to repossess anyone's house; the problem we have got at the moment is that there is a part of the population that are not engaging with us at all," Ulster Bank CEO Jim Brown told the committee.
"The only route available to us is to go down the court process."
Ulster said it could end up repossessing up to 1,500 homes while permanent tsb predicted between 2,000 and 4,000, with a bias towards buy-to-let mortgages, many of which were taken on as an investment during Ireland's boom years.
AIB said it believed it would come into possession of at most 1,000 family homes but that as many as 80 percent of some 2,500 buy-to-let mortgages in deep arrears could be repossessed.
All of the lenders reported an increase in engagement as a result of borrowers receiving legal letters, with Ulster seeing the proportion of borrowers not engaging or paying for an extended period falling to 14 percent from 35 percent when it last appeared at the committee last year.
CONCERN AHEAD OF ELECTIONS
The predicted increase in repossessions follows regulatory and legal changes last year that gave lenders more ability to take over properties after just 351 were taken into possession via court orders in 2013, according to central bank data.
In Northern Ireland, which as part of the United Kingdom operates under a less rigid regime, the number of court orders for repossession tripled to 2,216 in the five years to 2012, a report by Ireland's department of justice said last year.
Ireland's central bank has also increased pressure on lenders to restructure mortgages in arrears and the four banks reported that they had met the targets set down to date.
With parliamentary elections due in 2016 and local polls taking place next month, the prospect of families losing their homes will be a concern for the government, although finance minister Michael Noonan said the threat of repossession had to form part of the solution.
"The clear objective of the government is that persons in mortgage distress should continue to live in the family home and that from the range of solutions available, solutions other than repossession should apply," Noonan told parliament on Wednesday.
"It is also true that unless repossession is part of the legal system, there will be no mortgage market because nobody will lend unless there is legal potential to realise the collateral. It is part of the legal system."
(Editing by Catherine Evans)