Cost of living crisis: High interest rates forcing Kiwi homeowners to sell up, take second job or move to Australia

When *AJ* (not his real name) moved from India to New Zealand 22 years ago he worked multiple jobs while also studying. 

"I was 18 and working as a pizza delivery driver and then also a taxi driver," he says.

After working in various other jobs AJ started working for one of the country's biggest banks.

"I really enjoyed advising clients on their mortgages and helping them to get their first home loan," he told Newshub.

AJ worked hard and saved hard to achieve his own Kiwi dream of home ownership.

After scrimping and saving $160 thousand for a deposit, AJ and his wife were able to buy their first home in 2019.

"We bought it at auction. We were very nervous. There was so much competition. We were so excited to win the auction. It was a dream come true to have a property in a foreign country bought with our own money. That was a big deal."

After saving more money, in 2021 they were able to use those savings as well as the equity from their house to purchase land to build a new house. Once the new house was built they moved in and rented out their first home. 

"We have definitely compromised on so many things like buying cars, dinners out. We put everything into our mortgage repayments," he told Newshub.

"I was working overtime at work and in the evenings I was also an Uber driver. My wife was also working a lot of overtime. She was working about 60 hours a week."

In 2023, AJ started a job at Government public housing provider Kaianga Ora.

But in October, 2023, he lost that job because of a restructure.

At the same time, his home loan interest rates were rapidly rising. His rate started at under 2.5 percent as he had a discount from the bank where he was working.  Now his interest rates are currently sitting at over 8.29 per cent.

"We're paying $11 thousand a month in repayments, $700 we get from rental income. But we only have my wife's income," says AJ.

He's now a stay-at-home dad looking after their very young child.

AJ says he spends a lot of time on Seek job searching. He has applied for about 20 jobs but has only received generic responses back.

He's even looking at overnight jobs meaning he would work all night and then go on to look after his child during the day.

Because his wife's salary doesn't cover the mortgages and living expenses, they have defaulted on their mortgage payments and are in arrears.

"We have exhausted all our options. So the last option is to sell our properties and go to a small 1-bedroom rental that is more affordable."

"I went from advising people on their mortgages and having two properties myself to now potentially going to live in a small rental unit," AJ said.

Newshub has been flooded with stories from New Zealanders all over the country struggling to pay their mortgages.

It follows a post on the Newshub Facebook page about high-interest rates.

Some told Newshub they've sold their homes as they can't keep up with mortgage repayments and the cost of living.

Others are selling cars and possessions in order to make more money.

One man moved to Australia in order to get a higher-paying job to be able to afford his New Zealand mortgage.

There are Kiwis also taking on second jobs in order to keep up with mortgage increases.

While some are also putting off starting a family as they can't afford to lose a full income while gaining the costs that come with children.

Many spoke of the enormous stress high-interest rates are causing on their everyday life and the impact it's having on mental and physical health.

Squirrel Mortgages Founder John Bolton says the pivotal change to interest rates started at the end of 2022 when Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr said in order to reduce inflation they needed to reduce the level of spending in the economy.

"That was a real tipping point where things started to change. It was a pretty harsh statement and what happened after that is where we saw the falls in the housing market. Since then the reality of these high rates has started to bite," Bolton told Newshub.

Global interest rates fell during the COVID pandemic and New Zealand saw record-low rates of 0.25 per cent for much of 2020 and 2021. 

In October 2021 the Reserve Bank started to raise the Official Cash Rate, by April 2022 it was at 1.5 per cent. 

Then in the second half of that year the increases became steeper in response to inflation rising both globally and in New Zealand.

In May 2023 the OCR hit 5.5 percent and has sat there since. This has meant bank lending rates for mortgages have risen from around 2.5 percent in  2021 to around 7 per cent today. 

Bolton says that many people on low fixed rates started coming off them in 2023.

"Since then people have been trying to keep their heads above water," he adds.

The Official Cash Rate will be reviewed this week on Wednesday 28th February.

While ANZ bank has come out saying there's a risk the Reserve Bank could increase the OCR, John Bolton says other commentators believe it won't change.

He says that current mortgage rates are sitting around 7 per cent - which has come down a little, and provided the OCR doesn't change then that's as high as they should go.

"The last time we were at the top of an interest rate cycle was around the Global Financial Crisis in 2009. At that time borrower rates were close to 10 per cent. But when rates did fall, they fell fast," Bolton says. 

Nelson woman Stacey Howden says when she first started paying her mortgage in December 2021 she was paying $1082.49 a fortnight.

With the interest rate increase, she now pays $1557.14 a fortnight - meaning her repayments have gone up by almost $475.

"On our last refix, I called the bank in tears when it went up to 6.89 per cent," Howden told Newshub.

She says she thought being a home-owner would benefit her family but it has done the opposite and they have a low quality of life with very little left over in the budget after the bills are paid.

"Both my partner and I work full-time but we can't save anymore. We have this asset sitting there but our quality of life is bad."

Stacey - who works as a property manager, is doing anything she can to generate more money including selling all their camping gear and cleaning houses on the weekends and after-hours.

"We're just an average hard-working family and we don't qualify for any help. Our new Prime Minister said he would work at helping the squeezed middle. We're a prime example of the squeezed middle that was promised help and none has come and we have no quality of life."

"We can't afford dentists, we can't afford holidays or any activities at all for that matter. We cannot eat out or buy takeaways. It's a pretty dire situation when you have a hard-working family struggling to get by," says Howden.

She and her partner are now considering selling and going back to renting or buying a cheaper house to bring their mortgage down.

Squirrel Mortgages Founder John Bolton says those who have lost an income - for example those taking time off to have a baby are hurting the most with the current interest rates.

"Where the biggest problem lies is where people are starting families. Not only are you having to pay higher interest rates but you're also losing an income. It's pretty bloody tough. Not only are mortgage payments going through the roof but we are also in a cost of living crisis," he told Newshub.

Health and Safety Manager Matt Campbell, 33, is putting off starting a family because of the high cost of his mortgage.

Campbell says he was forced to move to Australia last year in order to be able to afford the repayments on his Paraparaumu Beach apartment. 

"There was so much stress and sleepless nights. I was living week to week. The rates are too high and too stressful."

His mortgage costs $3381 a month and rates and body corporate fees total about $500 a month.

"If I hadn't moved to Australia, I would have had to sell the house on the spot because I couldn't afford it. I'm selling it now as the whole situation has soured me. There is no other option but to sell my house and relocate my life permanently in Australia where the houses are cheaper, the mortgage rates are lower and the cost of living is much more affordable," he told Newshub.

"Once I sell my house, I will have the freedom to start saving and taking my life back in my hands. Until that time, I felt suffocated and stressed beyond belief. It's disappointing that the only way I could take control was to migrate to another country. I feel extremely let down by the Government that it has come this far and New Zealand is no longer a viable place to live," says Campbell.

Bolton says despite the tough situation right now for many homeowners, there are things they can do to ease the burden.

"You could do a short period of interest payments only. Banks are generally okay with putting you on a short period of interest only. It's a good way of handling high rates temporarily. Working on a mortgage of $500,000  - if you have a 25-year remaining term, you could save about $600 a month if you went interest only. 

"You could also refinance to another lender. The benefit is that you can get a cash-back from that new lender. You could put that cash into your savings account and use it for mortgage repayments. You don't have to wait until the end of a fixed rate to refinance. When interest rates are increasing you generally don't get hit with break fees and there are very little costs to refinance.

He says "mortgage holidays" do exist but only for hardship e.g. the loss of a job.

"Banks can do mortgage holidays but they are reluctant to do them. They feel it's a last resort," he says.

Lastly he says don't be afraid to talk to your bank.

"Talk to them early. Banks will try and keep you in the house. On their websites, the banks have numbers to call for financial difficulty. I've had clients who have found the process difficult but do persevere," he says.

Bolton adds that while it might be tempting for mortgage-holders to fix for a longer time right now - there are risks.

"The important thing for people who are struggling is to be very wary of fixing long term because when rates do fall you could be exposed to quite high break fees. Our advice is to fix for shorter terms at the moment - generally between 1 and 2 years. We would be very cautious fixing anyone for 3-5 years unless there was a well established need for it," Bolton told Newshub.

He says we are starting to see some more competition from the banks.

"We've seen short term mortgage rates fall in the last couple of months reflecting more competition between the banks. There's also quite chunky cash-backs on offer for when clients are refinancing."

And as for the million dollar question - when will rates start to fall?

"My view is that we will start to see rates fall in the second half of this year because the economy is very weak. The current view of the Reserve Bank is still the first half of next year," Bolton says.

AJ says he can't wait any longer and has just listed his family home for sale. 

He may also do the same for his rental.

"Our confidence is shaken. We're scared as to how we will start building our life again. We want to give our child a sibling but we can't afford it. We are back to square one. We may have to pack our bags and go back to India."

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