Vulnerable Australians targeted by unscrupulous property vendors

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Vulnerable Australians are losing their life savings to unscrupulous property vendors, who are offering their own finance deals and rent-to-buy schemes.

Zuhura Nimbona arrived in Australia in 2005, a refugee from Burundi with six children.

She worked tirelessly as a childcare worker saving for a home she and her children could call their own.

By 2014, she'd saved more than $57,000.

She gave her life savings to a broker offering her a better deal than the banks, but two years later she's penniless and living in government housing.

"When I try to sleep I just keep thinking why did I have to go through this stuff. When I see my kid, I feel like to cry. Another kid can enjoy life, and my kids don't know where to go," she said.

Her dream home was never built, her money is gone and her legal options to get it back are minimal.

The broker refuses to take her phone calls.

"Now I don't know what to do about that, I can't get my money."

"Now I don't know what to do about that, I can't get my money. I can't see this person. This person is no good, how can they do something like that."

It's a story the Consumer Action Law Centre is hearing too often.

Gerard Brody, Consumer Action Law Centre CEO
Gerard Brody, Consumer Action Law Centre CEO
SBS


CEO of the centre, Gerard Brody, said they have experienced a spike in complaints from people who have seen advertisements on social networking and sales websites, as well as hand written posters displayed throughout suburban neighbourhoods.

"That transaction only makes money for the property spruiker and it leaves people hundreds of thousands of dollars out of pocket in some circumstances," he said. 

"That transaction only makes money for the property spruiker."

And, for now, the practice is legal.

Buyers pay rent or repayments on inflated property prices, as well as additional fees and in some cases what's known as 'option to buy' fees.

Then down the track they're told to refinance with a bank.

However the circumstances - such as a lack of credit history or a lack of savings - that prevented them from getting a mortgage initially still exists, and the loan application is rejected.

The deal with the vendor can then be terminated, and the buyer is left out of pocket and out of legal options.

Former chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission Allan Fels
Former chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission Allan Fels
SBS


Former chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission Allan Fels called it an abhorrent practice that needed to be stopped.

"There's a small tight-knit group of spruikers targeting vulnerable people making spectacular promises of home ownership that sadly crumble because they were never affordable in the first place."

Research into the practice by the Consumer Action Law Centre said the vendor finance deals are often doomed to fail from the beginning, as most of the time the deals are unaffordable for the buyer's income

The report states that the deals are typically written so that the buyer isn't the legal owner of the property until it is paid off, and there are no channels for the buyer to recoup their money if the vendor goes bust.

The Consumer Action Law Centre's Susan Quinn said increasing numbers of people are falling victim to 'black market' housing operators every year and as property prices increase and would-be home owners are becoming more desperate to get into the property market.

"The protections someone has under consumer credit laws if they get a mainstream mortgage don't apply to these deals, because of the nature of the people involved and the way they're written," she said. 

Chanaka Wijewardene
Chanaka Wijewardene
SBS


It's a loophole that Chanaka Wijewardene knows all about.

He was duped into entering a rent-to-buy scheme by a man he describes as a smooth-talking operator.

He said he is now stuck living in the property and paying exorbitant rent, as he's unable to get a mortgage to pay it off and doesn't have the funds to move out.

"My wife is stressing, I have three kids under five. The Australian dream is to own a house, and I'm in a bad position, I'm 44 years of age and I can't get a house," he said.

He's taking civil action against the broker to try and recoup some of his losses.

"If someone is promising you something a bank can't offer, it's worth asking some serious questions and getting some independent advice."

But the Consumer Action Law Centre wants tougher regulations put in place to prevent similar instances happening to other vulnerable Australians.

The Centre's Susan Quinn said rent-to-buy schemes should be banned and vendors who offer finance need to be regulated.

Until then, she's calling on would-be home owners to think twice before signing a deal that seems too good to be true.

"If someone is promising you something a bank can't offer, it's worth asking some serious questions and getting some independent advice. We would caution anyone from getting involved in these types of schemes."

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