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Banks are urged to seize more homes

SEIZE more houses -- that was the stark message from Central Bank chief Patrick Honohan to the banks.

The banks' boss wants the institutions to repossess rental homes where the owners can't meet repayments.

It represents a major ratcheting up of pressure on people who bought investment homes here -- and abroad -- during the boom.

Up to now, the commercial banks were meeting investment home owners and negotiating new terms.

But Central Bank Chief Honohan appears to want them to be more aggressive -- telling the banks: go in and repossess.

One expert today described the comments as "very concerning".

Figures for the end of December 2011 have outlined that 70,911 mortgages had fallen behind by three months or more.

David Hall of the New Beginnings Group told the Herald: "There is a reality check needed here in that most people in the average income bracket bought buy-to-lets and they were encouraged by banks to do so for pensions."

In his speech to the Limerick Law Society, the Central Bank Governor said banks should take a different view when it comes to repossessing properties bought for investment.

And he ruled out the idea of blanket debt forgiveness which he said was "unaffordable".

"It is surely now past time for the banks to be dealing more proactively with the situation of over-indebted buy-to-let borrowers no longer able to service the debts they assumed in order to take investment positions -- now loss-making -- in property," he said.

"For owner-occupier houses, the traditional Irish reluctance to foreclose is certainly not misplaced. There is every reason to play along when it comes to managing a distressed owner-occupier mortgage."

The New Beginnings Group -- a representative group of lawyers, business people and concerned citizens -- today said Mr Honohan needs a "reality check".


Mr Hall emphasised that banks went on a drive to persuade householders to buy second properties.

He told the Herald: "Banks brought out products specifically for buy-to-lets, targeting on the rental income, not targeting on the household income.

"He didn't recognise and he didn't mention, which is most disingenuous, what happens to the balance of the debt.

"Most people with buy-to-let properties in this country would gladly hand back the keys and voluntarily allow the repossession take place, as long as the debt didn't follow."

The Central Bank has stepped up its monitoring of banks and how they are engaging with lenders.

And Mr Honohan said that he sees a situation where the banks would have to manage a portfolio of buy-to-let properties.

Other senior financial sources today admitted it would be "deeply alarming" for householders if banks went on an aggressive drive.

And Fine Gael TD Liam Twomey said that the issue wasn't as straight forward as Mr Honohan was claiming.

"Many of the buy-to-let properties are also owned by people who have mortgage arrears.

"Many families would have bought a buy-to-let property as a security for the future when they purchased it back at the height of the Celtic Tiger," he said.

"So they are connected. It's not as if they are two separate identities.

"Every case deserves to be looked at individually and the banks need to get on with that."

But Pat Farrell from the Irish Banking Federation said that the financial institutions were doing everything in their power to solve the situation.

"I think the Governor was signalling that generally that banks need to work through the problem mortgages and this is what we are doing," he said.