After being “cleaned out” by Westpac, Bill Heath was left homeless.
For the past six years, the 64-year-old has been living on the road in a trailer camper — with only a dog and a knife for company.
Mr Heath is one of thousands of Westpac customers expected to sign up for a class action by law firm Maurice Blackburn alleging the bank breached responsible lending laws.
In 2011, the recently divorced building contractor had just moved back to the town of Colac in regional Victoria after more than a decade working interstate.
He decided he wanted to settle down and buy a house using his modest savings, setting his sights on a $215,000 property. Mr Heath, who earned around $43,000 a year, successfully applied for a $165,000 loan from Westpac.
Things quickly took a turn for the worse, however. Building work suddenly dried up, and Mr Heath struggled to make his repayments.
By December 2012, now 12 months in arrears, he had no choice but to sell the property before the banked foreclosed on him. It went for $174,000, $41,000 below the original purchase price.
All up, Mr Heath believes his total losses were around $75,000.
“Westpac cleaned me out,” he said.
“The bank manager at the time, she told me, ‘You’re on your own, Bill. Maybe you’ll need to go back to NSW if that’s where the work is’. Westpac was quite callous. ‘Look, matey, that’s the deal you signed up to. If you can’t make your payments …’”
Mr Heath says the “real kick in the teeth” was having to quickly scrounge together $1100 from friends to pay his solicitor’s fees for the property settlement.
“I looked at my wallet and there was about $25 there,” he said.
“I walked out onto the road and basically sat on the footpath and had a bit of a cry. I’m a proud man, I didn’t want any of this to happen.”
He now says he “never understood” how, at the “ripe old age” of 56, the bank could give him a 30-year loan he would be paying off until his late 80s.
Mr Heath believes it’s “possible” his loan approval did not adhere to responsible lending guidelines. At the time, he was already struggling with a $20,000 credit card bill.
He acknowledges his own responsibility but says he was “extremely excited” at the prospect of finally owning his own home.
After defaulting on the loan, he plunged into depression.
“I lost motivation and just fell further and further behind,” he said. “I found it difficult to even go and look for work, I couldn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. I took myself off to the doctor.”
He now receives the Disability Support Pension but says $916 a fortnight isn’t enough to cover rent.
Since 2013 Mr Heath has lived on the road in his 2006 model 4WD and camper trailer.
By his side is Obi, a two-year-old kelpie-great dane cross — named after Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars.
Sometimes he travels from campsite to campsite, usually staying about a month.
Most of the time, though, he lives in the bush because “it’s free”.
He’s currently just outside a tiny town in southwestern NSW’s Riverina region.
“At the moment I’m at the showgrounds with power and water and hot showers for $10 a night,” he said.
“I eat reasonably well, clothe myself. My costs are fuel to move, food, registration and insurance. I don’t do too bad. I don’t drink or smoke. My dog is quite large, so he is quite expensive.”
Mr Heath says overall he’s “happy”.
“These are the cards I’ve been dealt,” he said. “There are some people out here in similar situations doing it much worse than me — drug addiction, alcohol addiction, blokes who haven’t had a shower for a fortnight.”
But he admits life can be “pretty bloody tough”.
“Do you want to live in a camper trailer at 47 degrees and at minus five degrees?” he said. “Do you want to be harassed by the local hooligans of the towns? Right now at my hip I have a knife. My dog is partly for security.”
While getting a proper roof over his head “would be like gold”, Mr Heath says he wants to join the class action mainly to see the banks held accountable.
“I read the other day some clown was going to get the bullet, but he’ll walk away with over $1 million,” he said.
“Hold these people accountable, and by accountable I mean lock them up. Some of these bank managers, take their homes away from them.”
But Mr Heath is not confident that will ever happen. “We’ve had royal commissions over the years, and they’re a waste of taxpayers’ money,” he said.
“The actual outcomes are frivolous. These guys go on to become the board director of another company within six months and pick up another $5 million. We’ve taken a left turn down the road of mankind. The man in the street just seems to get walked over.”
A Westpac spokeswoman said the bank was “sorry to hear of Mr Heath’s experience and have contacted him to begin a fair and balanced review of the events that have led to his situation”.
“We are committed to providing great service and doing the right thing by our customers, so if we make a mistake, we will put it right,” she said.
“We work compassionately with our customers and offer hardship support through a team called Westpac Assist which can be contacted on 1800 067 497.”
She added Westpac took “responsible lending obligations seriously — it is not in our interest or our customers’ interest to issue loans that cannot be repaid”.
“One of the ways we are improving our customer service is through a new division at Westpac called Customer and Corporate Relations,” she said.
“The team’s priority is to firstly establish a consistent complaints approach to improve the way we manage customer issues.”
If customers are unhappy with the outcome of their complaint, customers can request an independent review from the bank’s “customer advocate”.
“To lodge a complaint, we encourage customers to contact us online via the Feedback form, or contact our customer care team on 132 032,” she said.
Maurice Blackburn national head of class actions Andrew Watson said responsible lending laws were “introduced to prevent the banks from engaging in exactly the kind of conduct which we allege against Westpac”.
“The banks have to start obeying the law, and a successful class action is one way to get that message through whilst helping those that have suffered recover some of their losses, so we’re encouraging all those affected to register using the simple online portal at the Maurice Blackburn website,” he said.