The holders of 24 million German savings and loan contracts can hope for the repayment of unjustly paid fees. In a test case brought by consumer advocates, the Federal Court of Justice (BGH) declared flat-rate account fees during the savings phase to be invalid.

The judgment of the BGH referred to a clause of the BHW Bausparkasse. Since most other building societies use similar clauses, the judgment should be transferrable to them. Building savers will be freed from fees in the future and can reclaim fees already paid.

The Federal Association of Consumer Centers (vzbv), which had sued BHW, called on all affected building societies to “repay unjustly received fees of their own accord”.

Building savings for real estate financing is divided into a savings phase, in which building savers pay part of the agreed building savings in monthly installments, and a loan phase, in which they receive the entire building savings and repay the loan granted.

The BGH had already declared annual account fees in the loan phase to be inadmissible in 2017. So far, there has been no supreme court judgment on the austerity phase.

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The BHW home loan savings conditions stipulated that an annual fee of twelve euros would be charged “for each home saver’s account” during this period. According to information from industry circles, similar fees are widespread and range from 9 to 24 euros per year. They are also called account fees or service charges.

Because savers usually save 40 to 50 percent of the sum, the savings phase is long. If there are no fees during this time, this saves hundreds of euros for building savers. If prospective homeowners have already paid the fees, they can claim them back. If successful, a cash injection in times of rising prices.

The BGH initially declared only one clause of a specific building society to be invalid. Judgments from Karlsruhe always have a signal effect. If other building societies stick to almost identical fees, they have to fear that they will also be sued – with an expected outcome.

vzbv board member Ramona Pop called on building societies to approach their customers on their own. According to consumer advice centers, almost 24 million contracts could be affected. That’s how many home savings contracts there were at the 18 home savings banks nationwide at the end of 2021. This means that there is at least one home savings contract for every second household.

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The association Bürgerbewegung Finanzwende also demands: “We expect all affected building societies to actively approach their customers and reimburse unjustly charged fees.”

The federal office of the Landesbausparkassen, on the other hand, explained that the clauses were “designed differently for each institution and cannot be easily compared with one another”. An assessment is therefore only possible after evaluating the written reasons for the judgment. The Association of Private Building Societies made a similar statement. The written judgment is usually available after a few weeks.

BHW Bausparkasse announced that with immediate effect it would no longer charge an annual fee during the savings phase for all tariffs. “We will check on a case-by-case basis whether customers are entitled to a refund.”

If building societies remove comparable clauses, customers would not have to pay account fees in the future, either in the savings or in the loan phase. Stiftung Warentest also recommended that home savers ask their building society in writing to refund fees that have already been debited. If this is unsuccessful, you should contact the responsible ombudsman to stop the statute of limitations.

However, it should not be unlikely that the building societies will calculate the lost income elsewhere in the medium term. In the course of the hearing, Judge Grüneberg himself referred to the possibility of generating administrative costs through the interest structure. BHW lawyer Thomas Winter had noted, however, that there had been no leeway in the long years of extremely low interest rates. In addition, contracts with large and small volumes would be charged differently.

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