PROPERTY / On the counsellor's couch: Advice about mortgage debt can resolve a domestic crisis, says Mary Wilson

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'THANK YOU for agreeing to see us. Yes, my wife is here too. We didn't think we needed help but we've got into such a mess; we're actually quite glad to see you. How long have we been in trouble? About six months now, I think.'

This is not a conversation overheard at Relate, the marriage guidance bureau, but evidence of another kind of domestic crisis. The couple are in trouble with mortgage repayments, joining over 210,000 homeowners in Britain who are in arrears and don't know where to turn.

If a marriage can be saved by counselling, why can't a home be rescued by the same method? Mortgage counselling, which is becoming a boom business, seeks to do this. Though some people will never be able to pay off their arrears, for most it is a question of prioritising debts and knowing what social security payments they may be entitled to. Counsellors can advise on this, as well as lending a sympathetic ear.

One man in his thirties, made redundant by Ford last year, would be without a roof over his head if he had not seen a counsellor. 'I struggled with the mortgage repayments for a couple of months,' he says, 'then realised I would never be able to manage. So I rang the Portman Building Society, saying I'd like to give back the keys of the property.'

Instead, the building society sent an independent counsellor to see him. 'He came round for a couple of hours and explained exactly what I could get from the DSS while I was looking for another job. They would pay the interest only on my repayments for the first 16 weeks, and after that the full amount. I look at it that free advice is good advice, and I was so pleased; I actually phoned the building society to thank them.'

In all cases, it is the lender - usually a building society - who puts borrowers with arrears in touch with a counsellor. The service is free to homeowners. 'They will have had a letter to say I am coming,' says Tom Cowell, a counsellor working in North Wales. 'What I am doing is something people could do for themselves - but they just don't know how. The people I see are often desperate and don't know what to do.'

One couple had an pounds 18,000 mortgage with repayments of pounds 160 per month. They were pounds 1,000 in arrears, and had arranged to take out a second, unsecured loan to cover their debt. But the repayments would have been almost as much as they were paying on the pounds 18,000. After counselling, they arranged with the building society to pay off their arrears over a period of time.

For most struggling homeowners, prioritising debts is the biggest problem. 'Some people I see are happily paying off the hi-fi,' says Cowell, 'while ignoring the mortgage. It is up to me to explain that they can do without music for a while, but they can't do without a home.' Another client was determined to carry on paying hire purchase on his car, even though his home was in danger of being repossessed.

'The majority of people do listen,' Cowell insists, 'and are quite relieved to talk to me. They realise I am on their side, and not there to lecture or take their home away. Now and again you come across someone in a no-hope situation, but I reckon I've been able to help 50 per cent, maybe more. It is tremendously rewarding, as well as a little depressing at times.'

John Raybould, who has been counselling for 18 months in the

Midlands, agrees that the gentler approach works. 'If you take 10 cases, seven show an improvement in payment after I have seen them. There is so much misunderstanding, and lots of antagonism. They get

letters from the lender's lawyers,

saying that they are in arrears and have seven days to pay. For many people, that's the end of the line. I suppose I'm helping 12 people a week at the moment; I feel the job is terribly worthwhile.'

Figures published by White Horse Mortgage Services Ltd back up the anecdotal evidence. Its 150 counsellors helped prevent more than 5,000 repossessions last year.

The sooner someone is counselled, the better the results. White Horse's figures show that after receiving advice, 63 per cent of people who are up to three months in arrears make a commitment to pay; from four to six months this goes down to 46 per cent. People over nine months in arrears are much harder cases with only 35 per cent doing something about it.

It is estimated that 40 per cent of homeowners with serious mortgage arrears could avoid losing their homes if helped early enough. Yet major building societies are still resistant to the idea of independent counselling, and many borrowers in trouble do not know it exists.

Mark Hemmingway of the Halifax Building Society is a firm believer in in-house counselling. 'We have had our own debt counselling service for some years,' he says. 'Now interest rates are right down, unemployment is the major factor. We have several thousand counsellors, who are just members of the Halifax staff who have been specially trained.'

Mortgage counselling is also available by phone. Europ Assistance offers free advice to the customers of 10 lenders - including The Mortgage Corporation, Mortgage Exchange and Birmingham Midshires Building Society. Again it is the lender, not the borrower, who pays. Called the Money Care line, it is staffed by nine counsellors who are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They handle 800 calls a month, a four-fold increase in the last year.

'It's more effective than we were,' says Barry Meeks, commercial director of The Mortgage Corporation. 'We did in-house counselling for a bit, but people were not quite as open with us as they are with a third party. It costs us pounds 100,000 a year, but we are hoping it has been worth it. We're convinced it is the right thing to do.'