Magic rescue remedies disappear: Maria Scott looks at lenders' initiatives to save mortgages

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The Independent Online
EIGHTEEN months ago, mortgage rescue schemes looked like a neat solution to the political and practical heat generated by rising repossession figures. But these days mortgage lenders appear to have almost given up on such attempts to find a quick fix for the housing market.

The country's three largest lenders have all but abandoned the schemes they put in place with such gusto to rescue overstretched borrowers through mortgage-to-rent and shared ownership schemes.

The schemes have foundered, as many suspected they might, not only because of technical and legal difficulties, but also because many borrowers simply did not want to give up their homes.

Between them, Halifax and Nationwide building societies and Abbey National have only a few hundred people in such schemes.

Admittedly, there has been some slight improvement in repossession levels. But it has been achieved through cuts in mortgage rates, better debt counselling and direct payment of mortgage benefits to the lender, rather than through the lenders' rescue schemes.

David Gilchrist, general manager of Halifax, admits: 'Our main mortgage rescue initiative has been forbearance.'

Many now recognise managing arrears will be a long, hard slog for years to come. As Adrian Coles, director-general of the Council of Mortgage Lenders, points out: 'There are no magic new initiatives on the horizon to solve this problem.'

It is a problem of considerable proportions. Nearly 350,000 borrowers are still behind with their mortgages by six months or more, according to CML figures. John Wriglesworth, housing and building society analyst at UBS, believes that as many as half these borrowers could end up losing their homes.

That implies that more than 170,000 repossessions are in the pipeline, a flood large enough to drown any hope of recovery in the housing market.

Yet Dr Wriglesworth disagrees, insisting lenders will spread out repossessions. 'Repossession is now a social problem rather than an economic one.' He expects a gradual recovery in the housing market with prices rising by 7 per cent in 1994.

Lenders are also adamant that they will not rush to repossess. If anything, they say, increasing house prices may encourage them to delay possession in the hope of realising higher prices. Indeed, negative equity may pose a larger problem for the housing market than arrears and repossessions, because it stops people from moving.

Here again, however, lenders appear to be having little success with the schemes they have developed to help borrowers who cannot move because their mortgages exceed the value of their homes.

Halifax is working on a pilot scheme while Nationwide has helped about 50 borrowers by offering loans to pay off their debts after they move. Woolwich, another top five building society, has helped 40 with similar schemes.

But it is clear the only real antidote remains a sustained recovery in the housing market. According to research by Woolwich, about 350,000 people have been lifted out of negative equity because house prices rose between the first and second quarters of this year.

But the shift will not have been enough to rescue people who have lost perhaps pounds 20,000 or pounds 30,000 since buying at the peak of the market.

Mr Gilchrist at Halifax almost sounds nostalgic when he says that 'a dose of strong inflation would sort all this out' - though he quickly adds that this would cause more problems than it would solve.

(Photograph omitted)

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