'People were eager to buy anything': The negative equity trap

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UNTIL recently, negative equity meant about as much to Hazel Arthur, 28, as quantum physics. Today the property phenomenon of the 1990s, fast becoming part of everyday vocabulary, is draining her financially, writes Mary Braid.

In August, 1988, Ms Arthur and her boyfriend bought a flat for pounds 57,000 in Redhill, Surrey. The couple rushed to complete before the axing of double tax relief on mortgages. 'Everyone said buy in the South and you've got it made. People were eager to buy anything at the time. We thought it was an investment.'

But the property bubble was about to burst; the quick killings of the 1980s would be history. Paying a pounds 10,000 deposit, the couple shared the mortgage of pounds 47,000. Two years later, the property slump under way, they wanted to move north. They both found jobs in Yorkshire and put the Surrey flat on the market. There were no buyers. After renting 'somewhere horrible' in Yorkshire, they found a pounds 25,000 house to buy in Dewsbury and took out their second mortgage. The Redhill flat was rented out.

The couple managed until soaring interest rates doubled monthly mortgage payments. The Surrey flat, tumbling in value, still did not sell and new tenants were proving difficult to come by. The flat has now been vacant for more than a year.

Earlier this year Ms Arthur and her boyfriend decided to split up. 'It was terrible. We were only living together because we could not afford to do anything else.' A split was only possible with financial assistance from Ms Arthur's mother.

The Surrey flat is still empty. Although the couple are poised to sell the Yorkshire house, which has been on the market for just over a year, they are still paying mortgages on two properties and Ms Arthur's former boyfriend's rent. Ms Arthur's current outlay on property is around pounds 400, more than half of her monthly salary as an assistant product manager with a supermarket.

Prospects are bleak. 'With the Redhill flat we are competing against repossessions . . .which are flooding the market with cheap properties. In addition, people are terrified of redundancy and so will not buy. I don't really see what the Government can do in one fell swoop.'

A sale would not solve their financial problems. Like millions sharing the horror of negative equity, the couple's home in the South-east is worth substantially less than their mortgage.

The last building society survey for a potential buyer estimated the property was worth pounds 38,000. Six weeks earlier, another survey estimated it was worth pounds 45,000. Ms Arthur said: 'I suspect they are taking further depreciation into account.'

With the price of owning a home they lived in so briefly so high, Ms Arthur has lost her enthusiasm for the property-owning democracy. 'When we get out of this I intend to rent,' she said.

(Photograph omitted)