Property: The costs of name dropping: Nigel Steele, a former Lloyd's investor, is having to sell his home. He spoke to David Lawson about the crisis

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The Independent Online
THE CRISIS at Lloyd's has produced two sets of highly visible victims. There are the famous 'names', many from the world of sport or show business, who have lost pots of money, and there are those - some widows, some pensioners - who put all their capital and trust into the hands of a financial adviser. In between are people such as Nigel Steele.

Mr Steele is an estate agent with a comfortable home in Norfolk, which he is now being forced to sell. He may be the first of many.

Last year, after a series of large insurance losses, Lloyd's had to cover pounds 2bn lost in 1989. This week the 1990 bill came out even higher.

'A whole layer of society is in danger, ranging from retired colonels to young families who kept homes going with the cheque they received from Lloyd's each year,' says William Gething of Property Vision, an expert on country homes. 'Many owners have been living in homes they could not otherwise afford.'

Heating bills, roof repairs, even school fees were paid out of profits that rolled in from the insurance market every year.

The present crisis should never have come to pass, of course. Only the seriously rich were meant to be involved in Lloyd's. The entrance fee for names was set high to ensure they could meet possible losses. However, with property values soaring, many owners used their houses to back bank guarantees. That meant even a modest country home got you in.

There is no suggestion, however, that a flood of country rectories is about to hit the market and bring prices crashing down. Names, like anyone else, will sell anything and everything before giving up their home. Sotheby's received so many calls that it set up a special cut-price service for names to sell pictures, jewellery, furniture, silver, even garden equipment.

But some owners have reached the limit, and homes are drifting on to the market. Tony Halstead, a property adviser, has seen a spurt of interest over the past six weeks as news of another round of losses leaked out. 'Three or four have said they are Lloyd's victims, although there may be more because many people do not want to talk about it.

'They are angry and confused about having this safe rug pulled from under their feet. They do not want to go to estate agents because they are suspicious of anyone chasing a fee. They are fed up with advisers. These people are not in the big league. Usually they have made their money rather than inherited it. They have homes around the Home Counties that you would rate as comfortable rather than grand.

'Some have actually paid off their debts but now have no capital. They must consider trading down to release money. Many are near retirement and are devastated that their income and investments have gone.'

Nigel Steele seems to fit perfectly into that niche. He resigned from Lloyd's in 1991 after more than 10 years as a name, but has still needed to drain his resources because of the time-lag involved in calculating debts. 'We have been able to stagger along for the last couple of years by using up our capital,' he says, 'but now we have decided to move down to a smaller rented home rather than give up our possessions.'

His six-bedroom Georgian house, set in three acres of countryside, has just gone into a brochure by Strutt & Parker, the agent for which he works. And as an agent, he believes that no matter how harrowing these individual disasters are, they will not amount to a force strong enough to move markets.

He knows of only one home in his region sold because of Lloyd's debts in the past six months and one other besides his own currently on the market. This is because most names are under no pressure to sell as they have not made big losses, he says.

Mr Gething supports the view that the impact will be social rather than economic. 'Everyone who has asked me to find them a home over the last couple of years has said that they expect to pick up a bargain as Lloyd's members collapse,' says Mr Gething. 'But they are always disappointed.'

Even if more Lloyd's names do sell their homes, it is unlikely to affect prices. There are already too many buyers chasing too few homes in the 'rectory' end of the market. Prices are likely to remain stable.

'People are coming out of rented property to buy just at a time when sellers are reluctant to let go,' Mr Steele says. 'There are always economically successful people looking to move out of town into this kind of home with a bit of land and space for a growing family.'

Mr Steele's house is priced at pounds 275,000 - around 30 per cent less than it might have fetched three years ago, but this still leaves a lot left over from the pounds 84,000 he paid for it in 1984: enough to rent a new place and sit tight until the shadows finally clear.

The new house will be a smaller place. He bought originally expecting a large family, which did not materialise, so trading down is logical as well as financially beneficial. Others will follow the same route before long. But theirs will be a slow, quiet progress, barely noticed behind the headline drama.

(Photograph omitted)