HARRY AND Rosie look like the kind of couple that banks and building societies aim their advertising at. Harry, 37, is an accountant, Rosie, 40, is the marketing manager for a charity. They are Mr and Mrs Average in all but one respect: although t hey have been together for nine years, they aren't married.
In 1982 Rosie had taken out an endowment mortgage with the Leeds Permanent Building Society on their small north London flat. So when the couple decided last autumn to buy a bigger house they went back to the Leeds for a loan. "We filled out all the forms, which included some very basic medical stuff, and that was that," Rosie says. "The next thing is, we get a letter through the post three weeks later. Although it was addressed to Harry I opened it because I could see it was from the Leeds." The lettertold him that as the couple were applying for a loan of over £100,000, he would have to have an HIV test.
"I was pretty shocked," says Rosie. "I'd heard that people are sometimes asked for HIV tests so I was looking for my envelope. When I got to work I phoned the underwriters at the insurance company and I was told that no women were requested to have HIV tests. Nor were married couples. But it was their policy to test all single men, even those who are separated or divorced. I said to them, `Do you mean to say that if I had a ring on my finger this would be OK, and all married men have no risk of HIV?' Hesaid: `We just look at the high risk group and that includes single men.' " Two days later, Harry received a lifestyle questionnaire which included queries about his sexuality.
"They insisted on me taking the test then they sent me the questionnaire," he says. "They had no information that would lead them to believe I was any greater risk than Rosie other than the fact that I was male. There must be people who go along with this because they're afraid of losing the property they've made an offer on, but for me it was a matter of principle. If we'd got married immediately before applying then we'd have been all right. Yet our relationship for the last nine years is valued entirely differently."
The couple were also astonished at the lack of information that accompanied the demand for an HIV test. There were no details about counselling, no leaflet accompanied the letter indicating what would be involved or what the follow-up would be if the test proved positive. What was clear was that if Harry refused to go along with the test, the application could go no further. Rosie and Harry rang the Terrence Higgins Trust, which advised them to go to the Abbey National. Their only reason for remaining anonymous for the purpose of this article is that references will be required from previous lenders and they do not wish to antagonise the Leeds until their new mortgage application is granted.
A press spokesman for the Leeds was initially surprised to hear about Rosie and Harry's experience. "Leeds Life is very new to the insurance market, and you've got to be cautious because you have to have reserves built up," he said. "Perhaps we are out of step with contemporary social relationships in this case and the industry as a whole has some catching up to do."
He pointed out that most lenders operate similar policies when the loan reaches a certain level. This was confirmed by calls to five leading insurance companies (although the threshold varies). Commercial Union, for example, says that the test is mandatory for all single men for sums over £150,000 with no similar policy "for the ladies". Legal and General has the same policy for men, and also tests women borrowing over £250,000, regardless of marital status. Zurich Life says that HIV tests are required in large numbers of cases with "quite a few tests done under the level of £100,000".
The problem is not with the mortgage itself, but with the insurance policy that accompanies it. Endowment mortgages require life cover, but even those who take out repayment mortgages may be obliged to take out an insurance policy if their deposit is below a certain percentage of the loan, or if the loan is a particularly large one. Each company has its own rules.
Until last summer, mortgage lenders, including Abbey National, were routinely asking borrowers if they had ever taken a test for HIV or had received counselling. After a campaign by the Terrence Higgins Trust and the threat of a private member's bill, the Association of British Insurers volunteered to instruct its members to remove the question. Yet a check last month by the Consumers' Association shows that of the 67 lenders who replied out of 105 contacted, only half have complied. The Terrence Higgins Trust will meet shortly to decide whether insurers have honoured their promise or whether they should proceed with parliamentary action.
Baroness Gardner of Parkes, chair of the Royal Free Hospital NHS Trust, who, as a backbench Conservative, had volunteered to table the private member's bill in the Lords, had not heard of the policy of mandatory HIV testing for those taking out mortgagesover a certain amount. "When you know that the Leeds is about to merge with the Halifax and becoming the biggest financial organisation in the country, this is very significant. This needs to be taken up at a general level," she says. The Halifax's insurance is underwritten by Standard Life, which requests tests for single men taking loans over £150,000.
Requiring applicants to state whether they have ever been tested for HIV has been deterring people from coming forward to be tested, she argues. Those who fear that they may be asked if they have ever had an HIV test as part of future insurance applications are preferring not to be tested at all.
The lenders' fear of HIV is reverberating through the housing market and those who are most affected are gay men. One recent sale in London was held up for six weeks as a gay couple found obstacle after obstacle placed in their way by a major bank, with no decision ever being made, until finally they went to another lender. The whole chain was affected, with one party to the sale further along the line forced to take out a bridging loan. "It's homophobia," said the north London estate agent handling part of the chain. "We've seen a number of chains collapse recently because gay men have been unable to get mortgages."
Two years ago Gary Ashe, now 28, manager of a sports outlet, and Billy Watkins, 33, a head waiter, decided to buy their first home. They found the property they wanted, a terraced house in Walthamstow, through the Cornerstones estate agency which was then owned by Abbey National. "The estate agent said they would send someone from the financial department round to talk things over with us and that's when it started," Gary says. The couple were shown an extremely personal questionnaire. Not only did it ask if they were gay or had had an HIV test, it required them to say whether they had ever shared a bed with another man.
"The adviser was really tense," Gary remembers. "Just to see what his reaction would be, I said, `What position would I be in if I decided to get married in five years' time and want to sell out my share?' Instantly the adviser said: `Thank God you said that because I was just about to tell you the problems that would face two men trying to buy a house together. They would automatically assume you were gay.' As soon as he assumed that we were straight, it was all plain sailing," Billy says.
Gary and Billy did not follow through with their Abbey National application, but they were eventually referred by friends to Ivan Massow, a financial adviser with offices in London and Edinburgh who specialises in getting mortgages and life insurance forgay men. To Massow, Ashe and Watkins' case was only one of many. "I'd like to say that the situation is getting better but it isn't," he says. "I've told Gary and Billy not to tell you where I got their mortgage from because every time the lenders become aware of the fact that they have lent to gay men, they close that loophole. Even when they do lend, the premiums on the insurance can be loaded by three or four times.
"The announcement by the Chancellor that interest will not be paid on mortgages for nine months if you become ill or unemployed, and that home owners should take out private insurance, is a disaster for gay men. They find it hard enough already finding any insurance company who will cover them."
A press spokesman for Abbey National argues that what happened to Billy and Gary is not company policy. "This couple got stung by the individual's prejudice." Cornerstones, he said, employed its own financial advisors at that time.
What angers Gary, Billy, Harry and Rosie is the fact that no other medical conditions are given anything close to the same weight as HIV by insurers. "If two women were applying for a mortgage together to buy a flat, would they ask them about the resultsof their cervical smear tests?" Gary asks. Rosie argued to the Leeds that her partner was at greater risk from heart disease.
There is no question that lenders and their underwriters need to ensure that the loan can be repaid and that the borrower is not at risk of an unusually early death. But the elevation of Aids over all other diseases smacks of scaremongering. It also places mortgage seekers in a position where they either have to submit to a test which could have serious consequences, both in personal terms and in their future financial affairs, or forgo their chance to buy.
The discovery that HIV tests now extend far beyond the usual at-risk groups points to a future in which only those who fit the most rigid profile of what is "average" will be able to buy houses and insure themselves. As the Government urges us to turn away from state provision and move into the private sector, many will find themselves left out in the cold.
Ivan Massow Associates can be contacted on 071-494 1848 or 031-266 2001
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