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If a homeowner fails to keep up with their mortgage payments, the mortgage lender may seek possession of the property through the courts in order to sell it and repay the loan and mortgage arrears. In recent years the number of mortgaged properties taken into possession in the UK has been historically low, with the majority of borrowers paying their mortgages on time and in full. The fall in the number of properties repossessed since 2009 coincides with lower interest rates, a proactive approach from lenders in managing borrowers in financial difficulties and other interventions, such as the introduction of a Mortgage Pre-Action Protocol.

Coronavirus (Covid-19): mortgage support measures

The coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has had profound effects on the UK economy, which, in turn, have had unprecedented impacts on household finances. The Government, Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and mortgage lenders have put in place temporary measures to assist homeowners to manage their mortgage repayments and thereby avoid potential repossession action:

  • On 17 March 2020, the Chancellor announced a commitment by mortgage lenders to offer homeowners a “holiday” of up to three months from their monthly mortgage payments. This meant that homeowners could defer up to three months’ mortgage payments to a later date.
  • Subsequently, on 22 May 2020, the FCA advised lenders that support should still be offered to homeowners where needed and this could involve an extension of the mortgage payment holiday period for a further three months. Mortgagors had up to 31 October 2020 to request an initial or further payment holiday.
  • Following the Prime Minster’s announcement of a second national lockdown, the FCA indicated its intention to extend the availability of payment deferrals. On 17 November 2020, the FCA published updated Payment Deferrals Guidance setting out the enhanced support lenders are expected to provide to mortgage borrowers experiencing payment difficulties related to coronavirus. Borrowers will be able to access payment deferrals up to a maximum of 6 months and have until 31 March 2021 to apply for an initial or a further payment deferral.  All payment holdays must end by 31 July 2021.
  • To protect homeowners from repossession, the FCA has confirmed that a moratorium on the enforcement of lender repossession will remain in place until 1 April 2021, except for in exceptional cases, such as a borrower requesting proceedings continue.
  • The FCA has also published Tailored Support Guidance setting out how firms should provide tailored support to mortgage borrowers who have taken six month’s mortgage holiday and continue to face ongoing financial difficulties due to coronavirus. The FCA expects lenders to exercise appropriate tolerance (forbearance) where this is in a customer’s interest, taking into account their individual circumstances.

 

  • On 9 June 2020, the Government announced an additional £37.8 million funding for debt advice providers, bringing the total to £102 million in 2020/21.

According to UK Finance, 130,000 mortgage payment deferrals were in place at the end of December 2020, down from a peak of 1.8 million in June 2020.

There is evidence that these interventions have helped to mitigate the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on household finances. At December 2020, the number of mortgages in arrears of 2.5% or more of the total outstanding balance had increased by 11% compared with the same quarter a year previously and repossession activity was low.

The coronavirus mortgage support measures are temporary. Given the current economic challenges, increase in the number of people claiming unemployment-related benefits, and predictions of further rises in unemployment, it is possible that further interventions may be required if an increase in repossessions is to be avoided.

Lenders’ obligations

Mortgage lenders are required to follow certain steps when a homeowner falls into arrears. Before they seek possession of the property lenders must demonstrate that they have done everything which they are required to do under the Financial Conduct Authority’s (FCA) Mortgage Conduct of Business (MCOB13) rules to make possession a matter of last resort. Mortgage lenders must also adhere to the Mortgage Pre-Action Protocol which sets out clear standards expected when lenders bring repossession cases to court.

The FCA has been working with the  sector to help it improve and strengthen arrears management practices.

Assistance for households

Advisory bodies tell anyone with concerns about managing their mortgage to contact their lender as soon as possible to discuss the options available. There are several charities and organisations providing free, independent debt advice.

The Government’s Support for Mortgage Interest (SMI) scheme provides financial assistance towards owner-occupier costs (principally mortgage interest payments) for claimants of certain means-tested benefits. Since April 2018, SMI has been paid in the form of an interest-bearing loan, secured against the mortgaged property and repayable when the property is sold or ownership changes. SMI payments for working age claimants are subject to a 39-week waiting period and a mortgage cap of £200,000.

Commentators have highlighted that support for mortgage costs through the social security system is limited when compared to the support available for renters, and have called on the Government to strengthen the financial support available through the SMI scheme.

Some mortgage lenders offer Assisted Voluntary Sale support to homeowners with mortgage arrears to enable them to sell their home and avoid repossession.

Low income households facing possession proceedings may be entitled to free legal aid. The Legal Aid Agency funds Housing Possession Court Duty Schemes (HPCDS) throughout England which provide free emergency legal advice and representation on the day of a possession hearing, regardless of financial circumstances.

Historic schemes to support homeowners

Additional, temporary, measures were introduced as a direct response to the 2008 financial crisis in order to support homeowners struggling with their mortgage payments and to minimise the number of repossessions. These measures included:

  • A Preventing Repossessions Fund – to enable local authorities to offer small loans to mortgagors at risk of repossession.
  • A Mortgage Rescue Scheme – which was administered by local authorities and typically involved a housing association purchasing the house, or a portion of it, and then renting it back to the original owner, who could continue to live there as a tenant.
  • A Homeowner Mortgage Support scheme – which enabled eligible homeowners to defer a portion of the monthly interest payments on their mortgage for up to two years.
  • Changes to the Support for Mortgage Interest (SMI) scheme to strengthen support for those affected by the economic downturn, including reducing the waiting period for SMI to 13 weeks and increasing the mortgage cap to £200,000 for new working age claimants.

Increased lender forbearance, together with the various Government schemes to support householders, enabled many homeowners to avoid repossession and stay in their homes.

Sale and rent back schemes

The private sector also developed its own mortgage rescue response in the form of “sale and rent back” schemes. These schemes involve private companies buying people’s houses at discounted prices and keeping the ex-owners in situ as tenants. Although these schemes provide individuals with a quick and easy source of cash, they were, until 2010, unregulated and could leave ex-owners facing substantial rent charges or, ultimately, eviction, as they have no long-term security of tenure as assured shorthold tenants.


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