What help is there for mortgage prisoners?

Tens of thousands of people are trapped paying unaffordable mortgages at a time when many are under huge financial pressure due to coronavirus.

Remortgaging is one of the best ways for homeowners to reduce their monthly outgoings, yet this option isn’t available to an estimated 250,000 ‘mortgage prisoners’.

In many cases, mortgage prisoners are stuck paying their lenders’ standard variable rates – some in excess of 5% – fifty times higher than the current Bank of England base rate of 0.1%.  This means they are paying hundreds, and in some cases thousands of pounds a year more than they would be if they were able to switch to remortgage to a more competitive deal.

Here, we explain how people have ended up becoming mortgage prisoners and what help is available to them.

What is a mortgage prisoner?

A mortgage prisoner is essentially someone who is trapped on their current mortgage rate and can’t remortgage.

Many homeowners have become mortgage prisoners because of changes to mortgage rules following the Financial Regulator’s 2014 Mortgage Market Review (MMR). These changes have significantly tightened the affordability criteria that lenders have to use when granting a mortgage. Amongst other criteria, it means that anyone taking out a mortgage or remortgage must be able to prove that they could afford higher mortgage payments if interest rates rise in future.

The aim of these rules was to prevent another financial crash by stopping people taking out mortgages which they might struggle to afford later on.

The challenge is that by applying the new criteria to remortgages, as well as to new mortgages, means that there are a large number of people who were previously considered able to afford their mortgage, but now no longer meet the new criteria. Whilst clearly not the intention, lenders were essentially prevented from allowing these customers to remortgage by the regulator, even if they have made all their payments on time. It’s a truly tragic set of circumstances, where those who might be deemed more financially vulnerable (by nature of not meeting the new affordability criteria) are stuck paying the highest rates of interest, often through no fault of their own

The problem is particularly acute for mortgage customers of former lenders such as Northern Rock or Bradford & Bingley, both of which were nationalised during the financial crisis of 2008.  Their mortgage books were put up for sale and were bought by unregulated funds or inactive lenders which don’t offer new mortgages and are often charging even higher rates of interest than their high street counterparts. Many people who met the previous affordability criteria of these former lenders, no longer meet the updated affordability criteria and as a result, are unable to remortgage to another deal with a normal lender.

What’s being done to help mortgage prisoners?

The FCA has introduced new mortgage affordability rules which aim to help mortgage prisoners switch to new deals. When you remortgage, lenders typically need to see proof of income and outgoings, and will also apply a ‘stress test’ so they can be certain you’ll be able to afford your mortgage if rates rise in future. The FCA has said that lenders may now choose to use a “modified” version of these affordability rules to help those trapped in their current deals so that they are able to remortgage, as long as they are not moving home, are up to date with their repayments and don’t want to borrow any additional funds.

However, a recent report by the London School of Economics (LSE) on the plight of mortgage prisoners claims that current measures will only help a few. The report, commissioned by Martin Lewis of MoneySavingExpert.com, wants the government to introduce a range of potential solutions including introducing interest-free government equity loans, implementing a ‘mortgage rescue’ by a local housing association, or bringing closed mortgage books within the regulatory perimeter. You can read the report here.

Seema Malhotra MP, co-chair of the APPG on mortgage prisoners, said “The LSE report is right that the policies put forward by the FCA and the Government will only help a small minority of mortgage prisoners. We need further action and full consideration of policies which could ensure that all mortgage prisoners are protected and get a fair deal. Too many are still stuck paying high interest rates and the coronavirus is making their situation worse. We repeat our calls for the FCA to cap Standard Variable Rates. The Government must expand the powers of the FCA so that it can protect customers who have their mortgages owned or influenced by unauthorised firms and vulture funds.

You can find out more about the work of the APPG here.

The FCA has urged lenders to pass on base rate cuts to mortgage prisoners and asked unregulated and inactive lenders to get in touch with customers whose introductory mortgage rates have finished to let them know they may be able to remortgage.

Lenders were supposed to do this by 1 September this year, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, they have been given longer to act.

The FCA expects lenders to write to all those who may be eligible to let them know that they may be able to switch their mortgage before the 15 January 2021.

You can find out more about the FCA’s changes to mortgage lending rules for mortgage prisoners here

Does that mean I have to wait until January to try and find a new deal?

No, it’s worth exploring the options that might be available to you as soon as possible. A spokesman for financial website Moneyfacts.co.uk said: “Mortgage prisoners do not have to wait until they receive a letter from their lender to look for a new deal. As Covid-19 restrictions are being relaxed, the housing market is starting to move again, and mortgage lenders are beginning to reintroduce deals.”

West Bromwich Building Society, for example, recently launched two new mortgages which should be accessible to ‘mortgage prisoners’ who are struggling to move to another mortgage elsewhere. Find out more about how the new mortgages work and whether you could be eligible here.

Alternatively, if you’re not sure where to begin, it can be a good idea to speak to a fee free mortgage broker.

Gemma Harle, managing director of Quilter Financial Planning said: “Each case is unique so your situation will be very different to someone else’s. Speak to a mortgage adviser as they will be able to provide you with information on the market and guide you through next steps. They will have knowledge of the lenders willing to apply the modified affordability assessment.

“The Money Advice Service has produced a handy list of regulated mortgage advisers in your area who have all said they are willing to work with mortgage prisoners and can offer support in moving you to a better deal, or provide additional support such as debt advice.” 

What if I have an interest-only mortgage?

Many mortgage prisoners are trapped on interest-only mortgages, which as the name suggests, mean that they only repay the interest they owe each month rather than any of the capital – which must be repaid at the end of the mortgage term. However, at the time many mortgage prisoners took out their interest-only mortgages they did not have to show clear evidence of how they were going to repay the capital. Tighter lending rules now mean that this evidence is now required which has left thousands of interest-only borrowers unable to remortgage.

Under the FCA’s latest rules however, lenders are allowed to adopt more “proportionate” checks that should allow interest-only customers to switch to a new deal, although this doesn’t seem to have been mildly adopted by lenders, resulting in many people still finding it impossible to remortgage.

Interest-only mortgage customers also have the option of retirement interest-only mortgages. These are designed specifically for older borrowers and rather than lasting for a specific term, they run indefinitely until the property is sold, or the homeowner dies or moves into long-term care.

Borrowers do still have to make monthly interest-only payments, so they will need to demonstrate that their income will cover these costs, but will not necessarily have to demonstrate how they will repay the capital at the end of the term. Lenders offering interest-only mortgages are often building societies and include Leeds Building Society, Nottingham Building Society, Nationwide Building Society and Bath Building Society. There’s no minimum age requirement for interest-only mortgages, but they are typically aimed at older homeowners in their 50s or 60s who are likely to find them easier to qualify for than a standard interest-only mortgage.

Learn more about how retirement interest-only mortgages work here.

Does being over 50 make it harder for me to remortgage?

Your age shouldn’t be another barrier to you remortgaging to a cheaper deal, however lenders are still obliged to look at the affordability of the mortgage, both before, and after you are set to retire. The age at which most lenders start to restrict lending based on age has been pushed back quite significantly in recent years with many lenders extending the maximum age they will consider at the end of the mortgage term. Depending on your financial circumstances and projected retirement income however, you may still find it more difficult if you want to extend the mortgage term into retirement as under the new affordability rules, you will need to demonstrate how you will afford the repayments, even after a drop in income after you retire. Find out more in our article Mortgages if you’re over 50: what you need to know.

What if I’m unable to remortgage and can’t afford to pay my mortgage?

If you’re struggling to cover your mortgage payments, get in touch with your lender as soon as possible and let them know you’re having problems.

You’re entitled to ask your lender if you can have a mortgage payment holiday, which means you defer your mortgage payments for up to six months. Remember though that you are only deferring your payments, and you’ll continue to be charged interest on what you owe. This means that when you re-start your payments, they’re likely to be higher than they were before.

Find out more about mortgage payment holidays in our article Everything you need to know about taking a mortgage payment holiday or use our mortgage payment holiday calculator to help with the sums. If you feel your debts are spiralling out of control, charities specialising in free debt advice include StepChange, National Debtline and the Debt Advice Foundation.

Support for mortgage prisoners

The UK Mortgage Prisoners group is a support group for those trapped in their current deals, and can be found here. It has launched a legal action to try to reclaim the difference between the high rates mortgage prisoners have been charged and a fair rate. Read more about this here.

Are you a mortgage prisoner who’s finding it impossible to remortgage, or have you managed to switch to a different deal? If so, we’d be interested in hearing from you. You can join the conversation on the Rest Less Community Forum or leave a comment below.

Links with an * by them are affiliate links which help Rest Less stay free to use as they can result in a payment or benefit to us. You can read more on how we make money here.

One thought on “What help is there for mortgage prisoners?

  1. Avatar
    Edith on Reply

    I am so grateful for this article and the help it provides. I am a single woman of 66, and I took out a Northern Rock mortgage in 2005, at 4.9%, which I have been paying off ever since without any secure income. I am still working now, and will have to do so for the forseeable future.
    I have been completely unable to remortgage without my bank attempting to charge me 26% for the privilege. Which of course I have declined. Now I have some other options I can pursue!!

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