A warning for the smug mortgage bores


In a week where the entire nation has been gripped by interest rate panic, the loudest voices in the room are those of the mortgage bores.

Every workplace, family and social circle has one. Been prattling on about how you signed up for a 10-year fix at a smidgen over 1 per cent long before the chaos of Kwasi Kwarteng’s “mini” Budget”? I’m afraid that person is you.

Those less likely to speak up are those whose fixed-rate deal is nearing expiry as interest rates — and anxiety levels — climb higher.

Mortgage bores might claim that they saw it coming, but the reality is more arbitrary. Unless you paid to end your fix early, the precise timing of when deals start and end is mostly down to luck. Nevertheless, mortgage rates beginning with a 6 or 7 are going to be a painful adjustment for hundreds of thousands of households coming to the end of their deals, potentially adding hundreds of pounds to monthly outgoings.

If your agreement has a few years left to run, don’t feel too smug. You might not be making lifestyle economies to deal with payment shock now, but your friends and colleagues certainly are (even if they don’t want to talk about it). And the pain of higher repayments will hit all borrowers in time — it could well cost the Conservatives the next election.

Amid the drama of this week’s great repricing — with HSBC raising rates twice in one week and other lenders looking to follow suit — the polls tell us that twice as many people blame the government for rising mortgage costs as those who blame global crises such as the war in Ukraine or the effects of the pandemic.

There have been calls for Downing Street summits with mortgage lenders and even Covid furlough-style payouts to help struggling borrowers. But taming inflation by squeezing people’s finances is exactly what rate rises are designed to do.

“If the policy isn’t hurting, it isn’t working,” was how then-chancellor John Major put it in 1989 as rates headed towards 15 per cent. But such rises are a blunt tool. The mortgage bores (and the mortgage free) can still consume with wild abandon; the pain is concentrated on those whose fixes have expired. The lottery of it all can be both personally and politically unpleasant.

By and large, mortgage lenders acted admirably during the pandemic, offering forbearance to distressed borrowers. Regulators have been clear this support must continue. Yet even if rates drop back in coming years, we will not see the return of mortgage rates starting with a 1 or a 2. Those refinancing home loans face a further dilemma. Should they risk a tracker rate or short-term fix in the hope of locking into a lower rate in future?

People feel painfully ill-equipped to deal with a decision that could make or break the family finances for years to come — it’s a particular problem for millennial couples saddled with bigger mortgages and childcare costs. Advice only goes so far. Brokers can find you the best deals on the market but they can’t tell you which option to pick. A five-year fix at current levels means borrowers could be stuck making higher repayments for longer than they need to, but many crave certainty — and protection from further increases.

In the UK, the value of our homes is firmly shackled to our sense of self-worth. The current situation is politically toxic for the Tories, long regarded as the party of home ownership. From Right to Buy in the Thatcher era to Help to Buy in recent years, owning your own home has symbolised success; a one-way ticket to financial prosperity — even if you borrowed heavily to get on the ladder.

Since the financial crisis, average pay growth has been puny in real terms but average house prices have soared, making property owners feel considerably richer. Seeing a neighbouring property advertised for a handsome sum on Rightmove is the equivalent of financial Viagra, helping alleviate the pain of expensive mortgages. But as more fixes expire over the next 18 months, the impact of higher rates will inevitably cause house prices to fall.

This is terrible timing for a government heading into a general election. But however worried borrowers might be feeling, anxiety among those renting privately is even higher. In April, letting agent Foxtons said it had 97,000 tenants chasing after just 2,000 available rental properties.

Annual rent increases have hit record highs, making it even harder for the 5.5mn UK households renting to ever achieve the dream of property ownership. So while higher mortgage payments will smart as the era of cheap money comes to a close, homeowners still have reasons to count their blessings.

Claer Barrett, the FT’s consumer editor, is the author of ‘What They Don’t Teach You About Money’. [email protected]

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