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Home repossessions in Northern Ireland still highest in UK

By Joanne Sweeney

Published 02/06/2015

Divorced mother Carol almost lost her house after getting into arrears following sickness
Divorced mother Carol almost lost her house after getting into arrears following sickness
Ursula Toner

Home repossessions in Northern Ireland are still eight times higher than the 2007 level when the housing market crashed - and much higher than in the rest of the UK.

Despite a decrease in the past 15 months, Northern Ireland is still bucking the UK trend in the rate of homes being repossessed, which is falling at a much slower pace.

While a Stormont-backed taskforce to tackle mortgage debt announced yesterday that it was increasing the Housing Rights Service's budget by 50%, it warned that the impact of bank interest rates or welfare reform could see repossessions increase once more.

Co Down homeowner Andrew, who didn't want his surname to be published, claimed that he was driven to the brink of taking his own life because of his spiralling mortgage and loans debt, incurred by trying to look after his family after he lost his job.

"I came to an agreement with the court last year to pay extra money out of my weekly earnings but, everywhere I go, I'm told that I get no help because I'm working again," he said. "The mortgage repayments is the only thing I can afford to pay as I owe £30,000 in other loans. I'm waiting on one of the companies declaring me bankrupt and then I will be homeless."

Figures from the Enforcement of Judgments Office in Belfast - the department of the Courts Service which deals with possession orders - show that a total of 6,286 homes were repossessed by banks and building societies from 2007 to 2014.

There were 139 homes repossessed in 2007, which rose to a high of 1,522 in 2013.

Provisional figures for 2014 show that 1,226 homes were repossessed, which represents a 19% decrease on the previous year. New figures issued for the period January to March 2015 show that 262 homes were repossessed, compared to over 400 for the same period in 2014.

However, Housing Rights is urging homeowners not to delay in seeking help, and says that it can now provide extra help with attending court with clients.

Its mortgage debt advice service assisted over 1,600 households struggling with mortgage debt last year, and made over 825 representations at court.

Legal services manager, Ursula Toner, said: "Our message to homeowners who are in difficulty is that it is never too late to do something and that we can help them go through the process."

Samuel Dickey, residential spokesman for the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors Northern Ireland, commented: "Whilst the level of repossessions remains relatively high, the number is thankfully falling. Whether this trend continues will depend on a number of factors, not least the impact of public spending/welfare cuts on vulnerable households and the timing and approach to interest rate rises by the Bank of England and the continuing forbearance of local banks."

Carol: 'It was only after a long and hard fight to cash in an endowment that I was able to pay off arrears on house'

Carol Burns (56) from Andersonstown, Belfast, was helped by Housing Rights to save her home from repossession in 2013. She is a divorced mother of an adult son and daughter and two sons aged 16 and 18 still at home.

"I got into mortgage arrears of about £6,500 over a year in 2011 after being paid off work for sickness. It was only after a hard and long fight for me to cash in an endowment policy that I was able to pay this off and save the house from repossession.

"Once I knew that my endowment policy was going to be cashed in, it was an absolute godsend and a huge weight off my shoulders.

"Until 10 years ago I've worked all my life since I was 16. But I'm not working now and one of my sons is helping pay the mortgage.

"It was not an easy time for me. Not only was I dealing with the mortgage company but also the insurance company trying to get back what was my money in the first place.

"It was unbelievable to think that I was going to lose our home as I still had teenagers at home.

"They (the building society) kept threatening to take me to court and I had never been to court in my life but my solicitor and Housing Rights were a great support.

"The society kept putting barriers up every single time I spoke to them.

"I'm still only getting £92 from the DHSS to help with my mortgage and so I would be worried about any interest rate increase or further cut to benefits.

"You need to get the right person that can listen to you and knows your circumstances as I don't know how I would have managed without Housing Rights."

Andrew: 'I tried to take my own life several times'

Andrew (40) from Co Down was saved from losing his house by agreeing to a repayment plan last November. The father-of-one fears being made bankrupt any day due to his other debts.

"I got so down about my debt worries that I attempted to take my own life several times and was treated by a psychiatrist and was pumped up by anti-depressants.

"I was living with a girlfriend and lost my job, then she lost hers and I began borrowing money to try and look after the family and things just got worse after that.

"I'm still paying off the £3,500 that I owe the building society but now they are saying that I owe them £1,000 to cover legal costs and they are pushing me to make a new repayment agreement.

"Although I'm working now, I can only afford to pay off the mortgage but I still owe £30,000 in loans."

Richard: 'Within six months, I was facing court'

Richard (60) from Belfast has a suspended repossession order on the home he shares with his wife, who has Crohn's Disease.

"I remember seeing the Simon Community adverts years ago, saying that you were only three missed mortgage payments away from being homeless, and they were so right. But I never thought I or my family would be in this position after years of my being in work.

"Within six months of missed payments, I was facing court proceedings for £4,500 arrears.

"Now, family is helping us with our mortgage, and any further changes to benefits or interest rate would make things even worse for us.

"I would advise anyone who is experiencing difficulties with money to pay your mortgage first as the banks won't be too long in threatening to take your home away from you.

"But you need to seek help as early as possible."

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