Marcus Evans Group | Worldwide Headquarters | American Offices | Latin America | European Offices | African / Asian Offices

More must be done to help those facing repossession | Kay Boycott

Every two minutes, someone in the UK faces losing their home. Proper advice and support must be there for those who need it

Father-of-three Peter Levenson is struggling desperately to hold on to his home. The former owner of a successful plumbing business, he began to fall behind with his mortgage when some of his customers defaulted on their payments. The resulting cash flow problems caused his business to fold in 2009 and since then his arrears have spiralled. Just last month, Peter was in court where he managed to fight off repossession by agreeing a payment plan that, for now, will keep him and his family in their home.

Behind Thursday’s figures showing a fall in the number of repossessions – down by 9% to 8,500 last quarter – are thousands more people like Peter who are living on a knife-edge, facing a constant battle to keep a roof over their head. The same figures published by the Council of Mortgage Lenders show there are 54,000 households who have been in mortgage arrears for more than a year. Meanwhile, Shelter has seen a 38% increase over the past year in the number of calls to our helpline for advice on mortgage arrears.

We know from the people we see every day that living with the constant threat of losing your home puts enormous pressure on family life. Research has shown that the threat of homelessness is seen as more severe than being assaulted, burgled or going through a divorce involving a custody dispute. As Peter himself puts it: “The stress is dreadful. I wake up every day not able to turn off the worry. I don’t want my children to end up homeless.” Other figures show people are taking desperate measures like taking out payday loans or cutting back on heating and food for the family.

Some lifelines are available. Despite devastating cuts to the government’s support for mortgage interest (SMI) scheme, it is still helping hundreds of thousands of struggling homeowners to stay afloat. That’s why it’s a real concern that the government is considering increasing the waiting period for SMI, making it harder for households to access support and stave off the bailiffs. Now is simply the wrong time to make people fighting for their homes wait nine and a half months before they can get help. For many, it will be too late to prevent them from getting into arrears, which could end in repossession. Cutting back the mortgage rescue scheme, which allows families who would otherwise be homeless to sell their home to the council and rent it back at affordable rates, was also a huge blow.

But with so many people languishing in arrears for longer, it’s time more lenders considered other options to help those for whom, sadly, homeownership is simply no longer sustainable. When all other options have been exhausted, lenders could do more to support and help homeowners to sell up rather than dragging them through the costly and stressful eviction process. Research by the University of York found that assisted voluntary sales (AVS), where some lenders help struggling homeowners to sell their properties rather than repossess, has had positive results both for lenders and homeowners. Unfortunately not all lenders offer such a scheme and borrowers are naturally concerned about finding alternative accommodation, which is why we need lenders, councils and advice providers to work together to help those households out of an unsustainable situation where it’s clear that all other options have been exhausted.

With wages flatlining and people from all walks of life feeling the squeeze, more and more people are going to struggle to make ends meet in the months ahead. Already, research by Shelter shows that every two minutes someone somewhere in the country faces the nightmare of losing their home, and as the director general of CML said only yesterday: “We are concerned that there will be a higher number of people facing more serious problems in 2012.”

We need to make sure proper advice and support is there for those at risk of losing their homes.

• Follow Comment is free on Twitter @commentisfree © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds