The UK’s mortgage ticking time bomb… Mr Osborne will you help?

Last week on ITV’s The Agenda (watch it back), I challenged the Chancellor about what he’s going to do to defuse the UK’s mortgage ticking time bomb. Sadly, as is the wont of politicians from all tribes, he avoided the question… something I then continued to point out throughout the programme.

Yet this wasn’t a party political point. It was a warning about perhaps the biggest danger to UK consumers of economic recovery and it remains unaddressed by any major party. Although with the current Government pushing people into the mortgage market with Help to Buy (see our First Time Buyers guide), it has a moral responsibility to address this.

If you feel a sense of déjà vu over the phrase "mortgage ticking time bomb", don’t worry. It’s not you, it’s me.

I first wrote about my fears of a time bomb in November 2009, and then again in March 2012, and little has changed – the threat is still here alongside the lack of action. The only problem now is we’re closer to the time interest rates will rise, perhaps even by the end of next year – and that’s when this bomb will explode. So let me lay out the case again…

Any similarities between this blog and the earlier ones are entirely deliberate


Mortgage costs, for most, are hugely expensive – a ticking time bomb ready to blight the finances of millions and put the economy at risk. Whether it’s a lack of political will, clout, or ideas, nowt’s being done to stop it.

Standard variable mortgage rates (SVRs) have gradually crept up over the last few years, even though UK base rates haven’t. SVRs are now as high as 6% in some places. It’s easy to think that isn’t such a problem, as historically these rates still sound pretty cheap, but look at the bigger picture.

To say UK interest rates are low right now is a bit like saying the phone-hacking scandal caused a small PR issue. Interest rates aren’t low, they’re stuck in a drain, wallowing 1.5% beneath the recorded 200-year historic low.

The Bank of England’s reason for slashing rates, and keeping them low, is economic stimulus. And while our nation’s arteries are hopefully unclogging, the continued aim is to boost growth. Mark Carney, the bank’s chief, has said rates are unlikely to move this year. Yet the margin lenders now make compared to before base rates plummeted means in real terms some mortgages are four percentage points higher than back then. 

The evidence

So let’s have a bit of nerdom and play with the stats.

  • October 2008. Base rate: 4.5%. Halifax SVR: 6.5%.
  • February 2014. Base rate: 0.5%. Halifax SVR: 3.99%.

Back then, Halifax’s rate was 2% over the base rate. Now it’s 3.49%, a mammoth increase. And this is reflected as a whole:

Mortgage rates

Mortgage rates

The average gap over base rate used to be around two percentage points. When rates were first slashed, Government pressure to keep it there was partially successful, but now the gap’s around four percentage points. Having said that, there are some smaller lenders who have SVRs over five percentage points higher than the base rate.

However, there have been some improvements since I first wrote this in 2009, at least with new mortgage deals (I’ve excluded some with really hefty fees):

  • October 2008. Base rate: 4.5%. Cheapest 5-year fix: 5.49%.
  • October 2009. Base rate: 0.5%. Cheapest 5-year fix: 4.99%.
  • March 2012. Base rate: 0.5%. Cheapest 5-year fix: 3.29%.
  • February 2014. Base rate 0.5%. Cheapest 5-year fix: 3.19%.  

However, the gap between base rates and mortgage rates is still far wider than back in 2008. Plus, the required loan-to-value ratios have got more stringent, meaning you need far bigger equity in your home (or a bigger deposit) to get the hot rates, and the fees to get new mortgages are pumped up too.

Of course, as many will know, fixed rates don’t actually follow base rates. Their funding’s more closely associated with swap rates which, in simple terms, are the City’s view on interest rates over a set period – and they’re depressed at the moment.

Yet it still means whether you’re on an standard variable rate (SVR), or getting a new mortgage, the margins are now much higher than they were pre-crunch for all except those on  tracker mortgages, who are still gleefully dancing around their tracker-mortgaged homes.

Even then though, if you’re getting a NEW tracker, they’re now typically three percentage points above base rate (based on the average two-year tracker rate), where once it was half a point or even less.

The underlying problem – evaporating equity

Perhaps far more worrying is how many people are now forced to stick with their SVRs compared with before the base rate cut. This is all about the spectre of what I call evaporating equity. This affliction means you can’t get a new mortgage deal, due to a raft of new factors…

  • Tougher LTV limits. Pre-credit crunch, loan-to-value (LTV) ratios of over 100% (borrowing more than your home’s value) were possible and competitive rates were available at 95% LTV. Now to get a stonkingly good deal, you need to borrow less than 75% of your home’s worth or 95% to get any deal at all. This cuts out huge swathes of existing mortgage holders.
  • Credit scoring. Credit history is a far bigger part of mortgage acceptability than it used to be. If you’ve had what were once relatively minor problems such as missed payments, you could still be scored out by some mainstream lenders. Of course, for the seriously credit-inflicted, there’s nowt available as sub-prime is (probably thankfully, on the whole) no more. For a full guide to boosting mortgage acceptance, see our First-Time Mortgage guide.
  • Self-employed. Once one of the great feeders of mortgage over-lending was self-certification mortgages, where the self-employed declared sometimes fictional earnings and were lent to based on that. These mortgages no longer exist, so a by-product of the crackdown on this fraud is that it’s much more difficult for the self-employed, especially those without a few years of accountant-provided accounts, to get a mortgage.
  • House price decline. The ‘value’ bit of LTVs means current house price values. So in the areas around the UK where prices have plummeted, people’s LTVs have worsened. Many who were once in that competitive sub-75% zone aren’t any more. Of course, those who are finding big house price gains will get an improved LTV.

Ticking time bomb

The paradox is that while mortgage rates have been relatively unresponsive to falling base rates, it’s likely they’ll shoot up, mostly in parallel, when they rise.

Millions are locked into standard rates or high-margin trackers, or are due to be when their current deal ends. So when rates finally turn and start to rise, it’ll be like a smash-and-grab brick through windows.

Imagine the base rate returns to 2008’s historically normal 5% (not a prediction – just a possibility). Someone with a £200,000 interest-only mortgage tracker would see their payment explode from £350 to £1,100 a month.

For many on top of the recession-led financial freeze, that’s catastrophically unaffordable.

Rising bills don’t simply flick back into place like elastic. The pain of increased costs out-balances the joy from when they fell. People have re-jigged their finances around new lower rates and locked into other commitments.

Waiting to administer treatment when rates rise will be too late. This mortgage margin time bomb’s growing now, so we need the Government to act. Have you heard anything?

I’ve mentioned this problem over the past few years while giving evidence at parliamentary select committees. The regulator, the FCA, put out a report last year with a similar message, and of course last week I managed to get it under the nose of the Chancellor himself.

If nothing happens, that means many must prepare for the possibility of even harder income squeezes.

DIY help

You can’t bet on any government laying a golden mortgage egg anytime soon. Your best bet is to crack it yourself.

  • Repay your mortgage with savings. Reducing outstanding debt means you’re less at mercy from mortgage rate rises, and it helps lower your LTV, possibly meaning access to more competitive deals. Plus, it can add up. Someone with a £100,000 mortgage at 4%, overpaying £100 a month, would clear the mortgage six years earlier, saving £21,000 in interest (try it yourself using the Mortgage Overpayment Calculator).

    Of course, you should check whether you’re allowed to overpay without penalties first. If not, the penalties will usually kibosh any savings. Assuming no penalties, the financial mathematics to decide if it’s worth it is simple. If your after-tax savings rate’s lower than your mortgage rate, pay it off. If you used £1,000 of savings currently earning a decent 2% after-tax to repay a 5% mortgage, then you’re £30 a year up.

    If you’ve other more expensive debts, pay those off first. Plus keep an emergency fund, as with most mortgages, overpayments can’t be borrowed back, so ensure you’ve money to keep paying all bills and future mortgage commitments. For more, and a special calculator, see the Should I Repay My Mortgage? guide.

  • Build a war chest. If you’re on a super-cheap rate now and haven’t got savings, put money aside in case rates rise. This way, you’ll avoid mortgage payment default.

  • Find the very best deal. This is a combination of knowing what you’re doing, using a good mortgage broker and checking the deals brokers don’t cover yourself. For full help on how to do this, grab my Free First-Time Buyers’ Printed Booklet or Free Printed Remortgage Booklet.