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Guest blog: How the cost-of-living crisis is impacting the housing sector.

Vikki Brownridge, CEO of StepChange, outlines what the Debt Charity is seeing among homeowners, what they are doing to support those in difficulty and what more lenders can do.

Vikki Brownridge CEO of StepChangeAs we approach the end of 2023, I’m struck by what an incredibly difficult and tumultuous year it has been. The world feels a very different place from 12 months ago and the data shows just how true that is, particularly in the housing sector.   

In November 2022, the property market was emerging from a post-pandemic boom. Average house prices had risen 9.2% year-on-year, falling from a 20 year high of 13.8% in July 2022. 

Fast forward 12 months, and the rate of growth has recovered (yes, recovered) to just 0.2%, after a year of falling prices¹

In November 2021, the Bank of England base rate stood at 0.10%. By November 2022 this had hit 3.00% and today it stands at 5.25%. The Bank of England estimates this will leave one million households paying at least £500 a month more by the end of 2026. 
 
While many on fixed-term rates may be temporarily insulated from spiralling costs, the impact on households in the long-term is set to be hugely damaging.

What is StepChange seeing among homeowners? 

StepChange clients have experienced a significant increase in the cost of housing, both for mortgage holders and those in rented accommodation. 
 
In September 2023, the average monthly mortgage payment of our clients was £699. This is a 25% increase compared to the same time last year when the average payment was £561. Alarmingly, amongst clients who are responsible for paying a mortgage, almost 1 in 5 (19%) were in arrears. 

In addition, our clients’ monthly spending on essential costs like food, transportation, utilities, and childcare is also up by 14% between the same period. This far outstrips the rate of inflation and means that in real terms our clients are spending £216 a month more on essential costs, over £2,500 a year. Shocking evidence of the toll this is taking is the fact that our average client had just £7 left a month after covering essential costs in September 2023.
 
What is clear from our data is that a ‘perfect storm’ of inflation and increasing interest rates is leading to increased housing costs, mortgage arrears increasing and increased numbers of consumers falling into financial hardship. 
  
All statistics from StepChange client data from September 2023. 

Renters are also being hit hard

The issue is not just limited to mortgage holders. Our data shows that clients in the private rented sector are also seeing costs passed onto them by landlords. UK private rental prices have increased by 5.7% year on year², and with one in five (20%) of our clients in rental arrears, interest rate rises are creating a ripple effect across the housing sector. 

The impact of this is profound. With one in three (33%) StepChange clients now in a negative budget (where they don’t have enough income to cover their essential living costs), the challenge of supporting these clients is increasingly difficult for ourselves and lenders alike. 

Supporting customers in debt?

The reality is that if a client comes to StepChange with a negative budget, then it is more difficult to find a solution to achieve their financial objectives. 

The majority of our clients wait 12 months to get help, with terrible consequences for their financial, mental, and physical health. For that reason, getting customers the support that they need as early as possible is crucial.

There are many reasons why people don’t get the help they deserve. Shame, stigma, but also crucially, a lack of awareness of organisations that can help. Our research shows that one in six people (16%) are unaware that debt advice can support them, and nearly a quarter (23%) believe help isn’t available or that seeking advice comes at a cost. 

This highlights the considerable challenge for lenders in connecting customers experiencing financial difficulty with the support they need. 

StepChange’s Homeowner Hub 

Experiencing financial difficulty is stressful, and can be especially difficult for homeowners, who may fear losing their home. 

To support our partners and their customers, we developed a new Homeowner Hub to help guide homeowners through the financial options available to them. 

From digital tools, information and resources to debt advice and support with Equity Release and mortgage products, we unlock financial options for homeowners through impartial advice and support.

Our advice is completely fee-free, and our advisors don’t work to targets or commission. We look at the customers entire financial situation and explore all of their options. They only recommend solutions that are truly right for each client and their unique circumstances. 

In 2023, 99% of our equity release and mortgage advice clients said they would recommend us to family or friends. And we are extremely proud to have been awarded ‘Best Equity Release Broker’ at the 2022 Mortgage Strategy Awards.

Our Homeowner Hub is available for anyone to use at stepchange.org/homeowners 

What can lenders do? 

Lenders also have a role to play and there are a range of ways lenders can support their customers. 

1) Have a trusted network of partners
It’s important to recognise that a customer’s support needs can be complex and varied. More than half of our clients have a mental health condition, and many may be suffering with other issues such as addiction. 

No one organisation can provide all the support your customer may need, and so having a trusted network of partners to provide the right help for your customer’s unique circumstances is crucial. 

2) Monitor your customers situation. Intervene early and effectively
Having a good view of your customers circumstances and monitoring for signs of financial difficulty is crucial to providing good outcomes. 

Once you’ve identified customers who are struggling, it’s crucial to provide them with the tools and information they need to start their journey. 

However simply signposting customers to the right support isn’t enough. Effective intervention requires multi-channel communication strategies that reassure the customer, help them to understand what support is available and provide clear next steps that they can take

3) Make it easy for customers to find and understand the information they need
In our Mixed Messages report from 2022³, our research found that 90% of our clients said communications from lenders triggered negative emotions, and people experiencing these feelings were less likely to seek debt advice. 

Whether it’s online, over the phone or in-store, it’s crucial that you are able to clearly explain the support that is available and the options your customers have. 

Think about the information you provide through letters, emails, through your operational teams and on your website. How easy it is for customers to find this information and to understand it? Our upcoming report ‘Get the Message’ will share some of StepChange’s research and learnings from updating our own communications in line with Consumer Duty. 

4) Make getting help easy
Getting debt advice or support is no different to any other customer journey. The easier it is for customers, the more likely they are to succeed. Customer dropouts are highly likely in a scenario where the customer is scared, anxious and may not know what to do.

StepChange offer seamless and easy referrals into debt advice through whichever channel the customer wishes to use, and this is something that ideally should be in place for any additional support services the customer may need. 

Supporting customers in need

There are no simple answers to the cost-of-living crisis, and as StepChange data shows, it’s a multi-faceted and complex situation that is dragging households from across all segments of society into trouble. 

I’m absolutely determined that StepChange will be here for anyone that needs us, and I’m delighted to be working with the BSA to raise awareness of the challenges facing the housing sector. It’s only by working collaboratively with our partners we can hope to tackle these complex challenges and ensure that we help improve the outcome for as many people as possible.

If you would like to find out more about partnering with StepChange then please get in touch at www.stepchange.org/about-us/partner-with-us.aspx 

¹
 UK House Price Index - Office for National Statistics (ons.gov.uk)
²
 Cost of living insights - Office for National Statistics (ons.gov.uk)
³
 Mixed Messages. Creditor Communications. StepChange

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