Page last updated at 23:04 GMT, Wednesday, 4 July 2007 00:04 UK

Stretched homeowners eye rental option

By Julian Knight
Personal finance reporter, BBC News

For Sale signs
Life is getting tougher for homeowners

Interest rates have risen from 5.5% to 5.75%, a move which could push some homeowners into financial hardship as mortgage costs increase.

Some may face repossession or have to sell their homes in double-quick time.

But with the housing market showing signs of slowing it may not be easy to secure a speedy sale. Homeowners are also reluctant to move out of bricks and mortar that they've built an emotional attachment to.

For people facing such a scenario, the "sale and rent back" option is supposed to offer a way-out.

It used to be a few firms in this industry (sell to rent back) now if you do a Google search you will find dozens
Keith Woodward, Approva Homebuyers

The sale and rent back concept is easy to understand.

The homeowner sells their property lock, stock and barrel to a company, which then becomes the seller's landlord.

The seller gets to remain - at least initially - in the property but pays a market rent.

What has happened in effect is that the proud homeowner has morphed into a tenant.

Cash release

From a seller's perspective, there are plus points as well as drawbacks to sale and rent back.

The seller gets urgently-needed cash to pay off debt and does not have the financial black mark of repossession on their credit file.

In addition, they do not have to move immediately, the children can remain in local schools and the social dislocation which so often follows repossession is forestalled.

However, companies offering sale and rent back services are not guardian angels for over-committed homeowners, they are ruled by a business bottom line.

More often than not, they do not pay anything like market price for the properties they buy, sometimes getting the property at three-quarters or two-thirds market value.

They also do not guarantee that the seller gets to remain in their property.

"People going for sell to rent are offered six or 12-month tenancy agreements," says Lee Grandin, managing director of Landlord Mortgages, which organises buy-to-let mortgages.

"At the end of this period they can be served notice like any other tenant," he says.

"There is no security in sell to rent for people who are vulnerable."

Big business

With millions of homeowners burdened by debt, sale and rent back is becoming big business.

Turn to the classified sections of most tabloid newspapers and you will see brightly coloured adverts offering to buy homes for cash in a matter of days.

Without regulation there is a real danger that people are going to be taken advantage of
Richard Watters, A-quick-sale.co.uk

"It used to be a few firms in this industry, now if you do a Google search you will find dozens," says Keith Woodward, spokesman for Approva Homebuyers which has been offering the service for seven years.

"There seems to be a whole plethora of new start-ups, some are real cottage industries. They put an advert in the local newspaper and find people who are desperate to sell."

But Mr Woodward is worried that such new start-ups are less about buying property to rent but buying to sell on.

"They buy a property at well below market rates, give the tenant six months, serve notice and then sell on at a profit," he says

"They are fly-by-night trying to make a quick profit, without any regard for the tenant."

Richard Watters, managing director of A-quick-sale.co.uk, which also offers sale and rent back services, agrees that the industry has a problem.

"I have heard anecdotally that churning of properties goes on," he says.

"The problem is that the barriers to entry (into the industry) are quite low. Once someone buys a property, they can refinance then buy another one to sell at a profit. Once the production line gets moving there is no stopping it."

Regulation call

Disturbingly, people opting for sale and rent back can also be hit with high fees and urged to use solicitors and surveyors off the company's approved list.

Mr Watters has called on the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) to regulate the industry.

"Without regulation there is a real danger that people are going to be taken advantage of," he says.

"People need the full facts before they make a decision like they do when arranging a mortgage or other financial product."

But regulation of sale and rent back services is a long way off. Even attempts to form a trade association have fallen flat.

Sell to rent should be a last resort, if that
Francis Walker, Consumer Credit Counselling Service

"The OFT won't listen unless we have a trade body and there has been little firm interest to date," Mr Watters says.

Last resort

So what are the alternatives to sale and rent back for people in dire financial straits?

"If you need to sell your house quickly, you could get it valued by three estate agents then approach one of your choosing and see if they have any buy-to-let landlords on their books. You are likely to get a better deal," says Mr Grandin.

However, according to debt charities the best option is to talk things over with your mortgage provider.

"Nowadays, mortgage companies regard repossession as a last option," says Francis Walker, spokeswoman for the Consumer Credit Counselling Service.

"If it is a short-term problem - you are having, say, illness or have been made redundant - then look at switching to an interest-only mortgage or arranging a payment holiday.

"If you are in dire straits then see if your mortgage lender will wait while you sell your home on the market."

"Sell to rent should be a last resort, if that."



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