Page last updated at 22:56 GMT, Thursday, 27 November 2008

What is it like to be a mortgage broker?

By Anthony Reuben
Business reporter, BBC News

"I think we had it pretty good, and now we haven't," says Julia DeBattista.

Julia DeBattista
I got a message at 8:30 this morning saying that they're going to withdraw products at 5:30 yesterday afternoon
Julia DeBattista, mortgage broker

Ms DeBattista, a mortgage broker in Cardiff, has felt the downturn for some time now.

Her work, with Castle Court consultants, is in the centre of town, opposite the museum.

The stairwells are decorated with signed shirts from the professional sportsmen who are among their clients.

But even helping wealthier borrowers to choose a mortgage has become more difficult as lenders keep withdrawing their products.

It is a tendency that makes life harder for mortgage brokers across the country.

"There's much more running around to get mortgages submitted on time before they're withdrawn," says Simon Pritchard-Jones, the Manchester and Cardiff-based head of WH Ireland's financial advice business.

Inundated

Lenders have been raising rates and withdrawing products because it is getting more expensive for them to get the money that they lend to homebuyers.

Smaller lenders are also having to withdraw because if they have a product that appears on a best-buy table they are inundated with more business then they can handle.

It is not just the products being withdrawn that makes life tough for brokers.

The lenders also regularly change the terms and conditions of mortgages so, for example, a borrower would need a bigger deposit to qualify for a rate or it would no longer be available to customers who self-certify their income.

"Sometimes we come to complete and the lender says 'sorry we don't lend on new-build properties any more' and they withdraw the offer," Ms DeBattista says.

"It's really much more work for the same pay."

Strange market

The problem for many brokers is that they work on a commission paid by the lender when a mortgage is taken out by their clients.

But the mortgage market has become so strange that it does not always work like that any more.

So many products have been withdrawn that people with mortgages of more than 90% of the value of their home, for example, or some people with buy-to-let mortgages, are struggling to remortgage at all and their best option may be to stay with their existing lender.

Ms DeBattista has found herself in the extraordinary position of having to recommend that some clients should stay on the lender's standard variable rate (SVR), but of course that does not earn her any commission.

Simon Pritchard-Jones
The banks in some cases have said 'no' or the products they've got are so dreadful that it's completely unappealing so they turn to people like us
Simon Pritchard-Jones, WH Ireland

"You do the review, put in the work, give best advice and don't get paid anything," she says.

"I've been broking for six years now and I'd never, ever recommended staying on an SVR before."

Another problem for brokers has been the introduction of dual pricing, which offers borrowers better rates of interest if they approach the lender directly instead of going through an intermediary.

"I can't do anything other than recommend that the client goes to the lender directly because they are going to get a better deal," she adds.

Driving instructors

In such circumstances, brokers are having to find other ways to make a living.

Ms DeBattista has heard that a number of brokers have started retraining as driving instructors to supplement their income.

Others are trying to make money offering services such as advice on home insurance, debt management or investments.

An alternative is to start charging fees for mortgage advice. While there are few new mortgages being taken out as the housing market is slowing, there is still business helping people remortgage.

"At the end of the day we're professional advisers and you wouldn't go to a solicitor or an accountant and expect them to work for you for free," Julia DeBattista says.

She has started charging an upfront 'commitment fee', which is refunded when the new mortgage has been completed.

Changing behaviour

But it is not all bad news for brokers.

Some of them say that the financial crisis has changed the behaviour of customers who would normally just go to the bank where they have their current account for a mortgage.

Now, because so many high street banks have been in trouble, they are shopping around and taking independent advice.

"The banks in some cases have said 'no' or the products they've got are so dreadful that it's completely unappealing so they turn to people like us," says Mr Pritchard-Jones.

"So in a way this whole credit crunch has been quite a good thing."

Clients also now understand that there is a degree of urgency in the process, because there is a danger that a rate will be withdrawn if the application does not go in quickly enough.

"You send paperwork to the client and sometimes it can just sit on the coffee table, so putting that pressure on them does gets it moving," Ms DeBattista says.

But sometimes, things happen that even the fastest application could not overcome.

"I opened my mailbox this morning and unfortunately an e-mail from Principality Building Society had been put into my junk mail box, so I got a message at 8:30 this morning that they're going to withdraw products at 5:30 yesterday afternoon," she says.

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