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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 November 2005, 11:51 GMT
On the doorstep
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Bailiffs drill a lock
A repossessed house could be on the market in 24 hours
A rise in mortgage repossession orders means one group of people are busy - bailiffs. So what's it like to get that knock on the door?

The hanging baskets and potted plants which decorate the front of the smart, semi-detached house give no indication of the unhappiness within.

One of the three bailiffs on the doorstep knocks for a second time and raises his voice: "Could you open the door please?"

A fragile-looking woman with two black eyes opens the door and lets them in, her two cocker spaniels by her side. The home is half-bare of furniture, with a fridge and cooker notably absent from the dishevelled kitchen.

"We're from the county court in Bristol and we have possession of the property," says Simon. "Have you made any arrangements?"

Repossessed house
Some homes have seen better days
"I have nowhere to go unfortunately," says Anna, 52, as she slumps into an armchair, speaking slowly, as if her spirit is broken in two.

"Where am I going to go? My main objective is the dogs. I'm extremely worried about them."

She explains that her son is dead and her only family is her ex-husband, who she says was meant to be paying the mortgage. He left two years ago but has been back recently to take some of the furniture away.

On the verge of breaking down, she says: "This hurts me very hard. Existing here hasn't been easy."

Although the law does not afford them any discretion, the bailiffs decide she's too vulnerable to evict, so they call the police and social services.

Compassion

As Eddie explains: "We would be negligent if we put her out on the street. I'm confident I can explain to a judge why I haven't carried out his instruction and I'm confident I could persuade him that I acted correctly. Hopefully he will stay the warrant and insist that social services are involved."

LIFE ON THE DOORSTEP
County court bailiffs are civil servants who number 600 in England and Wales
There are about 4,000 private bailiffs, who enforce criminal fines
The cost of receiving a repossession order from the county court is fixed at 90
It is delivered by hand, setting an eviction date a minimum of seven days away
Squatters usually get 24 hours
The authorisation to use force to evict comes from the lender
Execution warrants are for the seizure of property to pay a debt
Compassion might not be a quality commonly associated with the profession, but Eddie says county court bailiffs, and not necessarily those privately hired, always try to act with social responsibility, despite misconceptions to the contrary.

His colleague Kevin says: "I dread telling people what I do. Not because I don't love the job, I do. No two days are the same. But the idea of the leather jacket-wearing, knuckle-scraping bailiff is not the case."

"And the majority of times we meet someone while working we're trying to make them do something they don't want to do."

Kevin's stab-proof vest in the boot of his car is proof that on occasion disgruntled debtors can get violent.

Every evening, the seven bailiffs working for Bristol County Court have to phone in to tell the office they've finished their day safely. Over the years, they have been assaulted, threatened with an axe and faced a knife.

Eddie says there has been an increase in the team's work in recent months and nationally the profession is getting busier. The number of eviction notices has increased by 66% in England and Wales, according to the Department for Constitutional Affairs, a trend thought to be due to spiralling credit and relatively high interest rates.

Anna, like anyone else who gets a knock at the door from the bailiffs, received an eviction notice at least a week before, setting out the exact time and date of the repossession, with the options available to try and get her out of trouble.

Before that, there's been months of mortgage defaults and a court hearing giving the debtor the opportunity to make an offer to the lender.

Drilling the locks

Most repossession orders do not lead to eviction because it acts as a wake-up call and agreement is reached. But for plenty of people in financial trouble, like Anna, avoiding the reality is preferable to opening the mail or applying to court.

The Bristol bailiffs' concern for Anna spared her from losing her home, but earlier in the day, it was business as usual when they carried out three evictions.

Messy garden and drilled lock
Some people leave their homes in a hurry
At midday exactly, the screech of the locksmith's drill started as it set to work on a front door in the deprived area of Knowle West.

By three minutes past, the bailiffs have searched the premises and found no-one hiding under the bed or in the cupboards.

And the locksmith, who represents the mortgage lender, has set about draining the taps, turning off the gas and changing the locks. The house will be on the market the following day, he estimates.

It's an empty, clean house with few clues to the owners who fled, apart from two crutches left in a corner.

But there's little sympathy from a young neighbour aged about 12, who approaches the open front door with profit on his mind.

"Is there a PlayStation in the front room?" he asks cheekily.

Some of the names have been changed in this story.


Your comments:

I am a mortgage broker and day after day I see people who want a mortgage for a house they can not afford! It doesn't matter that you explain the costs and that interest rates could increase, the bottom line is people see a house and will do and say almost anything to be able to buy it. It comes down to personal responsibility (or lack of it) If someone can not afford the mortgage then they should sell the house a move somewhere more affordable.(A bank would almost never repossess a house which was up for sale) But as always it is the most vulnerable in our society who get disproportionatly affected by these issues.
Ian, leeds

I worked as the clerk, here in San Diego Superior Court unlawful detainer court, for ten years before I retired. It can be tough forcing people out of their homes and a dangerous job for the court bailiff's. On both sides (landlord and tenant) there are good people and bad. Here too its the reality of the over heated housing market and too easy credit. Rents are very high as are housing prices. One slipup and it can be all over for the renter or owner.
John Diehl, San Diego, California, USA

I appreciate the work bailiffs do. Remember that not all bailiffs, work relates to failure to pay mortgages. A year ago the bailiffs removed my drunken and violent neighbour who was letting the flat downstairs and who terrorised the block of flats with his behaviour. Assaulting and harrassing his neighbours. It went to court twice - the first eviction was stayed which prolonged things. I wasn't around when the bailiffs removed him, but I heard from my nighbours who were there that he put up a fight and there was a scuffle to get the drunken lout out. Good on the bailiffs.
Anna, London

I have just read Mr Corsham's comment where he blames part of the rise in repossession on Estate Agents. Daft, you cannot blame a free market on an individual. House prices are market driven and only rising because the increases in stamp duty have reduced the liquidity of the market as it is now chaeper to try an extend a house than move.
Patrick Aschan, London

With my Mum and brother and sister I was evicted by Westminster City Council in 1976 because my Dad, who we all thought was paying the rent...wasn't I think the total run up was 146 (I think that was a lot in the 70's). I was 12. We spent the next 4 months in B&B in Sussex gardens. I don't think I've ever gotten over that...
Eamonn, London, England

I to sympathise with both sides as I am facing a repossession order on my property. Sometimes there seems like there is no way out. My crime in not paying my mortgage? An injured partner and a welfare system that has boxes that we do not fit in to. I work full-time but it never seems enough. I'm not surprised the evictions are going up, the economy is not as healthy as we are led to believe. At least though I can still laugh and I have my health!
Kate, Hastings

I remember vividly the day my home was repossessed. I was 15. The home was our family business and my Dad had fought to keep it but had just run out of luck. We moved in with friends next door. A few hours later we climbed onto our flat roof and opened a window that hadn't been locked then went through the house and opened the front door with our own key. The next day I was using it for band rehearsals and within a few weeks we had fully moved back in and opened for business again!!! After a couple of months someone came to check on the property and was speechless, it was brilliant, we were squatting in our own home! We actually managed to buy back the house in the end as well. A nice end to what could have been a sad story.
Ben, London

When I was a teenager my dad stopped paying the mortgage on my childhood home and stopped meeting the repayments on the car. I didn't know that the bailiffs were coming to repossess the car but when they arrived firstly I was terrified (I was on my own in the house) but they were really nice and understanding. My dad had broken the clutch on the car and removed the petrol from inside the tank so the car couldn't be driven. The bailiffs had to send for a tow truck which meant that it all took a great deal longer than it should have. Overall, the bailiffs were very kind and made sure that the process was as easy for me as possible. However, now I am an adult I wonder how the bailiffs must have felt when finding out that a teenage girl had been left to deal with them. Luckily for me the bailiffs I met that day were two of the nicest men I have ever met.
Rebecca,

My experience of bailiffs is contrary to the impression you give in this article. They can be incredibly rude and aggressive and in my particular case they forced a mentally ill man to drive to a cash point in order to get him to withdraw money to pay for the bills they were chasing. That in my opinion is completely unacceptable.
Alex, London

It shows the reality of the housing market. We are being offered huge mortgages to cope with the over inflated house prices and now the real costs are being felt. Unfortunately, it's us folk that feel the brunt of it. This really shows the need for the housing market and lending to be regulated better so houses are affordable! People would sleep a lot better knowing that estate agents and lenders aren't screwing them for every penny, shame on them! One thought. Greed.
Andrew Corsham, London




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