Why the Demise of the Interest-Only Mortgage isn’t a bad thing

So you walk into a shop, and spot that nice new flat-screen TV you want. £500 to you, sir, or you can buy it interest-only for £2 a month. Wouldn’t you smell a rat somewhere? The rat is, of course, the small print that says you’ll have to pay £500 at the end of the interest-only loan.

Now I know that some people, particularly in the United States, buy their cars like this. It is called leasing, and the name gives it away, you never get to own the car. It’s a long term rent. It looks absolutely and stupendously daft to me, but if the image of driving a nearly new car is that important to you, well, ‘you pays your money and you takes your choice‘.

So what the heck makes buying a house on an interest-only mortgage any different? You still never get to own the house. What it the point of that? The interest only mortgage was a clever wheeze to ramp up house prices and for banks to make more money. The beautiful part of this game is that the buyers go all gooey-eyed and think the mortgage company is doing them a favour by lending them more than they can afford. Hey, that Mr Interest Only Bank can lend me £200,000 whereas Mean Old Prudent Bank will only lend me £150,000. Isn’t Mr Interest Only Bank such a nice guy?

Two words. Northern Rock. It didn’t work out well, even for the lenders.

A history lesson

1960 – the Repayment mortgage

When my Dad borrowed his first £500 mortgage, way back in the early 1960s, it was simple. He told them his income, they looked up in a table what they could lend him, and armed with that knowledge he could look for a house. He borrowed the £500, and then paid them the interest plus a proportion of the price of the house, the latter proportion increasing with time.

Repayment mortgages were all that were available, based on the simple premise that you pay your instalments for 25 years and when the last one is paid the house is yours.

1990 – the Endowment Mortgage

Fast forward thirty years, and I get to go to the Abbey National, and bamboozled by the choice of endowment and repayment I foolishly go for an endowment mortgage. This is still on the principle that I pay interest only to the mortgage company, but simultaneously to a life-insurance policy which supposedly grows with time till after 25 years it is worth at least the price of the house. So although I was only servicing the interest on the mortgage, I was in parallel accumulating an asset that matched the cash price of the house, which when paid to the mortgage firm would discharge the debt. And the house would be mine. The mortgage company took a charge over the endowment, so I couldn’t sneakily stop paying it without them knowing.

2005 – The Interest Only Mortgage (Don’t Bother with the Capital, it’ll work out somehow)

Like an endowment, but endowments got a bad name, for not paying enough to match the price of the house. So just do away with the need for an endowment! How does that work? Well, you get to the end of your 25 year term, and you still owe for the house! Okay, so inflation hasd probably halved the real value of the debt, which is all to the good, but you still don’t owe your damn house at the end. It is a leasing arrangement. Why not just rent instead?

The assumption is that rampant house price inflation means that your house is worth so much at the end that the increase covers the total. But you still can’t sell off the chimney or your third bedroom to discharge the debt, and you are likely to be coming up for retirement. I wouldn’t want to have to stick my hand in my back pocket to come up with what I paid for my house over a decade years ago, though as it is I could just about do it.

increasing complexity, decreasing security and honesty

There’s a lot of bleating about interest only mortgages, because about a third of firt-time buyers bought their houses on an interest only basis.

Shockingly, I heard a father talking on Money Box about how it was so rotten that his son couldn’t find an interest only mortgage to buy his first house. David from Sussex said (13:45 on the iPlayer)

a bit surprised and disappointed to hear they’re only looking to offer capital repayment mortgages, and with my son’s circumstances, which I’m sure is the same for a lot of other first time buyers, the intention is not to stay in the property for that long

So how does that work, then, David? Are you saying your son doesn’t need the house after a while, can sell up, pay back the capital from the proceeds and stick a tent on the pavement? Or do you want him to be able to overpay for this house, so he doesnt’ spend the excess on booze and fast cars? Why exactly is it that you want him to borrow more money for a house he can’t afford the buy, only to lease? Do you realise, David, that your son is in an auction for houses, and if mortgage companies don’t let people borrow so much money then the auction price will fall?

It’s too late to save the people that did overpay for houses by going interest-only to the max, but we can at least not propagate the mistake. If you are going to buy a house, then buy the damn thing, don’t lease it for 25 years and then wonder why it isn’t yours…

Overall, look at the changing mortgage proposition over the years. My Dad was offered an honest and straightforward service. Pay this much for the next 25 years, and you will own your house.

I was offered a less honest service but at least one that in theory would end up with me owning the house. It didn’t work out that way because the complexity of a with-profits endowment hid untestable assumptions and I was stupid enough to buy a product that didn’t match my circumstances. In all fairness to my parents, they told me a repayment would be better for me, they told me why, and educated me well enough to be able to see why, but I was a damn fool and had eyes only for the potential gain, without the wisdom to look for the potential loss. That’s what being 28 did for me, I knew everything and nothing, so greed trumped wisdom.

Unlike my parents, David is failing his son in giving him only half the story. If he actually told his son, “look, you are taking a very serious risk here by going interest only, but you are in a profession where your pay will increase dramatically and as long as you start saving for the capital from then on you may consider this a calculated risk” then that would make all the difference.His son would still be taking a risk and would probably be just as cocky as I was, but at least David would have discharged his duty as a parent 😉

He sort of alludes to the early years being hard, but wage profiles may be flatter nowadays and young people start out with more debt, so the assumption that money will be easier after five years probably doesn’t hold. David needs either to underwrite his son’s migration from interest-only to capital repayment with the Bank of Mum and Dad, or not encourage his son to overpay. Because it’s simple to summarise the issue

if you can only afford to pay an interest-only mortgage on your house, then you can’t afford to buy that house.

Although I think the demise of the interest-only mortgage has been exaggerated, its death would be no bad thing at all.