IN my mind's eye she bears an uncanny resemblance to Annabel Goldie.
She is a woman of a certain age, invariably dressed for a pow-wow at the Woman's Guild, her hair perfectly coiffed, her brow permanently furrowed. She was called Mrs Forsyth. If she had a first name I never knew it and it was never volunteered. She ran, seemingly single-handedly, the Musselburgh Building Society.
It was Mrs Forsyth who allowed me to take my first, tentative step on what we now call "the property ladder". Back then, in the 1970s, I simply wanted to buy a flat in which to live. The asking price was £6000, of which I could put my hands on about one-tenth. The rest I hoped to borrow in the form of a mortgage.
Mrs Forsyth summoned me to her office and subjected me to the sort of grilling one associates with terrorism suspects. Not only did she want to know my income and my prospects but also my expenditure. Did I have a car? Was I inclined to take expensive foreign holidays? If I had any bad habits, now was the time to own up to them.
When she was satisfied I had the means to make the monthly repayments the mortgage was granted. At the time, I felt it would have been easier to join the Foreign Legion. Much of what was said by Mrs Forsyth flew straight over my head. What I do recall, though, was her faith in me. If she thought I deserved to be given a mortgage then so did I. And if I met the payments as promised the flat would eventually be all mine.
What a difference a few decades make. Some 40 years hence, we are served a daily diet of mortgage horror stories. The latest concerns people who elected to sign up to interest-only mortgages. One can understand why they did. Interest-only mortgages have lower monthly payments because homeowners do not have to pay back the initial loan until the end of the mortgage term.
These have become increasingly popular among those who have found it difficult to meet the demands of a capital repayment deal. Faced with the possibility of repossession, an interest-only mortgage seems, at first glance, to be the ideal way out of a grim situation. Now, however, it may be likened to taking an aspirin to cure a brain tumour.
According to Andrea Leadsom MP, a Conservative member of the Treasury Select Committee, many people on interest-only mortgages may be unable in future to amass enough capital to pay off their debt when it reaches the end of its term, which is often around the time when the mortgage holder is contemplating retirement. The knock-on effects of this are deeply troubling. As Ms Leadsom says, "We need to avoid people being put in a position where they become homeless when they retire."
Quite how "we" do this is outwith my bailiwick. What is apparent, however, is that the financial mess which began with the sub-prime debacle in the United States is far from being sorted. There is little those with interest-only mortgages can do about their situation, short of selling up and moving into a less expensive property. House-owning, which was promoted with such zeal by the Thatcher Government and embraced by so many, including council house tenants, has proved not to be so wonderful after all.
In hindsight, we ought to have been aware of this, when building societies started handing out 125% mortgages which not only allowed young couples to buy a house but to furnish it as well and take a holiday to recover from the trauma.
What, one wonders, would Mrs Forsyth have made of it? Like Micawber, she knew that it was wrong to spend money you did not have. She also knew that you should not acquire a debt, whether you are a bank or a building society or an individual, if you don't have the wherewithal to repay it. It couldn't have been simpler, could it?
By the by, the Musselburgh Building Society was gobbled up by one rival after another until it fell into the maw of Northern Rock, about which the least said the better.
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