RECORD low interest rates have helped push the number of repossessions in the UK to the lowest level since 2007, but they are likely to soar this year as unemployment worsens, lenders have warned.
Some 36,200 properties were repossessed last year, 4000 fewer than forecast, and repossessions in the final quarter were down 9% on the previous quarter.
However, rising living costs are likely to drive the year-long figure back up to 45,000 by the end of 2012, the Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) said.
The body put the results down to interest rates as well as lenders' forbearance. It said lenders have been reducing rates temporarily or switching them to interest-only mortgages to help borrowers, as well as extending the dates for payments.
Recent research from the Halifax found mortgage payments for new borrowers have reached their most affordable levels for 14 years, with average payments standing at 27% of disposable earnings, well below the 37% long-term average.
Bank of Scotland figures also show buying is cheaper than renting in Scotland for the first time in three years. The typical monthly cost of buying a three bedroom house in Scotland was £510 in December 2011, which is 6%, or £30, lower than the average monthly rent of £540 paid on a property of the same type.
However, the CML predicts 180,000 mortgages will be in arrears of 2.5% or more of the mortgage balance by the end of this year, up from 159,400.
CML director general Paul Smee said: "Low interest rates and good arrears management by lenders are helping the vast majority of those borrowers who face difficulties to keep their homes and get back on track.
"This will continue, but in the face of wider economic difficulties and rising unemployment, we are concerned there will be a higher number of people facing more serious problems in 2012."
Gordon MacRae, head of communications and policy at Shelter Scotland, said the latest figures were "good news" but the charity's law service has seen a 40% rise in the number of households facing the threat of repossession in recent months.
He added: "There is no room for complacency, especially against a backdrop of economic turmoil, Government cutbacks, increases in the cost of living and higher unemployment."
Buy-to-let properties accounted for 5900 of the repossessions in 2011, up from 4700, but arrears rates tended to be lower than in the owner-occupier sector. There was renewed interest in the buy-to-let market as the rental market saw a boom.
The CML said buy-to-let mortgages worth £14.1 billion were advanced last year, the highest figure since 2008. A total of 124,000 such mortgages were made last year, up from 94,100 in 2010. Despite being the strongest figures since 2008, the 2011 UK results still sit at half the £28bn worth of buy-to-let mortgage approvals in that year.