James Coney  

The devil’s own job to change perceptions

James Coney

James Coney

If you want to know the problem with equity release, it is no good looking at the market today. 

Instead you have to look at it yesterday.

Equity release is one of those financial products that always has the faint whiff of the devil about it.

That is because it is taking money from our houses, and heavens knows in the UK, we love our houses.

Even though the market has consistently improved, there has long been a credibility problem.

In trying to counter this, the market has changed. But that may not do any good.

Because it will be the products and advice of the past that could deliver a terminal blow to the sector unless companies find a way to sort them out now. 

The issue of equity release is on my mind because yet another horrible case has been in the press: this time over a home reversion plan that was sold almost two decades ago, but left the family of the woman who took it out facing the consequences. 

Reversions have only ever been a small part of the market; today the number sold is minuscule – only around 100 were flogged last year.

And they have always been the most toxic side of the market, with homeowners giving up huge chunks of their property at a fraction of the price without ever realising what they were doing.

Advice is much better today. None of this matters though, because of the frail position of the equity release sector. 

I have long had the view that lifetime mortgages have a part to play in financial planning.

You do not have to like them, they are certainly not right for everyone and in many cases should be regarded as a last resort, but with fully informed choice and proper independent advice they can be useful. 

Indeed, much of the criticism of equity release is of the ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’ school of thought: customers ought really to have saved more, earlier in their lives, so they did not need to release equity.

That is certainly true, but hindsight has never been able to make you richer. 

Equity release has a firm code of conduct, is heavily regulated, is cheaper than it has ever been before, and is relatively flexible. 

But it has not always been so. And because it is someone’s house at stake, the issue can be quite toxic.

That is why businesses need to be careful about how they treat those older plans when complaints arise today.

It will only take a few more bad headlines and the market could find itself struggling for credibility. 

The responsibility will ultimately land on the shoulders of the insurers who offered the deals. Sticking to the contract terms will not be enough.