“Are you married?” he asked, from behind his computer.
I said no. He typed.
“In a relationship?” he asked.
I said no, not at that time. He stopped typing, and looked me over.
“You’re single now, but you’ll meet someone soon,” was his conclusion. “So there will be two incomes then, and that’s what I’ll base my calculations on.”
The mortgage adviser at my bank was “advising” me about whether I might or might not be able to afford to fund a larger property. This was 15 years ago.
Everyone has a story in this country related to property. Mine is a very small one in the scale of things, because I am fortunate enough to own a property, but it’s also an important story.
'I'd like to know what's possible based on my current income,' I said eventually. 'And what I've paid off from my existing mortgage to date. I want to deal with facts'
Some 15 years ago, I made an appointment with the mortgage section of my bank. I have been a customer at this bank since I was an 18-year-old student. I recall getting a free student rail pass as an incentive to sign up with them. Representatives from the banks visited colleges during freshers’ week, way back then, with their free stuff, and we made our decisions as to whom we would bank with – or at least I did – predicated purely on the usefulness of the swag.
To backtrack 15 years or so. I was living in my pretty – and pretty tiny – 35sq m (377sq ft) cottage. I was immensely grateful to own a home of any size. The bedroom, included in the 35sq m, was an extension that previous owners had added some 10 years previously. When I moved into this enclave of cottages, some of them still had outside toilets. The original space, without the small bedroom extension, had been just one high-ceilinged room. It felt small to me as its sole occupant, but when I looked up the census of 1911, I discovered a widow and her six children had lived there then: seven people in a one-room cottage, minus my bedroom space. I was flabbergasted.
This cottage was my first home with a mortgage. Having happily lived there for some years, I then decided to investigate financially if there was any possibility of moving to a slightly larger space. I like hosting a lot, and there were only so many nights my guests wanted to spend on a sofa bed in the middle of a miniature kitchen-living-diningroom space, especially if they numbered more than one adult. Guests with children rarely stayed over, as there wasn’t enough space, although my bedroom did once accommodate close friends for a few days: a couple, their toddler and their soon-to-be born baby, while I occupied the sofa bed.
The mortgage adviser I had an appointment to see had a cubicle office within a large room. There were at least two other of these cubicle offices in the space. This “broken plan” layout meant even though other people couldn’t see you once you were in one of these spaces, they could hear everything that was going on.
“You’re single now, but you’ll meet someone soon,” he repeated, clicking at his keyboard. “So there will be two incomes then, and that’s what I’ll base my calculations on.”
As I sat there in front of this man, who represented a financial institution I had banked with since I was a teenager, I felt a range of emotions. Rage at his assumptions at about my personal life. Humiliation at his assumptions about my personal life. Amazement that someone who was meant to know a lot more about risk and finance than me was actively encouraging me to be reckless with a future mortgage, based on the hypothetical income of some hypothetical future partner.
I should have said making an assumption about my future personal life was inappropriate. I should have asked to see a different adviser
“I’d like to know what’s possible based on my current income,” I said eventually. “And what I’ve paid off from my existing mortgage to date. I want to deal with facts.”
The adviser continued to bash away at the keyboard, and then printed a document, which he handed to me. It was figures for a new mortgage, based on two incomes: a figure I would be unable to afford on my salary.
It was only after repeated requests on my part that I eventually got the set of figures that were relevant to me. I gathered up my things and left, afire with embarrassment, knowing that the officials in the room’s two other cubicles had overheard the entire conversation.
It was several years later before I did anything further with looking to finance a new mortgage. Part of that was due to a year spent abroad in the intervening time. Part of it was thinking nothing more financially ambitious was possible on one income, like the man in the mortgage section had told me. Part of it was wanting to run a gazillion miles from another discussion with my bank that was going to involve questions and speculation about my personal life.
Looking back now, I should have complained. I should have said making an assumption about my future personal life was inappropriate. I should have asked to see a different adviser. At least I didn’t cave in to pressure, and take on a new mortgage I could not afford. But I often wonder: did this happen to anyone else, and if so, what happened to their ability to pay that over-extended mortgage afterwards?