No time to lose
Once started, the repossession process can be frighteningly fast. If you do nothing, you could lose your home in a matter of weeks.
That first letter you receive from your lender warning you of a missed payment marks the beginnings of a train of events designed to give you plenty of time to sort out your financial difficulties, seek alternative finance, or find a new place to live.

Usually, the first letter you receive from your lender will simply remind you that you have missed your payments. It will normally ask how you intend to catch up, or ask you to contact your lender to discuss your financial circumstances.

The imprudent might well be tempted to ignore this letter. Many simply ignore the letter, hoping the problem will all go away, but without firm action on your part, things can only get worse.

Engaging your lender in discussions at this stage could stand you in good steed further along the line and ? should your case ever go to court ? it might encourage the judge to be more sympathetic.

However, you should do your utmost to make sure it never comes to court, by making sensible and financially realistic proposals on how you can get up to date with your payments.

As a matter of course, you should keep copies of all your correspondence. You should also make sure that you send letters to your lender by ?Recorded Signed For? mail. If you contact your lender by telephone, keep a careful record of the date and what was said in the conversation.

Within a few weeks, your lender will write to you again if it does not like your proposals for repayment, or if your arrears continue to grow. This second letter will usually state that the matter will be handed over to solicitors if you do not clear the arrears or get in touch with the lender within seven days to discuss your situation.

It is a wise move to try to negotiate with your lender before solicitors become involved. Solicitors may prove to be much less accommodating ? after all, they stand to make money if your case goes to court. A housing aid centre, citizens? advice bureau, or one of the debt counselling charities can help you do this.

If you do not respond to these letters, the lender?s solicitors will get involved. They will generally send you a letter asking you to pay off all your arrears within seven days, or to make a firm proposal to do so. If the solicitors are not satisfied with your response, they can start court action without further warning. Many lenders have will automatically pass the case on to their solicitors if you become more than three months in arrears.

It is certainly still worth trying to negotiate at this stage ? even if you cannot come to an agreement. Should the case go to court, the judge will be more inclined to be sympathetic to you if you can show that you made an effort to sort things out before legal action in the court was started.

The first stage in the legal repossession process is when the lender goes to your local County Court and obtains a Summons for Possession of the property. These papers issued by the court will give a date and time for you to turn up at court, so that the court can assess the merits of the lender?s claim. Ignore this paperwork from the court at your peril.

The documents will give the basic details of your lender?s claim, and include a reply form for you to complete and return to the court. The form will ask you about your income and outgoings, and will give you the opportunity to explain what you want to do ? whether you want to make a payment plan and arrive at an amicable solution, or whether you want to sell your property.

If you have not been able to stop your lender from taking you to court, it does not necessarily mean you will lose your home. It is still worth trying to negotiate with your lender before the date of the hearing.

Shortly before the hearing, you will receive an affidavit from the court, in which the lender outlines the full particulars of its claim ? the amount outstanding, details of payments you have made (and missed), and the interest rates.

The ensuing court hearing can go one of several ways, dependant on your circumstances.

It could be adjourned if the Judge needs more information to reach a decision, or if you can persuade the Court that you need more time to negotiate with your lender. The adjournment is often for a period of a month or more and can give you valuable breathing space.

If the court decides that you cannot possibly repay your arrears, then it could decide a date when you have to leave your home. The lender could then ask the court to issue a legal document, called a ?Possession Warrant? (see below). Court-appointed bailiffs enforce this and you will generally be given two weeks to leave the property.

This is a very rare outcome. More usually, if you can make an offer to repay your arrears, the Court will make a Suspended Possession Order. This means the repossession proceedings are put on hold. However if you fail to stick to the payment schedule agreed in court, your lender can proceed with the repossession. It can apply to the court for a Possession Warrant without any further ado.

If you don?t bother to attend your hearing or submit any proposals to the court for making up your arrears the Court will usually make a 28 day Possession Order.

If you have no long-term proposals for repayment, but simply need more time, or are perhaps hoping to sell the property, then the court can extend the time for this Possession Order to 56 days, or even longer.

If you fail to leave the property within the time stated by these Orders, the lender will obtain a Possession Warrant. Many people try to plead with the Court bailiffs when they turn up to enforce these warrants, but this is a pointless exercise.

People will say, ?we have put a cheque in the post?, or ?we are just off to the bank to pay the arrears now?, but it is far too late by the time the bailiffs arrive. Whatever you say is going to go over their heads. There is no bargaining with these people. They are simply doing their job.

If you are at work or if you think that by locking yourself in, nothing is going to happen on the day of eviction, you might be rudely surprised. Bailiffs are entitled to forcibly remove people from their home, regardless of whether they are sick, elderly or infirm.

On the day of eviction, they will arrive with an agent from the lender, a locksmith, and sometimes an estate agent. If you do not open the door, they will force entry. If you are still in the property, they will give you ten minutes to collect your belongings and get out. The locksmith will then change all of the locks and secure the property, and the estate agent will put it straight onto the market.

Once evicted, you are legally entitled to a supervised visit a fortnight afterwards to collect your belongings.

This is clearly the worst possible outcome ? and easily avoided by taking firm and decisive action at an earlier stage in the train of events.

Part of a series of self-help articles on house-repossession. First published by 'NewsConfidential', November 2008.

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