Here Alpa Bhakta, CEO of Butterfield Mortgages Limited, explains what factors and characteristics brokers and borrowers need to be on the look out for when selecting a lender. As part of the feature, she'll also delve into how the rise of challenger banks has affected the prime property and mortgage markets.

Between 2016 and 2018, as many as 4,214 new products were introduced into the residential mortgage market. It’s a remarkable statistic, and one that reflects the broadening range of options available to homebuyers.

Today, mortgage lenders have larger product portfolios, with subtle variations in their terms and rates meaning they provide multiple iterations of what is fundamentally the same offering. At the same time, the rise of “challenger banks” means there are more and more new players entering the industry, in turn giving borrowers entirely new companies to approach.

One would naturally assume this is a positive trend, something to be welcomed and celebrated. However, in truth, despite the increase in the number of mortgage products available to consumers and investors, challenges still remain.

As with any market that expands steadily over a long period, the wealth of options to choose from can prove overwhelming. Indeed, filtering through thousands of potential mortgages to find the best product from the right lender is perhaps more difficult than ever.

The value of intermediaries

Earlier this year, Butterfield Mortgages Limited carried out an interesting piece of research delving into the UK’s mortgage market––or more specifically, the UK’s high net-worth (HNW) mortgage market––to establish borrowers’ opinions of the products available.

The independent survey of more than 500 HNW individuals revealed that even for the wealthiest members of society, there are still significant barriers to securing a mortgage. For example, one in nine said they had been turned down for a mortgage in the past decade.

Furthermore, 79% said they think too many lenders are currently employing overly restrictive “tick box” methods when assessing mortgage applications; 60% believe it is becoming increasingly difficult to secure a mortgage for a non-primary residential purchase; and 67% of UK HNWs feel banks do not adequately cater to the needs of property investors and buy-to-let landlords.

The results illustrate how the wealth of options available to mortgage applicants is not always a good thing. In fact, it means there are more unsuitable products and lenders that a borrower must filter though.

Enter the intermediaries. Brokers and wealth advisers have a more important role than ever in guiding their clients, such as HNWs, towards the best and most appropriate mortgage products. Indeed, the aforementioned BML research showed how 73% of HNWs rely on brokers to help them find mortgages.

The larger the mortgage market becomes, the more valuable expert help will be in connecting borrowers to suitable lenders and products.

Choosing the right lender

It’s nearing three years since the EU referendum, and as if anyone needed reminding, Brexit has dominated political and economic discourse throughout this period. In a word, the result of the on-going Brexit saga has been uncertainty.

A lack of clarity regarding what the UK’s financial and political future will look like has resulted in hesitancy among consumers, investors and businesses alike. In the mortgage market, this means further due diligence is required from borrowers and brokers to ensure they work with lenders who are not at risk of succumbing to the challenging conditions currently gripping the market.

Over recent months the likes of Secure Trust Bank, Amicus Finance and Fleet Mortgages have withdrawn from the lending market or frozen their activities. As FT Adviser reported in January, the combination of Brexit and increased competition has forced some companies out of the market, while other lenders are pulling out of deals at the last minute.

One of a borrower’s greatest fears is that he or she will choose a mortgage lender who enters financial difficulties and this, in turn, has the potential to compromise their own finances. To avoid this, one must establish the relative security of different lenders based on the strength and longevity of their funding lines, as well as their past track-record of weathering turbulent periods, such as the 2008 global economic crisis.

The number of products and lenders in the mortgage market is on the rise. Meanwhile, Brexit uncertainty has presented new challenges to both traditional and challenger lenders. Consequently, selecting the right mortgage from the right provider requires more due diligence than ever.

After all, there are specialist lenders with expertise in providing bespoke mortgages for even the most niche borrowers in the most unique situations. Finding them may take work, but ultimately the health of the mortgage market reflects the ever-present demand among both domestic and international buyers for bricks and mortar assets here in the UK, and this certainly is something to celebrate.