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Changes in the way that the housing market works are required if people with health problems are to buy the type of...
Changes in the way that the housing market works are required if people with health problems are to buy the type of home that they need and enjoy security in the longer term, according to new Economic & Social Research Council-funded research.

When it comes to buying a home of their own, people in poor health often feel that the house-buying system works against them. And for those already in their own homes, deteriorating health can mean sliding down the housing ladder.

Researchers at Edinburgh and Heriot Watt Universities considered how accessible, suitable and sustainable owner-occupation is for people with a wide range of health problems. They came up with a range of recommendations for improving the situation:

- A re-think of housing supply and building regulations is needed in light of the needs of people in poor health

- More sensitivity is needed in the rules governing access to key financial services

- Better recognition of the relevance of health needs is needed when marketing properties

- The government needs to take an increased role in ensuring the maintenance and long-term viability of the national housing stock

- Householders should have more involvement in, and control over, grant-aided adaptations

The research shows that people with health problems are no different to the majority of the population in wanting to own their own homes. Owner-occupation is seen as an attractive housing option that offers choice, flexibility and security, and which makes financial sense. Many of the study's participants also found owning a home therapeutic. They associate it with better health and an enhanced quality of life.

However, the responsibilities, costs and practicalities of owner-occupation can be so stressful and demanding that these benefits are often undermined. Quality of life deteriorates and housing 'careers' are cut short.

Benefits tend to be seen as less secure than income from paid work, so people on benefits may not be considered a good risk if they want a mortgage. In addition, the prospect of having to repossess the home of someone who is in poor health - with consequent bad publicity - is not an attractive proposition for many lenders. The difficulty in obtaining a mortgage means that some participants

remain in rented accommodation, despite sometimes paying more each month in rent than they would pay for a mortgage on the same property.

Health problems can make it hard to obtain or afford sufficient life insurance to cover a mortgage. High premiums can reduce housing choices. Yet buying without insurance can turn the security that supposedly comes with home-ownership into a risky gamble. Even with a mortgage in place, finding somewhere suitable to buy is problematic. Interviewees reported a lack of supply of homes that have easy access, ground floor accommodation, or the scope to adapt the property to meet health needs.

Not only do sale particulars tend to omit information crucial to this group, but some relevant details are deliberately suppressed by selling agents in the belief that describing a home as adapted for those with special health needs will put off other buyers.

On becoming homeowners, people with health problems sometimes find that the practical, financial and emotional costs of ownership can outweigh the anticipated

benefits. In the end, homes can become liabilities rather than assets, and health may deteriorate as housing conditions worsen and worry takes its toll. Not surprisingly some people with health problems ultimately lose the ability and desire to remain owner-occupiers.

'People with health problems are under-represented among home-owners,' says Susan Smith from the department of geography at the University of Edinburgh. 'This is not primarily a product of direct discrimination, it is rather because the institutions of the housing market just aren't geared up to health needs. For years, it was the public, rented sector that catered for needs, while the market was about ability to pay. But all that has changed because there are fewer and fewer rented homes available - 75 per cent of Britain's housing is owner-occupied. These days, for both commercial and moral reasons it seems that the market can no longer afford not to care.'


Ninety people with health problems in Edinburgh, East Lancashire and North London took part in the study. They were drawn from 84 households. The researchers also worked with health interest groups, mortgage lenders and financial advisers to identify the problems, as well as the opportunities, that home ownership can bring.

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