Disclaimer: The names of individuals/financial institutions marked with * have been changed.
When I found myself sat in the non descript office of a finance advisor, sipping on tepid water and discussing my death it did cross my mind that I’d had more upbeat birthdays. The situation was made all the more bleaker when he asked me how I planned to spend the rest of my day. With a Christmas brass band playing outside the window, I said half-humouredly “oh, you don’t understand, this meeting IS the highlight of my day”. He laughed out loud, I cried a little inside.
The above paragraph is lifted from the opening of Happy 100th Birthday, Sorry, Blog Post to Me. It marked the start of a funny spell and probably the closest I’ve come to acting since I was fourteen years old. Sick with stress and fury, whilst having to plaster on a cheesy grin for the rest of the world. Angry phone calls one minute, cheerful conversations with business suppliers the next, ended by crashes in the evening. Seldom few people knew about it and fewer still knew the realities. When the sale almost fell through days before exchange the inner circle shrunk to only those who could be counted on one hand.
But here I am, getting ahead of myself as always. Let’s get back to that insipid meeting room, with the overly sweet hot chocolate and Bono playing on BankUK* FM in the background. Take it back to when I met Jack and learnt about his boyfriend’s Christmas tree, his mother’s house in Evesham and his love of dogs and cats. Jack*, my first mortgage advisor.
Having sailed through the telephone interview for my Mortgage in Principle, I spent the following couple of weeks pouring through paperwork, digging out statements and venturing to the dark recesses of my office collect old payslips. Having asked others of their experiences, I’d prepared myself for a long meeting, involving heavy financial gruelling to determine suitability. I also had the unwanted assistance of the Cotswold’s answer to Gok Wan sorting out my wardrobe.
“Use that bag! No, the other one! Put your hair into a bun! Wear that nice dress!”
“So, shall I assume it’s a no to the wolf hat then?”
“Alice, do not wear that bloody wolf hat!”
I had always imagined bank lenders to be bespectacled, scary and fat, puffing on a cigar while they scrutinised your documentation. Really I suppose I expected Jack to be the spitting image of a cartoon character from Punch magazine. In reality he was anything but. I had to fight back my surprise when he made casual remarks such as “wow, you’ve got as much in savings as I have in debt!”, and “I really should start saving money, but I’m just too addicted to using the credit cards.” How could this man be in charge with lending such high value sums?
As we neared towards the close of the meeting the only element of my spending Jack had queried was that on food.
“You spent £40 a month on food? Really?”
“Well, it’s £10 a week maximum. I struggle to spend more than that.”
“No wonder you can afford to buy a house,” Jack muttered, before moving swiftly on.
Before the meeting I’d clued myself up on what I could borrow and on the best rates. For getting what I wanted at a fixed-term rate BankUK came out top, hence why I was sat in their bland appointment room, not the bland room of another bank. I felt very confident that I’d pass the second approval with flying colours.
“Oh. The computer says you can’t borrow that much…” He showed me the red screen.
Thoughts ran like crazy in my head. Are mortgage advisors just chimpanzees who hit keys into a computer? Because I could have done that at home. Also, I spent fifteen minutes explaining very carefully the difference between the charity I work at and our competitor’s, this man owes me. Thirdly, he must be mistaken. Of the three, it was the latter which was verbalised.
“Ok, ok, let me try something.” Jack quickly twisted the screen round, quickly typed and clicked a few things in and sighed with relief.
“There, all sorted. It’s been approved.”
“Yeah, well it needs to be approved by the bank manager but I’ve worked some magic on it and I’ve got you through. Your figures all match up, it’ll get sign off next week when I’m in the team meeting. Now, we need to have a second meeting to sign the paperwork off, can you do next Saturday, 10th December?”
“Sure, sounds good to me.”
“Great, I’ll see you then. Enjoy the rest of your birthday weekend!”
“Thanks, I’ll try to!”
That was first and last time I saw Jack.
On 6th December, a day after my birthday, a letter turned up on the parent’s doorstep.
“You expecting any late birthday cards or post?”
Inside the envelope was a girly birthday card signed by Jack “…and all the Heathley* BankUK team” was shoved in the corner as if it were an afterthought.
“That’s amazing. Why did he do that?”
“New policy? ‘We’re going to bleed you dry of money, but here’s a nice birthday card to make you forget about it’?”
“I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Well, there’s a first for everything. I’ll stick it with the others.”
And that was that.
A couple of days later an email.
Hope you enjoyed your birthday.
I’m afraid I can’t see you Saturday, I’ve been trying to get the application approved and the branch manager is out of the office until Monday and the service manager is on holiday which of course isn’t ideal. To make matters worse, I break for Christmas on Wednesday next week, which gives us a very small window to complete.
I can book you in for the first Saturday in Jan for you.
I’m sorry about this, I hope it isn’t too inconvenient.
I was a little perturbed by this minor set back, but accepted that with everything shutting down for Christmas and New Year the delay of one week shouldn’t affect the house sale. I wrote a half-cheery, half-formal response in which I asked him to book the meeting for 7th January. A quick reply back confirmed this had been done. So with nothing else to do than to wait for my application to be approved, I sat back and focused on Christmas.
January rolled in as the tinsel rolled out. Like every January the streets took on a more dark and slippery persona, very much like those who worked in my mortgage bank. I emailed Jack to wish him a happy New Year and confirm the appointment time (a finer detail which hadn’t been set pre Christmas). Nothing. I emailed again two days later, a little more formal this time. Nothing. On Thursday morning I sent a third, more concerned email, asking for a call back. Nothing.
Not wanting to spend all of my Saturday waiting in a bank (I can think of a million things I’d rather do on a day off), I called the 0800 number on Jack’s email. Eventually I got through to someone based in India. I was a painfully slow process but eventually I persuaded the lady to send a direct email to Jack and to get someone to call me back to confirm. She said she couldn’t see the booking, but my advisor could have made the reservation outside of the booking system. Starting to feel a bit uneasy, I spent the Thursday lunchtime walking around town and telling myself to not panic.
About an hour and half later my phone lit up with a 0800 caller ID. I scooted from my desk and went out into the office reception. It would be Jack calling to apologise. He’d bleat on about being busy and then confirm the appointment time.
“Hello, is that Miss Bennett?” Came the female voice.
“Oh, err yes it is,” I replied, confused as to why Jack wasn’t calling me.
“Hi there, my name is Katie Smith*, I’m calling in response to your enquiry into a new mortgage application.”
“Well it’s not new per say, I just wanted to know what time my meeting was with Jack on Saturday.”
“Your meeting with Jack?”
“Yes, we have a meeting booked this Saturday. It’s our second meeting, he emailed pre Christmas to confirm the date, but he’s yet to get back to me on the time. When is it?”
“I’m sorry, I’m calling about a new enquiry. The call centre in India passed your details onto this branch.”
“Well I’m talking to you about my existing application.” My voice raised a little.
“OK. Unfortunately Jack went off sick yesterday, it was a bit unexpected. Was he your advisor?”
“Well, um, he hasn’t passed any details onto me. I can start a new application, but because he went off sick I can’t do anymore than that.”
My blood started to boil. “He said it would be approved before Christmas, in which case I only need to sign it off. I’ll be on your system, please look it up for me. You have my name, it’s a three bedroomed house in Swindon.” I said through gritted teeth. Watching people coming and going around me I realised that this was perhaps not the best place to be having this call.
“Here we are,” Katie said down the phone, “I’ve got your records here.”
“Yes, it says your application has been declined.” Came the blunt reply.
I hit the roof. “WHAT?!” I yelled down the phone. “It can’t be!”
“I’m only telling you what I’m seeing on the screen Miss Bennett.”
“You’ve done me wrong!”
“Miss Bennett, I can assure you…”
“No, no, you listen to me. Jack sat there and approved my application. He had all my information. He told me not to worry about it, it would be approved. Why are you telling me this?”
“Well Jack went off sick yesterday. He was in a car accident. I don’t know why it was declined, I can only tell you the outcome. We’ve been under a lot of strain, no one expected him to be off sick…”
“That’s not the point! My last appointment was over a month ago. Why didn’t anyone tell me my mortgage application was declined? Why am I only finding out now? Why have I had to telephone a call centre in Mumbai to speak to someone in my local branch?!”
“Miss Bennett, a mortgage can be declined for a number of reasons…”
“How many times? I sat there with Jack, before Christmas, we went through it all and he approved it. He told me it was fine. Why would he, a mortgage advisor, tell me that if it wasn’t the case?”
“Well Jack has unfortunately been involved in a car accident so we can’t ask him that, can we?” Katie’s tone grew sharper.
“Just admit you’ve done me wrong. You have, you know it. Just say that right now and we can start to pick things up from there.”
“I’m only here to book a new mortgage appointment Miss Bennett, that’s why I called you. I don’t have your detailed records in front of me, just the outcome and all I can see is that the application has been declined. I’ll also remind you to watch your tone and use of language when on the phone.”
That was the final straw. “After what I’ve been through in the past five minutes please don’t lecture me, the customer, on how to react to a unreasonably failed mortgage application. I need to go back to my desk now and do the job I’m paid to do, but you go and look through my records properly. Call me back on this number when you understand why I’m not happy. If you don’t call me, I’ll call you. Trust me Ms Smith, my tone of voice could be a lot worse.”
I hung up.
This marked the start of Fake-Face syndrome. I went back to my desk and put on a brave face, trying to carry on like the nothing unusual had happened. “What do I do now?” I thought, “why was it declined?”, “in all that time, why didn’t Jack or his manager chase to get the application approved?” I punched keys into my computer in a zombie like fashion, anything that didn’t require thought or emotional attachment.
A short time later Katie called back. This time her attitude was very different. She’d been through my file and discovered it to be, by banking standards, an absolute mess. Handwritten notes, random print outs, missing financial documents, it was in a real state. However, she also acknowledged that the bank manager had only seen the application two days ago.
“We will probably have to book you in for another appointment. Financial conduct I’m afraid, I can’t pick up Jack’s clients or any work he’s already started. We’ll also be unable to lend you same money the interest rate you originally applied for, our borrowing limit has changed.”
“You’re joking. I didn’t choose that figure because I wanted to borrow more. I need every pound of it to buy my house. You think I can just magically conjurer the difference out of thin air?”
“It’s all I can do Miss Bennett.”
BankUK had me in a headlock and it was clear that my irritation was, right now, as useful as shouting at the wind. While this wouldn’t mark the end of the war, I begrudgingly had to accept defeat at the battle.
“Fine, when is the earliest Saturday appointment you can do?”
“I only work every other Saturday, so it’ll be Saturday 21st at 9:15. That ok for you?”
“Just book it. I have no words right now.”
“Ok, that’s done for you.”
“Please be advised Katie that I’m not happy. A BankUK mortgage advisor lied to me and you manager failed to conduct his job by not approving an application within the time frame BankUK policy and finacial conduct dictates. Don’t think you can brush this off.”
“Ok, well we can pick this up when I see you.”
A thought popped into my head. For the first time that afternoon a wicked smile crossed my face.
“Tell your manager I have the emails too.”
“Yes, it’s all documented. Jack’s confirmation that it would be approved, the suggestion that the house could be valued over Christmas, the meeting reservation. I saved them all.”
“Urm, ok, I’ll pass that message on.”
“And there’s the birthday card.”
“The birthday card?”
“Jack sent me a card for my birthday. It says ‘To Alice, Have a Great Birthday! From Jack and all the Heathley BankUK Team. Kiss, kiss.'”
A long pause.
“Yes, urm, hi. Urm, I will speak to my manager about that. I was unaware Jack had sent a card. Can you bring everything in when you come to this meeting?”
“Sure, I certainly can. I need to go back to my desk now, but I’ll see you on Saturday 12th. I look forward to meeting you then Katie.”
“Yes, ok. Have a nice weekend Miss Bennett,” Katie’s uneasy voice replied as I cut the line. I returned to my desk feeling more exhausted than a marathon runner.
Shortly afterwards a colleague tapped me on the shoulder to assist with a work problem.
“Did he say that in an email?” I asked.
“No, unfortunately not.”
“Rookie mistake!” I said, turning to my personal archive of emails. “If there is one thing I have learnt from working in an office it is this; always, always, get it in writing.”
This post is part of the First Time Buyer Diaries. To view the full series (so far), click here.