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Monday 19 February 2018

Andrea Smith: How I spent four years living with the fear of losing my home

Andrea Smith explains why despite nearly losing her home and still struggling to pay bills she is hopeful

SAFE AT LAST: Andrea Smith outside her Tallaght house, which she has managed to keep with
the help of family and friends. A repossession case has just be struck out. Photo: Tony Gavin
SAFE AT LAST: Andrea Smith outside her Tallaght house, which she has managed to keep with the help of family and friends. A repossession case has just be struck out. Photo: Tony Gavin

Many of you reading this paper today will be struggling financially, and for those in despair over debts and arrears my story might provide a little comfort and perhaps some hope.

Last week, I attended court yet again to face a case being brought against me for the repossession of my home. And after four years of living under the shadow of losing the roof over my head, the case was finally struck out by the courts.

I cannot express the relief I feel. An overwhelming burden has been lifted. While most other people have gotten into difficulties in recent years, my problems started a little earlier because I lost my job back in 2001, a year after I bought my house.

At the time I had a fairly well-paid job in public relations and could easily afford to pay my mortgage, car loan and sundry other loans and bills.

But that all changed after the company folded. Unlike my VBFs, who were steadily climbing the ranks of the civil service and banking, I was one of those people who was always changing career paths, and not always in an upward direction.

I was in possession of a degree in psychology and English courtesy of four years idled away in Trinity, but had zero interest in pursuing a career in psychology.

Over the next few years I meandered through a less-than-stellar career that began in the hell of supermarket trainee management (one of the toughest jobs around), cinema management, public relations, and abstract writing, interspersed with stints as a record company receptionist, music press officer and youth worker.

I got my mortgage on a house in Citywest -- a shared ownership one with South Dublin County Council -- when I was working in PR, and all was grand until we lost a big government contract and the company ultimately folded.

I went to all sorts of interviews, and while I came close on some occasions, I never got the job. Agencies said it was because my career was so chequered. Perhaps it was just me.

So I temped for months at a rate of €10 per hour, and then got a part-time job as a youth information officer that I hoped would turn into a full-time job -- until it was eliminated when funding ran out.

I was earning about €1,500 per month and had a mortgage of €900. I started missing payments here and there, and eventually got into huge trouble financially. I was behind on everything. Mortgage, loans, utility bills -- you name it, it was in arrears.

Phonecalls, intimidating letters, and visits from debt collectors and council officials followed. I became almost paralysed with fear.

I know they say you should speak to your creditors to work out a repayment programme, but I have to say that I didn't find many of them to be particularly sympathetic. And, I buried my head in the sand. It was too overwhelming. My utiIities were always being cut off -- I spent a whole winter without heating once, and although my mother gave me the money to pay the gas bill, I used it to pay ESB as they were on the verge of disconnecting me. She never knew about that.

I have an amazing family, and my parents, Eileen and Larry, and brother Brian bailed me on numerous occasions without hesitation. I will never be able to repay them for all they did. They didn't know the actual extent of my problems though, because I hid the worst of it from them.

I also have amazing friends who kindly and discreetly paid for things and lent or gave me money when I needed it. I'm singling Betty, Mary and Michelle and my godfather Charles out for their kindness. Michelle's mam and fellow animal-lover Hilda sent me pet food every week during the worst years to feed my menagerie. I will never forget that.

Life changed for me in 2004 when out of desperation as to what I could do next, I sent a suggestion for an article into the late Aengus Fanning, then editor of this paper. It was a long shot, and I only did it because having once read a press release that I had written, he had remarked that I could write. He very kindly said yes to that first article -- an interview with Frances Black -- and the day it appeared in print was the best day of my life.

I think the fact that I had embarked on a new career saved me when I was first brought to court for the repossession of my house four years ago.

I was able to pay my mortgage most months by then but I was more than €6,000 in arrears and the council wanted to repossess.

At one point the arrears had been up €9,000 so I had been making a big effort to cut it. My other loans were with MABS (The Money Advice and Budgeting Service) who were amazing at negotiating with people on my behalf to work out a realistic repayment schedule of €450 per month on my accumulated loans and debts of €14,000, a figure that doesn't include the house arrears.

Court was scary. I was there representing myself and the council had a big legal team. To my utter surprise, the judge was extremely kind and sympathetic, and when the council wouldn't agree to adding the arrears on to the end of the loan term, he arranged that I could repay €200 per month on top of my mortgage.

When we went back the next time to see how the arrangement was working, the judge on that day (my judge was ill) was just as supportive, and I found the whole experience to be really positive and encouraging. Since then, my court case was listed for appearance every three months and then deferred, until this week when it was finally struck out for good.

I'm still not financially stable as the repayment of €650 in mortgage and loan arrears every month on top of my mortgage and bills means walking a very tight financial tightrope. And I regularly slip off it. I still juggle the bills -- my gas was cut off again two months ago but luckily it's the summer and I'll have it back on for the winter.

But I'm not complaining. I have a career that I adore, my house is safe for now and, most of all, I have hope for the future.

To all of you in that awful bleak place that I was once in, keep your chin up because there is light at the end of the tunnel.

It won't be easy but you'll get there. We all will.

Sunday Independent

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