Seafarers UK Mortgages: A Complete FREE Guide

06-November-2022 15:21
in International
by Jennifer Stevenson

When is an expatriate borrower not an expat? When they're ships' crew…

It isn't straightforward to apply for a mortgage to buy property in the UK when you're a professional seafarer.

Either you're trying to fit everything into a spell of shore leave, or you're trying to access all your financial records when you're on board, working around different time zones and battling unreliable wifi.

You don't need to deal with much confusion about your status as a UK resident and your eligibility for non-expatriate lending rates.

While you're here, check out our complete guide on UK expat mortgages.

Added exchange rate costs

There is also the added uncertainty of fluctuating exchange rates, which may radically alter the amount that a non-sterling salary earner needs to remit to the UK each month to cover their mortgage payments.

  • Some mortgage lenders make a simple one-off calculation of the exchange rate on the day the mortgage application is processed to get the sterling equivalent of your foreign currency salary.
  • Other "worst-case" lenders use the lowest exchange rate recorded for that currency over the previous five or ten years.
  • And some others subtract an additional flat-rate percentage from your salary calculation after their conversion rate – sometimes as much as 25%, which can put a significant dent in your affordability calculation.

Who counts as an expatriate?

Most people are pretty clear about whether they're an "expatriate" or not, even though they may not like the term.

Expatriates are UK nationals living away from their home country – either temporarily or permanently.

If you pay taxes in the country you're living in, you will be classed as a UK expatriate.

Or if your income is tax-free, but you don't spend the minimum number of days in the UK each year, as defined by the HMRC's Statutory Residence Test, you will also be classed as an expatriate.

But what about seafarers, who don't technically "live" in any one place?

Special UK tax exemption for ship crews

A special tax provision negotiated with UK tax authorities by seafarers' unions in 2012 allows seafarers to claim a 100% tax exemption on their foreign earnings: HMRC's Seafarers Earnings Deduction (SED).  

This was seen as a recognition of the long periods seafarers spend outside the country (not using the services their taxes would pay for) and the fact that they work in a highly competitive labour market.

But many ships and yacht crews don't use this provision, believing they don't need to complete a UK tax return because their earnings are paid tax-free in a foreign currency.

They should complete an annual UK tax return but claim the 100% SED exemption (thereby maintaining their UK residency and eligibility for a non-expatriate UK mortgage). 

An experienced broker will gather all the information from you to reassure the tax office and a mortgage lender that you're based in the UK - such as evidence that you have a place to stay with family whenever you return. 

Using offshore banks and limited companies to receive salary payments

Some crew members choose to have their foreign currency salaries paid into limited companies set up offshore. This might be a tax-effective solution for you, but there can be implications for future property finance.

And you need to be aware that all offshore banks must disclose their clients' dealings to the relevant tax authorities under the Offshore Disclosure Facility.

Rather than keeping your tax-free earnings discreetly out of sight of the UK tax authorities, using an offshore bank account can lead to increased scrutiny by HMRC.  

Offshore accounts commonly charge higher fees, don't pay interest, or offer any lending facilities and don't contribute to your UK credit rating. So it can make it more challenging to get a mortgage – certainly a non-expatriate mortgage – if you bank offshore.


Clarifying your UK-based tax status

Meanwhile, you could take advantage of the UK's 100% SED tax exemption.

Complete openness and honesty is the best policy – because you don't want to be investigated and hit with a hefty tax penalty.

There are foreign-currency bank accounts available in the UK.

How seafarers can claim the 100% UK tax exemptions

1. Satisfy the HMRC Statutory Residency Test and Valid Claim Period rules

The HMRC requirements are pretty complicated, but Helpsheet HS205 is designed to help you through it, and there's more help from TaxAid.

You may not spend more than half the year (183 days) in the UK during a tax year. You need to keep all the evidence relating to your travel and return trips to the UK. 

Worrying about staying a day too long, or getting caught up on travel arrangements, is probably one of the most significant deterrents to ships' crew applying for the SED exemption.

But a 100% tax exemption is worth a bit of effort.

2. Start or end a voyage at a foreign port

During each tax year, at least one of your voyages must begin or end at a foreign port. (This prevents crew members who only work around the British Isles from claiming the SED.)

3 Work on a ship

This sounds obvious, but a 1988 amendment to the SED clarifies the definition. It doesn't include the following:

  • Flotels
  • Fixed production platforms
  • Floating production platforms
  • Mobile offshore drilling units

4 Fill out a UK tax return

And apply for the Seafarers Earnings Deduction (SED).  

Low cost remortgage for ships engineer

How seafarers can make sure they're not classed as expatriates for a UK mortgage

1 Be a UK resident - and demonstrate that you have a home in the UK where you can stay for 91 days continuously (i.e. not a hotel), which is your postal address, and where you're registered to vote. (This is where an experienced broker will gather all the relevant information needed to reassure a lender.)

2 File an annual UK tax return (above).

What else can you do to help your UK mortgage application?

1 Check your UK credit score

Three free services are available in the UK: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion (previously known as CallCredit). You can use their free services (don't feel obliged to sign up for their subscription services), and checking your credit score does not affect your rating.

Not all lenders report your credit details to all three credit agencies, so you need to check all three of them to ensure there aren't any lurking surprises.

2 Address any problems with your credit score

Challenge any negative ratings on your credit report that you know are incorrect. This may be an account you cancelled but still showing as open, with overdue payments. Or an address that a company has recorded incorrectly.

Mobile phone companies can be a particular problem for people now working overseas. You might think you've cancelled the contract and ignored the bills they keep sending you, but this could be counted as a black mark against you. Contact the company and get their adverse report removed from your record.

Avoid making applications for additional credit (any hire purchase, store credit cards, or online credit) when making a mortgage application.

And get a notice of disassociation from anyone linked to you financially who may have a poor credit rating or is no longer connected with you.

3 Improve your credit rating

If someone with a good credit rating trusts you (a parent or partner?), you can "share" their credit score by becoming an authorised user on their credit card.

Maintain an active UK bank account and credit card: use them for regular transactions and payments.

Update your listing on the electoral register. Having your latest (current) UK contact address on the electoral roll is a critical element of your credit rating (creditors want to be confident they will be able to contact you).


The 3 most common questions about UK seafarers' mortgages

1. Can I get a bigger mortgage because my income is tax-free?

This is a common misunderstanding. Mortgage lenders calculate affordability based on gross salary rather than salary after tax, so you're in the same boat (so to speak) as a UK-based borrower who earns the same.

The only advantage is that lenders also look at borrowers' other credit commitments. So if you have a car loan or other substantial monthly loan payments, those could be assumed to be paid for by the additional untaxed portion of your salary, leaving your overall affordability calculation unchanged.

2. Can I get a Buy to Let mortgage if I'm a first-time buyer?

If you're spending half the year out of the country, you might want to rent out your property, so you should be applying for a Buy to Let mortgage.

Traditionally, banks and building societies have been very wary of lending to first-time buyers for rental properties, concerned that they're getting a cheaper interest-only mortgage based on projected rental income but are then going to live in the property themselves.

That's not the case with genuine seafarers working outside the UK.

So long as you have a contact address in the UK that is available to you as your accommodation whenever you return, selected lenders should be willing to give you a mortgage to buy a rental property.

3. Can I only get a mortgage if I'm on a permanent contract?

Lenders recognise that the employment landscape (or is that seascape?) has changed for all borrowers and that many will still be working on contracts into their thirties or later.

If you can show two years of employment history on your tax returns and at least six months remaining on your current fixed-term contract, you can still get a mortgage.

You don't need to have payslips.

You do need a mortgage broker

Even the most experienced maritime property owners will recommend using an excellent UK-based mortgage broker to find you the best finance arrangement on a UK property.

It's not just a case of looking, for example, for lenders who don't apply punitive charges on exchange rates. Their other lending costs may be more expensive, or their terms less suitable for your needs.

Clifton Private Finance has experience in arranging mortgage finance for ships' crews. We won't make the process more complicated than it needs to be. Call us to arrange a convenient time for a detailed discussion on +44 203 900 4322 or book a callback into our diary at a time that suits you.

Read our blog on what proof of income you'll need to apply for a mortgage. 

And if this blog has been useful to you, please share it with seafarer colleagues:

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