The equity-release market has come under criticism again, with consumer watchdog Which? claiming that product are expensive and inflexible.It also claims that product providers are producing inappropriate advertising and has singled out Norwich Union. The FSA followed that up by saying there are still problems in the lifetime mortgage market and it will be conducting mystery shopping in the spring to monitor standards. But there could be a silver lining in the cloud hanging over the sector with two of the high-street’s biggest banking names considering entering the market, as revealed by Money Marketing last week, possibly propell- ing equity release into the mainstream and raising the market’s reputation. Barclays and HBOS have both indicated they are exploring the market, although neither has committed to launch- ing products. BM Solutions, as part of HBOS, is also considering its equity-release options. Spokesman Matt Grayson says: “That market is no different to any other and will benefit from competition. There is nowhere near enough competition at the moment as the industry is still suffering a hangover from the 1980s.” Council of Mortgage Lenders spokesman Bernard Clark says: “We welcome the decision of more high-street lenders to enter the market as it will reinforce confidence. We have always said that as the market develops and more companies enter then it will become more competitive and there will be consumer benefits.” Clark insists that the reputation of equity release can only be improved if customers are given clear advice on the various products available. Ship chairman Jon King believes it is only a matter of time before established names such as Norwich Union are joined by the likes of Barclays and HBOS. He says Ship expects another three or four companies to join its ranks over the coming months. “We have already got 18 members and a few companies have made it clear they are thinking about applying to add to those numbers,” says King. Other commentators believe that once one major high-street name enters the fray, more firms will follow. Grayson says: “Once one of the big high street lenders makes a move, then the others will follow.” Key Retirement Solutions business development director Dean Mirfin believes that intermediaries will also boost equity- release business. Key has launched what it calls the top 10 tips for consumers to better the market before approaching an adviser. The tips include basic advice, such as proper consultation with family members, consideration of current and future needs, adequate research and considering downsizing. Mirfin says the market can only prosper through thorough service even if business is lost in the short term. He says: “The Which? report made it clear that there is very little guidance for people and our aim is to try and make people’s lives easier before they go and speak to an adviser. “Equity release is not the most appropriate product for everyone and we hope that by highlighting these areas which need to be considered, consumers will find it easier to identify and meet their own retirement funding needs.” The regulator, despite warning the industry over its conduct, still insists it would prefer the market to sort itself out. Spokesman Robin Gordon-Walker does not want to comment on the implications of the market moving into the mainstream but says: “We would only really want to intervene if there is market failure. We would prefer it if there were improvements by the industry rather than us having to take enforcement action.” The CML has tried to raise awareness of the sector. Clark says: “We have done a lot over the last few years to try to build confidence among consumers and advisers, although there are no new initiatives planned at the moment.” Which? principal researcher Teresa Fritz says she will be the first person to celebrate if product providers get it right but she doubts whether new entrants to the market will lead to cheaper products. “It would be great if things improved but providers have always told us that they have to charge high prices or they would not make any money from it,” she says. She adds that criticisms directed at Which? claiming that that its research is out-dated are wide of the mark. “Providers should find out how and when we did the data before making such comments. The research was based on the most up-to-date information available and the industry provided us with their figures,” she says.