Monday, May 7, 2018

Does BondCover have you covered?

In this article we take a look at a product known as bond surety, or bond guarantee – Snug’s BondCover – and whether it is a good deal for renters. The ACT government has apparently made regulation to allow Snug and other products lawful in that territory, to the dismay of renting experts there. See our companion piece also published today which discusses the rise of these products and offers some ways of thinking about the issue of bonds.

What is Snug’s BondCover?

In Snug's BondCover model the landlord agrees for there to be no 'bond' for the tenancy. Instead, the tenant pays between 5% and 9% per annum fee either as an annual, monthly or weekly fee to Snug (along with an initial administrative set up fee). In exchange for that fee Snug issues a certificate guaranteeing to the landlord that if there is any breach at the end of the tenancy for which a bond claim would ordinarily be made, Snug will pay it out.

To receive coverage by Snug, they must judge you as having a good tenant history and the landlord must also agree to the arrangement.

At the end of the tenancy, if the landlord makes a claim which the tenant doesn't agree with and it's under $500, Snug will assess the claim by the landlord and pay out if they think it's appropriate. It is not clear what expertise Snug has in assessing these kinds of claims. They are backed by IAG insurance though in our experience insurance companies aren't necessarily well-versed in tenancy law either.

If the landlord’s claim is over $500 the landlord will need to make an application against the tenant in the relevant court or Tribunal (in NSW the Civil and Administrative Tribunal or NCAT). Snug will pay the landlord according to the orders made by the Tribunal.

If Snug pays out to the landlord, they will attempt to recover the money from the tenant. If the tenant disagrees with Snug's assessment for under $500 Snug would need to take the tenant through the Local Court. Dealing with disputes in the Local Court tends to be more costly and difficult than dealing with disputes in the Tribunal – which is designed to be more accessible and less formal for tenants.

We understand the Snug contracts attempt to ensure that if they pay out money to the landlord you will owe them the money, even if it can be proven that they paid out incorrectly. For instance a landlord might apply to the Tribunal and be successful initially, but after Snug pays out the Tribunal decision might be overturned. It will be interesting to see how that pans out in practice.

Snug's selling point for tenants is that they will have their money in their hands, to do something more productive with it. Snug asked its potential customers what they would do with the money. 68% said either save or invest. 6% said spend it on a holiday. The other 27% of responses weren't made public.

Material on Snug’s Facebook page appears to encourage people to spend their bond money instead on very risky investment strategies like trying to find the next Amazon. This would be astonishingly poor financial advice for anyone who needs to be concerned with the affordability of their housing.

There are some transparency issues with Snug’s product. When using the example given on Snug’s website (a bond of $1,500), two different prices are given for the same bond amount. The first, static pricing example says $110 for a 2 bedroom. But when you start getting a quote in the second its jumped up to $140 for a 1 bedroom. We haven’t attempted to gain a full quote.

The fee is between 5-9% which is really a large range. It would be good if there was some transparency on how these fees are actually calculated. Clearly the number of bedrooms makes a difference. What else does?

The fee reduces over time as various loyalty bonuses are applied - but note the fine print: you appear to start with an all new administration fee and the higher cost, except for a 5% “no claim” discount, with each new property.

So is Snug’s BondCover worth it?

Let’s take the example from the website and use the example of a $1500 bond for a 2 bedroom apartment that a tenant, let's call her Jen, is going to move in to. To give Snug a bit of help, let's also assume we know Jen is going to get to stay for 3 years (a very long period for most tenants at present – only about 20% manage to stay for 3 years or longer). Jen takes her $1,500 and instead of putting all of it in the Rental Bond Board, she gives $110 of it to Snug. Now she starts the tenancy with $1,390 in her pocket. How much would Jen have to earn on the $1390 to avoid being worse off with Snug?
Assumes interest compounds daily, and tax is paid on interest earned at 2017-18 rates on additional income for a lone person household earning $60k pa - just under the income needed for rent to be considered affordable at $375 per week
After 3 years, Jen would have needed to have achieved returns of 8% a year just to cover the snug fees. In various parallel universes, some Jens who put their money into managed investment funds tied to the stock exchange will have achieved that – but many won’t have. They aren’t at all reliably performing at above 8% returns per year. The Jens who kept their money in high interest bank accounts would be topping out at about 3% pa at the moment, so those Jens are more than $100 worse off. The 6% of Jens who went on holiday effectively paid $223 extra for their tickets.

To explore the issue fully, we also ran the numbers where Jen would be with the money without having to pay a bond at all, and if the landlord held the bond (as they used to before the Rental Bond Board was implemented).

Jen is actually worse off in terms of productive use of her $1500 using Snug than just handing the whole bond over to the landlord.

Who is the real customer of Snug’s BondCover?

So, apart from Snug, who really benefits from this BondCover scheme? Ultimately, BondCover will need to be of benefit to either landlords or their agents if Snug is to run a successful business. It is landlords, not tenants, who choose whether a bond is taken and thus whether BondCover is required. Consider - if a landlord says they want BondCover and the tenant says they don't, the tenant might choose not to move in but you can be pretty sure someone else will. If the tenant says they want BondCover and the landlord says they don't - then there is no BondCover for that tenant.

You might think it could prove difficult to convince landlords to trust a start-up merely promising to have cash available, since landlords already have ready access to cash set aside specifically for the purpose of reimbursing them for any costs at the end of the tenancy. There are two clear advantages for the landlord and their agent.

Unlike a Tribunal member, Snug needs to consider its relationship with the landlord in order to ensure return business – the customer is always right and in this case, landlords are the real customers, even though they are making tenants cough up to pay for it. There will be a real incentive for landlords to make even more claims that come in just under $500, since that avoids the need for Tribunal scrutiny. Even if the claim is unsuccessful it saves real estate agents and landlords both time and money. We would expect to see more, not less, claims made on tenants’ bond money.

The second is that it appears Snug now pays referral fees equal to the first year's fee to real estate agents who sign their landlords up. This has code of conduct implications for real estate agents who need to disclose this kind of payment system in NSW, but it certainly could be enough to grease some wheels.

Is BondCover legal?

No. Not in NSW.

You don’t even need to take our word for it. The Snug website claims that BondCover is legal in all states where it is offered. It isn’t offered in NSW, and there’s a lobbying attempt to have government change the law, so you can be pretty sure it isn’t legal here.

There appears no good reason why a government would make a product like this legal – the math just doesn’t work out for tenants.

Disclaimer: As discussed in the companion piece, the Tenants' Union of NSW receives funding from the interest the Rental Bond Board earns on tenants' bonds. Details of what the bond interest money is spent on are detailed in the Rental Bond Board's annual reports.

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