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The last five years have been a period of great change in the world of residential lettings, especially for those offering referencing and insurances, with massive increases in demand for these services and the inevitable formation of new providers, creating ever greater competition.
Competition is good, it keeps providers on their toes, leads to better service and drives prices down. However, this ‘benefit’ can also create problems for all the players and increase the pressure upon them.
The smart players constantly monitor their position in the market, the state of their market and the actions – good and less good – of their competitors; seeking to maintain their own stability and growth. And it was this good housekeeping practice in two of the UK’s leading insurance and referencing firms, Let Insurance Services (LIS) and PropertyRisks, led to them merging on Thursday 1 March 2012 to form a new company, LetRisks.
Michael Portman was Founder and Managing Director of Let insurance Services. He is a chartered surveyor and an ACII qualified insurance professional with specific experience in property and lettings insurance.
Miles Ritchie, Founder of PropertyRisks , is a multi disciplined insurance professional with experience in the London and Hong Kong markets for the insurance of large international property portfolios.
The two have led the merger to create what they describe as ‘a strong and robust insurance firm, offering agents a wide range of tailored insurance products and tenant referencing services’.
LetRisks will be headed up by Michael Portman (as Managing Director) and Miles Ritchie. Philip Cook, past president of ARLA and a former director of Ashton Burkinshaw, will be Chairman and Robert Lumley also sits on the Board.
Nigel Atkinson, an insurance professional with many years’ experience, will be responsible for leading business development and the new management team will be supported by the existing staff.
There’s good news for the staff – no redundancies – both firms’ offices will be retained, one in Southampton and one in Banbury.
SM (Sheila Manchester): “Tell me how agents will benefit from the combined strengths of Let Insurance Services and PropertyRisks?”
MR (Miles Ritchie): “Both companies have, for the last five years, been leading specialists in the property insurance market and many members of staff have worked in letting agencies, so we understand the pressures and challenges that agents face.
“We know that agents want choice on the arrangements with their insurance partner and this merger provides the very best in tailored referencing and insurance solutions available in the market today.
“Between us we have years of experience in the property insurance market and an excellent track record in delivering great customer service.”
Just a few years ago the percentage of people renting their home in the UK was 10 per cent, now most estimates are around 17 per cent, with projections of around 22 per cent within another few years. So the market doesn’t just need more service providers, it needs more stable providers.
At LetRisks, the security comes from their own establishment and the backing of investment from the Lumley Group which has over 100 years of experience in the insurance market. Lumley has an almost legendary reputation with an extremely successful track record in the Lloyd’s and general insurance markets, having owned companies in both sectors.
SM “How did the first outing for the new company – at the ARLA Conference on 6th March – go?
MR “We received a really warm reception, we had a great day! Since the launch of LetRisks to agents we have received enquiries from letting agents who are interested in our insurance and referencing products. This is particularly relevant in light of recent concerns expressed in relation to other referencing and insurance providers”.
“The insurance and referencing market is in a state of flux as we see one of the largest suppliers of referencing and insurance products to the letting agent market under pressure. We have had a number of large and smaller agents wanting to talk to us as they re-evaluate their business model and future referencing and insurance partner.”
SM “So what are your star USPs?
MR “We believe passionately that agents should be given choice – offering tailored flexible and compliant partnership arrangements to suit their individual needs. It is this principle of partnership that is important in LetRisks relationship with its agents.
“We believe that agents will see us as a robust and trustworthy choice – giving them business models that suit their operations. We are not in the business of dictating to agents how they should work with us. It should be a genuine partnership arrangement which is mutually beneficial”.
REFERENCING STANDARDS AND GROWTH
SM “Michael, you have said to me before that you consider the referencing market to be overcrowded, with a large number f small and large providers which provide very different standards of service. How do agents know who to choose?
MP (Michael Portman): “We offer a full tenant referencing service that provides agents with a comprehensive online service, supported by our agent telephony team, to provide simple decision making supported by detailed analysis and reports.”
SM “What percentage of landlords that reference a tenant (through you) subsequently take out rent protection insurance?
MP “An increasing number. All reputable agents reference tenants – it is vital if they are going to protect the rental income and the landlord’s property. Asking for a background check to be carried out could help uncover whether or not the tenant’s finances, employment and/or resources are healthy enough to afford the rent over the term of the tenancy.”
SM “What is your reaction to a potential tenant receiving a ‘bad’ reference? Is it all over for them or do you look further to understand more that might progress a tenancy application?”
MP “In the cases where tenants have been declined, we support the agents with one-to-one contact with our staff, who will look at each case where appropriate, particularly where there are ‘grey’ areas, to see if it needs to be referred internally for further investigation. We also have a fraud indicator which helps us to avoid fraudsters.”
RENT GUARANTEE INSURANCE
SM “And what about rent guarantee insurance? Are agents finding that landlords really understand the benefits now?”
MP “We have seen growth in the demand for rent guarantee insurance over the last 12 months, as increasing rents in 2011 have pushed up the number of tenants in severe arrears by 18 per cent annually to the highest level since the third quarter of 2008.
“Indeed, the number of tenants in severe financial difficulty has climbed in the last quarter of 2011, with nearly 11,400 more tenants over two months in arrears than a year ago.”
COST, QUALITY AND NEED
SM “What about rates, you have to be competitive to survive but how do you justify your prices when compared to cheaper competitors?” MP “We supply a range of comprehensive products and services to suit the needs of agents and their landlord and tenant communities, backed by the highest levels of customer service.
“Agents need to check the quality of the insurance products they are promoting to ensure it suits their and their customer’s needs. Cheaper products will potentially provide exclusions within the small print and less cover whilst we concentrate on providing the best appropriate protection.
SM “Some landlords think that legal protection isn’t worthwhile because the courts will swiftly deal with non-paying tenants – are they right or wrong?”
MR “In this current market, it is vital that landlords have legal expenses insurance, otherwise they could face substantial costs if they end up in court with a tenancy dispute. The numbers of court orders to evict tenants are up 11 per cent in the last year as landlords take a tougher stance. Rising rents and an unstable economy make it increasingly likely that a tenant could fall into arrears.”
SM “Your products obviously reflect your view of what is currently needed in the market, but is there anything new coming to the market?
MP “We are working closely with Experian to enhance referencing processes and data capture in establishing the next generation referencing for the future. We are also constantly looking at providing innovative insurance solutions to meet the needs of agents, their landlords and tenants and how these are cost effectively and compliantly delivered.
ON THE OTHER HAND
SM “Landlord repossessions are becoming more common and good, honest, paying tenants can be very badly affected. What about offering potential tenants the opportunity of referencing their potential landlord? Is this a crazy unworkable idea or a natural progression?”
MP “It is a possible progression but there’s no real drive in this direction at present.”
SM “And the final word?”
MP “Our ambition is to be the No.1 provider of choice of insurance and referencing services to our target letting and managing agents over the next three years. We are already the provider of choice to many highly respected agents both with single and multiple offices and we look forward to working with many more. Watch this space!”
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