Divvy Wants to Make Rent-to-Own Deals Easy. Many Customers Find Them Hard.

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The three-bedroom home in suburban Atlanta on a quiet cul-de-sac appeared precisely what Jeneyha Wheatley-Frett and her husband, Shawn Frett, have been on the lookout for once they moved in about 15 months in the past with their three youngsters.

The couple signed a three-year lease with an choice to purchase the split-level home from Divvy Properties, one of many nation’s largest rent-to-own firms. However nearly from the second the Fretts moved into the 30-year-old home in Lithonia, Ga., it was affected by issues. Rainwater usually seeped in. {The electrical} system was defective. Some home equipment didn’t work. And mildew was spreading on some partitions, they stated.

“When it floods, you’ll be able to really feel the water squishing underneath the ground tiles,” stated Ms. Wheatley-Frett, 41, who works for the Division of Homeland Safety.

Divvy, which launched six years in the past with monetary backing from high-profile traders like Andreessen Horowitz, Caffeinated Capital and Tiger World, is without doubt one of the newer gamers within the rent-to-own market. It’s an unregulated nook of the housing business lengthy dominated by small companies that purchase up foreclosed or run-down properties, and peddle them to these with shaky credit score histories as an accessible strategy to obtain the American dream.

Like many start-ups that need to “disrupt” an business, Divvy promised to “rewrite the foundations of actual property for the higher” by making homeownership simple for everybody. Billing itself as a consumer-friendly, tech-savvy firm, Divvy put a contemporary spin on the rent-to-own market by making it obligatory for purchasers to place away a portion of their paycheck towards a down cost.

Based mostly in San Francisco, Divvy was valued at $1.74 billion as of two years in the past, in line with knowledge from Pitchbook. The corporate, which owns 7,000 properties in 19 metropolitan areas, grew quickly, however with that got here rising pains, together with the failure to make well timed repairs. Its progressive mannequin additionally caught renters with higher-than-average month-to-month payments. Given speedy inflation, extra renters are struggling to pay, forcing Divvy to file extra eviction notices.

On Monday, Divvy accomplished a settlement with the Fretts, who had complained to the corporate for eight months and have been working with a neighborhood Authorized Assist Society lawyer on a possible lawsuit. The Fretts, who’ve since moved out of the home, aren’t permitted to debate the phrases of their settlement.

In an emailed assertion, Divvy stated that the Fretts had an “unacceptable buyer expertise,” and that it ought to have responded to their restore requests sooner.

Roughly 10 million Individuals have entered right into a rent-to-own deal in some unspecified time in the future of their grownup lives, in line with estimates by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Individuals who join such offers sometimes have little if any financial savings and are sometimes evicted from their properties after falling behind on lease. Others are compelled to stroll away as a result of no financial institution will write a mortgage for a home that’s in dangerous form.

Final month, a Senate Banking, Housing and City Affairs subcommittee held a listening to on the dangers to shoppers from many rent-to-own offers and different different paths to homeownership. It’s a part of a broader curiosity by some on Capitol Hill concerning the influence that investor-owned companies like Divvy have had on the single-family home-rental market.

Divvy and a number of the bigger rent-to-own firms, together with Dwelling Companions of America, which is owned by the personal fairness agency Blackstone Group, have sought to separate themselves from much less respected gamers by letting prospects select the properties they need to lease and ultimately purchase. This fashion, prospects aren’t left with the dangerous choice of shopping for run-down properties an organization picked up on a budget.

Divvy units itself other than different companies by requiring prospects to allocate a portion of every month’s lease verify towards the down cost for the house. Divvy additionally prices an upfront charge of a number of thousand {dollars}, which works towards a down cost if a buyer chooses to purchase the house.

The obligatory down cost works like a compelled financial savings plan, making it simpler for purchasers to safe a possible mortgage. Although prospects who don’t purchase a house get most of that cash again, they’re additionally on the hook for a “re-listing charge” equal to 2 % of what Divvy paid for the house.

“With mortgage charges at all-time highs, our mission is extra essential than ever,” Adena Hefets, the chief govt and a founding father of Divvy, stated in an announcement. “Divvy offers renters the facility of possession: Pick a house, construct financial savings, and have the choice to make it your endlessly dwelling.”

However Divvy’s obligatory financial savings plan additionally implies that renters have a far larger month-to-month outlay in contrast with prospects of different rent-to-own companies. The upper funds have change into a battle for some prospects, particularly due to speedy inflation. Within the Atlanta space, the place it owns about 1,100 properties, Divvy has filed 190 eviction actions up to now this 12 months, in accordance to an information evaluation by the Non-public Fairness Stakeholder Challenge. In 2022, the corporate filed 184 evictions within the Atlanta space.

Divvy stated lots of these filings didn’t end in accomplished evictions. However it acknowledges that the variety of accomplished evictions within the Atlanta space is larger than it was a 12 months in the past as a result of the corporate now owns extra properties there. The corporate, which prices a 5 % charge for late funds, stated it evicted solely as a final resort.

The corporate additionally stated it had taken steps to handle buyer complaints about repairs. This spring, Divvy stated, it put in place a brand new system to prioritize upkeep requests, together with a 24-hour hotline for purchasers. In April, Divvy additionally informed renters that it might waive one late charge a 12 months on a delinquent cost, apparently in recognition that the upper month-to-month cost due to its compelled financial savings mannequin is inflicting some hardships.

The Fretts, who’re each employed, moved into the Georgia dwelling in Might 2022. They stated they’d been referred to Divvy by an actual property dealer who labored intently with the corporate. On the time, the couple stated, they have been residing within the U.S. Virgin Islands, so that they relied on Divvy’s really helpful dwelling inspector to inform them if the home handed muster.

Divvy bought the home for $284,000 and rented it to the Fretts for $2,530 a month — larger than the median dwelling rental worth of $2,190 in Atlanta — with an choice to purchase it for $347,000.

About 47 % of Divvy’s prospects have graduated from renters into owners, in line with the corporate. Meaning a number of the individuals who join a rent-to-own deal from the corporate stroll away, probably due to a nasty expertise.

In February, Joe Goske, 54, moved out of a Divvy dwelling that he had been renting in College Heights, Ohio, after reaching a settlement with the corporate. Mr. Goske, an insurance coverage claims supervisor, stated he had change into annoyed attempting to get Divvy to handle a persistent water downside within the basement of the Cleveland-area dwelling.

“There was no approach I used to be going to buy this home with these points,” he stated.

In an announcement, Divvy stated the “upkeep points that Mr. Goske encountered is consultant of situations that older Ohio properties are prone to.”

Sarah Mancini, a senior lawyer with the Nationwide Shopper Legislation Middle, who testified earlier than the Senate Banking Committee, stated that Divvy’s roughly 50 % success charge may be higher than that of many smaller rent-to-own companies, however that it wasn’t adequate. She stated it mirrored the false promise of homeownership of rent-to-own offers.

Nonetheless, the Divvy association does work out for some prospects.

In September, Michael Jackson and his spouse, Tiffany, purchased the home they’d been renting from Divvy in a Cleveland suburb for $144,800. Divvy had bought the house, in South Euclid, Ohio, for $127,500 in 2019.

“We have been involved with charges going up,” stated Mr. Jackson, 51, a landscaper and father of two.

Mr. Jackson stated he and his spouse had secured a mortgage with a 6 % rate of interest — about one proportion level beneath the present charge. He stated with the $12,000 Divvy had already collected towards a down cost, they wanted solely one other $1,300 to shut.

“It labored out superbly,” stated Mr. Jackson, whose home has three bedrooms and a big signal outdoors the entrance door that merely says “HOME.”

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