You might have heard of the likes of Zopa, RateSetter or Funding Circle – peer-to-peer lending websites that allow investors (lenders) to find borrowers and vice versa, matching them up in order to give more profit to the lender, and lower rates to the borrower. This is achieved through taking banks and building societies out of the equation, and the wedge of interest they normally earn. That's not to say that the peer-to-peer websites don't take their cut, but when compared with the banks, it is less.
However, there's a catch for those who invest with a peer-to-peer (P2P) website – you could lose money and, because of the nature of your investment, you wouldn't be covered under the terms of the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS). So read on for moneyfacts.co.uk's guide to lending through a peer-to-peer website…
(If you're thinking of borrowing through a peer-to-peer lending website rather than lending, please read this guide for all the details.)
It's true to say that when you deposit your savings with a bank or building society they use some of your money to lend out to other customers.
However, with peer-to-peer lending, there is a fundamental difference in where the risk lies.
Savings account – their risk, less reward.
Peer-to-peer – your risk, greater reward.
Because you are taking the risk of losing money, the comparison with a savings account is not useful – in fact it can muddy the water.
Therefore you should view peer-to-peer lending as making an investment instead.
The P2P market is now regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), although not in the same way as banks and building societies. Under the new regulations, P2P lenders must provide "fair, clear and not misleading" information for consumers to help them understand the higher level of risks involved and make better financial decisions.
Some key points under the FCA regulations that give users a little more security are:
It is advisable to spread your money between lots of different borrowers – you can usually do this in chunks of as little as £10 – to limit your exposure to the risk of default. However, in the unfortunate event that a borrower defaults, you could lose your money. But many P2P sites have set up their own ways of protecting their investors, although you must remember that this is not the same as the protection offered by the FSCS.
RateSetter has set up its own bad loan provision fund designed to cover against anticipated losses. At the time of writing, the RateSetter Provision Fund covers the anticipated default rate nearly five times over. However, if there's a much higher than anticipated bad debt rate, and the provision fund is exhausted, you still have the potential to lose money.
Zopa has a Safeguard Fund which stands at over £3m to step in and pay out in the event of a borrower defaulting on their loan, and it also diversifies savers' funds across hundreds of borrowers to provide further protection and minimise risk.
The peer-to-peer lending website makes money from both you and the borrower. You will have to pay a fee (normally either an initial fee that's a percentage of the amount you lend, or a percentage of the amount of interest you receive). The borrower will also usually pay a fee for their loan.
If you are allowed to access your money before the end of a loan term, you may also have to pay a percentage of the cash you've lent.
Currently, savers pay tax on the interest they earn through P2P, as it is treated as income for tax purposes, but in the near future up to £15,000 of funds will be tax-free under the new ISA framework. This means that any interest earned within a P2P ISA will be tax-free. Lenders will then pay tax on any interest earned outside of the ISA wrapper. Full details are still being finalised.
If any tax is to be paid then the peer-to-peer website you lend through will send you an annual statement of interest earned, which you will need to declare through your Self Assessment Tax Return.
That's the great thing about peer-to-peer lending – you decide. This doesn't mean you get to go round to their houses for a cup of tea and assess their ability to pay, but rather that you can specify the "type" of borrower you lend to.
Categories range in order of risk, with A* being the lowest risk borrower type. The higher the risk of borrower, the higher the rate you can charge, but bear in mind that higher risk means just that – more chance of you losing your money.
Some peer-to-peer websites allow you to find out what the borrower needs the money for, but you need to be careful with this more personal approach, as it could cloud your judgement to the financial merits of lending to one borrower over another.
You should look at peer-to-peer lending as an investment activity, where your money could be tied up for a few years at a time. This is not to say that you can't access your funds, but in general peer-to-peer lending is not suitable for money that you know you're going to need access to quickly.
Some P2P websites such as RateSetter offer a Rolling Monthly Loan that allows you to cancel your contract within two working days' notice, however this comes at a price - you would earn more interest if you can commit your money for longer, but remember that you then won't have access for the full term.
An alternative offered by some P2P websites such as Zopa is to sell your loan on to another lender in order to get earlier access, but there will most likely be a transfer fee. There is one catch to this – if your borrower has ever missed a payment, you won't be able to transfer your loan.
Guide Updated: 20/05/15
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Disclaimer: This information is intended solely to provide guidance and is not financial advice. Moneyfacts will not be liable for any loss arising from your use or reliance on this information. If you are in any doubt, Moneyfacts recommends you obtain independent financial advice.
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