How your dog could be ruining your credit score
After her family's shiba inu died of cancer, Dawn Sabins decided to surprise her 7-year-old son with a new puppy. In March 2015, she dropped into a San Diego-area pet store looking for an English bulldog. She walked out with a golden retriever.
That wasn't so strange, even if $2,400 was more than she'd intended to spend. (There's a reason pet stores put puppies in the window.) The odd part came a few weeks later, when she and her husband were going over their credit reports and saw a $5,800 charge from a company they'd never heard of.
The Sabins had bought their new dog, Tucker, with financing offered at the pet store through a company called Wags Lending, which assigned the contract to an Oceanside, California-based firm that collects on consumer debt. But when Dawn tracked down a customer service rep at that firm, Monterey Financial Services Inc., she learned she didn't own the dog after all.
"I asked them: 'How in the heck can I owe $5,800 when I bought the dog for $2,400?' They told me, 'You're not financing the dog, you're leasing.' 'You mean to tell me I'm renting a dog?' And they were like, 'Yeah.' "
Without quite realizing it, the Sabins had agreed to make 34 monthly lease payments of $165.06, after which they had the right to buy the dog for about two months' rent. Miss a payment, and the lender could take back the dog. If Tucker ran away or chased the proverbial fire truck all the way to doggy heaven, the Sabins would be on the hook for an early repayment charge. If they saw the lease through to the end, they would have paid the equivalent of more than 70 percent in annualized interest—nearly twice what most credit card lenders charge.
If that weren't bad enough, Dawn Sabins soon decided Tucker was too rambunctious for her family's home. She called the pet store and threatened to leave the pup tied up outside the store, then decided on what she thought a more humane path. She sold the dog to a local trainer for $500, stopped making payments on the lease, and spent 18 months griping in online reviews and emails.
She wasn't alone.
"You mean to tell me I'm renting a dog?"
"There is just no way I should pay over $5000 for a $2000 puppy," wrote one customer in an April 2014 complaint collected by the Federal Trade Commission after financing a Yorkshire terrier from a Kennesaw, Georgia, pet store with a lease from Wags Lending. (That complaint and the others that follow were directed at Monterey Financial by customers who had financed high-end pets through Wags Lending.) "The rep ... told me the payments I had been making are rental [fees]," wrote another surprised lessee. "For a dog?? They are renting animals?? No way! Yes it's true!"
One cat lover described buying a Bengal kitten from a breeder in Jacksonville, Florida, at a sticker price of $1,700—then learning they were on the hook for 32 monthly payments of $129, or about $4,100. "They explained to me that not only was this not a loan but a lease in which I would either have to continue making these payments or return the animal," the customer wrote in a November 2015 complaint. "Also this cat is ruining my credit score."
The complaints raise a valid question: Why would anyone walk into a pet store to buy an animal and decide, instead, to lease?
Because dogs can be expensive, and not everyone who wants a fancy one can afford to pay cash or use a credit card. Because others, like Sabins, are more eager to bring home their new furry friend than to read the fine print of their contract. But mostly because—thanks to a 36-year-old Nevadan who ditched a career in private equity to help subprime borrowers finance purebred pets—they can.
"When I take a good hard look at what the world will be like in 10 years, I think most things are going to be on lease," said Dusty Wunderlich, chief executive officer of Bristlecone Holdings LLC, the Reno, Nevada-based company that operates Wags Lending.
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It was Monday morning at the company's offices, across the Truckee River from Reno's seedy downtown, and Wunderlich was dressed in ostrich-skin boots and a flat-brimmed baseball cap—the same kind of Western spin on startup chic that animates his company, named for a species of pine tree native to Nevada that can live for thousands of years.
Wunderlich rents his apartment. He leases his car. He owns his horse. He's drawn to the rugged individualism expressed in the novels of Ayn Rand and the blog Cowboy Ethics, but he hastens to argue that while he profits off high-cost lending, he's also improving the lives of subprime borrowers. He is, he writes in a mission statement on his personal website, "living in a Postmodern culture while maintaining my old American West roots and Christian values."
Wunderlich dreamed up Wags Lending in 2013, then used the pet-leasing business to launch an improbable collection of financing vehicles—writing leases against furniture, wedding dresses, hearing aids, and custom auto rims. In a little more than three years, his company has originated 66,000 leases for just over $100 million. He once worked out a plan to lease cattle to dairy farmers, though plummeting commodity prices soured the economics. (He got far enough to decide that if a cow gave birth during the terms of the lease, the lessee got to keep the calf.) In another idea that never reached the market, he explored lease financing for funerals.
"We like niches where we're dealing with emotional borrowers," Wunderlich said.
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