The Investment Column: Homeserve is glowing as the country shivers

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The Independent Online

As Britain shivers, homeowners quiver with worry waiting for the "coldest winter ever". Will I freeze if the boiler goes bang? Will my pipes freeze?

Which is, of course, where insurance sellers come in, and few have been as effective in recent years as Homeserve. Already, it has added a record number of new policyholders this year and the cold snap gives it confidence of a bumper second half of the financial year.

The company started life as a bright idea within an obscure water company called South Staffordshire. It offered annual cover for maintenance and emergency repairs to its customers' plumbing, and then started offering the same to customers of neighbouring water companies. Now, after expansion across the UK, it is the company behind many utilities' own-brand insurance policies covering gas and electricity as well as water, and has even expanded into the extended warranties sold by furniture retailers, housebuilders and vendors of electrical and electronic goods.

The profit from these policies was £10.4m in the six months to 30 September, with the number of policyholders in the UK alone up by 30 per cent. International expansion holds out the prospect of even greater gains in future. The joint venture in France is proceeding well, and trials in one new European country will begin by the spring. The US, while a nascent business, also looks very promising, so investment has been stepped up.

Homeserve also has a smaller division which sends out tradesmen to sort out emergencies or maintenance on behalf of other insurers, so its panel of locksmiths, glaziers and contract cleaners made it £2.7m, up from £1.0m.

The stock trades on a premium to the market, on 19 times earnings, but its growth justifies this. Hold.

Buy Debt Free Direct with growth on way

There is an alternative to bankruptcy for the thousands of people who have fallen into a spiral of debt. It is called an individual voluntary arrangement, or IVA, and it involves squaring your creditors to write off a significant proportion of your debts in return for an agreed monthly sum over five years. Banks get a little more back than they would if they sold the debt or pushed you into bankruptcy; you might get to keep the house.

And doing best of all out of it is the middleman.

A number of specialist IVA arrangers have sprung up, and three have floated on the stock market. Debt Free Direct is the biggest and was the first. It is probably also the best from an investment point of view. It is winning market share in a fast expanding market. And it is doing so, we discovered yesterday, while actually cutting its spending on adverts on daytime TV.

Pre-tax profits in the six months to 31 October were £1.7m, compared with a small loss last time, and full-year profits will be at least 10 per cent more than forecast. Because IVA customers are being signed up at an accelerating pace, ongoing management fee income is growing exponentially.

We advised buying the shares in January at 128.5p and they were up 18.5p to 216.5p yesterday. Again, buy.

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