Godzone: where ripoffs rule

By Diana Clement

Life is perfect and sweet in good old Godzone. People are friendly and rip-offs are non-existent. Never mind the tourist literature, this is the New Zealand I viewed through rose-tinted glasses during my extended OE.

In the UK, meanwhile, where consumers believe they're hard done by, the slogan "Rip Off Britain" scream the newspaper headlines. The phrase is so embedded in the UK psyche that when I searched Google I found it mentioned 11,600 times.

But a year back in New Zealand and I've come to the conclusion that British consumers aren't hard done by. Looking at my own spending patterns, it's easy to collate a "dirty dozen" where Kiwis just don't get a fair deal.

1. Estate agents fees. In Rip Off Britain, estate agents charge 1-2 per cent in commission and in Australia 2 or 2.5 per cent is typical. I asked Real Estate Institute of New Zealand national president Howard Morley why 4 per cent is typical here. He said estate agents offer a different service. I didn't quite get it as I'm sure British and Australian agents sell property just as well.

2. International credit card charges. Every time you use your credit card overseas a currency conversion fee is added so the figure you ultimately pay can be a per cent or two greater than you're expecting. In November the Commerce Commission announced it would file proceedings against five banks, two credit card companies and one financial services company for failing to disclose embedded conversion fees.

3. Bank fees. I bank with the ASB and can't find much fault with its services. But New Zealand banks impose charges almost every time you breathe inside their plush offices. I'm charged when I use my Eftpos card and deposit over the counter. The bank even charges $1.50 to set up or change standing orders on its website and I'm doing the work. It's disgraceful. My UK bank charges zilch for these services.Try the new banks such as Superbank and BankDirect for a better class of rip-off than the High St banks.

4. Superannuation charges. Dr Gareth Morgan, economist and scourge of the financial planning industry, reckons the average New Zealand superannuation fund charges 2-3 per cent in fees and expenses, which can make returns barely better than bank deposits. In Rip Off Britain, my pension contributions came from my pre-tax income, not post-tax income as they would here and I was charged 1 per cent, capped by the Government, in fees by Prudential. Income and capital gains on the UK pension fund were tax free which isn't the case here. It's not surprising Kiwis pray to the property God for retirement.

5. Fund charges. The Consumers' Institute concluded last year that many New Zealanders would have been better off putting their money in the bank than buying managed funds. That's not because these products aren't a worthwhile addition to a diversified portfolio. Instead its the "fee fiasco" that means that earnings are whittled down. In the case of the Tower FuturePlan Balanced Growth Fund, the institute found fees and expenses were equal to 35 per cent of total gross earnings. Ouch!

6. Share dealing. ASB Securities' online share dealing service is one of the cheaper around - $29.45 per trade including a stock exchange fee. At UK-based sharecrazy.com one pays $22.50 (9) plus 0.5% stamp duty. However, if you wanted to buy an American share such as Coca-Cola through ASB Securities you'd pay a minimum of $125.69 (US$90) in charges, but on Sharecrazy.com you'd pay around $22.50.

7. Books and magazines. New Zealand consumers often pay more than the UK RRP printed on a book. It's the shipping costs, most people say. Maybe it is, but look where it was printed. Chances are you'll find it was China.

8. Mobile phone charges. Mobile phone bundles are often complex and difficult to compare. But consider this: the cheapest per minute pre-pay call listed on Vodafone New Zealand's website is 49c a minute. Vodafone UK charges pre-pay customers 12c a minute. According to the Commerce Commission, New Zealand ranks 29th out of 30 countries, with prices that were 62 per cent above the average for medium and high users.

9. Access to credit records. It costs $15 to access your credit record at Baycorp Advantage. To do the same in the UK you pay $5.01. But the good news is that after April 1, Baycorp has agreed to drop its fee.

10. Consumer imports. I'm prone to checking out overseas prices and buying online when the price differential makes it worthwhile. With just about anything expensive and light, it's cheaper to buy from the United States or Australia even with postage factored in. Just this week I was checking out the prices of child bicycle trailers. The cheapest I found online in New Zealand was $550 at hedgehog.co.nz. In the US, I could have picked one up at the Target department store for $136.87 ($99US), plus tax in some states. At argos.co.uk in Rip Off Britain one was $162.67 (64.99), less 17.5 per cent VAT, which I can claim back if taking the item out of the UK.

11. Domain names. A .co.nz domain name costs around $29.95 plus GST per year to buy. It's not huge. But my co.uk address, which I bought from easily.co.uk, costs less than half that at $12.46 a year.

12. Fuel surcharges on international flights. Don't you just love those low price flight offers. But before you grab for your credit card, "fuel surcharges" can add an extra $70 to that headline fare to the UK. As the Herald's letter writers point out: isn't this a price rise in disguise?

So are we ripped off in New Zealand? It would be easy to spend days and weeks investigating each topic.

Sure our economy is small. But I can't ignore the fact that average household earnings are less here than in the UK, Australian and US.

But the reality is that I am paying more, whatever, just about every time I pull my credit card out.

The additional costs on goods and services are often 5 per cent here, 10 per cent there. But those little percentage figures eat into long-term compound growth of your retirement savings.

New Zealand does offer value for money in many areas: petrol, cars, stamp duty (or the lack thereof), rental management fees, childcare, internet cafes, fish and chips, and lots more.

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