The Backstory Behind The First Really Innovative Loyalty Program In Years

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The Bilt Mastercard is the new ‘it’ card for many points aficionados. If you rent your home you should have this card. Even if you don’t it’s a great value card, the best no annual fee consumer card in travel.

  • Earn 1 point per dollar on rent, with no fee. No other card does this, and you can earn up to 50,000 points per year. If your landlord doesn’t accept cards, they’ll charge your card and mail a check.

  • Earn 3 points per dollar on dining and 2 points per dollar on travel.

  • Points transfer to great partners – this is the only card with two of the major airlines, United and American – along with Hyatt, Air Canada, Turkish, Air France, Emirates and more.

It’s the first major transferable points card issued by Wells Fargo. It’s a brand new program to compete against Chase, American Express, Capital One and Citi. But it’s actually more than that and the backstory is fascinating.

What makes the program really innovative is what it is besides a travel card. The card is really just a piece of the loyalty program, even if many readers won’t use it that way.

This is a loyalty program for renters. The biggest expense most people have is rent and for most people it earns zero rewards. Bilt set out to change that, and in the process they solve the credit card marketing distribution challenge in a whole new way.

Banks pay airlines (and other co-brand partners) billions of dollars to reach consumers. Bilt reaches them where they live. They’re in a majority of corporate-owned high rise buildings, processing rent payments, and providing incentives for signing leases. Rental buildings have huge marketing challenges too, and lots of turnover (“about a third of leases in higher-­tier buildings aren’t renewed, and that figure expands to about 50 percent of leases nationwide”). It makes sense to incentivize a tenant to sign a lease, and then to re-up at the end of a lease term. That’s cheaper than finding a new tenant (and having an apartment vacant in the meantime).

So renters can earn incentives on their leases, buildings get better loyalty from tenants, and Bilt reaches customers in a whole new way.

But it isn’t just about rewarding renters (or savvy credit card aficionados) with travel. The origin story revolves around using points towards your down payment for a home. It’s actually a tool for homeownership in two ways,

  • Bilt reports on-time rent payments to consumer credit bureaus for residents of Bilt-affiliate buildings. They do this for free (there are services you can pay to do this). That means paying your rent can help build your credit, positioning you for homeownership.

  • Bilt can help you find a home and get a mortgage. A ‘homeownership concierge’ is one of the elite benefits of the program. If you have Bilt originate your mortgage you can spend Bilt points towards your down payment at 1.5 cents apiece. For many that’ll be even better than transferring points to a travel program.

If you’re living in an expensive urban core, you might max out your rent earning with the Bilt Mastercard and you may even earn 100,000 points a year re-upping your lease. Rent for four years and you could have 600,000 Bilt points, worth $9000 towards a down payment.

It may be tempting to spend some of those points on travel along the way, or on some of the really cool home decor ‘Bilt Collection’ items that they offer (I’ve been tempted by a few, actually) but when I consider that the down payment on my first condo was less than $20,000 getting halfway there just through rewards on rent is huge. (And since I rented for a decade before buying a home, I could have potentially built up my entire down payment this way.)

The backstory though is crucial, because it turns out that redeeming points for a mortgage down payment may have been illegal and Bilt had to get explicit regulatory approval from the Federal Housing Administration. The specific sources of funds used for mortgage down payments are heavily regulated.

Apparently, legally, [Founder Ankur] Jain needed explicit approval from the Federal Housing Administration and Fannie Mae in order to allow people to put points toward a qualified mortgage, just as they can legally use personal savings or gifts from their parents. (“Why, by the way, gifts from your parents?” Jain says. “I mean, like, so rich kids can get benefits, but nobody else?”) What had seemed simple now seemed impossible; the regulatory issues felt like a lethal blow. “Suddenly, my picture I’d imagined no longer worked,” he says.

…he traveled to a meeting with the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C. — to find a roomful of high-powered officials, including the head of the FHA and the then HUD secretary, Ben Carson.

…So began a nine-months-long gauntlet of working with federal policy and risk teams, asking and answering endless questions, and making adjustment after adjustment to ensure the program would be safe for consumers.

The federal government gave an explicit no to the idea of redeeming points for a down payment, before Bilt went back and managed to get the initial rejection overturned.

Then they had to get landlords to sign on, and many were skeptical (more homeowners means fewer renters). But the program doesn’t force people to spend their points on homeownership, and once they got a few large buildings on board others followed not wanting to be at a competitive disadvantage. And they still needed banks and payment processors to pay attention to a hypothetical program that didn’t have any members yet.

What I think impresses me most though is that when they first launched in September it was with a revised and much better value proposition than the one they’d announced just three months earlier. The initial earning structure was messy, and they improved it for go-live in an unprecedented amount of time.

Now this is a card that anyone who rents should have, and a card that anyone who spends on dining should certainly consider. It’s the best no annual fee consumer travel card even before adding in the unique feature of earning points for paying rent without a fee – something that saves over $1400 a year compared to paying $50,000 in rent charged to your card via Plastiq.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Editorial note: any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer. Comments made in response to this post are not provided or commissioned nor have they been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any bank. It is not the responsibility of advertisers Citibank, Chase, American Express, Barclays, Capital One or any other advertiser to ensure that questions are answered, either. Terms and limitations apply to all offers.

Comments

  1. Explain this to me like I’m an old, backwards, dumb-dumb:

    I have a mortgage. Why would I shift my earning from other cards with bonuses to this?

  2. @ Gary — With no SUB, this card is limiting its audience. Yes, this is as good as many other no AF ards at 2x for travel, but there is just nothing truly compelling about this card for non-renters. Even the down payment thing seems very gimmicky.

  3. Lack of SUB is making the card unattractive to me. I tend to go for cards where SUB value is $800+, which in my case means that it would take over 3 yrs of rent payments to get that much value out of the Bilt card. There’s no guarantee that the program will be around this long & terms will not change. Perhaps it is more attractive for someone paying $4k/mo in rent.

  4. “[W]hen I consider that the down payment on my first condo was less than $20,000 getting halfway there just through rewards on rent is huge.”

    I dare say very few people paying $50k+ annually on rent will be buying a first home with a $20k down payment.

  5. Even if a homeowner not paying rent gets Bilt, it seems superior to Chase Sapphire Preferred. Aside from a few airline ff program use cases, Bilt appears superior. No annual fee for great earn and burn. I don’t have Bilt now but see it as a great complement to someone who focuses on Amex card point accrual who needs a no annual fee Mastercard or Visa

  6. And I believe Gary has mentioned before that he pays his property taxes with it, earning points for something he has to do anyway…..

  7. (1) as disclosed at the top of the post, there’s a benefit to me if you apply via my link [and by the way, every cardholder has a referral link that can benefit them] (2) I visited with Bilt on Moskito Island, at the founder’s family home there, as I wrote in extensive detail https://viewfromthewing.com/moskito-island-oasis-estate/ and I made a charitable contribution equal to the value of what I received, [even though I normally would have been the one *charging* for my time and input on the product.]

  8. If this article was so fascinating, why wait until now to post? Better referral links?

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