Real estate agents and builders need to know right away if a loan can be done or not, Roland Benson says. "If it takes a week or two, it's too late."
Real estate agents and builders need to know right away if a loan can be done or not, Roland Benson says. "If it takes a week or two, it's too late."

The reason Roland Benson says he gets deals done is because of the work and skill of the people in his company's back office.

"I'm the beneficiary, working for a company that understands the urgency of getting that answer quickly," says Benson, a loan officer at imortgage in Roseville, Calif. "That's a huge part of my success."

In a market dominated by home purchases rather than refinancings, the loan must close on time, as people are moving from an old home they likely cannot return to. Since the housing crisis, the back office has taken on a greater role in the application process. Processors are responsible for obtaining and entering the documents into the loan origination system. Underwriters are now scrutinizing these documents to make sure the borrower qualifies for the loan.

Benson knows this part of the operation because that is where he got started in the mortgage business.

He became an auditor for a commercial bank in 1987 and within two years he moved into the mortgage banking department on the operations side.

Eventually he became vice president of operations for a mortgage banker and managed branches for a number of companies.

When he became an area manager, he started doing business with a large, privately held homebuilder.

That "set the stage for knowing how to handle the volume and getting things correctly done upfront and on time, which is imperative for home builders," he said, adding this is a good skill for the existing home sales market as well.

Getting things done on time for a builder is "non-negotiable."

When the market changed after the crisis, Benson stepped back into a loan consultant position. Currently he is a producing sales manager for imortgage's Roseville branch.

His business has been focused on the purchase market. For 2013, it was in excess of 80% of his total volume of $171 million; he ended the year as the ninth most prolific loan officer in the country, according to the Origination News top originator survey. Most of his originations are conforming mortgages, with smaller percentages of jumbo, Federal Housing Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs and U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development loans.

"To not give people that option [of programs like VA and USDA], you may not be doing your client a service," Benson says. For example, imortgage is seeing more requests for the VA product as of late, which he says is a sign that lenders are promoting different products than they have in the past.

At imortgage, across all originators, purchase volume is over 80% as well, he notes. The company is a mortgage banker.

His primary market is Sacramento and the surrounding counties, although he does get referral business from all parts of California.

Benson attributes his strong performance to the company he works for, as imortgage is in tune with its originators and their needs. The back office is knowledgeable and gives the correct answer to product questions the first time, avoiding a lot of hassle later.

"It may not sound like a big deal. It is not always done in our industry," he says, noting that at some companies, getting a response from the back office can take weeks. That's too slow for home builders and real estate agents, who need to know as soon as possible if their customer is going to be able to get financing.

One of the things having started in the back office has taught him is that communication throughout all levels of the organization is important. "Often times back office people forget how important it is for those out in the field to get the answers quickly. And not half-answers or 'I'll get back to you.'

"It's, 'yes, this can be done, under these circumstances with these conditions to follow.'" Knowing that a deal can or can't be done "is the most important thing to our business partners, so we have to treat it as such," Benson says. "If it takes a week or two, it's too late."

Maintaining his credibility is important for his success. He gets calls all the time from consumers who went to another lender and did not get the correct answer from their loan officer.

"I can see what is happening at our competition by the calls I get. A good percentage of these calls are from folks already in escrow. The transaction has fallen apart with a different lender. Here we are to provide the correct answer. In some cases the other lender missed it by a mile.

"People are just not as familiar with loan programs as they should be. It is very basic knowledge. You have to know your product and know what you are promoting," Benson says.

His example: a potential borrower came in to imortgage, and he told the person FHA was the only way to go.

A competitor told this same customer it could do the loan through the conventional channel. About 45 days later, the loan was back at imortgage, as the borrower did not meet the conventional guidelines' debt-to-income ratio.

"If everybody had the same product knowledge, my competition would be much stiffer," he states.

Having the background in operations gives him an appreciation for the work those in the back office have to do. Underwriting turn times at imortgage have been at 24 hours or less for over the past year.

"That's so important. We count on that as loan originators…When we've submitted a file or loan conditions on a borrower, we know we're OK in a very short period of time."

This helps to reduce the stress and anguish the consumer feels wondering if they are going to get a loan, he points out. And it is not just an answer, but it has to be the correct one.

"The quicker we get them the answer, the more pleased they are, the more referrals I gain," Benson says.

The overall majority of his referrals are from real estate agents. A small percentage of his 2013 volume was new home sales.

Most of the business was driven by word-of-mouth marketing as imortgage does very little advertising. "It is old fashioned performance. If you get it done, people will remember and appreciate it."

The referral pipeline works both ways. There have been instances where a borrower has been referred by a real estate agent, liked the service at imortgage and told a friend or relative about the company.

After that person gets a preapproval, imortgage is able to send this person back to the real estate agent who started the chain, Benson says.

"How do you put into an ad something about the secret ingredient, the timely response? That can only be shown by performance," he says.

When interest rates went up a year ago, there was a slowdown in business, even in purchase applications. On top of which, the Sacramento region was still feeling the effects of the real estate downturn.

But things have turned around. Like in many other markets, there is a shortage of inventory for sale. "We're not quite back to normal. It's been one extreme or the other," Benson says.

The shortage of inventory makes it much more important to its clients that Benson is able to meet their needs on a timely basis and they are in the best position possible to buy a home. This includes having the real estate broker speak to a customer about getting a mortgage pre-approval before going home shopping.

The pre-approval process is thorough, including looking at all of the buyer's income documentation. There are discussions about options for the borrower around products, the monthly payment and how much cash will be needed at the closing table.

This in turn helps imortgage's operations team to quickly turn around the loan once the borrower makes a formal application, he says.

"I have some appreciation for that, coming from there in my past. They can do their job and it's not a lot of back and forth. The buyer is still excited about the process and it is almost a race to the finish," Benson says.

"That just explains why I have been successful. The more business I do, the more referrals I get. It is self-fulfilling. We need to keep up with the demand on our end and continue to do what we know must be done for a client upfront."

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