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Consolidation and competition are the two underlying themes mortgage executives are focused on for 2018.

Culture of service and support are key difference makers for companies trying to succeed in a challenging market, executives said. That approach spans from relationships with customers and referral partners all the way to an organization's employees, said Adam Thorpe, president and chief operating officer of Castle & Cooke.

"As we enter into a market where volume is harder to come by and it's highly competitive, the companies that have focused on those intangibles like service and support will be able to set themselves apart and give themselves an advantage in recruiting and expansion opportunities," he said.

It's not just residential lenders that see the need for a service culture to be successful.

"It's always a good sign to see a lender that does repeat business with borrowers. It's a sign they're doing something right," added Larry Grantham, co-founder and senior portfolio manager of Calmwater Capital, a commercial real estate lender based in Los Angeles.

Integration of systems at the point of sale to verify the borrowers' assets, employment and income will help to streamline the process, while at the same time reduce lender's costs, said Altisource Portfolio Solutions Chief Revenue Officer John Vella.

Whether creating these systems in house or going to vendor that already has done all the work, at the end of the day "the ultimate goal is to get better, faster, cheaper," he said.

Here's a look at some of the top challenges and trends that mortgage executives from lenders, servicers and vendors are focused on for 2018.
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VA mortgage churn
Will the changes made by Ginnie Mae stop the churning problem with Veterans Affairs-guaranteed loans?

"If you can't charge a premium for a high risk loan, then you're either going to suffer the consequences of not making the loans or you're going to suffer the consequences of the street paying you a lower premium for that loan. And I still don't know how that's going to stop the churning, because the people that are cherry picking loans out of pools are still going to be able to cherry pick that loan out of a pool."

— Joe Murin, chairman emeritus of mortgage banker NewDay USA, and former Ginnie Mae president
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Standing out to grow
How can independent mortgage bankers add volume in 2018 and set themselves apart from the competition?

"Those non-qualified mortgage loans are where we could distinguish ourselves and we can generate business. More and more lenders are either broadening their non-QM products or coming out with non-QM products where they hadn't before. That's where the growth will be in the market and that's where the opportunity will be."

— Andrew Weinberg, president of Great Neck, N.Y.-based mortgage brokerage Silver Fin Capital
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Rising home prices
Should home prices rising to new highs and creating another bubble concern mortgage servicers?

"It doesn't concern me at this point in time because the fundamentals behind the economy are just pretty strong at this point, too. And it doesn't bother me as much because we're fully underwriting these assets, based on their ability to repay. We're not putting people in homes they can't afford."

— Kevin Brungardt, CEO of RoundPoint Mortgage Servicing Corp.
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Appraisal technology
Will increased use of technology tools for valuing properties eliminate the need for appraisers?

"I don't think appraisers and technology are mutual exclusive. Somebody's got to run that engine. A good, smart appraiser embracing all this technology will be needed in the future."

— Mark Johnson, chief strategy officer for LRES
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Industry consolidation
Will 2018 be a make or break year for those mortgage companies on the edge?

"2017, for many companies, has been a tough year because of margin compression and how competitive the industry is getting. Optimism has been able to carry many of those people through the year. But the financial realities of operating in the current environment will hit home for many of those operators of small to medium size companies in the first and second quarters of 2018."

— Adam Thorpe, president and chief operating officer of mortgage banker Castle & Cooke
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Commercial mortgage competition
How can commercial originators get a competitive advantage in a fragmented marketplace?

"It is easy to say you're a relationship lender. But the big distinction is proving you're a relationship lender."

— Larry Grantham, co-founder and senior portfolio manager of commercial real estate lender Calmwater Capital
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Opening up the credit box
Can mortgage lenders successfully widen their underwriting standards?

"The infrastructure built over the last couple of years, with the discipline that the qualified mortgage rule put in will allow them to utilize that discipline and expand the credit box."

— John Vella, the chief revenue officer for Altisource Portfolio Solutions
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Digital mortgage transformation
Has mortgage technology kept up with a rapidly changing business environment?

"The top trends are revolving around digital transformation. Really what they are looking for is better ways to operate their mortgage business from start to finish, from originations to funding to servicing and they need to it better and more cost-effectively. The cost of doing business has gone up, but the technology to support streamlining the businesses has not really kept up much."

— Steve Comer, sales manager, financial services at Hyland Software
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