had a strong presence at last week's National Association of Realtors conference. A spokesman said it was seeking to make Realtors more comfortable with taking clients through the loan process. "We do a lot of marketing and advertising with Realtors and are making a major effort to get Realtors to come to our branches," said Jumana Bauwens, media relations manager for Countrywide. Countrywide estimates that about one-third of its loans start with a realty agent. "I just laugh at the idea that the real estate agent is going away because of the Internet," said Cameron King, executive vice president for electronic commerce at Calabasas, Calif.-based Countrywide. "A good agent is somebody who acts as a liaison between the consumer and the lender." The role will change, though, because the Internet will give agents access to more competitive pricing, he said. "Right now you don't have to be very skilled at making loans to be successful-it's a trillion-dollar market," Mr. King said. "When rates stay flat or go up, that'll change, and the company that can do good purchase transactions in a traditional 70% purchase, 30% refi market will jump ahead." Mr. King said the key to this leap is a lender's technological capabilities. "If you're sloppy and inaccurate on a purchase transaction, there's a big chain of events that takes place," Mr. King said. "If you miss that closing day, escrows fall out, commitment on loans expires, lenders take a hit," and realty agents are very unhappy. "The company that can fix closing problems with technology will be key in the industry," he explained. Mr. King said Countrywide was close to being self-sufficient in automating the closing process, but still has work to do. "Countrywide created its own title and appraisal companies," Mr. King said. "If there's a huge number of disclosures, we'll have fewer steps, but you have to single-source through Countrywide, and not all consumers are comfortable with that." Borrowers may now work with a Countrywide subsidiary, Landsafe Title, in Plano, Tex. Online origination has distinctive advantages for the consumer and the lender. Consumers are in control of the transaction and can avoid high sales pressure. Also, computer shopping is convenient and timely. And finally, a layer of cost is omitted from the process, and the savings can be passed on in the form of a better price to the borrower. "The Internet is a far better way to shop for a mortgage," Mr. King said. "We've designed our system so our Internet user interfaces to the exact same origination system as we have in the branch. Others have made the Internet an island unto itself, which makes it difficult to then get a loan into the normal infrastructure." Countrywide funded 676 loans, or $76 million, on the Internet in October, and estimates that 30% to 40% of additional loans were from Internet shoppers who then came into a branch to apply. About 1% of Countrywide's originations are on-line, but Mr. King estimates this will grow to 12% by 2002. Countrywide says developing its software in-house is cost-effective. "There may be flashier packages you can buy off the shelf, but Countrywide is integrated from up-front applications to closing. From the moment it hits the system, a loan is set up for secondary marketing and servicing," Mr. King said. "When an existing customer comes in for refinancing, it's all automatic." Mr. King points to one big difference between Countrywide and its competitors: Since the mid-1970s it has decentralized its underwriting and decision making. "Each branch has the electronics to redraw documents right there if they need to," Mr. King said. "At Chase and Norwest, a loan officer takes the application and mails it back to a central processing unit. Our loan representatives make the loan decision and don't have to wait on underwriters."
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