Even as mortgage bankers jump onto the World Wide Web, industry experts say the Internet, despite its vast potential, is so far mostly for show.
In interviews with mortgage executives and other experts, most agreed that companies advertising on the Internet are merely looking for more visibility and want to cultivate an image of being tuned in to the latest trends. Bankers appear to be doing research to find out who visits the sites, why, and what they are seeking.
Paul Havemann, a vice president at HSH Associates Inc., Butler, N.J., said that while everyone is advertising their on-line address, it will be a while before the Internet becomes the next frontier for selling mortgage products and services.
"The analogy of the California Gold Rush comes to mind," said Mr. Havemann. "'We know there is something out there, and we had better stake a claim in it.'
"It has a lot of promise, but it will take time for people to expect the delivery of products and services through the Internet," he added.
HSH Associates, which compiles listings of loan rates nationwide, has also taken steps to publicize its Web site in its catalogs and on the company's letterhead.
The company receives about 3,000 visits to its home page "on a good business afternoon," Mr. Havemann said. This is up from about 1,000 since HSH began advertising in early August. Mr. Havemann said the advertising has not increased its audience, but has made the site more visible to regular customers.
However, Mr. Havemann warns that mortgage bankers should not simply put a home page up for effect. It should be there to give customers information, he said.
Scott Cooley, president of Contour Software, a Campbell, Calif.-based company that produces mortgage loan programs, agreed.
"A good home page from a mortgage company should answer a consumer's frequently asked questions in depth," Mr. Cooley said.
"From the first page, you should be able to jump to an unlimited number of other pages that contain content that your customers will find helpful. It's similar to an index in a book, where you can search various topics and quickly jump to any topic desired."
A company in the first stages of getting onto the Internet is Bank United Mortgage, a subsidiary of Bank United of Texas, Houston. Its strategy is to reach out mostly to prospective first-time homebuyers in their late 20s and early 30s.
Leslie J. Flynne, senior vice president and chief financial officer of Bank United Mortgage, said the unit is evaluating a possible on-line bulletin board listing mortgage rates.
"This is clearly another technology mortgage bankers should get used to," Ms. Flynne said. "Executives in the mortgage industry should be aware of the tremendous potential of the Internet and stay abreast of the tools available to understand the issues surrounding this medium."
Ms. Flynne added that her company hopes to include a computerized loan origination system on the Internet. Mortgage brokers would then be able to find the best rates for consumers, while loan officers with laptops could originate loans at the point of sale.
To create such a loan system, "there has to be an absolute guarantee of secured transaction and confidentiality," said Mr. Havemann.
"The Internet was founded on the premise that it was going to be freely accessible to everyone," he said. "When secured transactions come into the picture, it goes contrary to the way the 'Net was built. This will take some time."
Larry Walker, director of the mortgage and real estate group for Electronic Data Systems Corp., Plano, Tex., said the Internet is still in its infancy.
"It appears that most mortgage bankers are looking for business, and they expect the Internet to be a source of loan originations, but we aren't sure if it's the best use of the Internet," Mr. Walker said.
"Most have home pages and customer service and are able to accept mortgage applications on-line, but this is not a key source of revenue," he said. "They will not get rich from that."
Mr. Walker said that the players he sees using the Internet for profit are entrepreneurs - those who act as the network operators and are paid a fee for transactions that go through. But he says the largest players in the industry have not yet logged on.
Mr. Cooley agrees that, presently, people understand that mortgages are the most important investments they can make in their lives - and face-to- face interaction is very important. But effectove marketing efforts by lenders will pay off, he believes.
"It can only mushroom," Mr. Cooley said. "The mortgage industry has always been slow to adapt to new technology, but it will happen."
Mr. Walker said that customers see the Internet addresses for mortgage banks as a "novelty."
"A company's absence may be more noticeable than their presence," he added. "If you're not on the 'Net, people want to know why - so everyone is going there."