The virtual mortgage market is alive and well, but the sites attracting the most attention are not those of banks, mortgage banks, or even brokers.
They are consumer-friendly, independent entities that have combined an entrepreneurial focus on the Internet with, in a growing number of cases, strong brand identities. The names include America Online, Intuit Inc.'s Quicken brand, E-Loan, HomeShark, and GetSmart.
Banks will "ultimately be captive to" sites that are known as aggregators or consolidators, notably QuickenMortgage.com, which has received 10,000 applications since November, said Gary Craft, analyst at BancAmerica Robertson Stephens Inc., San Francisco.
The good news for lenders and consumers is that this new business model offers "a very compelling value proposition," Mr. Craft said.
He said the consolidator approach will simplify the mortgage origination process and lower the up-front costs to consumers.
"E-Loan and HomeShark are addressing the biggest costs in the process, the front end" fees typically paid to brokers and lawyers, Mr. Craft said.
Consolidators can charge less than "half of what is charged in the physical world," he said, referring to the $1,000 per loan, or $14 billion industrywide, that he said pays for a "very inefficient and seriously constrained process."
Mr. Craft projected 10% of all mortgages could be originated on the Internet within five years.
Scott Cooley, president of Contour Software, which is in the process of being acquired by First American Financial Corp., made a similar prediction and added one of his own. He said he expects more than half of all refinancings to be Internet-based within four years.
"I think refis are a natural," he said. "You are purely rate-shopping and don't need anyone holding your hand."
Mr. Cooley has developed an outsourcing service in which his company manages the Web sites of banks and other mortgage lenders. The business is growing by 20% a month, he said.
"Lenders set up shop for very little money and then-boom-they get all these loans where the return on the dollar is fabulous," he said. Campbell, Calif.-based Contour has sold origination systems to about 35% of the mortgage-broker market.
Mr. Cooley said about 3% of all mortgages are currently originated via the Internet. Many consumers use the Web just to shop for rates and find out how much credit they can qualify for.
Potential borrowers like the anonymity, said Joe Hausauer, chief executive of Keystroke Financial Network. "They are able to get analysis without the lender's knowledge," he said.
Keystroke Financial Network gets 500 to 2,000 "hits" on its site per day, said Mr. Hausauer, who claims www.keystrokenet.com is the oldest Web site for mortgage originations. The company has 150 to 200 loan applications in process at a time, he said.
Rob Shenk, director of programming for America Online Inc.'s personal finance channel, said his company has launched a Real Estate Center for home shopping.
America Online is working with Countrywide Home Loans Inc., the largest independent mortgage lender, in a deal that would make Countrywide the first direct lender in the Real Estate Finance section of the new center. Subscribers get on-line access to mortgage rates and applications through a link to Countrywide's home page.
AOL also forged an alliance with Intuit, which in turn has Countrywide and several other leading lenders working with QuickenMortgage.com.
AOL "lets you do most of the comparative grunt work right through the computer," Mr. Shenk said. "Instead of having a bunch of disparate loan services, what Quicken does is integrate all these various loan providers together."
Burlingame, Calif.-based GetSmart has cultivated relationships with 40 lenders in less than three years.
Chief executive officer William Fischer, a former Wells Fargo & Co. executive, said describing his company as an aggregator of financial services was accurate in that "all the information is under one roof. But we think that's just part of the story."
Unlike most Internet-based mortgage purveyors, he said, GetSmart is not a broker and thus lets consumers choose their lenders.
Mr. Fischer said more than 20% of loan applications submitted to GetSmart, which is also a credit card aggregator, end up funded. The industry average is 10%.
"We think the higher value is organization," he said. "We understand how to organize the information in a way that you as the consumer find it easy to get to your decision."
E-Loan sees 118 mortgage applications a day and processes 280 loans a month. And the number of loans that close is growing 100% a month, said Mr. Craft of BancAmerica Robertson Stephens.
Homeshark, which bills itself as the Internet's leading real estate company, has links with more than 20 lenders and attracts 300,000 to 500,000 hits monthly, according to the company's chief executive Ned Hoyt. The nine-month-old site is "home-focused, not loan-focused," Mr. Hoyt explained.
IMF Loans Inc., a San Jose, Calif.-based direct lender, has outsourced its Web site management to Contour. IMF gets about 150 mortgage applications a week, according to Jan Pasternak, chief operating officer.
The company has established correspondent relationships with various other lenders and realtors who can tap into the Web site to initiate loan applications.
"The cost savings are tremendous," Ms. Pasternak said.
IMF Loans has hired the cartoonists who do the Batman and Robin comic strip to design an "IMF Man to the Rescue" theme for its site.