Spokane Journal of Business

Axia Home Loans grows here

Mortgage lender expects ongoing refinancing work, rise in home purchases

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-—Staff photo by Treva Lind
Lending veteran Don Walker is leading the Inland Northwest operations of Bellevue, Wash.�-based Axia Home Loans.

Bellevue, Wash.-based Axia Financial LLC, which does business as Axia Home Loans, has grown its Inland Northwest operations since May, both in employee numbers and offices to meet demand for mortgage lending and refinancing services.

This past summer, Axia Home Loans went from having a small office in Liberty Lake to opening offices in Spokane Valley and Coeur d'Alene, says Don Walker, a branch manager who oversees Axia operations in Eastern Washington and North Idaho.

Walker is based at the Valley office, which is located in 3,000 square feet of leased space on the second floor of a two-story building at 11917 E. Broadway. He says Axia has a small office in Coeur d'Alene, located at 2065 W. Riverstone, which opened in August.

Simultaneously, employment at Axia's operations here jumped from one person in Liberty Lake to a total of 16 people, Walker says. Twelve people work in the Valley, three in Coeur d'Alene, and one in Liberty Lake. A majority of the workers are loan originators, also known in the industry as loan officers, and the rest are in support staff roles.

"We'll add one or two loan originators here in the Valley and two more in Coeur d'Alene in 2013," Walker says. "We'll probably be looking to open two more offices, one in North Idaho and one in Central Washington that will be in Moses Lake or the Tri-Cities."

Walker says one of the reasons for Axia's recent growth here is a high volume of refinancing work that is expected to continue during 2013 while home loan interest rates remain historically low. It also expects to see growth here in originating mortgage loans for home purchases as the housing industry rebounds.

"On the purchase side, Spokane is in a really wonderful position," Walker says. "We have the best rates ever, and our home pricing is still very good. We've had five or six years of renters who normally would have moved into buying homes but haven't yet, so the demand is there."

He adds, "There's still tremendous opportunity with refinancing. Statistics show that of all the people who qualify to refinance, or have a rate that they should refinance, about two-thirds of them haven't yet."

Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac reported Feb. 14 that the rate on 30-year fixed mortgages averaged 3.53 percent for a second week, not substantially higher than last November's record 3.31 percent.

Axia is a mortgage banker that operates more than 25 branches in nine Western states. Walker says the company as a whole has grown from 90 to 240 workers, mostly within the past year. At the corporate level, he says, Axia is poised to close more than $1 billion worth of loans this year.

Being a mortgage banker means that Axia originates, processes, funds, and closes mortgage loans in its name, Walker says. While Axia sells the loans it originates on the secondary market, which is common in the industry, the company continues to service about a third of those loans, he adds.

Walker says what Axia provides as far as product, processing, and pricing compares similarly to the services offered by banks or credit unions, because all businesses in the lending industry today must follow the same criteria and offer the same type of loans.

Any difference only would be in the delivery of service, he contends. He says industry changes just over a year ago made it easier for customers to compare pricing, with a quote comparison sheet that has comparable line-item data to check against a competitor's quote.

"Everyone has the same product," he adds. "There are no subprime loans anymore."

He says there are only conventional loans using Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae guidelines, and Federal Housing Administration and VA loans using their respective guidelines.

"Generally, everyone's competitive with prices, or you don't get the mortgage business," he says. "People are generally selecting based on service, who responds to their inquiries and can effectively get their loans done in a relatively short time."

Walker has worked in the mortgage business in the Spokane area since 1988, and prior to that, he owned a real estate agency here. He says the Spokane housing market is showing definite signs of improvement and home values are edging up. He contends that builders here already have geared up to construct more entry-level homes in the Spokane area.

"The big push is going to be renters," he says, including many who have built up some savings who can afford starter homes now in the range of $150,000 to $250,000. "This is going to be the strongest construction year in five years, I think."

He adds, "I think we'll see a 15 to 20 percent increase in home sales in 2013. A couple of things could derail that."

The obstacles include a current low inventory of for-sale homes in the Spokane area, he says, mainly in quality entry-level structures. Meanwhile, many homeowners living in starter homes are waiting before deciding they want to list their houses for sale and move into a higher-valued home.

He contends that builders likely will pick up the slack soon for entry-level homes.

Homeowners who want to move up into a higher valued home, he says, have waited "hoping to recover some of the value they lost" when the housing market tanked. "Now that's beginning to stabilize clearly," he adds. "More importantly, it's not going down."

He adds, "The movers-up have to start putting homes on the market. Those waiting to sell will open up the market."

He says he expects refinancing to remain strong through 2013, unless rates increase sharply. As an example of customer savings, someone who has a $200,000 loan with 5.5 percent to 6 percent interest rate may qualify to get a loan at 3.5 to 4 percent and save about $400 to $500 a month, he says.

He says some refinancing candidates mistakenly believe they can't refinance because their mortgage is "underwater," which refers to when someone owes more on a mortgage loan than the home's current value. Other people think they don't have enough equity to refinance, Walker says.

"They don't realize that programs today have options for them," he says.

He says many people also have a mistaken perception that the loan process takes longer under today's strict loan document requirements, but he adds that it's really about setting expectations upfront that the lender needs a number of documents to verify income, credit history, and assets.

"We're closing in about 30 days or less for home purchase loans, and 30 to 45 days on refinancing; it's just more paperwork-conscious," he adds. "We're all playing by the same rules. It's just a matter of setting clear expectations with borrowers and the Realtors who are working with sellers."

He says what really has slowed loan-processing time, especially for big banks, is the high volume of refinance customers.

He adds, "We've had to build our staff as others have. The industry has had a staffing growth. Mortgage administrators, underwriters, and processors are in high demand right now. The industry shrunk and is building back up."

He says customers' credit history is even more crucial today than in the past, to qualify and to get better rates. Since opening, the Spokane Valley office has had a full-time credit specialist to help customers with their credit reports and to correct any errors, Walker adds.

"Credit scoring is so important today," he adds. "Every single buyer needs to look at the credit score before buying."

Walker says Axia also expects growth from its marketing, through traditional and online advertising, to attract customers who are good refinancing candidates, as well as those who might be considering buying an entry-level home.

"Prices are starting to go up, so they're starting to look," Walker adds about renters today. "Many of them can afford more in a house, because they've been saving. It's a little different today than what we've seen before in the renter-to-buyer market."

Treva Lind
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