Home | Ask Your Question | Mortgage Glossary
Find me a lender for:  

Mortgage Auction (or Lead Generation) Sites

Mortgage Auction (or Lead Generation) Sites

May 20, 2002

I Do Auction Sites Work For Borrowers?

"You have discussed internet referral sites and individual lender sites, but I don�t see any reference to Lending Tree, which does a lot of advertising. Where does it fit?"

Lending Tree is what I call an "auction" site because, in theory, up to 4 lenders will bid for your loan. I used to call them "lead generation sites", because from a lender�s perspective, that is what they do. A "lead" is a packet of information about a consumer in the market for a loan. Lenders pay for leads, and auction sites are an important source of them.

In preparing this column, I looked at 9 mortgage auction sites: Cityloans.com, Getsmart.com, Interestratesonline.com, Lendingtree.com, Loanapp.com, Loanhounds.com, Loanweb.com, Lowestmortgage.com, and Mortgageexpo.com. While Lending Tree is ahead of the others, their similarities are more important than their differences.

All of these sites essentially work the same way. The prospective borrower fills out a questionnaire covering the loan request, property, personal finances, and contact information. The sites use this information to select the lenders to whom the information is sent. Lenders then prepare an offer to the borrower based on the same information.

In developing their questionnaires, auction sites are pulled in two directions. The more complete the questionnaire, the more effectively the site can select lenders, and the more accurately the lenders can quote prices. On the other hand, long questionnaires discourage some borrowers -- especially those with short attention spans, or who are suspicious that their information will be misused. Intelligent borrowers should actually prefer sites with longer questionnaires, although a long questionnaire in itself is no guarantee of good service.

The sites send the information provided by applicants to "up to 4" lenders, except for Mortgagexpo.com, which sends it to only one. Lenders are selected based on prior information provided by the lenders regarding the types of loans, borrowers and properties that they are prepared to consider.

For example, an applicant with poor credit who wants to purchase a condominium would not be referred to a lender who has told the site it only wants loans to A-quality borrowers purchasing or refinancing single-family homes. Similarly, an applicant who doesn�t want to document income or assets would not be sent to a lender who always requires full documentation.

In principle, the lender selection function performed by auction sites should be particularly valuable to borrowers with one or more challenging features, such as poor credit, incomplete documentation, or little cash. Such borrowers can avoid wasting time soliciting lenders who won�t deal with them.

How well the sites perform this function, however, is difficult to determine. My impression is that they try to acquire as many reputable lenders as possible, assuming that if they have enough lenders, the coverage of widely diverse borrower needs will take care of itself. I�m not sure that it does.

The only concrete information I can report is my own experience as an applicant pretending to refinance. Unfortunately for the test, my credit is excellent, I live in a single-family home, and I can document everything. But my niche is a bit unusual in that I am both retired and self-employed, a combination that gives some computerized systems difficulty.

None of the 8 sites I tried gave me 4 lenders. Two offered 3, and the remainder offered 1 or 2. (The ninth site discovered who I was and aborted my application). I felt too guilty about wasting the time of loan officers to repeat the exercise using fictitious information about myself.

The lender screening process employed by the auction sites also provides some protection against falling into the hands of rogues � lenders or mortgage brokers out to extract as much revenue as possible from every customer. The sites have every reason to bounce a lender who attracts multiple complaints from borrowers. Only Lending Tree, however, has developed a rating system for its lenders based on reports from borrowers.

In sum, auction sites may be useful in screening out rogues, and in allowing borrowers with poor credit, less-than-complete documentation or little cash to find lenders that deal in those market niches. Such borrowers will probably do better at auction sites than by throwing darts against the yellow pages, or by visiting single-lender sites. (With few exceptions, single-lender sites don�t quote prices that apply to them). Strong borrowers who can find their desired loans priced on single-lender sites, will probably do better shopping those.

II Do Auction Sites Promote Competition ?

In Column I, I indicated that internet auction sites may be a good way for borrowers with poor credit or other weaknesses to find one or more reputable lenders who are willing to work with them. This column considers whether auction sites promote lender competition in ways that benefit borrowers.

The answer depends first on whether the initial price quotes provided through the sites are complete enough to allow borrowers to make intelligent choices. Second, it depends on whether borrowers are protected against "sharp practices" by lenders during the period between initial price quotes and the time when the price is "locked".

Initial Price Quotes: Fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs) have 3 price components: interest rate, points (upfront charges expressed as a percent of the loan), and lender fees (upfront charges expressed in dollars). Borrowers can�t shop effectively unless they have all three.

Lending Tree is unique among auction sites in displaying the three price components from all responding lenders on its site. The lenders selected by the other sites provide prices over the telephone, email, or fax. In many cases, the prices don�t include lender fees, and in all cases (except Lending Tree) borrowers must record and organize this information for themselves.

Adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) have additional price components: the interest rate index used by the ARM, the margin that is added to the index in resetting the rate on an adjustment date, any caps on the size of rate changes, and the maximum rate. None of the auction sites provide this information, which has to be obtained directly from loan officers. Borrowers who might hold an ARM past the first rate adjustment date need this information, but most don�t realize they should ask for it.

Sharp Practices: A mortgage lender quoting prices on an auction site is not bound by those prices. Mortgage prices are reset every morning, and sometimes during the day. The price quotes that borrowers use to select a lender, even if complete, apply only to the day they are posted. The next day the quotes are obsolete. For price updates, borrowers are dependent on the loan officers who contact them.

The only prices that really matter are those quoted at the time the borrower locks the loan with the lender. The borrower who selects one lender to work with based on the initial price quote is vulnerable to gamesmanship. An initial price that is favorable to the borrower, because there was competition at that point, is converted to a locked price that is more favorable to the lender.

This is done by overstating the rise in market prices that occurs between the time of the initial quote and the lock date -- or understating the decline. For example, the initial quote was 7% at zero points, the market on the lock day is 6.75%, but the borrower is locked at 6.875%.

Sharp lenders can also take advantage of a borrower who decides, either before or after they lock the loan, that they want a different type of loan. For example, they lock a 30-year FRM at 7% but decide to switch to a 15-year FRM on a day when the 15-year quote is 6.625%. Since the borrower is already committed, the lender locks the 15-year at 6.75%.

Sharp lenders also may pad their loan fees, particularly if they hadn�t included fees any in the initial price quote to the borrower. Indeed, fee padding can extend right through to closing, since locks only cover rates and points.

These practices pervade the home loan market. The question is whether auction sites provide any protection against them? They claim to, through their due diligence in selecting and monitoring lenders. Lending Tree provides a scorecard of lender performance based on reports from borrowers, and also assigns a "personal custom care advocate" to each borrower.

There was no way for me to assess the effectiveness of these protections. It is plausible that they may prevent flagrant or obvious abuses, but certainly not the more subtle ones. The borrower who pays 6.75% when the competitive rate is 6.625% usually doesn�t know it, and neither does the site.

In sum, except for FRMs on Lending Tree, auction sites don�t offer the complete pricing required for effective competition. How well they do in protecting borrowers against lender abuses is unclear, but I�m skeptical. Clearly, they could do a lot better on both scores, and I�ll indicate how in Column III.

III How Auction Sites Could Do Better

In two prior columns, I indicated that internet auction sites are a better way to find a reputable lender than blind selection, but they don�t live up to their promise of providing competitive pricing. In this column, I will sketch the features of an auction site that would provide competitive pricing, and also facilitate better loan decisions. Call it the "Generation Two" (GT) site.

Complete Prices on Line: The GT site would provide complete pricing on-line for the ("up to 4") lenders selected by the site for a particular borrower. If borrowers are going to select the best deal, they must have complete price information.

On fixed-rate mortgages (FRMs), required information includes the interest rate, points (an upfront charge expressed as a percent of the loan), and lender fees (upfront charges expressed in dollars).

On adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs), the SG site would disclose these as well as other price components. But more importantly, the site would pull all these factors together in projections of future performance. On any ARM offered by participating lenders, borrowers would be shown what might happen to the interest rate and mortgage payment at future rate adjustment dates under different assumed scenarios. These would include a scenario where market interest rates are stable, and one where they explode � a "worst case".

"Try-on" Capacity: In selecting their lender, borrowers would not be limited to the one or a few loan programs received from each lender. Through the SG site, they would have access to all the programs of each lender, so they can "try them on." The selection tools noted below will help them make decisions.

Guaranteed Dollar Fees: The site would require lenders to guarantee their dollar fees at the outset. This imposes minimum hardship on lenders while removing a pervasive source of potential abuse.

Selection Tools: In shopping for a mortgage borrowers have 4 decisions to make: type of loan � whether FRM or ARM, and if the latter, which of many variants; loan term; down payment; and rate/point combination � high points and low interest rate, or the reverse.

The SG site will have on-site selection tools that will help borrowers make these decisions at the time they select the lender. One of these tools, designed to help borrowers select among ARMs or between an ARM and a FRM, was described above.

Existing auction sites help very little in making these decisions. The unstated assumption is that these decisions have been made at the time the borrower fills out the questionnaire. But often that is not the case, and even when it is, the decision may be poorly grounded.

Some of the existing sites have calculators that are supposed to help with these decisions, but the prices must be obtained somewhere else, which greatly reduces their value. The tools on the SG site will use live market data from the participating lenders.

Price Change Protection: A borrower selects a lender from an auction site based on that lender�s initial price quote, but the lender is not bound by that quote. Lenders may practice gamesmanship during the period between the initial quote and the time when the price is locked. If market prices decline in that period, for example, the lender might neglect to reduce the lock price.

On existing sites, the only protection against gamesmanship of this type is monitoring by the site, but borrowers would be far better off protecting themselves if they had the tools with which to do it. The GT auction site will provide the tools.

First, the GT site will have a rule, to which lenders must subscribe, that the lock price must always be the same as the price the lender is offering to new customers on the same day. Second, the site will give borrowers continual on-line access to the prices posted by their lender until the loan closes. This will allow borrowers to do their own monitoring to assure that the lender follows the rule.

Loan Change Protection: The same rule and monitoring procedure will protect borrowers against being short-changed in the event they elect to change the loan type, term, rate/point combination or down payment. If they elect to switch from a 30-year to a 15-year FRM, for example, they have a right to the price on 15-year FRMs being quoted to new borrowers on the same day.

The GT auction site won�t appear anytime soon. In the column that follows, I�ll provide a checklist for making the best use of existing sites.

IV Check-List on How to Use Auction Sites

Auction sites could provide the following advice to borrowers:

1. Before using this site, you should have decided whether you want a fixed or adjustable rate mortgage, as well as your preferred loan term, down payment, and points. If you are uncertain about any of these, do some homework. You might peruse the relevant sections of the Mortgage Professor�s web site.

2. Fill out the questionnaire as accurately and completely as you can. We use the information you provide, together with information we have on the preferences of our lenders, to match you with the lenders most likely to be interested in your loan. Our matching can be no better than the information we receive from you.

3. This site does not provide mortgage price information. That comes from the lenders who contact you. The amount of price information they give you may depend on what you ask for. Remember that on fixed-rate mortgages you need the interest rate, points and dollar fees. While some lenders are not in the habit of providing their dollar fees in initial price quotes, you can insist upon it.

4. If you are interested in an adjustable rate mortgage (ARM), you need to know more than the rate, points and loan fees. Also ask the lenders for the interest rate index, margin, all rate adjustment caps, and maximum rate. Once you have that information, you can see use the Mortgage Professor�s calculator "Monthly Payments on Adjustable Rate Mortgages" to see how the payment might change.

5. Receiving price quotes over the telephone is looking for trouble. Ask lenders to email or fax their prices to you.

6. The interest rate and points quoted to you by a lender apply only to the day you receive them. The lender is not bound to them the following day, since the market may have changed. For the same reason, it is not safe to compare a price received on Monday from one lender with a price received on Tuesday from another.

7. The prices that really matter are those quoted to you on the day you "lock" the loan with the lender. The lock means that the lender is committed to the prices, and so are you!

8. Since locking imposes costs on lenders, they want some evidence of your commitment to the deal before they will lock. Their requirements vary widely, however, ranging from very little, to a signed application, to a signed application plus a non-refundable payment. You are entitled to know at the outset exactly what each lender�s requirements are, and how long it should take if you do everything expected of you. Ask!!!

9. Since you selected the lender based on the initial price quote but it is the locked price that you are going to pay, you have a right to know how the lender will set the price on the day you lock. You need not accept a statement that the new price "will be at the market". The answer you are looking for is that the lock price will be the same as the price the lender is quoting to new customers on the identical loan on the same day. Ask if the lender has a web site that contains up-to-date prices that you can use to monitor your price day by day. If it does not, ask the loan officer how he intends to demonstrate that you have received the correct price.

10. Unlike rates and points, loan fees are not market driven. Unless you change one or more of the loan characteristics, there is seldom a good reason for these fees to change between the time you receive the initial price quote and the time you close.

Some lenders will guarantee these fees in writing if you ask. Bear in mind that these are lender fees only, a lender can�t guarantee the fees of third parties. However, lenders may be willing to include appraisal fees and credit charges in a guarantee because they order them and know how much they cost.

Copyright Jack Guttentag 2002



Jack Guttentag is Professor of Finance Emeritus at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Visit the Mortgage Professor's web site for more answers to commonly asked questions.

Search More Info On:

  • principle
  • no documentation loans
  • borrower
  • no income
  • subprime lenders
  • stated income loans
  • Shop For Your Mortgage Now!
    Shop For Your Mortgage Now!

    You'll be re-directed to Top-Lenders.com


    Related Articles From Mortgage Professor's web site:

    Mortgage Auction (or Lead Generation) Sites
    May 20, 2002 I Do Auction Sites Work For Borrowers? "You have discussed internet referral sites and individual lender sites, but I don?t see any reference to Lending Tree, which does a lot of advertising. Where does it fit?" Lending Tree is what I call ... more...

    HUD's Proposals For Reform
    October 19, 2002 On July 29, 2002, HUD released a set of proposals to substantially change the ways in which home loans are originated in the US.  As usual, the proposals were open for comment, and many thousands of them were received.  Mine was among them, and is shown ... more...

    Fixing the Mortgage System So It Works For Borrowers
    September 5, 2005 In some respects, the United States housing finance system is the best in the world. In other respects, it is unworthy of a banana republic. Our housing finance system has a primary market and a secondary market. The primary market is the market the borrower ... more...

    HUD and Yield Spread Premiums
    October 3, 2001 The recent decision of the US 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Culpepper vs Irwin has suddenly swung the spotlight on HUD policy regarding yield spread premiums (YSPs) retained by mortgage brokers.  To this date, HUD has been impotent in dealing ... more...

    More on lenders...