Mortgages are not sexy party conversation

Part 3 of 4: The real estate blog revolution

Editor’s note: In this in-depth four-part series, Inman News tackles the exploding trend in real estate blogs. We chat with some of the most well-known and prolific bloggers in the real estate brokerage, mortgage and title insurance industries to see what makes these blogs tick. (Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 4.)

A growing number of real estate agents and brokers are making blogging look easy these days.

Whether home prices are moving up or down, the vast majority of Americans own a home — or dream of home ownership — and are eager to learn more about the process of buying and selling property.

Real estate professionals have found they can attract the attention of these potential clients and win their business by blogging.

But for others in the industry who are selling less well-understood products such as mortgage loans, closing services and title insurance, blogging has been a tougher nut to crack.

Some consumers don’t know much about lending or title insurance, and are happy to let others guide their decisions.

“My industry is really boring to most folks,” said mortgage planner and blogger Dan Green, author of The Mortgage Reports. “It’s not like real estate, where you can go to a party and talk real estate because everybody has an opinion.”

Although blogs can help mortgage lenders and title insurers win new clients, it can be a challenge coming up with content that’s informative, compelling and fresh.

Green said he first started blogging two years ago, with the hope that clients would leave face-to-face meetings with a better understanding of what had been said.

“I found I was having the same conversation with clients over and over again. When you’re giving them information verbally, that’s one thing. When you’re writing, using charts and graphs, the level of understanding increases dramatically,” Green said. “Mortgages are very technical. If you put it in language everybody can understand, people can make smart financial decisions,” he said.

Over time, Green has expanded the range of topics he’ll write about — he’s constantly helping his readers understand the global, political and economic forces that can affect interest rates — but the focus on educating his clients has remained.

Green’s blog, The Mortgage Reports, mixes general advice for consumers, such as “How to shop for mortgages,” with lending industry news and analysis like this recent post on Fremont Savings and Loan ditching 80-20 loans.

In the end, “I always write for the consumer,” Green says. With “a lot real of estate blogs, the audience is not the consumer, it’s the industry. When you look at the content, you have to wonder, who is your audience? Are you writing for Realtors or other bloggers?” When he wants to write about the industry, he posts to BloodhoundBlog, where he is one of a dozen contributors.

Still, he finds that many of his readers are other loan officers. That could be because Green has a way of explaining larger industry trends and practices, including the use of nontraditional loans and fluctuations in interest rates.

The securities that lenders use to fund many mortgage loans are traded on Wall Street, and demand for those securities ebbs and flows as global investors seek the best return for their investment.

“Mortgage rates are not an isolated event — they move just like stocks do,” Green said. “Most people have no idea where rates come from, they think they come out of thin air. Some of the favorite posts I write are those that explain why, just when everybody thinks rates are going in one direction, that something that’s happened across the globe throws the whole market off.”

Many of the best real estate bloggers inject their posts with personal stories or humor that gives clients a sense of who they are. As a mortgage planner, Green doesn’t feel he has as much leeway to delve into the offbeat. But he drops little clues in his posts that give readers an idea of who he is as a person.

“I did have a post once that referenced every song on the Zenyatta Mondatta album by the Police,” Green said. Another post warned that “mortgage rates may move like Elaine Benes,” a reference — complete with a video clip from YouTube — to the “Seinfeld” character’s inept moves on the dance floor.

“The hardest thing about blogging is this concept of voice,” Green said. “You don’t just start writing. You go through two or three months of self-doubt. You wonder who’s reading this. You don’t have any personality on paper. When people fight through that, what emerges is their own personal writing style. The truth is if you’re not comfortable with your voice, it becomes very difficult to write. We lose a lot of good writers that way”

While Green doesn’t feel it’s appropriate to share too much about his personal life in his blog, he’s not afraid of taking on issues that are fraught with controversy, like subprime and predatory lending.

When Illinois lawmakers last year rolled out a pilot program aimed at reducing predatory lending in 10 Chicago ZIP codes, Green was soon part of the debate.

State officials charged with implementing the program denied that requiring some borrowers to obtain financial counseling before taking out certain types of loans was onerous. But the program outraged many lenders. Some simply stopped doing business in the heavily minority ZIP codes, leading to accusations that the program amounted to state-sponsored redlining.

“You had the state saying these are great protection measures (for borrowers), and the industry saying this is the biggest crime ever committed,” Green said. “The problem was there was nowhere to get unbiased information. I started writing about just the facts. If the law is passed, who does it affect? Pretty soon my traffic is spiking. My blog is the only place where there’s info on this.”

Green’s blog reported when lenders pulled out of the affected ZIP codes. He even analyzed MLS data to see if the predatory lending program was hurting sales. Green concluded that sales were down compared to similar ZIP codes, a finding later confirmed by an academic study. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich suspended the program on Jan. 19.

“I don’t know if had a role, other than providing a place where people could get unbiased information,” Green said. “I didn’t say this is what you should think, I just put in plain English, and said you decide. I’m not so arrogant to say I know everything.”

With his flair for explaining the arcane details of mortgage lending, Green has built a following of devoted readers. Acknowledging that not everyone has the time or ability to tackle the subject in the same way, he’s started a new service, Bring the Blog, that will syndicate not only his writing but also authors in other fields.

The feed clients purchase from Bring the Blog will be theirs to use as they see fit — they are under no obligation to attribute the material to Bring the Blog, Green said.

“Our model weakens when consumers know content is generated by Bring the Blog, not the author,” Green said. “So we get out of the way. We are completely transparent. If somebody quotes you, yes, you are free to take credit for it.”

The service will also include turnkey Web sites set up to take the Bring the Blog RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed.

“What’s very nice about this is for people using Bring the Blog, you don’t have to write every day if you don’t want to,” Green said. “If we write about something we don’t want to expose to clients, we can just hide it.”

Todd Carpenter, a loan agent who maintains a network of mortgage and real estate Web sites at Mariah.com including the blog Lenderama, says Bring the Blog should appeal to mortgage bloggers.

I’ve been struggling to create new content for this blog lately,” Carpenter told Lenderama readers in a Jan. 16 post. “I just haven’t made enough time for it. When I do have time, it’s been hard to come up with something new. I’m not alone. (In my opinion), it’s the intimidation of not being able to produce fresh content that is the primary hurdle holding other mortgage professionals back from blogging.”

Bring the Blog, Carpenter said, can “pick up the slack on the days you are too busy to post yourself.”

Carpenter also advises mortgage professionals who want to blog but aren’t sure they can come up with material every day to align themselves with a real estate blogger, or even a group of real estate professionals.

“I think a mortgage broker would be really wise to start with a group of real estate agents, maybe a financial planner, insurance — that way, it’s a site people will go to. It has content, and it’s not today’s APR, and what happened in the bond market today. Otherwise, it’s almost like writing the same story over and over.”

Maureen Francis, a Birmingham, Mich.-based real estate broker and founder of the blog miOaklandCounty, has partnered with mortgage loan officer Ken Mascia, who contributes posts on lending for consumers, such as “How to get a great credit score.”

“Ken was kind of interesting because when I told him I wanted him to participate, he said he didn’t want customers from the Internet,” Francis said. “Now he is totally on board. When you Google his name, he’s published. He’s got instant credibility.”

Mascia has also created another blog on ActiveRain Real Estate Network, which boasts more than 17,000 members, and Francis said she’s talking to a builder and an architect to bring “fresh local voices” to miOaklandCounty.

Kent, Wash.-based loan originator Rhonda Porter launched her blog, The Mortgage Porter, in November, inspired by a mortgage fraud case that was making local news headlines.

“I wanted my view out there, and for people to know that not all mortgage lenders are crooks — we do a lot of good, and have a lot of useful information,” she said.

Porter has since become a contributor to Rain City Guide and also writes for another, noncommercial blog she created about her neighborhood.

Porter said she spends two to two-and-a-half hours a day blogging, including time spent responding to comments on her blogs and reading other industry blogs.

“You’ve gotta stay diversified, and get your information from many different sources,” she says. “You expose yourself to more resources so you can blog more. It’s a sickness, I think.”

Like Green, Porter’s not afraid to write about controversial subjects like subprime lending. Although she doesn’t often put her clients into nontraditional loans, a post she wrote for Rain City Guide about a family that may be headed for trouble with a zero-down mortgage provoked dozens of comments.

For the most part, the responses to Porter’s post, “Confessions of a Zero-Down Lender,” constituted a thoughtful discussion. But that’s not always the case, Porter said.

“You almost know that if you’re going to talk about some things, there’s a group of people that are waiting for you to write about things like the Seattle bubble, and you’ll get attacked,” Porter said. “If I truly believe in something, I’m going to post it, but you have to be prepared to defend yourself.”

On her blog, Porter’s beliefs can take precedence over profit, as in a recent post about putting money away for a child’s college education. While Porter could have advised people to build up equity in their homes and draw on the money when it’s time to send children to college, “what was more important to me was that people plan for this.”

In her post “It pays to plan,” Porter, who is also a Certified Mortgage Planning Specialist, advises families planning to send children to college to start saving now. She points them to a college tuition calculator, and advises that she’s using a tax-free 529 account to save for her son.

The inspiration for the post came from her own personal experiences: Porter’s 14-year-old son will soon be entering high school.

“A 529 is just one option,” she writes. “I like it for my scenario because the money I put in grows tax free. And… I tell my son that if he doesn’t go to college, I will select one of my nieces or nephews to be a benefactor! Funny how that motivates him.”

Title insurance bloggers

If some mortgage lenders find blogging challenging, title insurers and providers of escrow services really have their work cut out for them.

While many consumers may have a passing knowledge of interest rates, many don’t even know what title insurance is, let alone how to shop for it.

Diane Cipa, owner of the Ligonier, Penn.-based firm The Closing Specialists, had been using her Web site to educate consumers before starting two blogs last fall — one for consumers, the other focused on industry issues.

Cipa has found the interaction with consumers and other bloggers valuable, because it gives her insight into the topics that are most vexing to people. That insight comes not only from comments and e-mails written in response to her blog posts, but the search engine terms that bring visitors to her Web site.

On her consumer blog, Title Insurance Talk, Cipa said “I’m talking to a national audience when I’m writing, helping consumers, Realtors and sometimes lenders understand title insurance.”

On her industry blog, Radical Title Talk, she said, “I am simply saying the things most people are thinking, but are afraid to say.”

Cipa is concerned that an industry move to automate the title insurance underwriting process — as exemplified by First American Corp.’s TitleSmart application — is premature.

“If title underwriters convince ignorant lenders and the buying public that the land record system is ready to move to automated title underwriting, a disaster will take place,” Cipa writes in a petition she’s gathering signatures for online. “I am not saying that someday, full automation might not be an option, just like surgery. Some day robots might be able to do it, but for now the technology is still in the hands of experienced human surgeons. We are not ready for full search and examination automation.”

Cipa said she expected her blogs would be “like a voice in the wilderness,” but found an audience hungry for such a discussion.

“I never expected to have this bully pulpit, but people are listening,” she said. “It makes me really think about how I write. You want to be entertaining and thought provoking, but you want to say it in a way that somebody who is not inside the industry will be able to understand what you say.”

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