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  • Industry Overview: Mortgage and Real Estate

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    At Home in the River Region

    The real estate and mortgage Industries house multiple Professions and services under their roofs, and all combined, they roll out a welcome mat that brings thousands of jobs and millions of dollars to the River region’s door.
    Home is where the heart is, and for most, it’s certainly where a majority of their money is tied up, making the business of buying and selling houses, receiving and granting home loans and developing entire neighborhoods quite weighty work. Here in the River Region, the multiple companies and individuals working in the real estate and mortgage industries take their respective roles in these operations seriously. Kim McElroy, Associate Broker and Realtor with McElroy & Company outlined how members of the Montgomery Area Association of REAL-TORS (MAAR), of which she’s currently president, contribute. “As a whole, our Realtors have one objective: to provide the best service for their clients who are in the process of buying or selling their largest monetary, and sometimes, their most emotional, asset,” she said. “I feel that Realtors keep everyone grounded in this process.”

    McElroy describes an important responsibility, but the impact of the real estate and mortgage industries doesn’t end with each profession’s specific duties; it reaches farther than the clients they serve. Sherry Weeks, Broker and Owner, ERA Weeks & Browning Realty, has been a Realtor for 40 years and spent half of those in the Montgomery area. She pointed to the wide net her industry casts. “The real estate industry in the River Region consists of 1,723 active licensed agents with more than 430 offices,” she said. She stressed the integral part this plays in our local economy. “Real estate as a whole provides a source of revenue for millions of people. Lenders, appraisers, repair companies and pest control companies are just a few examples of the many jobs favorably affected by the real estate industry,” she said. “Construction of real estate plays a part too because it is labor intensive.”
    A look back at the most recent recession – and the way real estate factored into it – shows how crucial healthy real estate markets are, a fact Kelley Hall, Sales Manager at American Mort-gage Service Company, elaborated on. “I believe the mortgage and real estate industries are the building blocks of our economy,” she said. “One real estate transaction involves a multitude of people to get the transaction closed. And when people buy real estate, they are investing in the community and not just financially. They also invest emotionally, spiritually and with their time.”
    Steve Kermish, President of Fairway Independent Mortgage Company, concurred with both Weeks and Hall, highlighting not just the employment opportunities and revenue generated by real estate and mortgage activities, but less tangible benefits too. “The mortgage industry has enjoyed tremendous growth in the last 30 years in the River Region,” he said. “It has not only pro-vided job opportunities for so many, but has also been a leader when it comes to seeing women achieve high-ranking positions.”
    Before anyone can buy or sell a home, the home has to exist, and the hard numbers behind residential real estate development are powerful. “Per the National Association of Home Builders, the estimated one-year impact of building 100 single-family homes in a typical state includes $30.4 million in income for residents of the state, $6.1 million in taxes and other revenue for the state and local governments in the state, and 419 jobs in the state,” said Anita Carter, Vice President, Jim Wilson & Associates. Last year alone, more than 700 new homes were construct-ed in the River Region, totaling an impressive influx of jobs and revenues pumped into the economy.

    Whether you’re currently engaged in any real estate transactions or not, our area’s real estate and mortgage professionals still likely touch you or your business in some way. People working in every facet and at every level put considerable time and energy into making the River Region a better place to live, work and play.
    Some of the biggest names in real estate in the Southeast were born and are still based in Montgomery and have assembled a collective legacy of positively shaping their hometown that others in our area are now adding to. “The Aronov, Wilson and Lowder families have been vital to the River Region’s economy,” said TJ Williford, Broker and Owner of Partners Realty. “I applaud the way those organizations continue to lead the philanthropic efforts of our community.”
    Helping create an attractive and appealing place is vital to their own success, but it goes beyond that too. “The industry is involved in most all areas of the city’s civic and charitable endeavors and understands that its welfare is directly related to the overall welfare of the community,” said Kermish. “Fairway is a leader in supporting our military through its American Warrior Initiative and ranked fifth nationally in VA loans originated in 2018.”
    According to McElroy, the MAAR’s membership is equally committed to the future of its hometown. “We do more than people - may think. We lobby for legislation to better home ownership. We donate our time as an organization and participate as individuals
    in many community activities,” she said. “Last year, we had work days at the Alabama Sheriff’s girls ranch in Tallapoosa County, at the Montgomery Zoo, and we sponsor Catoma Elementary School and the Children’s Center School throughout the year. We are a very active organization.”

    Realtors and real estate agents are ambassadors for our area. We asked a few for their thoughts on this role.
    “We are a very strong influence as to where consumers purchase property. We are ambassadors every single day, and we should take that responsibility very seriously. I feel it is our responsibility to build up and support the River Region. I feel that the River Region should form an ambassador program for our industry, selecting a Realtor from each neighborhood that can inform everyone of the good or bad changes to expect in that particular area. As Realtors, we rely on what we have been told, so if we
    had an informative group of ambassadors that could share knowledge, we could come together and make positive changes.” 
    Sherry Weeks, Broker and Owner, ERA Weeks & Browning Realty
    “If I didn’t believe in this city, I would not be in this business. I grew up here and am so hopeful and energized about the future of Montgomery. There are so many positives happening in our city, and we cannot get lost in the obstacles. Bell and Corwin uses its social media platforms to promote and share the wonderful people, organizations and events that make Montgomery an exciting place to live.” - Sara Elizabeth Burnham, Realtor, Bell and Corwin, Inc.
    “A good Realtor is a cheerleader for the River Region or the area they are selling. Yes, you are selling a home but also a quality of life.”  - Anita Carter, Vice President, Jim Wilson

    Continual activity is indeed a hallmark of the industry; everyone involved must keep moving to stay on top of constant changes in trends, regulations and more, many that have been either driven by or made possible by advances in technology.
    Weeks remembers her start in 1979. “There were no electronic lock-box systems, so you had to drive to each company’s office to pick up keys in order to show properties. There was no email,” she said. Fast forward four decades, and the landscape is so different it’s almost unrecognizable. Before cell phones, business was done during business hours, and clients were kept more at arm’s length. “With the advent of social media, clients, as well as other people in our industry, ‘friend’ us and are more a part of our lives,” Weeks said. And she sees positives in this blurring of lines. “This benefits us by enabling us to more effectively reach and serve one another and become a part of our clients’ everyday conversations, which boosts our relevance in their lives.”
    Cassandra Andrews, Broker and Owner of Chosen Realty, has been in real estate since 2005, and along with multiple ups and downs in the market, she’s watched technology greatly influence her industry. “Most buyers have searched online and found the house they desire before even talking to an agent,” she said. “And we no longer have to meet face-to-face when signing documents thanks to the convenience of electronic signatures and more.” 
    But technology has also brought a new set of challenges. The internet is giving consumers an abundance of instantly available information, raising the bar on what’s expected from real estate agents and mortgage professionals. “This access to in-formation means customer expectations and client service are very different than they were even five years ago,” Weeks said. “And we expect even more changes to come.”
    And sometimes the information floating around online is misleading or even inaccurate. “The first place a consumer starts their home search is online,” Carter said. “One thing that negatively affects the residential real estate market is the incorrect information on websites such as Zillow and Trulia. To get the most updated information, a consumer should refer to an actual company’s websites or websites such as realtor.com or their local MLS website.”
    A lot of these changes result in a faster pace, and increased speeds are evident in the mortgage industry too. It also makes home lending’s multi-step process more seamless and gives loan officers more ways to enhance the client’s experience. Regions recently launched an online mortgage portal that allows clients to receive real-time updates on the status of their application via text or email. It also lets them securely upload documents from anywhere at any time. “We believe this new portal will make the entire process easier, and it get clients into their new homes faster,” said Allison Bird, Vice President at Regions Bank and Mortgage Sales Manager for Central Alabama.
    According to Kermish, technology has become the single biggest game changer in the mortgage industry. But it can’t do the job alone. “Fairway has embraced the changes,” he said, “and combined the speed of technology with real hometown people.”
    Like her colleagues, McElroy feels that technology has made real estate work more efficient but also agrees that it will never make relationships obsolete. “It has streamlined the processes tremendously,” she said. “But it has not replaced the personal side, making sure all steps in protecting our buyers and sellers are not overlooked.” Kermish sees the two working in tandem. “We make it possible to apply for a loan on your cell phone and then come in for a face-to-face meeting,” he said. “You are not just a number and data to Fairway.”
    Hall echoed Kermish. “Sometimes people have important questions that are best discussed verbally or in person versus emailing or texting,” she said. “It is very important that a buyer still has access to their real estate professional.

    In the last decade, the mortgage industry has faced a slew of changes that have little to do with smart phones and social media. Regulations are more stringent than in the past, and informing buyers and sellers on this topic is a key piece of real estate and mortgage professionals’ jobs. “There haven’t been any significant mortgage regulation changes in the last few years, but the mortgage process is much more rigid and structured than at any other time in history,” McElroy said. “Underwriters check, re-check and sometimes check again! It is an exhausting process, but so worth the effort.”
    It can be confusing too, which underscores the need for industry professionals with experience and expertise. “Our mortgage loan originators range in experience from 15 to 45 years,” Kermish said. “That means we’ve seen it all.”
    And many area lenders have taken on an additional duty and made educating consumers a top priority. Regions currently offers financial education courses through HUD Counseling Agencies, Genworth and FDIC Money Smart. “These courses can be conducted online or in person and are a great resource for people who want to buy a home,” Bird said. “Our goal is to completely inform and prepare our clients to be homeowners.”
    The home-building sector of the real estate industry has been saddled with regulations and rules too, and local developer Jimmy Rutland, President of Lowder New Homes, believes that while some have been positive, others are burdensome. “Government regulation, both federal, state and local, has had a tremendous impact on our industry in the last 20-plus years,” he said. “Some of that impact has been good, like the formation of the Alabama Energy & Residential Codes Board that was formed in 2010 has helped move Alabama to be a leader in building energy efficient homes. However, overburdensome regulations and red tape that builders and developers have to deal with are driving the cost of housing to a point where it is no longer afford-able for your average citizen. It is estimated that more than 24 percent of the price for a new home is due to regulations imposed by government, and that needs to change.”

    There’s always been robust com-petition in real estate development, but some of the heavy hitters in our area have put that aside to partner on neighborhood developments. Anita Carter, Vice President, Jim Wilson & Associates explained why. “Our never-ending goal is to pursue the right opportunities at the right time,” she said. “In 2017, we had the opportunity to partner with Lowder New Homes. The venture marked a new relation-ship between two long-respected developers, and we think the addition of Lowder New Homes to New Park, a new home community in East Montgomery, is a powerful combination.”

    The collaboration has proved successful for both developers but has also given area homebuyers more options, adding to the appeal of the New Park neighborhood. Jim-my Rutland, President of Lowder New Homes, sees these efforts as strategic on multiple levels. “We have formed partnerships with other developers in an attempt to diversify and combine marketing forces,” he said.
    “The Aronov, Wilson and Lowder families have been vital to the River Region’s economy. I applaud the way those organizations continue to lead the philanthropic efforts of our community.” TJ Williford, Broker And Owner, Partners Realty

    As with everything in life, from clothes and hairstyles to music, the home styles and structures that appeal to different demographics continually change. While much is still a matter of personal preference, there are noticeable trends. Sherry Weeks, Broker and Owner, ERA Weeks & Browning Realty, pointed to a new group of buyers, Gen Z (born 1995-2001), and noted that they’re the group looking for spaces like lofts in the city center. “This age group will hit the marketplace loaded with debt and will prefer a more urban lifestyle,” she said. While Gen Z looks for lofts, open concepts and smaller lots, many millennials are now starting families and are on the hunt for the more traditional “American dream home.” “Millennials are looking more in the suburbs for family-friendly neighborhoods that meet their ideal quality of life and budget,” Weeks said.
    And contrary to what some market watchers once predicted, many Baby Boomers seem to be staying put. “We all thought they’d be looking to retire to those warm-cli-mate communities and enjoy their wealth,” Weeks said. “However, most Baby Boomers are continuing to work through retirement age by necessity or choice.” 
    But some are making a move within the River Region in an effort to simplify their golden years. Carter sees this as a major untapped market. “There is a large segment of Baby Boomers getting ready for retirement and looking to downsize,” she said. “This creates an opportunity in the River Region where there are not enough mature living choices. Consumers downsizing are looking for smaller lots, less yard maintenance and healthy options to fit into their lifestyle.”
    No matter what River Region homebuyers are after, ac-cording to McElroy, the area has them covered. “As far as the River Region goes, we have everything from estate homes to lofts downtown,” she said. “Our inventory is very broad.”

    The Montgomery Area Association of REALTORS (MAAR) encompasses the counties of Montgomery, Autauga, Elmore, Lowndes, Dallas and the southern part of Chilton. 

    • In 2018, MAAR Realtors averaged nearly 4,000 listings
    • MAAR realtors handled 6,492 transactions and saw total sales reach $898,581,971
    • MAAR currently has approximately 1,250 active Realtor members and about 75 affiliate members
    • Buyers on MAAR MLS (multiple listing service) got, on average, approximately 98 % of their list price when their property sold.

    *Source: The Montgomery Area Association of REALTORS
    GOING UP: Real estate sales volume in Montgomery increased by more than $2 million from Jan-March 2018 to Jan-March 2019. Not only that, but this year's sales volume has nearly doubled that of Jan-March 2014.

    • Jan-Mar 2019: $78,574,594
    • Jan-Mar 2018: 76,241,131
    • Jan-Mar 2014: $49,474,278


    About to apply for a mortgage? If you haven’t been through the process in a while, you’ll notice some differences. Most regulation changes made in the last several years were put in place to protect consumers, like this recent one. “The TILA-RESPA Integrated Disclosure, also known as TRID, requires the borrower to confirm receipt of the initial closing disclosure three business days prior to closing,” said Allison Bird, Vice President at Regions Bank and Mortgage Sales Manager for Central Alabama. “This was initiated to protect customers from any potential surprises at closing, as fees are not allowed to change by any more than .125 percent overall, and other charges cannot change at all.”

    What one piece of advice would you give a prospective home buyer when it comes to the process of finding the right home?

    “Work with an agent you trust, and let him or her guide you through the entire process all the way through closing.” - Bill Davis, Owner, Davis & Copeland
    “When meeting with prospective buyers and sellers, I find that it is very important for them to have a clear vision of what their goals are and how to reach them. They are then able to utilize a Realtor’s professional expertise to guide them throughout the process to find the right home, sell their home or perhaps do both and ultimately are able to realize their vision.”  - Ann Michaud, Broker/Owner, 
    AEGIS-Michaud Properties, Inc
    “Select the right agent to work with and use them as a resource to find the right home instead of calling a different agent every time you see a home that is of interest to you. A professional, well-trained agent who has your best interests at heart will outperform a series of random meetings with multiple agents as you look for the perfect home.” - Norman Schlemmer, Managing Partner, ARC Realty River Region
    “Determine your must-haves in your desired home and seek a local Realtor who is very knowledgeable and can provide a plethora of information on the current local market and options. This professional also has a network of industry professionals needed for the entire process.” -  Dennis Barnes, Broker, Keys Realty
    “Buying a home is complicated.  Before buying a home seek the advice of a competent Realtor.” - Jean Williams, President, Montgomery Metro Realty, Inc
    “Ask for referrals for realtors, lenders and inspectors. The best source of knowledge is people you know and trust, and no one will refer someone they had a bad experience with.”  - Morgan Bell, Manager, Bell & Corwin
    “Do your homework first. Start with the pre-approval process so you can know if you are able to purchase and what price range you are approved to buy. A Realtor can help connect you with a lender as well. Once you have been pre-approved, start making a list of the ‘must-haves’ and things that you would like to have, but that are not mandatory, in your new home. Choose the right agent who cares about you and your needs and that displays expertise and professionalism. Then, go house shopping and have fun doing it!” - Cassandra Andrews, Broker and Owner, Chosen Realty
    “Call a Realtor with experience, or at the very least, one who is surrounded by leadership with experience.” - TJ Williford, Broker and Owner, Partners Realty
    “Do your research online to determine the town and/or neighborhood you are interested in and then connect with a local Realtor to help you find the perfect home. Realtors are experts in the local market and can help you sort through some of the misinformation that is on the Internet from algorithm-driven websites. In addition, Realtors are held to a strict code of ethics and have savvy negotiation skills. Your time is so valuable. Choosing to hire a profession-al to help you with your home-buying decision will give you extra time. From contract writing to coordinating the closing, a Realtor will become your trust-ed advisor and often, your friend.” - Jennifer M. Atkins, Vice President/Broker, The Waters / New Waters Realty
    “HGTV makes it look easy to find the perfect house in the perfect neighbor-hood at the perfect price—and all within an hour minus time out for commercials. Real-world home buying requires time, effort and, hardest of all, compromise. Stay flexible, and your experience will end up being a great one. And once you’ve found your ideal home and are getting a mortgage, don’t buy anything but toilet paper!  An innocent mistake like ordering some furniture can kill your deal, because your lender will be monitoring your bank balance and credit report periodically throughout the process—right up to and including the day of closing.  Any change might create a huge stumbling block.” - Sandra Nickel, Founder and CEO, The Hat Team
    “I advise never to call the agent who is on the sign in front of the house you like. That agent represents the seller and you need buyer representation.” - Sherry Weeks, Broker and Owner, Era Weeks & Browning Realty
    "Use an experienced full-time Realtor—a Certified Residential Specialist—who knows the greater River Region market and who can educate you on your ideal location based on your life-style, as opposed to just trying to sell you a house.” - David Kahn, President and Owner/ Broker, David Kahn & Co.
    When it comes to getting a mortgage, what one piece of advice would you give?

    “Consult and establish a relationship with a lender to determine your mortgage loan options before you shop for your new home.” - Reba Curtis, Mortgage Loan Originator, Trustmark Bank Mortgage
    “The single piece of advice that we give to our clients is stay local. By using local Realtors, builders and mortgage lenders, the homebuyer will assure themselves of quality treatment and total service from start to finish.” - Steve Kermish, President, Fairway Independent Mortgage Company
    “Buying a house is an important investment, so I advise all my friends and family to get with a mortgage lender that they trust and is very experienced with a wide variety of mortgage options. Before looking at houses, it is important to get pre-qualified for a mortgage so they can know their price range to consider. Many Realtors also require a prequalification letter from a mortgage lender before they will spend time showing houses. Getting pre-qualified is easy.” - Allison Bird, Vice President, Regions Bank, and Mortgage Sales Manager, Central Alabama
    “Use a local, professional expert!” - Kelley Hall, Sales Manager, American Mortgage Service Company

    What one piece of advice would you offer someone when it comes to choosing a home builder for their project?

    “When choosing a home builder for your project, I would strongly suggest you hire a licensed, insured builder who is a member in good standing of their local HBA. Along with that, I would suggest obtaining references (both from prior clients as well as trade references) to be sure they have a good reputation and that they have a proven history of paying their bills on time.  If you do those things, you should be well on your way to insuring yourself of a successful project.” - Doug Fuhrman, 2019 President, Greater Montgomery Home Builders Association
    “In a word: research. These days it is so easy to ‘Google’ a name or a company and find out a lot about them. Check the normal places like their reviews and their BBB history, if any. But you could go a step further and call a couple of the local businesses who they would likely do business with and ask about them. After your research and when you have narrowed your possibilities to a few builders, interview them to see if you “click” with one in particular.” - David Lisenby, Lisenby Construction Inc., 2019 President, Home Builders Association of Alabama

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