Drew and April Olanoff had great jobs in Silicon Valley, but even they were discouraged by the house hunting process in the San Francisco Bay Area: all-cash offers, bidding wars, two-bedroom condos listed for $1.5 million. They quickly decided to move their search to Drew’s hometown of Philadelphia — and they conducted the whole process online, from settling on a home to nailing down a mortgage.
The Olanoffs are just two of a growing number of homeowners who obtain a mortgage completely online, uploading documents and e-signing forms with no in-person meetings required. Online direct lenders — that means companies like SoFi, Better Mortgage and Rocket Mortgage by Quicken Loans — typically eschew costs like origination and applications fees. And they focus on speedier processes, which can lead to quicker closing times compared with more traditional mortgages. (Disclosure: MagnifyMoney’s parent company, LendingTree, offers homebuyers an online tool they can use to compare quotes from mortgage lenders.)
These upstart players are pushing the mortgage industry to innovate and become more transparent, experts say. But, they add, a fully online experience isn’t for everyone — and online lenders may not necessarily offer a homeowner a better rate than a traditional lender would.
“I can’t even imagine going into an office, dropping off paperwork, seeing people, and not getting the house at the end of the day,”
In the Olanoffs’ case, they even selected their home unconventionally, at a distance. From the West Coast, they directed a ReMax real estate agent to visit about 10 homes, shoot video and upload the footage to YouTube. They chose their 1916-built South Philadelphia home based on these videos.
Then their agent directed them to GuaranteedRate, one of the largest mortgage lenders in the U.S., which offered them a fully online experience, with the ability to upload and digitally sign documents. The Olanoffs were approved for an Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loan for about $260,000 in July 2016, and closed on the home that September.
“It was way less stressful doing it online,” says Drew, 38, vice president of communications at venture equity firm Scaleworks.
“I can't even imagine going into an office, dropping off paperwork, seeing people, and not getting the house at the end of the day,” he adds. “The process leading up to and bidding on a home is so stressful, it's almost like we were automatically removed from the intensity of it by doing it online. And we knew if we got outbid, all of our paperwork would still be there ready to go, which is genius.”
That ease and transparency is attractive not only to smartphone-loving millennials, but to homebuyers of all ages who are tired of complex and confusing mortgage-application processes, says Keith Gumbinger, vice president of the independent consumer-loan site HSH.com.
“The push to online has been underway for years, and it’s finally coming to the forefront with consumers’ widespread adoption of technology,” Gumbinger says.
“The market has now grown into it, too. You don’t think about it as a homebuyer, but there are lots of backend processes and entities involved in a mortgage. The industry has worked to come up with standards and it’s finally gotten there.”
Here’s a look at three of the major online mortgage players, all of which are direct lenders and can complete 100 percent of the process online.
SoFi’s mission and advantages: “SoFi’s target market is high-earner, not-rich-yet,” says Helen Huang, its senior director of product marketing. That reflects SoFi’s unique applicant-assessment philosophy: The company looks beyond the traditional factors like credit report and savings, taking into account the borrower’s earning potential.
SoFi gives a lot of weight to job history and career prospects. So a high-demand software engineer who has restricted stock units at Facebook and her choice of Silicon Valley jobs might be more attractive to SoFi, compared with the person with good money saved for a down payment. (It’s no surprise, then, that Huang says a “significant” portion of SoFi customers work in the technology industry.)
SoFi has another edge over traditional lenders: The company requires only a 10 percent down payment with no private mortgage insurance requirement. Most lenders require 20 percent down to skip over PMI. SoFi issues mortgages up to $3 million, and the company has originated $2.2 billion in mortgages since 2014.
SoFi is short for Social Finance — the company offers lots of other services, like student loan refinancing and wealth management — and it lives up to its name with its SoFi Members Facebook page. The group is extremely active, with SoFi customers frequently posting to solicit advice and tips from fellow borrowers or SoFi’s customer service team.
Potential cons: SoFi won’t originate loans below $100,000, so it’s not a good choice for customers in areas where real estate is relatively inexpensive. Borrowers must put down a minimum of 10 percent for new loans. And it takes 72 hours to receive a decision from SoFi, which — while quick — isn’t as speedy as some competitors.
SoFi mortgages also aren’t available nationwide. The company only originates mortgages in 29 states: Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, Wyoming and Washington, D.C.
SoFi’s mortgage application, step by step
Get started: First, you’ll set up a SoFi account by entering your name, state of residence, email and a password. Next comes the “Basic Info” screen: your mailing address, phone number, date of birth, citizenship and current living situation.
Next is School Info, where you’ll fill out information about post-high-school degrees. (SoFi notes on the screen that a “college degree is not required to qualify for a mortgage. While education is not used in mortgage underwriting, this info helps SoFi better understand our members.”) Then it’s time to add Employment Info: your employer name, job title, start date and annual income. For now, you’ll do this just for your current employer, and at the bottom of the page, select your total years of professional work experience.
Mortgage eligibility: Here you’ll complete several questions about what you’re looking for: Do you need a mortgage for a new property, a refinance, a student loan cash-out refinance or a cash-out refinance? You’ll also enter information about where you are in the buying process, and information about your desired area or specific property. You can also add information on this screen about your marital status and whether you have a co-applicant. Check the box to grant SoFi the right to do a soft credit pull to preapprove you for a mortgage. Remember: A soft pull won’t harm your credit score.
Get your rate: Hopefully, the next screen will announce: “Congratulations! You’ve pre-qualified for a SoFi mortgage.” If so, you can calculate your loan amount by entering the home’s price and your down payment. Then you can choose loan terms: 30-year fixed, 15-year fixed, or adjustable rate. To move forward, click “continue with pre-approval.”
Next you’ll fill out employment information for any previous jobs you may have held in the past two years, and if you currently hold two or more jobs you’ll add that information too. Then itemize any non job-related income, like Social Security or rental properties, and finally add any assets you want SoFi to consider in your application (checking, savings, brokerage or retirement accounts; second homes; etc.) and click “continue.”
Get approved: Finish up by answering a series of yes-or-no “declarations,” like whether or not you’re involved in a lawsuit. Finally, add your Social Security number and consent to SoFi’s credit disclosure. The final screen will confirm that SoFi is reviewing your application, and it will ask you to upload income validation documents (two most recent years’ W-2s or the last two years’ year-end paystubs), as well as your two most recent paystubs. You’re done; SoFi says applicants can expect to receive their application decision within 72 hours.
Rocket Mortgage by Quicken Loans
Rocket’s mission and advantages: As the online lender arm of Quicken Loans, Rocket is like a startup backed by a long-established, well-known parent. The company is named for its speed (its 2016 Super Bowl ad used the now-defunct, controversial tagline “Push button, get mortgage”).
One of the reasons for that speed is a unique, refreshing lack of paperwork. Rocket pulls from private and public sources to automatically fill in information like employment history and income, as well as financial statements (from the “vast majority” of institutions) — drastically cutting down on the need for uploaded documents or line-by-line typing of information. It’s somewhat similar to how budgeting apps like Mint pull your financial data from several institutions at once.
“Whether it’s car rides or takeout, these days we expect everything to happen immediately with the push of a button,” says Regis Hadiaris, Rocket’s product lead. “The mortgage industry has to catch up to that.”
On average, 60 percent of people using Rocket are doing so on a mobile device, Hadiaris says. Rocket originated $7 billion in loans in its first year, and the company now has nearly two million user accounts. Unlike many of its competitors, Rocket originates loans in all 50 states.
Potential cons: While mortgage consultants are available to help, including via phone or online chat, Rocket is clearly designed more for customers who want a fully digitized experience.
Rocket’s application process isn’t quite as streamlined as some of its competitors. Once you move past the preapproval process, you’ll be directed to Quicken Loans’ MyQL site to complete any needed tasks to purchase the loan, and to download your approval letter. On the plus side, Rocket says that starting in mid to late December 2017, users will be able to complete all possible digital steps within the same application.
Rocket Mortgage application, step by step
Start by creating an account with your name, username and password. Then you’ll answer questions about your current situation: where you live now, when you started living there, and how much you pay in rent or mortgage. Next, provide information about the home you want to buy, or your desired location. Add information for anyone else who will be a co-signer on the loan, if applicable.
The next section is where Rocket’s automatic filling of information comes in. The system asks for assets and income, which you can choose to type in manually – or you can click “Find My Account” to add the data automatically. Quicken/Rocket connects with the majority of financial institutions, but double check to make sure everything is complete and accurate.
Below that, it’s a similar process for employment data and income: Either add it manually, or let Rocket fill it automatically. The company’s primary source for this employment information is third-party verifier The Work Number, and Hadiaris says it covers just over half of Americans – so again, this is one you’ll want to double check.
Finish up by answering government questions like whether you’re a U.S. citizen, and authorize a soft credit check by entering your birth date, Social Security number and phone number. A countdown clock pops up (“T-Minus 00:06 Seconds”) and then you’ll be sent to a screen with your mortgage options.
Mess around with loan terms and down payment percentages to get different choices, and Rocket will categorize them by lowers monthly payment, lowest upfront costs and balanced costs and payments. You’ll be directed to MyQL.com to complete any needed tasks to purchase the loan, and to download your approval letter.
Better’s mission and advantages: Better’s tagline is “The status quo is broken.” The mortgage industry operates as if the Internet doesn’t exist, the company argues, with opaque and overly lengthy practices. So Better’s goal is to provide transparency during every step of the loan process — from crystal-clear FAQs and online resources to a streamlined application and speedy approval.
“We don't want to just disintermediate for the sake of it,” says Taylor Salditch, Better’s vice president of marketing. “We really are trying to tackle the whole process and rebuild it in a holistic way.”
Better offers a single application platform that borrowers can access anytime to e-sign documents, link bank accounts and securely upload files from any device.
Borrowers can work on the application for a bit, then save their progress and come back later to finish up. It takes three minutes to receive a basic preapproval confirmation, and 24 hours for a “cash-competitive” verified preapproval letter. The entire process is personalized to each user, with different questions popping up based on responses. The company has funded nearly $1 billion in mortgages.
Customers can chat with a loan consultant as early in the process as they would like, to ask questions or get more information even before they begin. Once borrowers are approved for a loan, they are assigned to a “Loan Ranger” who serves as their point of contact.
Better offers home purchase loans for as little as 3% down, as well as a variety of loan types. Borrowers can play around with different fees and discount points to see how it affects their rate. Better also guarantees its loan estimate will be at least $1,000 less in closing costs compared with a competitor offering the same rate and loan terms — or they’ll pay you $1,000.
Potential cons: Better originates mortgages in only Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, North Carolina, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington, plus Washington, D.C. The company says it’s working to expand into more states soon. Better won’t offer loans for manufactured mobile homes, cooperatives or multifamily units.
Also, Better doesn’t service mortgages. As a direct lender the company processes the application and underwrites, closes and funds your loan. Once the loan is funded, however, Better’s servicing partner LoanCare services the loan for a temporary period of about 30 days. Then it’s transferred to a “reputable, quality investor that provides the right type of loan and servicing for your situation.”
Better’s application, step by step
Better’s super-simple preapproval questionnaire is designed to help even customers who might be interested in buying a home sometime soon but don’t know where to start. First, Better asks if you already have an accepted purchase offer. If you do, you’ll enter the address and then Better will prompt you to create an account.
If you don’t have an accepted offer, then you’ll share the zip code where you’re looking and when you plan to make an offer (there’s an option to say “not sure”). Next, select which type of home you’re interested in — primary residence, second home or investment — and the property type (single family or condo/townhouse). At this point Better will ask you to create an account.
Then you’ll give Better permission to do a soft credit check that won’t affect your score, providing your name, current address, phone number and Social Security number. After a moment, Better will present your credit score from TransUnion and ask for a few more details: how you earn money, whether anyone else will be on the home’s title, if you’re working with a real estate agent, whether you currently pay rent or own properties, other assets available and the estimated purchase price of your home plus your maximum down payment percentage.
You’ll find out in a few moments whether you’re preapproved. If you are, you can look at rate options — terms include 30-, 20- and 15-year fixed, as well as a variety of adjustable rates — and select the one you like. Better says that basic preapproval takes about three minutes, and you can receive a verified preapproval letter within 24 hours.
Better wasn’t able to provide a demo after this point, because the rest of the process to loan purchase is a “personalized Q&A” that changes depending on the answers you provide. But Better says you can expect to need two years’ worth of the following documents: personal tax returns, business tax returns (if you own more than a quarter of the business) and W-2s or 1099s; plus two months of bank statements and proof of any alimony or child support payments.
Should you get an online mortgage?
A fully online mortgage process is great for buyers like the Olanoffs, and people who don’t want the hassle of meetings and phone calls. But other homebuyers might be unsettled by a “low-touch experience,” says Gumbinger, the HSH.com vice president.
A recent survey of about 2,000 U.S. adults conducted on behalf of the American Bankers Association showed that 60 percent use the Internet to research their home loans but would rather apply for a mortgage in person.
It’s important to ask yourself which of those groups you fall into. Are you a high- or low-touch shopper? Can you get your financial paperwork in order, or is it much more attractive to you to choose a lender who can automatically fill in that information? Is the ease and speed of the online process more valuable to you than the ability to have in-person meetings with a loan officer?
Whatever you do, shop around first
Even if your comfort level with a fully online experience is high, it’s paramount to do your homework when it comes to a decision as major as a mortgage. Compare experiences between both traditional and online lenders, be honest with yourself about your personal needs — and, though it goes without saying, we’ll say it anyway: Always shop around for rates. You can ask individual lenders for quotes (so long as you do them over a short period of time they should only count as one hard inquiry on your credit account) one at a time, or you can compare mortgage rates online from many lenders at once on sites like LendingTree.
“Just because someone has an electronic platform that’s easy and nice-looking, it doesn't mean you’ll get the best possible price,” Gumbinger says. “On the flip side, the mortgage lender your aunt recommended may not have the best price, either. The fact of the matter is, you always need take a cross-cut of the marketplace to find where you can get the best deal for you.”