Home, A Loan

Low interest rates have given Mark Stanton a joy ride

by Julia Lynam

In 1989, Mark Stanton co-founded Express Mortgage, the South Burlington company he still heads. It's the creative aspect of mortgage brokering that appeals to his entrepreneurial side, says Stanton, who calls the last three years the best ever in the mortgage market.

If he's learned anything in 18 years as a mortgage broker most of them running his own business Mark Stanton has learned to roll with the market. "We've just seen the three best years ever in the mortgage market," says the energetic principal of Express Mortgage, "and now it's leveling out in 2004 it'll be back to normal, and some people who just got into it in the boom years will have a surprise."

Despite the increase in work that the boom brought, Stanton resisted the temptation to add staff to his lean operation: "I hate laying people off, so I consciously decided not to staff up so we wouldn't have to retrench when the market slowed down as it surely would.

"We're coming off, volume-wise, the busiest period in the history of the mortgage industry and shifting into a more traditional market with a balance of purchase and refinance. In 2002, we completed 287 loans; in 2003 we did 340; and next year, 2004, I expect to go back to a more traditional level of between 220 and 250 loans," he says.

When Stanton started in the business in 1985, 95 percent of mortgages in Vermont were negotiated by banks, and there were only three individual mortgage companies operating in the state. Now, about 65 percent of mortgages in Vermont are negotiated by non-bank companies. What made the difference? The market has changed enormously since 1985, when fixed-rate mortgages were at 13 percent, although they were already heading down from the 18 percent they had reached in the early 1980s. By 1990, the first refinance cycle set in as rates began to drop and people jumped to take the opportunity to cut their outgoings by renegotiating their mortgages at a lower rate.

Stanton's seen the circle go round several times now: lower rates leading to refinancing, and higher rates slowing the industry several times. Nothing, however, has quite matched the refinancing frenzy of the last three years: "We would refinance someone then see them again six months later when the rate went down another 1 percent," he says.

Originally from Bronxville in Westchester County, N.Y., Stanton spent many happy summers at his family's vacation home in Dorset. He always knew he wanted to live in Vermont, but fresh out of college he majored in political science at Antioch, in Yellow Springs, Ohio there was no work in Dorset and he gravitated instead to the big city of Burlington.

His alma mater, not known for producing scions of the banking industry, attracted him because it offered an extensive work placement program that, for Stanton, included a semester working for a Wall Street company and a semester working for a pipeline company.

Perhaps it was the latter that led him to work in the cable television industry when he arrived in Burlington; but the entrepreneurial light was gleaming in his eyes, and he invested in a rental property on Orchard Terrace in downtown Burlington, buying it for $80,000 and selling it a year later, after minor renovation, for $160,000.

He subsequently bought other investment properties, but, he recalls, "I was looking for something else, and one day I saw an advertisement in a local paper for a position with a mortgage broker. By this time, I'd been on the receiving end of several mortgages, and I thought I'd try the other side of the business."

Ten days after he started work with Colonial Funding, the manager moved to Florida and the three inexperienced staff in the Vermont office, including Stanton, were left to sink or swim by their own efforts, learning as they went.

Express Mortgage expects to return to a more traditional level of between 220 and 250 loans after a rousing three years. Karen Rivers is a loan processor.

Three years later Stanton left Colonial to join Commonwealth Mortgage, not, this time as a loan officer, who originates loans, but as an underwriter, "approving them on the back end." Spending time as an underwriter, he says, was very valuable training: "I do a much better job as a broker because of it."

The satisfaction of making deals and the higher earning potential of sales called him back, however, and in 1989, Stanton went into partnership with George Wells to set up Express Mortgage. Wells subsequently moved on, in 1995, to other ventures.

Change continued as automation reduced the number of staff necessary to sustain the business. In 1995 Express Mortgage employed 10 people; now, with two-thirds more business being transacted, it employs just two full-timers and one part-timer. Loan officer Tracy Wheeler works from her home in Island Pond, doing business for Express Mortgage in the Northeast Kingdom, while loan processor Karen Rivers and administrative coordinator Lisa Hanlon are based with Stanton in Express Mortgage's offices on Hinesburg Road in South Burlington. The downside of doing a lot more volume with fewer personnel is that it's harder to get away on vacation.

Preparing to celebrate his company's 15th anniversary in 2004, Stanton believes he's heading into the leveling of the market in good shape. It's the creative aspect of mortgage brokering that appeals to this energetic entrepreneur. He describes, with contagious enthusiasm, the range of clients and loans he works with, and the art of finding the best deal for a client from the right source as quickly as possible. He enjoys offering a client the chance to shop around and find the best fit in a very competitive market.

"You have to figure out where things fit," he explains. "For instance, a particular source might not finance log houses, or might need to see three other existing loans on log houses in the same area. You have to know the rules, and that's where we really excel in knowing how to work something out. That comes with time, which we have over most people out there."

Title counsel Jason Tiballi has known Stanton for several years and worked with him over the last year on about 50 mortgages, ranging from straightforward closings to resolving title issues. Tiballi works for American Land Title, one of several property-focused businesses housed along with Express Mortgage at 660 Hinesburg Road in South Burlington.

"Mark is a great person to do business with," says Tiballi. "I wish there were more like him. He goes the extra mile to make sure his clients get the best deal they can, and works hard to make sure his clients are informed about the process.

"The service he and Express Mortgage provide to their clients is always apparent at the closing, where the clients know what to expect and are genuinely pleased with the service they received and with the process."

Express sources mortgages from nine major lenders, but confines most of its business to four sources: Bank of America; ABM-Amaro; Countrywide Funding; and Indy Mac. Matching the customer to the loan is the challenge: Wholesale rates vary daily and different sources have various underwriting requirements. A small company, he explains, is better off channeling most of its business to a few companies, thereby establishing stable relationships with them. Customers and sources are two aspects of the triad a mortgage broker works with, but equally important is the relationship with Realtors, for it's referrals from them that bring in mortgage customers. That's where being in the business for 18 years is useful, says Stanton. It was a Realtor, Pall Spera, who first invited Stanton in 1990 to set up a satellite office in Stowe, where he continues to maintain that connection. Express deals entirely in residential loans, and about 40 percent of its business is with purchasers of vacation or second homes. "With modern technology, I don't even meet two-thirds of our clients," Stanton says, citing the example of one customer he has just seen for the first time in a six-year working relationship.

Stowe Realtor Peggy Smith, who has worked with Stanton since 1990, refers 95 percent of her clients to him. She appreciates Stanton's humor and honesty and, especially, his positive approach to clients: "Mark cuts through the paperwork and gets the deal done when other mortgage agents don't," she says. "He's a can-do person. If someone has difficult credit or is self-employed or from out of country, he knows how to get the financing. From first-home buyers to multi-million-dollar buyers, he can do it."

Smith also likes that Stanton has supported the Stowe Land Trust and the local Bikes for Kids program that collects used bikes to refurbish and give to children at Christmas.

Lisa Hanlon (left), Karen Rivers and Mark Stanton work in the company’s South Burlington office; a loan officer, Tracy Wheeler (not shown), works from her home in Island Pond.

Living in Bolton suits his passion for skiing; Stanton previously lived on a horse farm in Charlotte with his former wife and their daughter, Sarah. Now 16, Sarah, competes nationally as a show jumper fourth in the country in 2002 in the pony jumping class. Consequently, Stanton spends a lot of time traveling with her to events.

Stanton is a man who loves his work and looks forward to the future:

"In the short term, " he says, "we're really well positioned based on our staffing levels and investment in new technology. I don't like to blaze a trail in that respect, but I like to be among the first few in the state investing in new technology. It keeps us at the cutting edge and well positioned for a slowdown.

"In the long term, we can plan only to a degree, because we don't set the rates. The best strategy is to be ready to roll with the changes."

Originally published in December 2003 Business People-Vermont