Colorado-based reverse mortgage broker Silver Leaf Mortgage is taking a unique approach to continuing business in light of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Not content simply with digital meetings in connecting with potential borrowers who may prefer a face-to-face approach, Silver Leaf has taken the additional step of creating a fully-featured mobile office unit to bring the meeting venue to the clients themselves.
Specially outfitting a massive 2020 Thor Outlaw recreational vehicle (RV) to serve as Silver Leaf’s “Mobile Clean Room Office,” the unit features separate entrances for clients and staff, glass partitions separating the loan officer from the client and specialized sterilization practices after every meeting.
The new unit is designed to replicate the “kitchen table” experience as much as possible while limiting the direct human contact that can come with such interactions, according to Silver Leaf’s chief operating officer (COO) in an interview with RMD.
Deciding on a mobile office solution
In the early days of the pandemic, many reverse mortgage lenders and brokers were fearful that the proliferation of virus mitigation practices like social distancing and stay-at-home orders would be detrimental to the ability to conduct reverse mortgage business. Not only do many reverse mortgage industry players prefer to conduct business in-person as much as possible, but the fact that the business is focused on the protected class of seniors presented a unique threat to the business category.
Seniors are more prone to developing serious illness as a result of infection with COVID-19 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and it was that facet of the emerging reality that helped Silver Leaf Mortgage realize they needed to take drastic action to keep the business on track.
“The driving factor was pretty simple,” says Dennis Zehnle, COO of Silver Leaf Mortgage in an interview with RMD. “Our clients are, on average, 68 years old and higher, which puts them in the highest risk group for COVID. There was an absolute requirement that if we were going to continue, we had to have a hands-free, no contact means to close loans.”
While the initial thoughts for the mobile unit were focused on providing a safe, sterilized environment for closing loans, that quickly evolved into taking a more holistic approach due to Silver Leaf’s overriding preference for conducting business with senior clients face-to-face, Zehnle says.
“We’d always done business at their kitchen table,” he says. “That was always one of our philosophies. And so we said, well, we’re just going to have a way to bring the kitchen table to them.”
The client experience
After scheduling a visit, the unit is transported to the client’s home. The loan officer or processor has already entered the unit via a front entrance, and upon arrival the client enters in the rear door which was never touched or crossed by the employee. The client sits at a table in full view of the loan officer, who is behind a glass door, and two-way microphones are equipped to allow communication between the two parties.
Clients are given the latitude to take their time asking any questions they may have, replicating the in-office experience as much as is viable given the necessary restrictions. Since clients are understandably more concerned about having new people come into their home at the moment, generally the reception to the mobile office unit has been positive, Zehnle says.
“The clients are usually surprised and then thankful we have their best interests at heart,” he says. “And we even run into those clients who are not concerned, especially when people show up at their houses wearing masks, gloves, the whole bit. We tell them that it’s for the overall safety of both our clients and our employees, and when they see that we’re taking it that seriously, I think they’re appreciative.”
After every visit, the company uses a specialized Victory VP200ESK commercial-grade electrostatic disinfecting fogger — primarily designed for use in hospitals — to sanitize the office portions of the unit using a Purtab chemical solution which can kill “99.999% of all bacteria and viruses,” according to a company press release.
“The CDC and EPA substantiates that the fogging device destroys pathogens up to 50 times better than bleach and is environmentally friendly,” the release says. “This comprehensive disinfecting plan will ensure a 99.999% germ and virus free environment for all.”
Reactions and hurdles
That’s not to say that the scenario is without some hurdles, however. Dealing with older clients naturally means running into some occasional issues related to mobility, for instance.
“We do occasionally run into people who have physical challenges,” Zehnle says. “While it’s easy to step up and into the client area in the back of the mobile office, it can present a challenge. But most clients are just surprised, primarily.”
The model of RV that the company has retrofitted can also allow for meetings to take place outside in a patio environment, Zehnle says.
“The back area opens out, and there’s a big patio area that we can set up. So, when it’s nice out during the summertime, we can set up the back patio area in less than five minutes,” he says. “They can sit outside and we can maintain a safe distance. In general, the vast majority of clients have responded very positively.”
The investment, and future uses
The creation of the mobile office unit likely presents a significant investment on the part of Silver Leaf. While Zehnle did not discuss any specific numbers related to the purchase or lease of the actual RV, similar models being sold on RVTrader.com show asking prices of near or over $140,000, which is of course before the specific additions the company itself has made to turn it into a transportable office.
However, the investment that the company has made has been justified, Zehnle says, and the potential for use of the unit is high even once the world is on the other side of the pandemic.
“Yeah, I think the investment has [been justified],” he says. “There is no question about it. I think what it allowed us to do was stave off what would have been an inevitable decline in the business. I think people recognize that they still need our products.”
The fear that has been exhibited by many seniors in the community has also been justified, Zehnle says, because of the ways in which the pandemic affects the demographic. Having this kind of unit in the field helps to mitigate concerns that seniors have related to travel between their home and another setting, he says.
“We saw a period in May and June where, even with all of the resources and everything we were putting into it, we were still seeing those clients that were saying that they were just not comfortable moving forward and wanted to wait,” he says. “All the concerns about things like the economy and COVID can cause paralysis with clients, and so this has helped us to break through that paralysis now. Not in every case, but certainly in many, and that’s allowed us to maintain our ongoing volumes and in some cases even increase.”
As for the future uses of the unit once the pandemic is in the proverbial rearview mirror, Zehnle sees a place for it as part of Silver Leaf’s identity.
“We actually do see the benefits even beyond the pandemic,” he says. “There is no question that it was a significant investment, but we felt we had to make this investment now. What we’ve now found is that it’s not only a great way to spread the message, but we do everything from picking up documents through the signing of applications. We do loan closings onboard, and so it’s just given us a way to continue our exposure within the Denver marketplace.”
That exposure also comes down to what people see around town, as well. The unit is pretty hard to miss if you see it on the street.
“The only one downside is that with the mobile office, it’s a bit of a large billboard,” Zehnle says. “So, we’ve had clients that weren’t as comfortable because of course, we want to respect their privacy. In that case, we can often meet them at a local park, or somewhere near their home.”