How Reverse Mortgage Originators Navigate Higher COVID-19 Infection Rates

As the health crisis related to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic continues, the United States is seeing higher levels of infection in the summer than the levels observed earlier in the year. As certain states have managed to get their levels of infection under control, other states including Florida, California, Washington and Texas have become new hotspots for COVID-19 infection, according to data compiled by the New York Times.

Very recent indications show that the amount of new infections is beginning to level off, but the impact of heightened levels of infection over the summer have created impacts for those who work in and around the reverse mortgage business, causing some in the business to re-examine their best practices in making connections with borrowers.

California

On August 14, the state of California reached its highest new case count since the onset of the pandemic, reaching 10,031 new cases based on New York Times data. The infection spike has naturally led some reverse mortgage professionals to examine how they conduct reverse mortgage business, particularly for a segment of the senior population which is more prone to develop serious illness if infected with COVID-19.

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Spared from the worst of the effects of the spike is Northern California, but that does not mean that originators are avoiding additional precautions where they can and based on the comfort levels of clients.

“I’ve limited my face-to-face meetings to one a day in the office, and have a cleansing protocol before and after people come in with Lysol and sanitary wipes,” says Rich Pinnell, branch manager at Primary Residential Mortgage, Inc. (PRMI) in Redding, Calif. “I offer to always wear a mask if my clients feel more comfortable with that. But, since we’re way north in California, we just passed our first milestone of 300 cases since they started counting.”

That means that Pinnell’s community appears to be reasonably well isolated, and the population density of a place like Redding is far lower than many communities in the Bay Area or Southern California.

“Most of the cases that have come into this area have been from people working here, living in other areas and coming to visit. They’ve been tracked correctly. But, I’ve pretty much taken a ‘business as usual’ approach with a bunch of reasonable precautions.”

In Southern California, the predominant feeling among senior clients around Los Angeles is an understandable increase in anxiety, according to Tom O’Donoghue, principal with Reverse Loans Now.

“[Clients] seem to be more fearful, understandably,” he says. “So you just have to be more calm, and let them know you’re doing everything you can. Make sure they know you don’t feel sick or have a temperature when you see them, and tell them you’re going to be as safe as can be by minimizing or avoiding contact. But, I definitely see that the overall community is more fearful.”

Florida

One of the hotspots that has emerged for new COVID-19 infections over the summer has been the state of Florida. The end of May saw new case numbers remain steady at under 700, but case numbers exploded there in July reaching a high of nearly 14,000 new cases by the middle of that month. Recent indications are that the number of new cases has leveled off considerably since that new high, with the recent 7-day average coming in at 4,735.

For some operators in the reverse mortgage business within Florida, there hasn’t been a pronounced business effect outside of some of the practices being observed. This is according to Rick Foxx, CEO of Florida’s Reverse Mortgage Center (FLRMC) in Clearwater, Fla.

“Florida’s down to a certain extent on face-to-face work,” Foxx tells RMD. “We can’t do a lot of in-home meetings, which is what we actually prefer to do. I like to go and see the house for a couple of reasons, but face-to-face works better, just in general [for] communicating with the seniors, but also to see the condition of the home and make sure it’ll fly for an FHA appraisal.”

This presents a bit of a hiccup in business, but has done little to slow the increased levels of inbound calls and general interest that area seniors seem to be having for the reverse mortgage product category, he says. Some of the increase in new cases also appears to be more centered on younger people in the state as opposed to seniors, he says.

“There’s a lot of young kids in Florida that went out for spring break, and are hitting the beaches,” he says. “I think it’s more of that segment that’s getting the virus. I’m over 50, so I tend to be pretty careful, but I think a lot of the under 30 set are tending to be the ones getting it right now.”

That doesn’t mean, though, that concern for the senior clients has diminished at all, he adds, and Foxx is fine with continuing to conduct business over the phone or through digital means for as long as necessary, he says.

“I’m concerned about the seniors, but thankfully business has not slowed down,” he says.

Washington

Infection levels in Washington state have not approached nearly the kinds of highs that have been observed in other areas, but the summer still brought the levels of new cases to an unusually high level compared with where the state had been previously. At the end of May, the 7-day average of new cases stood at just over 260, while mid-July saw that average increase to nearly 940.

The most recent 7-day average as of August 20 is just over 630: not as high as mid-July, but certainly not as low as the end of May. For Brandi Braley, loan originator with Neighborhood Mortgage in Bellingham, Wash., business has not been inordinately impacted by the increased levels of infection but she’s still making the effort to keep herself and her clients as safe as possible while still conducting necessary business, she says.

“The business has not been impacted by [rising infection levels],” she tells RMD in an interview. “It’s interesting because we’re obviously working from home trying to help stop the spread, but what I’m seeing is that my clients still want me to come and see them. And, rightly so. I mean, this is a huge decision.”

If anything, the complexity inherent in a reverse mortgage loan becomes more pronounced when an originator finds themselves unable to talk in-depth in a face-to-face conversation about the product’s intricacies. A phone call can help, but has the potential to add to the confusion for some clients. To that end, Braley still goes to certain clients’ houses and in some instances, notes a surprisingly cavalier attitude from some of them.

“A lot of times when I go [to a client’s home], I’m wearing a mask and they’re not, and they tell me flat out when I walk in the door, [that I] can take my mask off,” she says. “There doesn’t seem to be the level of concern with a lot of people that that I do visit. So it’s interesting, but business itself has not been impacted.”

New York: no longer a hotspot

An early hard-hit area of the country by the pandemic was the state of New York, where at the height of its new cases had averaged nearly 10,000. According to recent data as of August 20, the 7-day average has been reduced considerably to just under 650. Even though the worst of the ordeal appears to be in the rearview mirror, however, does not mean that lingering anxiety over the impact the virus had on the lives of New Yorkers is gone.

“The process after a borrower decides to move forward has been gut wrenching for two reasons,” says Tim Kennedy, director of business development at US Mortgage Corporation in Long Island, N.Y. “Number one is COVID. I haven’t seen anybody face-to-face in the last six months. So either they’re relatively tech savvy, and we can email and scan back and forth, or they can put forms in an envelope in their screen door and I’ll come by and pick it up or drop it off.”

The second reason things have been difficult stems from recent regulations handed down in New York state for reverse mortgages, which for a time required counseling certificates to be notarized.

“That was torture, but just recently they changed that guideline, so they no longer need to get the certificate notarized,” he says. “But you can imagine: here we are trying to get disclosures signed, we’re trying to get counseling done, and to get something notarized [on top of that] is a daunting task. So between COVID and the New York changes in the law, those were definitely challenging.”

Still, the desire for the senior to close the loan has always allowed business to progress through to closing, he says. That has not diminished the overall seriousness with which area seniors are taking the risks that continue to be associated with the pandemic, however.

“We’ve flattened the curve from where it was in March and April, but the senior community, they’re still taking it very seriously,” Kennedy says. “They’re still hunkered down, and are not taking it lightly. They’re still very serious about protecting themselves.”

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