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Opinion, commentary and analysis on everything that makes the U.S. housing economy tick -- not to mention the ghosts in the machine, too. Written by HW's team of editors and reporters each business day.

When you don't like the rule, be the exception

May 10, 2011

Milling through the crowd at the American Land Title Association's Business Strategies Conference in Las Vegas this week, I was impressed that quite a few vendors, agents and underwriters showed up for the event. I was also pleased with the general attitude of attendees.

I reported on increased confidence on the part of mortgage participants both from last year's Mortgage Bankers Association's annual convention and this spring's MBA technology show. I was told by other members of my team that the MBA's secondary marketing show was also well attended and upbeat.

It's not like folks have anything to be happy about right now. Volume continues to trend downward, home values continue to fall and the regulatory environment is just as bad as it has ever been with the exception that it will surely get worse. Though, no one can tell us in what way. It's rather like being a NASCAR driver preparing to race on a track covered by smoke. You have a general idea of where you'll be going, but no real idea of what obstacles you'll encounter on the way.

And yet, people are out here doing business. I don't mean shaking hands and sharing tears over a few drinks, I mean cutting deals and preparing for an uncertain future. I was surprised and impressed to see that it's not just the industry folks scrambling to make a living in this changing environment who are out here trying to make things better. There are also some bureaucrats.

Yeah, I wrote that. Me, they guy who loves to poke the government for messing things up without even trying to understand the industries they regulate or the unintended consequences they create. I've spent a lot of time berating bureaucrats for the crappy job they do and even more time berating the politicians who make short-term decisions based on the number of votes they think it will win them instead of long-term ones that will benefit everyone. I think my position is still pretty solid on the politicians, but I'm back-pedaling a bit on the bureaucratic side.

This week I met Barton Shapiro, director of the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of Real Estate Settlement and Procedures Act and Interstate Land Sales. If title and closing agents have a problem with the federal government, chances are good it started in Shapiro's office. Of all of the bureaucrats working inside that agency, the one that's most certain to be recognized and scowled at an ALTA conference would be Shapiro. And yet he was there. Not only did he show up, but he sat on a panel and he answered questions, some of them pretty tough.

I chatted with him briefly during the cocktail party at the end of the day and asked him why he would come out to a show where the risk was extremely high that people would consider him the source of their pain and anguish. He smiled (and didn't look at all like a bureaucrat) and said that's what he thought it meant to do his job. I reminded him that most of his counterparts were relying on comment periods and websites to gather market intelligence and it almost always prevented them from getting hit by thrown rolls at lunch (he wasn't hit by thrown food at this show, to my knowledge). He raised his glass to the people filling the exhibit hall and told me, "This is my job. I'm just trying to do it well."

During his presentation, I heard him explain the thinking behind some of the rules HUD forced upon the industry. He told the audience what HUD was trying to accomplish and admitted it has not always worked the first time. He tried to explain the difference between rule making and law making but that was a bit advanced for some attendees (and not intuitive). He generally made government accessible for the duration of a conference session, and I was very impressed.

Afterward, I was caught up in that whirlpool of thought and emotion that always follows the appearance of an exception, when your world view must be altered and you are forced to shuffle your feet a bit to maintain your balance. It didn't help any to learn that Shapiro is an experienced trial and compliance attorney, another group I have taken great joy in lambasting in this space.

Columnists tend to simplify the world in order to fit a chunk of it into an 800 word piece. It can be entertaining and sometimes informative, but its always a generalization. I'm not apologizing; just suggesting you keep an eye out for the exceptions. They can be wonderful to find. It's even better when you decide to be one.

Take Joe Dahleen, for example. He knows that when homeowners or first time buyers pull out their list of people they trust, mortgage bankers aren't even on the list. He gets it. And yet, as Chief Strategy Officer for Mount Olympus Mortgage, he's out there every day, doing all he can to build that trust among his company's prospects. He blogs, uses video, reads HousingWire, and even pulls columnists aside at industry conferences to compare notes on better ways to reach out and add value to consumers. I don't work for Joe, but I think the people who do are lucky, because when consumers finally stop and listen to what he's saying, they'll be thrown for a loop. He will be the exception that forces them to re-evaluate their world.

You can do the same. I'm thrilled you read this column and listen to me rant about problems and the people who love to create them. But don't get caught up in that picture. Be the exception and reap the benefits.

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