Some call it a passion. Some call it a mission. Some even call it a ministry. However they describe it, it’s clear that those who work as reverse mortgage advisors feel deeply committed to the work they do.
To capture a glimpse into the life of a HECM loan officer, we spoke with advisors nationwide, from Seattle to Indiana to Georgia, about their work. While many mentioned the challenges of the job—like trouble connecting with potential clients and overcoming negative misconceptions—most focused on the rewards of their work, namely the tremendous relief they have had the opportunity to provide.
Unlike those who work in other sectors of the financial services industry, the reverse mortgage advisor does much more than complete a loan transaction. Their work requires them to not only educate, but to listen. They build a relationship with their clients—one that is deeply personal, shaped by empathy and rooted in trust. For many, being a reverse mortgage advisor is not a career; it’s a calling.
A Day in the Life A large part of a HECM advisor’s job is to network. Whether it’s over the phone, at an event, on the Internet or in a business meeting, the goal is to educate potential clients and professional partners about the power of the HECM.
Beth Paterson, who heads Greenleaf Financial’s Minnesota division, says she spends much of her time pushing out content to build her client base. “I do a lot of networking and marketing with other professionals and referral partners,” says Paterson, who writes a blog, posts frequently on LinkedIn and hosts a local TV show. “I just try to get the word out about reverse mortgages and the facts.”
Brian Cook, who works for Alpine Mortgage outside Seattle, says he typically works the phones in the morning and then heads out in the afternoon to meet with contacts. “One of my big focuses has always been senior networking groups,” he says. “That’s a great way to generate business.”
Cook, who has been in the industry for 15 years, says he spends much of his time connecting with referral partners. “I work with estate planners, financial planners and, more and more, health care specialists,” he says. “Most of my leads come from word of mouth.”
Reverse Mortgage Funding’s Greg McDermott says he also generates most of his business from referral partners. “I work by referral from mortgage bankers who don’t offer reverse, Realtors and financial planners,” says McDermott, who is based in Pennsylvania and has been originating HECMs for 10 years. “First thing in the morning I do email catchup, postings, blogging and social media, and in the afternoon I try to get out and visit.”
Learning to Teach For many in the reverse industry, their career is a second act. Several of those we spoke with say they left other professions to try their hand at reverse mortgages.
Janice Cohen, a New Jersey-based advisor with Security One Lending, worked as a cantor in a synagogue for 25 years before entering the reverse space 10 years ago.
Cohen says the learning curve for her was steep at first. “I came from a very different background. I had no sales experience and the only thing I knew about mortgages was that I had one,” she says. “In my first year, I just about covered my draw, but in my second year, I think I made three times that. It grew very, very, very quickly.”
Last year, Cohen, who purchases her leads, was the No. 2 top-selling loan officer for S1L. She does all of her business over the phone and she says in past years she has closed more than 100 loans.
“I have found that working with my borrowers is very similar to teaching an adult education class or conducting an adult choir,” she says. “It requires the same type of patience and finesse.”
AAG’s Joseph Kurelic worked as a Realtor selling properties in a senior community before he left the business to originate HECMs in 2009. “I was working for a builder when the HECM for Purchase was introduced, and nobody understood how it worked,” Kurelic says of his motivation to change careers. Now, he says the vast majority of his loans are Purchase transactions, and that he works mostly with Realtors and builders to connect with clients.
“To be a good originator in the reverse market, you’ve got to be able to communicate,” Kurelic says. “You must be a teacher and not just someone out there to sell the loan. You’ve got to teach people how it works, the philosophy behind it, and explain it to them so they understand it.”
Pamela Kirkpatrick, who works for Urban Financial of America, worked in the nonprofit sector before entering the business 16 years ago. “I think it’s similar in the sense that it’s an ethical mission to provide something. In our case, it’s financial independence.”
Kirkpatrick focuses on connecting with financial planners and attorneys. She also says communication is key. “You’ve got to learn the language of different professions,” she says. “We have an accepted jargon in our individual industries, and a lot of times we think that we’re communicating, but we’re not… We need to make sure that the message we’re trying to communicate has actually been received, understood and digested.”
A Personal Approach Like any salesperson, most advisors have their own philosophies when it comes to approaching a potential client. Cohen says her method is conversational and relaxed. “I don’t try to get them to commit to the program immediately,” she says. “I consider myself to be very soft-touch in terms of my sales style. I’m a teller, not a seller. The vast majority of the time, that works really well for me.”
Cook says he tries to learn as much as he can about the client in their initial conversation. “My approach is to just find out as much as I can about them—not only their current situation, but their background and what kind of person they are,” he says. “That can help your sales approach. A guy who used to be an accountant is different from a widow of a construction worker… You don’t want to go too much into finances, numbers, costs and rates too early on; that’s just a [portion] of what you’re actually offering. The No. 1 thing is figuring out why. It allows you to determine what direction you’re going to take.”
McDermott agrees that at first, it’s more important to listen than to speak. “It’s always better to be asking questions, so I know whether they understand it or not. I like to say I use my ears and mouth proportionately.”
Florian Steciuch, who works for Retirement Funding Solutions from his home base in Indiana, says he finds it important to be reassuring. “Some of them feel guilty or embarrassed, and I just remind them that this is all about their quality of life,” he says. “They’re not doing anything wrong, and they certainly shouldn’t be ashamed to say that they need some kind of financial help in the later stages of life.”
Working Through the Challenges As with any job, the business of originating HECM loans comes with its challenges. For many, the public’s general misconceptions about the product is a persistent roadblock.
Paterson says this is a major hurdle. “The biggest challenge is getting the client to make that phone call and not pay attention to the neighbor or the friend who says, ‘Oh, reverse mortgages are bad.’ It’s overcoming that negative image.”
Steciuch says he finds confusion about the loan among financial planners to be the most challenging. “Demystifying the reverse mortgage for financial planners is probably my No. 1 challenge. They will say, ‘My clients don’t need any money.’ I say, ‘Well, they don’t need any money now.’ Or they just refuse to learn; they just don’t want to know about it.”
Cohen says the process can be long and taxing. “I think there is a lot of burnout in this field, because it can be very stressful. It’s a very, very long sales process. When you first talk with someone, they’re not going to do an application for eight weeks, on average. You’re in constant contact with them. There’s a lot of hand-holding. You’re sitting down at the table with them and their family members, and then you’re demonized by someone in the family who heard from somebody’s hairdresser that this is a bad thing and that their house will be taken away. I have to fight that every day. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to a borrower, ‘I’m not harming people here. I have two children who have to look up to me. I have to do the right thing.’”
Finding Fulfillment While the work can be tough at times, the reward can be tremendous.
“The greatest rewards of my job are when clients call me, when it’s someone I did a loan for many, many moons ago,” Kirkpatrick says. “Or when somebody passes and their children call me and tell me how this changed their life so much for the better. I really believe that if we do our job well, which I always try to do, we are providing people with options that they might not otherwise have had.”
For Paterson, building new relationships brings a sense of joy to her work. “It’s meeting people and touching their lives and hearing their stories,” she says. “I’m creative, I’m a problem solver. I don’t look at this as a job—it’s a career, it’s a life… I love the work that I do and using my skills and talents to make a difference in the lives of others.”
Cohen says seeing her clients’ relief is her reward. “Hands-down the most rewarding aspect of my job is when a person calls me to say that since he’s closed on his reverse mortgage, he’s had his first good night’s sleep in two years. For me, it’s all about the sleep.”
Steciuch echoes Cohen’s sentiments. “You hear people say things like, ‘Now I can sleep, now I can stop crying,’” he says. “Just seeing the relief in people, knowing they have security, that’s a good feeling.”
A Calling and a Passion HECM advisors often build meaningful, personal relationships with their clients, and they feel passionate about the work they do, aware of the relief their services can provide.
“I look at this as my ministry,” Paterson says. “I’m helping and making a difference in people’s lives. It’s not a church ministry, but it is a ministry, and I have a strong faith.”
Paterson’s dedication is clear. She meets with every client in person, doing whatever it takes to ensure their comfort.
“I do all of my applications face to face,” she says. “We go to all the closings, even in blizzards. We once picked up a closing agent and drove five hours in the middle of a blizzard to close. I think the hand-holding is of the utmost importance.”
McDermott makes a similar connection. “On my website, I call myself a HECM evangelist. That’s really what I have to do, be out there preaching the good news,” he says. “I find it a blessing to be able to do the work. I’ve made a lot more money in corporate sales, but this is by far the most rewarding work I’ve done.”
Kirkpatrick says the work of a HECM advisor is more than just a job. “It’s more of a calling, a passion, like social work would be,” she says. “I find that reverse mortgage loan officers are some of the most ethical, socially caring people that I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.”