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FAR president on the role home equity can play in supporting retirement strategies

2021 HousingWire Vanguard Kristen Sieffert discusses the latest changes in reverse

The HousingWire award spotlight series highlights the individuals who have been recognized through our Editors’ Choice Awards. Nominations for HousingWire’s Vanguards are now open through Friday, July 22, 2022.  Click here to nominate someone.

As home prices continue to rise, one growing point of interest for many homeowners are reverse mortgages, with older Americans sitting on a record $10 trillion in home equity, according to data from the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association.

“There’s no doubt that market volatility, inflation, and the impacts of high home price appreciation…have created headwinds for retirees and pre-retirees,” said Kristen Sieffert president at Finance of America Reverse. “Yet, with all the economic pressures facing older Americans this year, reverse continues to stand out as a really elegant solution for them. Market fluctuations and downturns often catch people’s attention, but they may not pay close attention to how much their home equity has grown during this time.”

Last year, Sieffert was nominated as a HousingWire Vanguard for her work in transforming FAR into one of the largest reverse mortgage lenders in the country, including the company’s shift to becoming a more complete provider of holistic retirement solutions. Each year, Vanguards recognize an elite group of housing execs who are making an unmistakable impact on the housing economy.

HousingWire reached out to Sieffert for an update on market conditions in the world of reverse and to learn more about the role leadership plays within FAR’s company culture.

HousingWire: Reverse Mortgage Daily has reported that Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM) endorsements were at historic levels for much of the first half of 2022. What trends have you seen at FAR?

Kristen Sieffert: FAR saw a similar trend to start the year. Industry wide, reverse-to-reverse refinances were driving a lot of the incremental volume, with many borrowers benefiting from high home price appreciation and lower available rates. However, the market has shifted quite dramatically in the last couple of months. Rates rose quickly, and the benefits for those refinances are not nearly as strong as they were a few months ago. The interesting thing is that the demand is still really high, and coming from new origination borrowers, looking for ways to increase cash flow during this challenging time of market volatility. In speaking with potential and current customers, as well as many financial advisors, it’s clear that inflation, stock market pressures and overall affordability remain top concerns. With the ability to access large amounts of equity and lower or no monthly mortgage payments — key features of HECM as well as our proprietary HomeSafe and EquityAvail offerings — we anticipate our broad suite of offerings will continue to meet more peoples’ needs. Historically, during times of market volatility, reverse product options have been looked at more favorably, and we are seeing a similar trend occurring now.

HousingWire: How is the reverse mortgage market positioned as we head into 2H’22 and 2023?

Kristen Sieffert: There’s no doubt that market volatility, inflation and the impacts of high home price appreciation — which make it hard to downsize due to high prices and a lack of housing inventory — have created headwinds for retirees and pre-retirees. Living on a fixed income while facing these pressures is extremely challenging. Yet, with all the economic pressures facing older Americans this year, reverse continues to stand out as a really elegant solution for them. Market fluctuations and downturns often catch people’s attention, but they may not pay close attention to how much their home equity has grown during this time. Older Americans are sitting on a record $10 trillion in home equity. Higher expenses and monthly mortgage payments pose challenges for so many retirees who could benefit from tapping into their home equity. As a result, the market for reverse mortgages is both enormous and bursting with potential for innovative companies like FAR that are seeking to help more retirees find a solution that works best for them and their families.

The most interesting thing to point out with the potential for the reverse market, though, is its implications for the traditional side of mortgage lending. In these more difficult economic times, many traditional mortgage and lending originators will need to find new ways to generate customers, and reverse connects them with a huge population of unreached customers and a new loan product that may not have been part of their offerings in the past. With continued awareness and education about the benefits of tapping into home equity, I expect more homeowners and financial professionals will begin to understand the critical role home equity can play in supporting retirement strategies, and we may start to see more traditional lenders expand their practices to include reverse mortgages and other home equity loans as we head into the next year.

HousingWire: FAR recently earned 2022 Great Place to Work certification. What role does leadership play in building great work environments?

Kristen Sieffert: There’s no doubt that leadership makes or breaks a company culture. The actions the leadership team takes daily, the way we communicate and the priorities we set for ourselves inevitably percolate down into our teams and make a huge impact on the company as a whole. That fact provides us with a significant amount of responsibility and opportunity to build the best community we can. As the president of FAR, I see it as my daily mission to build a vibrant work environment that is purpose-driven and supportive of our talent, allowing our company to remain innovative and forward-looking on behalf of our customers.

I believe that putting our people at the center of our business and encouraging them to bring their whole selves to work is the key to a thriving environment. I am constantly asking myself and my teams what we can do better or differently to surprise and delight our team and customers, rethink the status quo, and build a future landscape of our own making that doesn’t exist today. As a leader, there is nothing more empowering or rewarding than sharing this vision with my teams and watching them take on new challenges on behalf of America’s retirees, and also for themselves.

HousingWire: What tactics or strategies have you deployed to attract and retain great people to the reverse mortgage business?

Kristen Sieffert: At FAR, we’re always striving to put people at the forefront of what we do. Employee growth, strong relationships, and meaningful work are the hallmarks of our “10 Star” company culture and enable us to build talented, compassionate teams across our business. In terms of individual strategies, we regularly find ways to recognize and mentor employees and open up opportunities for professional development. In fact, this past year, we formalized our FAR mentorship program to help employees reach their career goals by pairing the right mentor with the right mentee. We utilize regular employee surveys to track and monitor our progress and we seek out opportunities to highlight the company and individuals with industry awards and other recognitions that help attract and retain talent.

We recently expanded access to our annual President’s Retreat — a premier event that recognizes our top performers, offers employees the chance to build an interoffice community, elevate their leadership skillsets, and spearhead creative new solutions for FAR borrowers. What was previously a sales rally is now an event that employees from all parts of the company can be nominated for and are eligible to attend. We also love to call out star employees in monthly emails and spotlight their excellent work at our quarterly town halls.

Last, and something that has become one of my favorite traditions, is our annual word of the year. Each year we unveil a word that serves as the north star for our annual goals. It carries a significant meaning not only for what we can do together as a team within our business, but also for how our team can find new ways to thrive in their personal lives outside of work. Having this word allows our team to rally around common stories, and especially when the business is facing more challenging times — like the pandemic or the current market volatility — the word gives us a framework to connect deeply around a common theme that supports us in moving through the challenges united and with our heads held high. Together, these efforts culminate to create a strong company culture that supports our employees and delivers for our customers every day.

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