Origins: Gail Balettie on her journey into reverse mortgages, the importance of servicing

The SVP of Client Satisfaction at reverse mortgage servicer Celink saw why HECM loans can be pivotal tools for aging in place

Gail Balettie is a very patient person. Not only does Balettie, the SVP of Client Satisfaction of Celink, take the time to explain the specifics of reverse mortgage servicing to clients and even industry professionals who might be fuzzy on certain details, but she also demonstrates keen awareness regarding the importance of a suite of ever-expanding loss mitigation options for borrowers during unique economic times.

Since no one professional ever takes the same path into reverse mortgages, this edition of RMD’s “Origins” series — derived from a discussion featured in the latest episode of The RMD Podcast — aims to help tell Balettie’s own origin story in the reverse mortgage industry, and what she sees as ongoing priorities in these unusual times.

Finding her way into reverse mortgages

While Balettie was a vice president at a bank in 2000 when she first heard about the reverse mortgage industry. Her company had been performing due diligence on a potential purchase of Financial Freedom, an entity that would go on to become the largest reverse mortgage lender in the business for a time.

“I had been in mortgage on the forward originations side for some time, and our CEO at that time approached me in 2006 to move to reverse and to lead operations for the reverse fulfillment operation,” Balettie said. “At which time I agreed, and [at that point I] learned a lot about that product that I didn’t know at the time. What really convinced me that I made the right move was one of my favorite stories in originations.”

Gail Balettie of Celink
Gail Balettie

A consumer advocate reached out to Financial Freedom’s Atlanta office and explained that a 108-year-old borrower and their 82-year-old son were living in a home together, and had gone into tax default on their home that was owned free-and-clear with no existing mortgage obligations.

“They couldn’t pay the taxes and literally were in foreclosure,” Balettie said. “This consumer advocate got them connected with our originators at the time, and we saved their house from foreclosure. That, of course, allowed the 108-year-old to live out her life there and the 82-year-old son as well. They could afford the home, they could afford the taxes given that the home was free and clear, but they couldn’t do it without a product like the reverse mortgage.”

Seeing the reverse mortgage product make such a difference for older homeowners made a big impression on Balettie.

“It was at that moment that I realized that this product offering was, in some cases, the answer to allowing seniors to age in place where they want to be,” she said. “And then after five years of originations on the reverse side, I joined the servicing operations. My career in reverse is going on 16 years now, and I realized that joining the servicing operations was just as important because we actually work with the borrowers and their heirs when they get into trouble to try to resolve that default. So, it’s been very rewarding from that perspective.”

That instance also helped illuminate the potential importance of aging in place to the older population of homeowners, particularly in cases of advanced age, she said.

“When [someone is] in their 80s, 90s and 100s, the last thing they want to do is relocate,” she said. “They’ve been in their home for so long, and they want to age in place. That’s where they want to be and live out their their later years. So, the reverse mortgage is one vehicle that allows them to do that.”

Why servicing issues can be misunderstood by loan officers

Anyone who has attended an industry conference that features Balettie speaking on a servicing panel can tell you that they tend to go long. Balettie often stays until every servicing question is answered and understood.

Asked why servicing issues and rules require additional attention even among experienced reverse mortgage professionals, Balettie said it often comes down to a question of focus.

“Originators are mainly focused on originating that loan and getting to the closing table, as they should be,” she said. “There’s a lot of information they need to know to get to that point. But in my opinion, they need to know more about the entire process, especially what happens after a maturity event happens and after the loan closes. Because the more they know, the more confidence they’ll be able to instill in their customers about the product and that it’s a good fit for their borrower’s situation.”

New professionals, the importance of knowing reverse mortgage outcomes

There is also an influx of new professionals entering the space at different lenders, which necessitates either first-time education for some or a degree of reorientation in terms of how servicing works if a professional is coming into reverse from the traditional, forward side, she explains.

“It’s important for everyone to understand the resulting outcomes of a reverse mortgage when they put a borrower into one, and to make sure it’s the right path for them,” she said. “Families and heirs need to prepare for the inevitable, which is why Celink partners with our lender clients to make sure that they’re educating their staff — especially loan officers — about servicing and what happens after the loan closes.”

Balettie also described the necessity for reverse mortgage borrowers to discuss with any heirs what happens after they pass away, and how the property and loan will be taken care of after that point.

“They should have that discussion at that time [regarding] what’s going to happen to the loan on the home, and how [families] need to be prepared to deal with it,” she said. “So, if a loan officer who builds that relationship with the borrower initially can help them to have that conversation, it’s a better outcome for all involved.”

Listen to the full conversation on the latest episode of The RMD Podcast, available now.

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