If you know the type of lender you want to work with, or if you've determined that either a banker or a broker is fine with you, then what you're looking for at this stage is the best loan officer you can find. And that can be a tall order, especially if you're new in town and don't know a lot of people.

Loan officers are the individuals who help guide you through the loan process, who quote you interest rates, and who are there when you have mortgage questions. Whether you're working with a banker or a lender, your loan officer is the most important person to you at the mortgage company.

Think about that for a moment. A mortgage company can spend millions on promotional material or marketing campaigns — and it takes just one lousy loan officer to mess it up for them. A mortgage company, just like any other company, can only be as good as the people it hires. But a good loan officer will be responsive, be experienced, and make good money.

Finding responsiveness in a loan officer is one of the easiest tests when you first start to look for a loan. Place a few calls or send out some e-mails, then wait and see who calls you back and when. I've heard customers tell me that some loan officers didn't even return a phone call after a week! Is that the kind of customer service you want?

If a loan officer doesn't call you back in a timely manner for something as important as getting new business (your loan), then how do you think he'll perform when the loan actually gets in the door?

Loan officers who use PDAs such as a BlackBerry or Treo do so because they want to give the best service they possibly can. They want their customers to know they can get hold of their loan officer any time they have a question — nights, weekends, whenever. Customers know that if they send an e-mail or leave a voice mail, the loan officer will receive it.

Experience is also important. The best loan officers have been around for 10 years or more. They know the lending business inside and out.

By early in the year 2000, technology had really taken hold of the industry. Automated underwriting is an electronic method of issuing a loan approval. Today, Fannie Mae and

Freddie Mac lenders use them on all their loans. Here's how it works: A client visits a loan office's website and completes a loan application; or a loan officer takes the loan application directly from the client. The loan officer reviews the application, then submits the loan for approval using automated underwriting. After a few seconds, the preapproval comes back, along with a laundry list of items the loan officer needs to collect from the buyer.

It's pretty easy, actually. Especially compared to manually processing and approving a mortgage loan. When processing a mortgage loan, the loan officer puts the file together knowing ahead of time that the loan is likely to be approved or not, based on income, credit, title review, and appraisal reports.

Before there was automated underwriting, the loan officer functioned almost like an underwriter: Before the loan was submitted for approval, she had to determine whether or not the loan was “approvable.” That meant that the loan officer had to know her stuff (such as documentation guidelines, debt ratios guidelines, and credit — way before credit scores were used).

In other words, a loan officer who depends on an automated underwriting system may not fully understand why that loan did or did not get approved. The loan officer just inputs all the data and pushes a button. But if there is a problem or the loan isn't approved, bad things can happen.

Loan officers who rely on automated underwriting without understanding underwriting may be a hindrance. Generally, they are new to the business and don't know how loans are approved. They function more like salespeople than counselors who can give thorough advice.

Generally speaking, someone who has been in the business for 10 or more years has the experience, the tenacity, and the ability to manage his or her business properly and weather the ups and downs in the mortgage business. But at the very least, look for a loan officer with a minimum of five years' experience.

Every state in the union has some sort of mortgage licensing requirement, but the bar is set pretty low. Nearly anyone can meet the requirements. It's the experience that counts.

If a loan officer makes good money, this means she's doing something right. She's successful and manages a good business. Most loan officers are on straight commission. That of course means “no loans, no paycheck.”

Loan officers who work in their bank lobby or customer service people at a 1-800 number receive a salary and a small commission. The small commission is because it's the bank, not the loan officer, that brings in business. The loan officer isn't out there building her own business by establishing relationships with real estate agents, builders, and previous clients.

You're certainly not going to ask, “By the way, how much money do you make?” Instead you'll have to make your best guess. As a rule of thumb, anyone who can stay in the mortgage business for at least a five-year stint has probably established a good base of business that keeps her from getting out of the industry.

Maybe there are plaques and awards on her office wall. Maybe her business card shows that she has achieved a certain level of production. I used to work with a bank-owned mortgage company where the top producers won the “Presidents

Club” award if they averaged a million dollars in production every month.

Okay, so if these are the qualities you want in a loan officer, well, where in the heck are the good ones? Doesn't it seem as though every loan officer advertises great rates and great service? Of course. Who would advertise terrible rates and terrible service?

If you're currently working with a Realtor, ask him for a list of loan officers he has worked with in the past and start your journey there. Top Realtors have reputations to maintain. They need support teams who can make their jobs easier while making the Realtors look good.

Top loan officers solicit the business of top Realtors. Loan officers who regularly close $20 to $30 million or more a year are typically on top Realtors' short lists. They get there by getting the job done, and by keeping the buyers happy all the way to the closing table.

Top loan officers know the business inside and out. They get referred because Realtors know buyers will be in good hands. Top loan officers provide excellent customer service, and they offer competitive mortgage programs. They know that if they screw up a deal or do something untoward, not only will they lose that business from the Realtor, but they'll earn bad reputations among other Realtors in that office as well.

If you don't know of a good Realtor, find one who has lots of listings. Visit his website, look for a section about mortgages, and see if there are loan officers listed there. You'll notice that Realtors don't list mortgage companies; they list loan officers who work at mortgage companies.

After you find one top Realtor, find another and perhaps another. If you notice a particular loan officer's name popping up with more regularity than some others, you'll know you have a winner.

If s also important to find out if you and a loan officer are “a good fit” for each other. Personality can come into play in any business relationship. Goodness knows there are different personality traits. Some people are aggressive, some are direct and to the point, and others are more passive and conversational. If your goal is to find the absolute best loan officer, then you must keep personality in the mix. You can do this by calling the loan officers on the phone, asking a few questions, and seeing how you feel afterward. What questions should you ask? Here are a few that should be included: How long have you been in the business? How long have you worked at your current company? and What Realtors do you work with?

Now, narrow your choices down to the two loan officers who impressed you the most.

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