No real estate woes here lender paints rosy career

May 26, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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Steve Axdorff admits bluntly that in 1979, he graduated from Wayland High School "dead last" in his class.

But he made the following 10 years very productive, working days and going to school at night — so productive that he was recently named the recipient of the 2009 Hy Berkowitz  Professional Excellence Award from Davenport University. The award is presented to a Davenport graduate "who exemplifies career excellence and community outreach."

"I actually thought they had the wrong person," said Axdorff, referring to the moment he received the call informing him that he would be receiving the Hy Berkowitz award. Part of that feeling was driven by his fleeting suspicion that it was a joke, because he was told he would receive the award at an Amway Grand Plaza ceremony on April 24 — his 48th birthday.

Axdorff is a senior mortgage loan officer at Founders Bank & Trust, with more than 25 years of experience as a sales and marketing executive.

The position he holds today didn't appear to be in the cards 30 years ago, when he moved to Grand Rapids after graduating somewhere at the bottom of the heap at Wayland High School. He knew he had to get an education, but he also had to support himself so he found a job with a house painting company, and soon started painting on his own.

Axdorff said he attended Grand Rapids Junior College on the side, but it took him eight or 10 years to get a two-year associate's degree in marketing "because I had zero skills for studying in college. I didn't know how to study. I didn't have a GPA. I had never taken an SAT."

Getting the two-year degree at what was then GRJC was a significant accomplishment that propelled him further. Next he enrolled at Davenport College, where his education "accelerated," and he earned a bachelor's degree in 1989 in business administration with a marketing major.

Apparently he had learned how to study during his years at GRJC, because he graduated cum laude from Davenport.

After graduation, Axdorff — an experienced painter — was working at one of the Seven's paint and wallpaper stores in Grand Rapids. One day he waited on Denise Reinert and her daughter, giving them some valuable advice and helping them load their purchases in their car.

A couple of days later he received a call from Montie Reinert, Denise's husband. Axdorff said Reinert was curious if he was looking for a better job; he had called based on Denise's glowing report about the helpful young man at Seven's.

BRIEFLY
Name:
Steve Axdorff
Organization: Founders Bank & Trust
Title: Senior Mortgage Loan Officer
Age: 48
Birthplace: Grand Rapids
Residence: Saranac
Family: wife Robin, daughter at Aquinas College, son in high school
Business/Community Organizations: Grand Rapids Association of Realtors; volunteer at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital, God's Kitchen and Habitat for Humanity.
Biggest Career Break: Being offered a job by Monte Reinert at TransAmerica Title Insurance while he was working in sales at a paint supplies store.

Seems Reinert, an executive at TransAmerica Title Insurance Co. in Grand Rapids, was looking for talented young individuals who were able and willing to learn the title insurance business.

"I didn’t know title insurance from a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. I didn’t know what this guy was talking about," said Axdorff — but he quickly discerned that it was probably a better employment situation than the one had at that moment. He was definitely interested.

Axdorff did some quick research on title insurance, to prepare for an interview with Reinert set a couple days later. It went well and he landed the job that launched his career in finance.

He spent four years with TransAmerica, starting as examiner checking legal descriptions and eventually working in its marketing department, calling on real estate agencies.

That was when he met an executive at D&N Bank, who offered him a job selling mortgages — on straight commission. Axdorff had a salaried job at the time; he and his wife had two young children. It was a nerve-wracking gamble.

"I took a jump off the plank" and went on 100 percent commission, he said. It was a wise jump.

He was told that if he closed on $1 million or more in mortgages in his first three months, he would be given a bonus. He ended up selling almost $2 million.

About a year later, he left D&N to start his own mortgage company with some partners, Thornapple Mortgage Co., at which Axdorff was managing an office staff of five.

"I'm more suited to be a sales person, not a manager," said Axdorff.

He was offered a job with Founders Bank & Trust, so he sold his share of Thornapple and went to Founders Bank.

"I had half the hassle and twice the money," he said.

So today the mortgage industry is a shambles, right?

That perception, in Axdorff's opinion, "couldn't be further from the truth."

"Last year, which would have been considered a horrendous year, I closed over $30 million in mortgages. I've closed $20 million, year to date. In fact, in April, working with just an assistant, we closed together $7.6 million. And all I do is residential mortgages."

"That's a misconception … that people can't get loans or there isn’t any money out there," he said.

"I have over 18 construction loans going on right now," he said.

Axdorff said that people have been purchasing homes since the start of the year, "and not just foreclosures." People are also buying condos, and selling their homes, "and not having to sell it for a short sale."

"There are a lot of misconceptions presently, regarding my industry, with the media," he said.

Rates are good, too.

"Today, as I talk to you, a 30-year fixed (mortgage) is at 4.875 percent. A 15-year is 4.5 percent," he said.

In his line of work, "communication is key" to success, he said, "especially with first-time home buyers."

"Ninety percent of what I do is communication" — and making himself accessible to clients, according to Axdorff. Most days he is on the job by 6 a.m., he said, and often he's still working at 6 p.m.

"I keep my schedule very flexible and accommodating for people," especially when they can only meet with him very early in the morning, before most people are even at work.

The mortgage industry in the U.S. is "still incredibly solid," said Axdorff, but there are two key changes that came out of the financial meltdown of the last two years. One is how home appraisals are done, and the other has to do with the buyer's credit score.

Axdorff said that now when an appraisal is required, a third party service orders the appraisal for the bank, and the appraisers are selected on a rotating basis. The loan officers and loan processors are not supposed to know which appraiser has been given the job and are not permitted to talk that appraiser, even if they did know who it was, according to Axdorff.

He said the regulation is intended to "sever the umbilical cord between loan officers and appraisers."

There is more scrutiny on the buyer now, too. Reports were rife recently across the United States of risky lending practices that eventually crippled the financial system and hurt the housing market, stories of no-money-down mortgages being sold to individuals with no credit, who were working minimum wage jobs.

Now, said Axdorff, credit scores are critical in qualifying for a mortgage.

On the other hand, the federal income tax credit of up to $8,000 for first time home buyers in 2009 is generating a lot of excitement.

In mid-May the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Federal Housing Administration began taking steps that would allow first-time buyers to tap into that credit for their down payment.

The National Association of Realtors said the first-time buyer’s credit might generate at least 300,000 additional sales, and the National Association of Home Builders has estimated there will be an additional 160,000 new home sales, almost two-thirds of those first-time buyers who will receive the tax credit. Another 59,000 existing homeowners will be able to buy another home because a first time buyer purchased their home, according to one real estate industry executive.

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