Evaluating Key Technologies

“A digital signature and an electronic signing room are a far cry from your loan officer handing you the keys to your new home at the closing table.”

As I’m writing this, we are close to the New Year, which is always my time to predict what will happen in the arena of mortgage technology for the coming year. Below are a slew of technologies that have impacted, or may soon impact our industry. For each, I give a general overview of the solution, my opinion of where it’s headed, and a cold/hot rating. 

ASP – Cool
Solutions that are ASP-based (Application Service Provider) will find a cool reception among mortgage origination companies. Perhaps their biggest weakness, is that they’ll never work on a portable laptop (at least not until we have high-speed, wireless Internet access). On the surface, the ASP model looks very intriguing, but look under the cover and you’ll see a long list of problems. An ASP solution will only be viable for a small minority of people in the industry. It will be the entrenched technology providers that will supply these systems, if they ever make sense. The many startups currently coming on-line will find high losses and lack of customer acceptance. Mortgage companies investing their staff into these solutions will find their experience troubling. However, it should be noted that many other ASP solutions should be hot. These include e-commerce solutions for wholesaler-to-broker communications, management reporting solutions, providing loan status to third parties and many others.

Broadband Access – Hot
We’ll see the majority of the mortgage industry adopt broadband access solutions to the Internet. This could be ISDN, DSL, Cable modems, T1, or even some of the new high-speed, wireless solutions. As we become far more reliant on the Internet for our day-to-day business, we need to ensure that our employees are operating at peak performance. You can’t expect a loan processor to use the Internet like it should be, when they’re communicating at 56kbps or less. If you aren’t using high-speed access today, you should be soon.

Digital Signatures – Cold
I find it hard to believe that a loan officer and Realtor are just going to tell their client to log-on and close on their house. This is the biggest purchase of a consumer’s life, and all those documents are daunting to say the least. A consumer will want their hand held as they pour through the 100-plus pages of a closing package. A digital signature and an electronic signing room are a far cry from your loan officer handing you the keys to your new home at the closing table. With that said, there are some uses for digital signatures. For home-equity loans and up-front disclosure packages, they could work great. Even refis could be handled this way. However, there’s still a major problem. Consumers will have to obtain a digital certificate, which still requires seeing a notary and completing a somewhat difficult process. 

E-Lenders – Cool
I gave a speech at the Annual National Association of Mortgage Brokers (NAMB) conference about the demise of the dot-com e-lenders. I provided a long list of everything that was wrong with the model and why originators need not concern themselves with the then occurring onslaught of well-funded pure Internet lenders. Wow, did a lot of money get thrown away. There still isn’t much of a future for e-lenders. However, the online world may still take something from the average mortgage originator. Most susceptible are refinance loans, where large services may produce streamlined refinancing options from their websites. Consumers could simply go to their existing lenders’ site and answer just a few questions to have their rate lowered. Income from refinances is something most mortgage originators rely on today, but that could soon be lost. The majority of home-equity loans may also be sourced through the Internet in the future. The good news is that the vast majority of purchase transactions will continue to flow through local originators.

Electronic Document Delivery – Warm
While the signatures may not be digital, everything else will be. Sending documents through the Internet is a great way to make our industry more efficient. Already, many companies are doing this on a regular basis and you can expect it to go mainstream.

Electronic Transactions – Hot
Ordering credit reports electronically has been popular for many years. However, the other transactions, like appraisal, flood, and title orders have yet to gain widespread use. We are seeing a significant increase in the ordering of all types of services electronically. Eventually, like credit reports, electronic orders will become a defacto standard.

by Scott Cooley

Website Review – Manhattan Mortgage

“Interested in a particular transaction? A potential customer can input parameters such as property type, loan amount, and loan type.”

Manhattan Mortgage Company’s www.manhattanmortgage.com is all business and everything about it is accurate, functional and “on time.” It is money- oriented. The theme colors are black and white. The ambiance is sophisticated. What else would you expect from a New York mortgage company? And, in addition to its many functions, the main screen is something of an online Wall Street Journal.

After taking in the bond market headlines, most likely to grab your attention is “NY Metro Area Rates.” It is a scrolling frame displaying an array of mortgage programs and interest rates. A click on the scrolling frame loads more detailed information on their loan programs into the body of the website. “Rate Finder,” an express search for specific programs, replaces “Area Rates.” Rate Finder will bring up a matrix of all their programs sorted by loan type and loan amount. Something I found interesting is their default property type, Condo, with Co-op as the second selection. If you don’t know the difference between a Condo and a Co-op, you can read about it by clicking on their static header bar. You can also learn about Negative Pledge Financing. I did.

Rate Watch
Interested in a particular transaction? A potential customer can input parameters such as a property type, loan amount, and loan type. Then they can submit a request for a daily or weekly e-mail response for a matching loan. This is an inexhaustible scheme for generating leads. With the abundant array of programs now available, a creative loan originator can take almost any motivated homebuyer and find something for them

Apply Online
There are two selections: Express Application and Full Application. The site gives you the estimated time to complete each (5 to 10 minutes or 20 minutes), which I consider highly courteous. If you opt for the express application, one of their loan officers will call you for a preliminary discussion, if you have good credit. Be ready to spend some time filling out a loan application.

Something that you might find interesting is that, depending on your screen resolution, the website display may not fill your screen. My resolution is 1024 X 768 pixels, which is a large screen display. The standard is 800 X 600.

There is something that I like and don’t like about the design. What I like is that the designers of manhattanmortgage.com departed from the over-adhered to layout of placing large action buttons on the left, while duplicating the options with hypertext links in the header of the screen. Instead, they used the left side of the screen for something interesting and useful. (Scrolling rates, program info, etc.) In the year 2000, the average web surfer, especially one shopping for mortgage rates on the Internet, does not need big, ever-present footholds in a repetitive template.

The thing that I did not care for in the design is that the entire screen reloads as you navigate through the website. To a cable/DSL user, the extra loading time is not a big deal, but it does slow things down with a dial-up connection. The technique is to create the illusion of a constant section by making certain portions of each screen identical. The manhattan.com site changes the colors with different activities, which is a nice effect, but this could be done also in a static frame.

I rate this site as a good site because it has a great way of grabbing your attention with the news theme. Then it leads you into application functions in an easy fashion. The theme colors, starting with green and black, look money-like and fit in with the general theme of the product. Everything is organized and coherent. And, as I mentioned, it has a sophisticated appearance.

by Thor Skonnord

What’s Up With XML?

“XML is touted as a standard that our entire industry can use to communicate between all involved parties. Imagine a common language that everyone can use.”

Extensible Markup Language (XML) has received a lot of press over the last year. Certainly, all the top names in mortgage lending stand behind the use of XML within our industry. They include Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, MBA and most top lenders and industry service providers. The praise has also been non-stop by a wide following of industry technologists. So is XML all that it’s cracked up to be?

I must first admit that I’ve been asked by many not to write this article. The reason being is that I wrote an article a few years ago when the MBA-sponsored X.12 standards were all the rage. My article was critical of X.12 and explained all the reasons that it ultimately failed for the vast majority of the transactions it was designed for. It was the first article that stood against the dozens of articles that were strongly in favor of X.12. While I think the article said what many felt, I initially faced a barrage of criticism. It wasn’t my desire to reduce industry support for it – a lot of individuals put years of hard work into the X.12 standards. Still, when it became clear that X.12 wasn’t going to succeed, many referenced the article for all the reasons why. Some fear a similar article on XML could doom its very strong following and hurt industry-wide adoption of it. For these reasons I’ve been reluctant to write this and have delayed publishing anything on XML. Anyway, here goes.

XML is touted as a standard that our entire industry can use to communicate between all involved parties. Imagine a common language that everyone can use. XML is powerful and clearly a much better solution than X.12 ever was. It can contain images and other attachments. It’s also easily expanded and well adapted to the Internet. XML was created by Microsoft to allow data to be exchanged over the Internet — by all accounts it’s powerful and well designed.

Here’s where the problems lie. First, it’s fairly difficult for programmers to build the necessary software. Simpler formats can be much faster for building an e-commerce interface between a lender and a supplier. Often, two companies that want to communicate electronically will opt for the easy way out. This means using simpler data formats or a solution that on the short-term will get them by.

A second problem is related to standardizing data. A significant concern is that many companies in the industry have needs for special data elements that may not be part of the standard. XML is great, in that it allows for data extensions, but this doesn’t mean that everyone uses the same data extensions in the same way. Various types can be used, which then means “standards” become non-standard. Vendors also have their own needs that sometimes preclude using a standard. Furthermore, some vendors may actually want a non-standard use of XML. In order to differentiate themselves from their competition – they may want added features and data the competition doesn’t offer. It’s hoped that developers will stay with the standard portion and use the data extension features of XML for their proprietary needs.

Despite these issues, XML has many advantages that X.12 never offered. XML is far more powerful and is designed for the Internet. X.12 was created when the Internet didn’t exist. Another major difference is that with X.12, all changes had to go through the ANSI governing body. This process took years and any changes had to go through numerous committees before they were made a standard. Often, needed changes were not finalized prior to the latest technology going mainstream. Thus, programmers were forced to develop their own solutions. With XML, the MBA has chosen a small group called MISMO (www.mismo.org) to oversee development and any changes. This group moves far faster than the governing bodies that were used for the X.12 standards.

Perhaps the most significant advantage has to do with the industry moving to the paperless loan. XML will be instrumental in this development and will give us all the power we need. Eventually, we’ll see centralized storage of loan documents for all to access. Most likely, these will be in an XML format. Industry suppliers will retrieve and post documents to an electronic folder and will do so using the XML format.

I envision that unlike X.12, the industry will see widespread use of XML. However, it won’t be used for all e-commerce solutions. There are many other solutions that serve the needs of the transactions at hand. They are simpler, quicker to develop, and meet the needs of the communicating parties. For example, both Genesis and Contour have developed proprietary solutions that allow their software to post any loan data to any website, with just a couple of hours of programming work. Such solutions work for the majority of today’s e-commerce needs and are extremely easy to implement. Still, as we move to the more advanced solutions, XML will become the data format of choice. Unlike X.12, XML will see increasing usage in the years to come, and hopefully, we’ll all enjoy some wonderful applications. For all this, we owe a lot of thanks to individuals who have donated much of their time to help create these standards for the industry. Just a few of these dedicated people are David Barkley, Lisa Bolelli, Roger Gudobba, Todd Luhtanen, Dan McLaughlin, and David Williams. Of course, there are many more.

One positive aspect of all the work done with X.12, is that it does provide the industry with individual data element standards. Having industry agreement on the definition of fields, and how the data is held in each field, was a help to the XML creation efforts. It’s good to see that some of the hard work with X.12 didn’t go to waste.

by Scott Cooley

Website Review – Home Qualify

“There are so many useful features in the website, that I can hardly list them all.”

Most of the websites that we review are those of large corporations — usually wholesale lenders — and they probably represent a 50K-plus price tag. This month, we have something pleasingly different. The website is owned and designed by an independent loan broker. Larry Corrales has been designing and refining his “work in progress” for the last 12 months. In www.HomeQualify.com you could spend the afternoon learning about buying a home, getting qualified, making your travel plans and checking the weather at your destination if you like. Many of the features in the site are proprietary (mega-calculators) and others are provided by links to separate entities. Whatever the mix, the website provides the potential homebuyer with a potpourri of related items.

The website opens with splash screen that might be unexciting, except that it is entirely bright red. The actual website still has lots of red, but adds white and a little blue. If you are marketing something, you can’t go wrong with red, white and blue — especially in America. You also get big picture of Larry Corrales. I probably wouldn’t use that much screen space with a picture of myself, but on the other hand, if I was as photogenic as Larry, maybe I would. In fact, if he decides to quit originating home loans and run for president, he already has a perfect template for his campaign website. There are so many useful features in the website, that I can hardly list them all. Some are strictly tidbits: FAQ’s, Tip of the Month, directions to the office, and lots of Larry: credentials, testimonials, etc. The site effectively builds on the full-service concept, with links to others. A “Map to your dream home” is a link to mapquest.com, which loads mapquest within the HomeQualify site. Mapquest is a pretty powerful site in itself. I tested it and the directions were so detailed that they told me how to get out of my subdivision. They also offered a color map, driving time and an option to include information on points of interest along the route. Another link is “Larry’s Recommended Reading,” which displays a short list of books like “Home Buying For Dummies,” etc. This is done in association with Amazon.com. If you want the book, just click on it.

And how about these calculators? I think I counted 14, all running on a host computer using Active Server Pages. I don’t have the energy to list them all, but I promise they will provide countless morsels of data related to buying a home. In addition to the standard stuff (What can I afford? How much is my payment?), you can learn things about your future home from tax rates and auto insurance costs, to average temperature, population density, and the local crime rate.

For a retail lender, a good website can be a business asset by enhancing the image of the company, and by creating customer satisfaction with utilities. Can you check the status of your loan on line? Of course! Yet, with all these really useful homebuyer features, Larry did not forget his real mission: Getting more loans! You can apply on-line with either a full application, or you can opt for the more subtle “Home Buyers report.” This one is a combo-package that provides the homebuyer with information about available loan programs, and how much he/she is pre-approved for on these programs. Along with these direct lead-generating devices, there are many embedded threads designed to bring in the customer via the traditional means of contact. Larry believes he averages 100 leads a week from the site, and another 50 leads a month from the local Chamber of Commerce, where he is linked to the relocation section of their website.

This website is rated as very good. The rating represents use of attractive colors and an eye-catching layout. It is also highly rated for the shear volume of home-buying goodies that it contains. I am particularly impressed because it was designed by a layperson.

by Thor Skonnard

Software Review – Point for Windows and ACT

“Effective use of Goldmine allows total integration of your contact activity with outside parties, including time management and scheduling.”

As a mortgage originator and long time user of personal computer technology, two programs have always dominated my desktop: Point for Windows and ACT. The latter has always known Goldmine as a worthy competitor, and I anxiously awaited my opportunity to review the latest version. I approached this review with two particular goals. I wanted to see if the product could be self-taught and whether I could easily navigate the program with key commands instead of a mouse.

Many users have referred to this type of program as an “electronic Rolodex.” This is like referring to the Concorde supersonic airplane as basic transportation. Effective use of Goldmine allows total integration of your contact activity with outside parties, including time management and scheduling. A better analogy is to refer to Goldmine as a sophisticated personal secretary that is always on time and never calls in sick. Goldmine also allows the user to see the schedule of other individuals who are using the system and to effectively allow group scheduling for meetings and other projects.

Installation proved to be fairly straightforward, and I had the program operational in 15 minutes. I was able to import my ACT database into Goldmine with no real problem. A built-in wizard allowed me to walk myself through the process.

I found the basic contact management features fairly easy to learn, and had no problem using hot keys to perform basic operations such as looking up contacts by last name or company name, or to schedule a telephone call or meeting. I pointedly compared the speed and ease of use with ACT, and concluded it was smooth and perhaps even faster, particularly in the ability to quickly move among a group of individuals with similar last names.

Goldmine allows the user to set up a small Rolodex, in lieu of using the master database to look up commonly used numbers. This is easily the feature I most miss in ACT, but here Goldmine misses the mark by requiring the user to manually complete this Rolodex instead of allowing the user to set it up by importing from the master database.

Goldmine provides the ability to organize contacts into an organization chart, a feature not available in ACT, and underscoring the traditional view that Goldmine is oriented towards the company rather than the individual. This feature allows the user to organize contacts and see their position in the company hierarchy, but for the most part, information is centered around the individual, and scheduling is performed in relation to the logged in user.

Both Goldmine and ACT allow the user to set up groups (a very powerful feature that allows the user to work with a subset of the database to allow mail merged emails or faxes) or to work with a set of contacts that share some common attribute (customers, clients, lenders, and so on). Its sophisticated filtering capability allows powerful real-time look-ups that occur as data is added, allowing the user to define groups and having contacts automatically added into a particular group (or groups). Goldmine also provides a sophisticated lead follow-up system. This feature is beyond the average beginning user, but is of clear value in the enterprise environment and for the more sophisticated stand-alone user.

One area that Goldmine appears to excel in is its scalability into the large enterprise. Databases can be stored in either dBase format, or in SQL format for use on Microsoft SQL servers. This latter client/server architecture is popular (and necessary) with very large databases, where large numbers of users are accessing the data, and where a very robust database architecture is required. Inquiries are performed at the server and only the results returned to the client, greatly speeding up the transaction.

But what about the small office or single user? I concur with other reviewers that ACT is still slightly easier to learn, although this version of Goldmine has gone a very long way in achieving a new level of usability and ease of use. The sad truth is that any of the really powerful contact management systems require considerable time (and perhaps training) to learn how to utilize all of the significant features.

Goldmine 5.0 is a real winner, and a viable candidate for the office desiring this capability. A contact manager should be the average broker’s second purchase, after buying their loan origination software.

I look forward to following up on this review with add-on products like AspireGold, which is a specialized template for mortgage lending and Goldmine Plus for Calyx Point, a free data exchange application.

by Stephen Breden

Website Review – Cipher Data Resources, Inc.

“Add too many bells and whistles and a website can become a circus.”

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then how many more words do we get for color and animation? Whatever the number, Cipher Data Resources, Inc. has capitalized on the concept with a splash screen in Flash technology (This is an application for websites that creates fast animation without needing a lot of storage space). It is highly effective as well as fun to watch. The original purpose of a splash screen in computer programming was to give the viewer a fast-loading, attractive screen to look at while the rest of the program loads. With the speed of modern computers, it is hardly needed. The concept has been carried over to web design and it is still useful. However, in this case, the idea is to mesmerize the viewer with a spectacular display of visual effects.

The website is www.cipherdata.com. I talked with Steve Bristol, president of Cipher Data, and he explained to me that their goal when designing the site was to get people to spend a brief time learning about their product and inspire them to download the software. The download is free, although there is a subsequent cost for each report generated by the software. The reports analyze Federal tax returns. There are many potential uses for the reports generated by the software but they all focus on the concept of qualifying a self-employed borrower.

When a website’s mission includes the task of introducing a new concept, I think it is really important to include a tour. Cipherdata.com uses a very simple, yet effective self-guided tour. It shows a sample of the screens in the software using a thumbnail layout. A click enlarges each thumbnail. The next stage of the tour shows samples of the reports generated by the software. During this stage of the tour, they use a clever effect. When you hover your mouse over various sections of the reports, the sections enlarge. This is accompanied by a narration of the benefits generated by the report.

The design of the website is solid. After the flashy intro screen, the designers settled back into using the basics of consistent screen layouts and easy-to-follow prompts. They use very few action buttons and provide extremely subtle hypertext. This has the subliminal effect of implying importance to the content in the website, rather than the mechanics of the site. They continue this strategy by using only two basic colors – powder blue and mustard. While the colors are soft, they add pizzazz in a quiet way with shading and shadows.

There is another nice feature that hammers home their message. The option bar that we are so used to seeing, on the left side of the screen, usually opens secondary levels in the website. In the Cipher site, we see potential beneficiaries of the product instead of feature buttons. The list includes various entities in the lending business (such as loan processors, underwriters, mortgage brokers) and when you click, a legal pad in the center of the screen lists benefits provided to these people. It is a clever technique.

When evaluating this site, it could be easy to underrate because it is not spectacular. However, it is effectively designed to do what it was intended to do. Add too many bells and whistles and a website can become a circus. If the web layout is too resplendent, the user can overlook the basic message. Based on the objective of the website and analyzing how the layout of the site accomplishes that objective, I would say the that the designers did a good job. Therefore, the rating for this website is very good.

by Thor Skonnard

Software Review – OCIE

“OCIE” Online Data Storage and Retrieval: Knowledge Management System

“The system is designed to acquire the data at the OCIE server, process it, and send the information back to the browser to view the results.”

For years we have all heard the promise of the “paperless office.” The reality seems to be that we generate more documentation and paper all the time, and even modern streamlined loan files require paper backup and signed documentation.

OCIE is an integrated hardware and software enterprise report management solution that enables online viewing, archiving, data mining, and research.

OCIE stands for Online Computer Information Exchange, and represents a modern practical application of network based online storage technology as it now exists and how it can help the medium to small size enterprise retrieve data and quickly analyze it into reports. It is specifically oriented towards retrieving report data and allowing rapid access and analysis of this data. OCIE is provided by Donnell Systems of South Bend, Indiana. It lets you automate data research and fill spreadsheets with data retrieved in a few seconds. This allows your enterprise to move your data from mainframes and other sources to an offsite data warehouse for archiving, while maintaining an onsite OCIE provided server to store data and reports as generated by the system. Data is maintained at the customer’s site on OCIE provided magnetic media, and copies are compressed and sent to the OCIE technical center.

The system is designed to acquire the data at the OCIE server, process it, and send the information back to the browser to view the results. This client/server application practically limits the amount of bandwidth required, since relatively little is required to actually transmit the output from the server to the client workstation and its associated browser.

Data can be provided to the OCIE server by any of a common number of formats used by enterprises and can be brought in by LAN, WAN, intranet, or the Internet. It employs client/server technology from Sun Microsystems.

The OCIE Java Edition provides a standard front-end interface across all platforms and allows for online viewing and data mining over any network or the Internet. A report annotation feature, OCIE-notes, allows users to create and view sticky notes linked for an entire report or particular line or page in a report. This tool automatically logs username, data, and time to create a trail of history on these comments. OCIE-notes are secure at the report level. Viewing notes on a report is restricted to only those users with security permission to view that particular report.

An ancillary product to the basic retrieval system is called Data Digger, a report mining and refining tool. Data Digger allows even non-technical users to extract report data in various friendly, usable formats for export into common applications, including Oracle, Sybase, Access, Excel, and Crystal Reports. As Donnell says in its own literature, “Data Digger can effortlessly scour mountains of data to unearth intelligent value.” OCIE is not just a remote data repository. It enables highly sophisticated data analysis, one of its key features to the large enterprise customer.

Any larger mortgage operation can readily appreciate the problem. Once files are closed and archived, how do you run reports and analyses on the data contained within? From this it is just a small step to complete online storage and retrieval of an entire loan file, with its required scanning of documents and signatures. OCIE does not pretend to provide the latter function (at least not yet), but the issue of rapid data storage and retrieval of archived information is readily solved by this online data storage system.

OCIE returned to magnetically based storage technology, but uses high speed disk drives similar to those in all desktop computers-but actively online and slaved together to provide high-speed access. This system of hard disk drives can provide typical access times, which are two to three times as fast as optically based storage systems.

OCIE allows the organization to offload its entire databases of production, underwriting, and servicing data, and quickly analyze this data via a network or Internet connection. The user can access this data a number of ways, including private dedicated data links, dial up connections, or via the Internet (the preferred, inexpensive alternative). Above all, OCIE is clearly designed around obtaining its information via a browser, in lieu of a dedicated front-end program. As we have all been seeing, the Internet browser itself is becoming the de facto standard front-end for any number of technology processes in the business. OCIE provides several versions of its program to allow access of the data but the obvious choice is the Java-based Web application.

OCIE eliminates other more mechanical solutions and provides a viable solution to the enterprise needing assistance with its data management and report generation requirements.

Program Overview
Name: OCIE (Online Computer Information Exchange)
Features: · Offsite archival storage
· Advanced reporting and analysis
· Data mining and research
OCIE is licensed by organization, server, and concurrent user. There is a one-time charge for each item loaded to OCIE and each item can then be viewed simultaneously by as many authorized users as needed.

OCIE’s scalable, client/server architecture accommodates a wide range of enterprises, from moderate to massive. Modest users loading a monthly volume of 100,000-200,000 report pages may expect a monthly OCIE application service fee under $1,500.

by Stephen Breden

Website Review – Monument Mortgage

“The Monument site has several features that could be very useful to a mortgage broker.”

Monument Mortgage, recipient of FNMA’s 1998 Technology Leadership Award, has a website that is a fitting subject for this month’s technology theme. The site has a good design and interesting features. If you are a loan broker seeking online options or if you are a wholesale lender interested in seeing an example of an exceptional website, check out mortgagedepot.com.

Created in PERL and HTML, the layout uses tabs to organize the website into three categories: loan brokers, products, and rates. Within these categories you can perform various functions by clicking on options from a static column next to the tabs on the left side of the screen. The appearance of the site is appealing. It is crisp and orderly with a simple but appealing color scheme of red and blue. The screens are crammed with options, but there is appropriate white space. Static and dynamic components blend together, making the package work as a unit.

Here is a good way to appreciate the various layers in the website. Go to the very bottom where you usually see credits and copyright information displayed and click on “Layout View.” This opens a screen that displays all the links in the site in outline form. I think that this could be a really useful feature in any site. As a returning user who is familiar with the workings of the website, it could be a fast and easy way to jump directly to a target screen.

The Monument site has several features that could be very useful to a mortgage broker. For instance, you can research programs and check rates online. This is not uncommon in lender websites. What Monument has taken to the next level is giving approved brokers a way to register a new loan or order loan docs online. Then the actual loan application can be submitted electronically with processing software. Another critical transaction that you can carry out with the Monument website is to send a lock request. It’s a real advantage to be able to do this from your computer, instead of having to get someone on the phone or chase down a lock request to fax.

Because the log-in process includes sensitive information such as the borrower’s social security number, this has to be done in a secure site. Let’s talk about what this entails. To make a site secure, two things are required. Data must encrypted before it is transmitted and the data has to be sent to a protected environment. It is typical for websites to be hosted by a generic ISP (Example: AOL). Then when they enter into an e-commerce transaction, they change to a secure site. In the case of the www.monument.com, the entire website is secure. Monument Mortgage uses their own computers as servers and they keep the computers behind locked doors. The data is secured by using Verisign – SSL technology. An additional technique used to protect your personal information is a password that looks like this: “pASwORd”. Mixing case-sensitive characters makes a hacker’s life a little more difficult.

A really nice feature that I would consider adding to any website is the online help option. Every screen has a picture of a staff member and the caption, “Broker Liaison on Call.” A click signals support people who are standing by to call and walk you through the site. If you do not have a separate phone line available, they can communicate by loading a chat window on your screen. Using web technology, they can tell who clicked for help and what screen that person is currently working in.

The Monument website deserves praise for its crisp design and usability. It works well and is pleasant to look at. What appears to be simple is often very difficult to achieve. I rate this website as exceptionally good.

by Thor Skonnard

Website Review – mtgb2b.com

“Here you can run the company’s mortgage calculator and see a list of mortgage banking associations or state agencies. ”

Although this month’s subject is not a lender website, there are a couple of reasons that we selected it. It has some interesting aspects, and it provides information on a variety of industry-related products and services. The web address is www.mtgb2b.com, and the company behind the site is mtgb2b.com, Inc. The purpose of the site is to offer mortgage industry-related entities a high volume place to advertise and provide links to its websites. This is a commercial venture. Yet like a magazine, the total package provides valuable information to the customer in addition to the advertising.

Your first exposure to the site is like stepping into the midway at a carnival. My reaction was, “What do I try first? There is so much here to look at!” Remember that mtgb2b.com, Inc. is not trying to highlight its company image or necessarily trying to get our direct business. Instead, they are showing us products and services of hundreds of other companies. In the company’s own words, it is “The Mortgage Industry Portal.”

The header of the site holds a stylish option bar with links to the Online Expo, B2B Markets, the B2B Store, and Industry Links. It also includes an AltaVista search engine. The layout yields maximum space for links with the homepage flanked on each side by a column of hypertext options mixed with junior banner ads. A banner ad is a component in a website that represents a link to another website. The link can have the company name, an enticing offer or, as in one example, nothing more than the message “Click On Me.”

The top center of the site offers useful items such as news and money market centers mixed with more business-to-business products and services. The center of the screen is reserved as a display area. Here you can run the company’s mortgage calculator and see a list of mortgage banking associations or state agencies. Other features are Upcoming Events, the Company of the Week, the Player of the Week, editorials, and Mortgage Industry Training.

The site has a chameleon quality because while the basic layout is consistent, the look is constantly changing. For example, the banner ads shift to different places. The design of the site does a good job of mixing proprietary elements with commercial links while giving us the feeling that we are operating in a consistent environment. Most of the direct links to other sites are displayed as a site within a site, employing a trimmed down option bar. Adding a “Home” option at this point, which returns the user to the mtgb2b.com default screen from one of their links to client websites, retains site integrity. The business-to-business designers wisely avoided animation or other “look at me first” elements because much of the screen space is dedicated to ads. Naturally, each ad is fighting for our attention—with its own theme colors and animation.

Rating this site is difficult because of its complex nature. While most websites are designed with a single theme and one or two objectives, this one tries to do many things at once and keep them all balanced. Because the design does do this well, I would rate it as a good site, one you should definitely check out.

by Thor Skonnard