BASKING RIDGE, N.J. -- As banks continue to pull back on credit offerings and Callahan First Look data show the key credit union loan-to-share ratio holding steady at 85.7%, more CUs are learning to fill the void, beefing up marketing and outreach efforts in order to grow.
One important area that holds promised returns while affording lower initial costs is the Internet. Add Affinity Federal Credit Union's name to a growing list of CUs making its mortgage expertise available to all by launching a home buying center on the Web (www.affinityfcu.org/realestaterc).
Partnering with Home Sold, an independent real estate service network, Affinity FCU is helping its members through the entire buying and selling process. The site brings together realtors, demographic profiles, property valuations and other services in one location for those seeking information in the current real estate marketplace.
"We've taken the first step in providing an overview of what's behind the home buying process," Bob Birkhahn, executive vice president of AFCU, told Credit Union Times. He explained how the idea to create the site floated around for a while as CU staffers contemplated ways to bring various aspects of the complicated procedures to members in a way that was convenient and accessible. "We wanted to somehow leverage our mortgage services to provide more related products and services that members needed."
Once it was decided that relocation services (both incoming to New Jersey and leaving the state and buying a home in another state) was a requirement, AFCU sought the right partner and found HomeSold, a subsidiary of Fidelity National Financial, a large title insurance and real estate services company. The prior few years of growing plans for AFCU's mortgage portfolio then swiftly coalesced into the new Web site within six months.
The site was introduced to members through opt-in e-mail blasts in May after the site went live at the end of April. So far, there are 40 confirmed registrations on the site, which includes a free evaluation of the property they are seeking to buy or sell. Five members have moved to the second level: a referral to the agent network, said Birkhahn. Signage for branch locations and statements stuffers are also in the works now to further promote the site and eventually word-of-mouth recommendations will help sustain the work.
In Birkhahn's mind, the effort is also serving the specific needs of small business that are now choosing to leave New Jersey, which has one of the highest tax rates in the nation. "This isn't just about first-time homebuyers," he said. "There are people trying to downsize too, and given our high taxes and the high cost of living in New Jersey, I think we'll see a number of small businesses relocate to other areas as well. That's a natural evolution for us and we want to be there for them."
The site will also cement in members' minds that Affinity is a nationwide lender. "It's really the evolution of once a member, always a member, because, while most of our lending is in New Jersey, we don't want to risk losing members who leave the state. Right now we have some 123,000 members and a firm footing in New Jersey, but I want to ensure that Affinity remains a lifeline financial institution to all members, wherever they choose to live."
Birkhahn noted that the Internet home banking, remote deposit and membership in shared service and ATM networks makes that lifetime relationship more convenient, even possible, while it was challenged only a few short years ago. "In the past, we found that when members left us they went to banks. We don't want to let that happen if we can prevent it, and this is another step in that process," he said.
AFCU's real estate portfolio is in excess of $1.5 billion, including home equity lines of credit. AFCU sold some $400 million to the secondary market so it still retains a sizable portion in house. "We still have plenty of liquidity and we manage it well," said Birkhahn. While other lenders are capping their HELOCs and pulling back, Affinity is staying busy trying to help members who may have adjustable mortgages resetting at other financials.
"We've been lucky here in New Jersey because we haven't seen the job losses other states have. Our proximity to New York City and Philadelphia keeps property values more stable than other places. But I contend that it's just prudent to work with a member who may lose a job and run into financial problems. We work with them, we'll lower payments on loans and we'll do a cash flow budget to help them see a way out. It's what we do and it's what we'll always do. We're a credit union," he said proudly.