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5 Startups Changing How Americans Buy Their First Home

The antiquated mortgage process is getting a digital upgrade.

5 Startups Changing How Americans Buy Their First Home
[Photo: Flickr user Kevin Dooley]

House-hunting starts online these days, with a visit to Google or Zillow. That initial search might lead to a FaceTime “open house” or uncover a 3D house tour. But put in an offer, and the process quickly turns analog. The hunt has gone digital, but applying for a mortgage still involves fax machines and pay-stub printouts.

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That is finally changing. Entrepreneurs steered clear of the highly regulated mortgage industry in the years immediately following the 2008 financial crisis, which was precipitated by a glut of subprime mortgages, repackaged and marketed by Wall Street as low-risk securities. Now they see potential to transform a slow and expensive process, and at the same time serve first-time homeowners accustomed to managing their financial lives via smartphone. The prize, if they succeed: A share of the $8.4 trillion U.S. mortgage market. Here are five of the most promising startups to emerge so far.

Landed

This early-stage Y Combinator startup recently caught the attention of Mark Zuckerberg, who invested $5 million last month via his philanthropic vehicle, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Landed’s mission is to bring home ownership within reach for educators by funding as much as half of their down payment.

When the homeowners sell, Landed takes a cut of the home’s appreciation. Zuckerberg’s investment will support growth in three California school districts with high housing costs. “We hope this kind of down payment support will help to make it a little easier for great educators to stay and build successful careers in the region,” CEO Jonathan Asmis says. The startup partners with local lenders and real estate agents to implement its financing model.

Clara Lending

Jeff Foster, cofounder and CEO of of Clara, brings a similarly mission-driven approach to his mortgage startup. Foster left Wall Street and joined the Treasury Department in 2010, where he helped craft housing policy reforms in response to the unfolding financial crisis. “[Americans] took on loans they couldn’t understand because they didn’t have a good toolkit to evaluate choices,” he says. At Clara, he has raised $27 million to build a fully digitized mortgage process from scratch, while layering on financial education for prospective borrowers. “Our goal is to streamline that process and help the borrower make better decisions.”

SoFi

Social Finance (SoFi) has quickly morphed from a student loan refinancing operation to a one-stop shop for the financial needs of affluent millennials—including mortgages. The company introduced mortgages in October 2014, and within two years originated over $1 billion worth of loans. Many of those have been “jumbo” loans, which require just 10% down but charge a higher interest rate.

For the typical SoFi customer—high-earning, but early career—jumbo loans offer a way to get on the real estate ladder in pricey markets like New York and San Francisco. “We’re bringing a lot of new folks into the SoFi community through our mortgage product,” says Michael Tannenbaum, chief revenue officer. As of January, mortgages were his fastest-growing product, with roughly 60% going to first-time buyers.

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LendingHome

When LendingHome launched in 2014, it focused on “fix and flip” real estate investors. Then, with $1 billion in originations under its belt, the company began targeting first-time homebuyers this past spring. “We’re focused on giving homebuyers confidence and control over the process,” founder Matt Humphrey told Forbes. That means incorporating tips and feedback into the application itself, and offering features like a way to lock in a desirable interest rate. LendingHome has raised over $100 million to date.

Blend

Quietly, in the background, white-label software provider Blend has been helping established banks up their digital game when it comes to processing mortgage applications. The company launched in mid-2015, and raised $40 million in Series C funding in January of last year. Its mobile-friendly product imports an applicant’s financial information from around the web and speeds the bank’s time to a pre-approval decision. “The multi-trillion dollar mortgage industry has been running on legacy technology for decades,” says cofounder and CEO Nima Ghamsari. Blend’s technology offers banks an easy upgrade, compliant with regulatory demands and far cheaper than the $7,000 or so that a paper-based mortgage origination typically costs.

About the author

Staff writer Ainsley (O'Connell) Harris covers the business of technology with a focus on financial services and education. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.

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