Although what lies ahead in the world of real estate and mortgage services in 2024 remains a bit uncertain, it’s now crystal clear that, beyond the already-tired suggestion that we “survive until ’25,” quite a few businesses will be seeking to find additional sources of revenue.
One potential stream that quickly comes to mind is the potential of capturing title and closing business. Accordingly, we’ve already seen any number of builders, mortgage lenders and real estate firms building new affiliated business arrangements (ABAs) or entering into partnerships that put them into the game for settlement services revenue.
That activity will only increase as we move through the year. Here’s why.
The full impact of the Burnett verdict has yet to be seen
The final disposition of the Burnett vs. NAR decision likely won’t be seen for years as the result works its way through the courts. For the most part, many brokerages and real estate agents on the buyer’s side of the transaction have continued on with a “business as usual” approach until we have certainty as to the true impact. And yet, in combination with what remains an uncertain market, more and more teams and brokerages will likely have the incentive to increase revenue and remove the uncertainty from the buying side well before they have to.
It’s entirely possible we’ll see the continuation of the trend towards team selling in the wake of Burnett. It’s not hard to imagine an approach where the listing agents take the lead on the front end of a transaction while a team of buyer agents works with them in the background. Such an approach would likely tend toward a transactional, brokerage-focused revenue model.
In these cases, it would be logical for teams and brokerages not only to seek out additional revenue, but to retain greater control over a transaction from start to finish, which affiliated title operations can bring. In building such arrangements, the real estate firm would have greater control over the experience, hopefully speeding the process from start to finish and delivering a smoother overall customer experience. It won’t be the first time this industry loudly extols the virtues of one-stop shopping.
Here’s who will be seeking to build and grow ABAs…and who shouldn’t
Naturally, until we see a significant upturn in overall origination volume, it won’t just be brokerages and teams seeking to build ABAs or enter into title partnerships. Lenders and builders have also shown a heightened interest at a time when construction materials remain costly, labor costs and pay rates are elevated and interest rates remain high.
At the same time, a more controlled closing experience could help address closing delays arising from the lender’s side or the construction process. While it’s easy for a third-party closing firm to point fingers and shift the blame in such instances, an affiliated operation is “part of the team.” No one will be thrown under the bus in such situations. Accordingly, there are multiple compelling reasons for lenders and builders to consider an affiliated title operation.
Far too often, however, a non-title business will focus on the potential for new revenue without fully considering the cost and the burden that comes with building any new business.
To slightly oversimplify it, a true affiliated arrangement likely won’t pass regulatory scrutiny if the arrangement isn’t being run like a viable business, with any and all partners not fully engaged. Businesses hoping to simply refer their customers to an affiliated arrangement in exchange for a cut of the settlement fees have learned this the hard way.
So when should a builder, real estate firm or lender consider other alternatives to an ABA, such as partnering with an existing title agency? For starters, if there’s no long term strategy (IPO, build to sell in five years) in place, the arrangement is off to a bad start. “Let’s see how we do” is not a strategy for starting most businesses and it won’t work for an ABA, either.
Other offshoots of this philosophy (or lack thereof) include the parent business not having some way of actively being involved in the day-to-day operation of the ABA. Or perhaps the venture is woefully undercapitalized because of mistakes in building out a pro forma and business strategy.
Do you have a plan for how the affiliated operation will capture new business — and not just from your own operation? For many reasons, this can get overlooked as well, and it’s seen often in affiliated arrangements that fail quickly.
Finally, geography — often the impetus for building an ABA or entering a partnership with a title agency — is a major factor in planning an affiliated title operation. Where will the business come from? State by state and sometimes, even county by county, the new operation will have to undergo the same licensing (and compliance processes) any other new title business would. This takes time, expertise and funding. You might even be required to have a brick-and-mortar operation in that state or county.
If you’re not planning to invest sufficiently in such requirements, chances are that some other form of true partnership with a title or escrow firm might be a better alternative.
When is an affiliated arrangement the best option for real estate firms, lenders and builders?
For those considering the process of building an ABA, the answer should be “yes” to each of the following questions if an ABA is truly right for you.
- Are you planning and willing to treat the ABA like a new business with a long term strategy and exit plan?
- Are you truly aware, either from your own experience or with the help of an experienced, successful title professional who has actually built a successful title operation in the real world, of all of the expenses that come with a start-up title operation?
- Do you have a viable sales model, beyond expecting all new business from the parent company of the ABA?
- Have you arranged for sufficient capitalization?
- Finally, do you have qualified people and effective, sustainable systems in place?
Building an affiliated title operation can be a fantastic means of capturing new revenue, which is why ABA activity generally spikes during slower market conditions. But it’s critical to understand that it’s anything but simply agreeing to send the new operation most or all of your clientele in return for a percentage of the fees. You don’t have to be an attorney to know that’s the biggest no-no RESPA provides.
Building a truly successful ABA requires strategy, experience, planning and above all, commitment. While many real estate brokerages and professionals will very likely look to ABAs in the uncertain aftermath of the Burnett decision, it’s important they realize that there’s much more to it than that.
Aaron Davis is the CEO of AMD Enterprises, a conglomerate of eClosing, technology, settlement services and consulting services which includes Florida Agency Network, Closingsuite.com, Premier Data Services and Network Transaction Solutions.