Melissa Cohn

Melissa Cohn’s Manhattan Mortgage Company, which has three offices on the East End among its nine in the metropolitan area, has long been among the top residential mortgage originators in the country. Cohn, 49, started her company nearly 25 years ago, after graduating from Smith College and working at Citibank. She got the entrepreneurial bug at age 9, she said, when she started baking brownies and selling them at a general store owned by James Taylor’s brother, Hugh. That was on Martha’s Vineyard, where her family summered. She grew up in Upper Montclair, NJ. A mother of two, Cohn now lives in Manhattan and summers in Water Mill, where she’s owned a house for 18 years. She discussed her business and her life as owner and president of Manhattan Mortgage.

Could you explain what your company does? Why do people come to you instead of to banks?
We are residential mortgage brokers, meaning we act as wholesale representatives for a number of different lenders throughout the area, so we have the ability to help people who are buying or refinancing to shop for the best rates with one phone call, as opposed to having to go from bank to bank to bank.

Are people doing more refinancing now, in this economy, or is there less of it?
There’s plenty of refinancing activity. We are doing fewer mortgages, but with interest rates very low we’ve maintained a strong refinancing volume.

Where do you make your money? Do you get a percentage of the interest rate?
The bank pays our fee. We’re paid a percentage of the loan amount. If the amount is large, we get more. If it’s smaller, we get less. The percentages don’t change.

What is the real estate situation now in the New York area and particularly on Long Island?
There’s definitely a pick up in activity both in New York and on Long Island. Out in the Hamptons, where the marketplace basically died, we are seeing people coming back into the marketplace and buying. People are seeing now as a real buying opportunity.

How have mortgages changed? Can people still get them for 80 or 90 percent of the selling price?
Banks are much tougher now. They’re demanding bigger down payments. There are banks that will still go to 80 percent, and it’s possible on a conforming loan, which means up to $417,000, to get as much as 85 percent. But for the average jumbo loan, most banks are still looking for at least 20 to 25 percent down payment. A conforming loan means it conforms to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guidelines.

Do you have any advice for homeowners and potential buyers?
I think that now is a great time to buy because you’re taking advantage of lower prices and because mortgage rates are still very low. The fear is that mortgage rates will go up.

Will it be too late then?
It’s impossible to predict where rates will go. Mortgage rates are basically driven by the economy, so weakness in the economy will keep mortgage rates low. Strength in the economy, which causes inflation, will cause interest rates to go up. Obviously, we all hope that the economy recovers. The price of that to us would be to have slightly higher interest rates, but we’ll all have more jobs, better jobs, and make more money.

Should buyers get prequalified?
Absolutely. It’s important that you know what is available based on your financial profile and based on the kind of property you are looking to purchase or to refinance.

Tell me about your early life.
I wanted to be a doctor at first, until I got to college. When I realized that economics and history were much better and easier for me, and I had a better grasp of them, I gave up the medical option.

I read that your great grandfather was Leonor Michaelis [a renowned biochemist and physician known as the father of the permanent wave]. Was there a lot of medicine in your family?
Most of my family are attorneys. I didn’t know my great grandfather, but obviously I thought, wouldn’t it be great if I could follow in his footsteps. But I have more of a mathematical brain than I do a science brain, so the world of finance is a much better place for me.

When you were starting out, was it still unusual for women to be in finance?
When I started in the mortgage world, I was one of the first mortgage brokers ever to start in this country. I helped to create the mortgage broker industry. I was raised with the attitude that women are equal and belong in any industry or field.

How did you get into creating an industry?
When I graduated from college, I went to Citibank. A manager basically told me that mortgage lending would be the wave of the future in the banking world, and I listened to him.

Are your children following in your footsteps?
I have two daughters, 23 and 17. My older daughter works for a title company on Long Island. I’m happy that she found a job she likes and that she enjoys it, and she loves living on Long Island. My younger daughter is a senior in high school in Manhattan. She has no idea what she wants to do. I think she wants to be an actress. But at 17 we all have ideas and dreams that change as the reality of the world hits us.

aileen jacobson

Aileen Jacobson writes about the arts for the New York Times and other publications. A former arts and media writer for Newsday, she is also the author of two books.