Meet the Mortgage Queen

March 16 real estate_0000_Layer 17

Melissa Cohn changed the way banks did business and reshaped the industry one loan at a time, but she’s really banking on relationships image: jill lotenberg

Melissa Cohn has been in the mortgage business for more than 30 years. She’s seen the industry expand and collapse more than once, companies come and go and regulations change the way business is done. Yet despite all of the ups and downs, she says the core of the mortgage business is no different than when she got started in 1982. “Despite everything that’s changed with regulation and guidelines, the process of getting a mortgage is the same as it was 34 years ago: you have to qualify,” she said.

And she would know. Cohn created Manhattan Mortgage at her dining room table in 1984 and turned it into one of the country’s premier mortgage brokers. She changed the way people applied for and obtained mortgages—it’s now a lot easier than it was 30 years ago thanks to her.

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In 1982, fresh out of Smith College, Cohn started working at Citibank. In college, she was debating between going into business or banking, but decided to go into the mortgage business instead. “What appealed to me about mortgage banking was that it was a lot more hands-on,” she said. “I got to deal with people and help them with the biggest transaction of their life…buying a home.”

At Citibank, Cohn learned the business from the ground up. In those days, each bank had its own lending program and that was it. Homebuyers would pay an application fee and try to get a loan. If they didn’t, that fee was money wasted. Each bank’s loan was different, too. If a potential buyer wanted a mortgage with a fixed-rate over 30 years and their bank only offered variable rates, s/he was out of luck.

Eventually, Cohn caught the eye of Gilbert Charles & Beylan, Inc. They hired her to run and expand their mortgage business. It was here that Cohn started to do something new: she got banks to pay her a fee to offer their mortgages to buyers. “My idea was to bring a stable of different lenders to a customer. I’d review their financial picture and the application, and say ‘these are the places you can go to and these are the options offered to you.’”

Cohn grew the department, going from one to three to five banks. During this time, she was earning a small salary and a commission, which was growing because of how successful she was. After a year, the company thought she was making too much money and cut her pay. “I said, ‘I can do this myself. I don’t need them to do it,’” Cohn recalled.

So she quit her job and created Manhattan Mortgage. Many of her clients went with her, but it was still a very small business at first. Cohn was the only employee and her first deals were signed at the table at her home. “I hit the road and walked and walked and talked and talked and got a lot of real estate developers sending me business. I grew it one loan at a time.”

Over the course of the last three decades, Cohn turned Manhattan Mortgage into one of the leading mortgage brokers in the country, responsible for having reshaped the way customers and banks think about mortgage lending. Cohn ran Manhattan Mortgage until 2012. As the recession began to subside, the new mortgage regulations in the Dodd Frank Act made it more difficult for her to do business so she sold the enterprise to a bank from Boston. By the time she did, Cohn had 150 employees working under the Manhattan Mortgage banner, processing more than 4600 transactions per year and a total of $5 billion in volume at the company’s height.

Today, Cohn is working with David Brecher at FM Home Loans and is doing what she does best: helping people find the best mortgages to buy their homes. Not surprisingly, Cohn’s part of the business is growing rapidly. In addition to her main office in Manhattan, there is one in Connecticut and one in East Hampton. She also plans to open offices in Scarsdale and Greenwich.

According to her, now is a great time to get a mortgage. She explained that at the start of a new year, banks have more available capital to lend and offer competitive rates to bring in borrowers. Additionally, new banks are jumping on the bandwagon and offering new products and enhancements. “All the market volatility has helped rates reach record lows, which is great for the real estate market. Knowing that a great rate and low payment stand behind you, it is always a good time to get a mortgage. It is quite possible that rates could go even lower this year with the state of the economy, but remember that they can also turn on a dime.”

In her new position, Cohn is able to offer very rate- and service-conscious deals. She’s also bringing in some of her old clients—she recently helped one of her first customers at Manhattan Mortgage refinance. “It’s good for younger people to see that maintaining relationships is a lifetime measure.” Cohn, who lives in Sag Harbor, is happy to bring her business to Long Island, where her “heart belongs.”

“I really enjoy the fact that I can work in so many different communities. The bottom line is that it’s still the same exciting, problem-solving puzzle it was 30 years ago. You see a lot of online companies say how they can give you a mortgage without ever speaking to you. That’s not what people want. They still want a person and communication.”