One of the most confusing parts of the mortgage process can be figuring out all the different kinds of lenders that deal in home loans and refinancing. There are direct lenders, retail lenders, mortgage brokers, portfolio lenders, correspondent lenders, wholesale lenders and others.
Many borrowers simply head right into the process and look for what appear to be reasonable terms without worrying about what kind of lender they're dealing with. But if you want to be sure of getting the best deal, or are looking for a jumbo loan or have other special circumstances to address, understanding the different types of lenders involved can be a big help.
Explanations of some of the main types are provided below. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive - there is a fair amount of overlap among the various categories. For example, most portfolio lenders tend to be direct lenders as well. And many lenders are involved in more than one type of lending - such as a large bank that has both wholesale and retail lending operations.
Mortgage Lenders vs. Mortgage Brokers
A good place to start is with the difference between mortgage lenders and mortgage brokers.
Mortgage lenders are exactly that, the lenders that actually make the loan and provide the money used to buy a home or refinance an existing mortgage. They have certain criteria you have to meet in terms of creditworthiness and financial resources in order to qualify for a loan, and set their mortgage interest rates and other loan terms accordingly.
Mortgage brokers, on the other hand, don't actually make loans. What they do is work with multiple lenders to find the one that will offer you the best rate and terms. When you take out the loan, you're borrowing from the lender, not the broker, who simply acts as an agent.
Often, these are wholesale lenders (see below) who discount the rates they offer through brokers compared to what you'd get if you approached them directly as a retail customer. However, the broker then tacks on his or her own fee, which may equal the discount - where the customer usually saves money is by getting the best deal relative to other lenders.
Wholesale and Retail Lenders
Wholesale lenders are banks or other institutions that do not deal directly with consumers, but offer their loans through third parties such as mortgage brokers, credit unions, other banks, etc. Often, these are large banks that also have retail operations that work with consumers directly. Many large banks, such as Bank of America and Wells Fargo, have both wholesale and retail operations.
In this type of lending, the wholesale lender is the one that is actually making the loan and whose name typically appears on loan documents. The third party - bank, credit union, or mortgage broker - in most cases is simply acting as an agent in return for a fee.
Retail lenders are exactly what they sound like, lenders who issue mortgages directly to individual consumers. They may either lend their own money or may act as an agent for Again, retail lending may simply be one function offered by a larger financial institution, which may also offer commercial, institutional and wholesale lending, as well as a range of other financial services.
Somewhat similar to wholesale lenders are warehouse lenders. The key difference here is that, instead of providing loans through intermediaries, they lend money to banks or other mortgage lenders with which to issue their own loans, on their own terms. The warehouse lender is repaid when the mortgage lender sells the loan to investors.
Another distinction is between portfolio lenders and mortgage bankers. The vast majority of U.S. mortgage lenders are mortgage bankers, who don't lend their own money, but borrow funds at short-term rates from warehouse lenders (see above) to cover the mortgages they issue. Once the mortgage is made, they sell it to investors and repay the short-term note. Those mortgages are usually sold through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which allows those agencies to set the minimum underwriting standards for most mortgages issue in the United States.
Portfolio lenders, on the other hand, use their own money when making home loans, which they typically maintain on their own books, or "portfolio." Because they don't have to satisfy the demands of outside investors, they can set their own terms for the loans they issue.
This makes portfolio lenders a good choice for "niche" borrowers who don't fit the typical lender profile - perhaps because they're seeking a jumbo loan, are considering a unique property, have flawed credit but strong finances, or may be looking at investment property. You may pay higher rates for this service, but not always - because portfolio lenders tend to be very careful who they lend to, their rates are sometimes quite low.
Hard Money Lenders
If you can't qualify through a portfolio lender, a hard money lender may be your option of last resort. Hard money lenders tend to be private individuals with money to lend, though they may be set up as business operations. Interest rates tend to be quite high - 12 percent is not uncommon - and down payments may be 30 percent and above. Hard money lenders are typically used for short-term loans that are expected to be repaid quickly, such as for investment property, rather than long-term amortizing loans for a home purchase.
Another term you may encounter is "direct lender." A direct lender simply means a lender that originates its own loans - either with its own funds or borrowed funds. It can therefore be either a mortgage banker or portfolio lender. It does not, therefore, act as an agent for a wholesale lender. Direct lenders are inevitably retail lenders as well, because they do not involve third parties or middlemen in making loans to consumers.
A final term you may hear is "correspondent lender." Whereas some types of lenders are distinguished by the process leading up to the loan, correspondent lenders are defined by what happens after the loan is issued. Correspondent lenders work with an investor, called a sponsor, who purchases any mortgages they make that meet certain criteria. Often, this is either Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, in their roles as the major U.S. secondary lenders.
Correspondent lenders earn their money by collecting a point or two when the mortgage is issued. Immediately selling the loan to a sponsor pretty much guarantees they'll make money, since the correspondent no longer carries the risk for a default. However, the sponsor may decline the loan if it turns out not to meet the sponsor's standards, in which case the correspondent must either find another investor or carry the loan itself.
Again, these terms are not always exclusive, but instead generally describe types of mortgage functions that various lenders may perform, sometimes at the same time. But understanding what each of these does can be a great help in understanding how the mortgage process works and form a basis for evaluating mortgage offers.