James Malamut, of Ventnor, a licensed mortgage originator, works with Kim Rullis, of Mays Landing, to refinance her mortgage, with help from David Weiner, right, title officer of Equity Plus Title Agency.

Edward Lea

The downturn in the real estate market trickled down to coattail industries, including title agencies. Those that survived were either more aggressive or adapted their business to fit a new model.

“Unless you’ve been living in a closet for the past seven years,” you know about the decline in the real estate market, said Suzanne King, of Dominion Title Services in Vineland. “It’s depressing.”

Her company got aggressive. It reached out to Realtors to try to get the agency first in line for business, King said.

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John Linnington, of the Title Co. of Jersey, said his company reinvented itself.

“We had to get in touch with the market rather than wait for calls,” Linnington said. The company also helped banks move distressed properties and worked to facilitate short sales.

“We tried to reduce, but the market fell too fast. We are still scurrying to try to follow the market down with costs,” Linnington said.

The 40-year-old company owned all of its assets and most of its 11 locations in 2005, he said. After the market downturn, it reduced to six locations in Atlantic, Cape May and Ocean counties. It did not make sense to keep neighborhood locations where real estate wasn’t moving, he said.

“We flexed with the market as best as we could. The past seven or eight years have been challenging,” he said.

Now, the company helps commercial banks and Realtors sell distressed properties and owners refinance mortgage debt where the principal owed is less than its fallen property value. The company started operating in debt by 2007 and had to make changes internally to offset costs. Some of those steps included going paperless, using different systems and social media, and creating mobile sites.

Because it is an old company, going paperless was daunting, he said. They had to convert more than 500,000 files.

Other companies, such as Equity Plus Title Agency in Linwood switched from relying heavily on real estate transactions to looking at refinancing.

“We’ve been living off of refinancing and short sales,” Michael Duffy, owner of Equity Plus, said.

Government work and refinancing is what kept the company afloat when real estate slowed down, he said. Declining interest rates made refinancing attractive to home owners.

Some homeowners took advantage of the steadily declining rates by refinancing multiple times, Duffy said. In the past, refinancing might be done once or twice in 25 years, but it hasn’t been unusual for someone to do it three times in the past four years.

Duffy stayed in business also by handling his credit responsibly, he said. Beginning in August 2003, he started a few credit lines and “luckily I rode the wave up. I always thought maybe one day I’ll need this.”

And he did. The credit lines helped him survive the business storm, with help from employees who were patient about taking alternating furloughs and stagnant wages, Duffy said.

“They helped out a lot and realized everyone is suffering in the same way,” he said.

The only thing positive about the market crash for title agencies is that the “playing field” is more level, Duffy said.

In years past, Realtors could do the job of a title agency on their own, at their own companies. That hurt established agencies, especially because most buyers don’t know they have the right to choose their own title agency, Duffy said.

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