The “Big Four” take on the upstarts in title insurance

The “Big Four” take on the upstarts in title insurance

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Steve Berneman is the rare startup founder who wants his industry to shrink, not grow.

“One of our big goals at Blueprint Title is to shrink the title insurance business from an $18 billion business to a $10 billion business,” Berneman, the company co-founder and CEO. “We believe that title insurance premiums are significantly too high and that if underwriters and agents were more efficient and took a different approach to the market, they wouldn’t have to charge as much.”

To that end, Berneman’s Nashville-headquartered company recently launched a portal that allows real estate professionals and their clients to keep track of the title process. And Blueprint acquired an underwriter as it attempts to gain market share in an industry known for extreme barriers to entry.

Blueprint may ooze ambition, but it is just one among dozens of tech-forward startups in the title industry, all of whom are competing for a slice of the 10.5% share of the market controlled by small, independent title insurance companies.

For this reason, John Campbell, a title insurance industry analyst at investment bank Stephens Inc., doesn’t feel that the “Big Four,” namely Fidelity National Title, First American Financial, Old Republic Title and Stewart Title, who as of the second quarter of 2021 controlled 80.3% of the market, should be too concerned about the rise of the little guy. But they won’t be resting on their laurels, either.

“A lot of the major firms are increasingly becoming more tech savvy and they are using that tech to become a bit more integrated within the broader real estate transaction ecosystem,” Campbell said.

Whether big or small, title companies are deploying technology to improve the flow and ease of the entire closing process. Two of the biggest developments have been the phenomenal growth of remote online notarization (RON) and document management platforms. Stewart has worked to expand its online signing and closing capabilities, which it plans on beefing up in the new year, said company president Tara Smith.

And First American has launched its own suite of digital interfaces and platforms: IgniteRE allows real estate professionals to manage all components of the transaction in one place; and Docutech, which was acquired in 2020, enables lenders to deliver a more seamless eClosing experience.

Many of the larger firms are also increasing their level of automation in order to take on more volume and maintain their lead over the plucky startups.

“All of the firms have become a lot more automated,” Campbell said. “I don’t think there is any way you can deliver orders with the type of growth they have all seen relative to their head count, so due to this you are seeing a lot more automation.”

First American is among the “Big Four” that has really embraced the use of automation, especially to tackle refinance transactions, which have boomed over the past year due to low interest rates.

“Today, 96% of our refinance transactions run through our automated title decision engine,” Chris Leavell, the COO of First American, said. “Based on our own risk profile, we’ve achieved a fully automated underwriting decision on 50% of those orders, and we are semi-automated on an additional 40%.”

Looking ahead, Leavell says that First American hopes to introduce some level of automation to purchase transactions. Although automation is helping keep up with a huge increase in title insurance premium volume, the industry is still reckoning with a talent crunch. Back in 2014 the average age of a title agent or broker, according to industry statistics, was 60. That hasn’t changed over the past seven years.

Smith feels that this talent shortage is one of Stewart’s biggest challenges. “We are all competing for the same talent, so we have decided to focus on the opportunity to bring new talent into the industry,” Smith said. “We have an annual intern program in which we focus on bringing people into the organization and helping them learn the industry from the ground up.”

Despite what seems like an impenetrable industry faced with numerous challenges, DOMA, formerly known as States Title, has found some success in leveraging its technology to increase market share. In its ongoing effort to consolidate and speed up the closing pro-cess, DOMA has its sights on becoming a one-stop-shop for closing a purchase.

“We would like within the next five-to-10 years for somebody to be able to sign a purchase contract for a home on a Friday evening and move in on a Monday morning,” Max Simkoff, the CEO of DOMA, said in an interview. In order to achieve this goal, Simkoff is working to grow DOMA’s current technological offerings and is looking to expand into the lending and appraisal space.

While this does seem like a far-off dream, Campbell believes DOMA is not alone in wanting to become a one-stop shop. Compass, the nation’s second-largest real estate brokerage, and Rocket Mortgage, easily the biggest lender, are among the massive real estate companies with growing title segments. Others are sure to follow.

“Everyone is looking at that value chain in the home buying process that once looked very distinct as much as 10 years ago, but now the lines are just blurring on all sides and I think we will continue to see that,” Campbell said.

This article was first featured in the Dec/Jan HousingWire Magazine issue. To read the full issue, go here.

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