The Housing Scene

Would you buy a mortgage from Kevin Costner?

This isn’t quite a rhetorical question. The Academy Award-winning actor and director is the lead investor in a new venture in the mortgage space called Lender Price. The Pasadena, California-based firm doesn’t make loans, but supplies key technology that figures out how much you’ll be charged for a mortgage.

And Costner joins a surprisingly long line of celebrities involved in the mortgage business. The list includes the current president of the United States, who migrated over to the home loan field after making his fortune in real estate. But there are many actors and sports figures who have made the jump after they achieved celebrity.

Are celebs just figureheads, or do they really know something about housing finance?

Costner talks a pretty good game. He made an appearance at last year’s Mortgage Bankers Association’s annual conference, and says Lender Price has a “vision and strategy for mortgage lending transformation through a technologically superior digital POS and PPE platform that offers unprecedented business analytics.”

While that statement sounds as though it was written by the company’s marketing director, the jargon was pretty much absent during a one-on-one conversation.

“The mortgage industry is eager to embrace the promise of digital disruption, and Lender Price is strategically positioned to fulfill on that promise,” said Costner during an interview. “For an investor like me, who wants to be in on the early stages of a business poised to transform an industry that is critical to the U.S. economy and touches the lives and financial aspirations of millions of citizens, Lender Price is ideally positioned.”

President Donald Trump’s real estate background is famous. What is less commonly known is that he launched a mortgage brokerage company -- Trump Mortgage (what else?) -- just before the mortgage market imploded.

According to an analysis in the Washington Post, his venture folded after just 18 months in business. Among other things, its spring 2006 launch was a case of bad timing. The market tanked in the fall of 2008. And what was even more untimely was that his product line included subprime mortgages.

Trump didn’t really have any hands-on impact on the business, but it was a failure nonetheless.

Mortgages, of course, are a pretty logical hop for a real estate mogul like the president. Most often, you can’t sell a house without financing.

Other celeb housing connections often make sense as well -- after a closer look. For example, Academy Award-nominated actor Edward Norton has shown an active interest in affordable housing. That’s not surprising when you factor in that his grandfather was James Rouse, a towering figure in the field of affordable housing. Rouse was the creator of Columbia, Maryland -- arguably the country’s most successful planned community -- and the founder of the nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners.

Enterprise has been responsible for creating half a million affordable units since its inception. Norton actually worked in the company’s New York office for two years, and has been a director of the firm since 1998. He is now a lifetime trustee.

Some celebrities actually start their own housing businesses. Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach is one. He launched The Staubach Company, a commercial real estate firm, in 1977. Now he is executive chairman of another real estate firm, JLL Americas, a company that took in $3.6 billion in revenue in 2011.

Trade publication National Real Estate Investor recently went looking for celebrities investing in commercial real estate, and it found a baker’s dozen of them. They include former New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez, former tennis great Andre Agassi, and actors Brad Pitt and George Clooney.

Some mortgage firms hire celebs as spokespeople. Sports figures are especially popular in this role; stars like Reggie Jackson, Jim Palmer and Ozzie Smith can be seen at mortgage meetings around the country. One of the most popular endorsers was racecar driver Danica Patrick, who represented subprime lender Argent Mortgage years ago. At one industry meeting, some 800 mortgage execs stood in line to have their pictures taken with the racing star, who smiled for every photo.

As a side note, your intrepid columnist was once given the opportunity to race against Patrick in a video game. We sat side by side in mockup racecars with accelerator pedals and game screens in front of us. She beat the pants off of me, but softened the blow with the gift of a signed copy of her autobiography and a personally autographed hat.

And of course, besides athletes, any number of actors have served as spokespeople for mortgage companies. Actors of a certain age, in particular, have helped market reverse mortgages to seniors. Robert Wagner, Henry Winkler, Fred Thompson and Tom Selleck have all hyped these loans, which allow people to remain in their homes until they pass on or move out without having to make monthly payments.

-- Freelance writer Mark Fogarty contributed to this report.

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