Years of experience in the Chippewa Valley give Ben Ottum of Merchants Bank a leg up among lenders.
From the outside, the real estate business may seem to be all about houses, numbers, and paperwork. But those aren’t the things that keep Ben Ottum in the industry. Ben Ottum, a mortgage lender with Merchants Bank in Eau Claire, is quick to reply when asked what his favorite part of his job is: “The people,” he says.
“Ultimately, it’s all about helping people get a home,” Ottum says. “I just like helping people in general, being able to get their transaction done smoothly, and I take pride in getting things done on time and without hiccups.”
Ottum has spent about a dozen years as a mortgage lender, seven of them in the Chippewa Valley. He began his current role in January, and he said there is great value in working with a community bank like Merchants.
2728 Mall Drive,
Community banks offer flexibility, as a streamlined process for borrowers, Ottum said. “There’s not as much to go through to get a decision,” he said, “where with some of the larger (banks) it may take a little more time and effort.”
Merchants entered the Eau Claire market in 2014 when it purchased the former Alliance Bank branch at 2728 Mall Drive. While Merchants may be relatively new to the Chippewa Valley, the bank has deep roots in the Upper Midwest: It was founded in 1875 in Winona, Minnesota, and is still headquartered in downtown Winona.
Because of his years in the business, Ottum has seen the ups and downs of the Valley real estate market. After several years of near-record home sales and rising home values, the market has been shifting back toward buyers, he said. In recent months, homes have been staying on the market longer, and more open houses are being held.
“Buyers are getting a little bit more foothold than they had,” he said.
What does this mean in practical terms? For one, homebuyers can take a little more time while making decisions, Ottum said. When the housing market was at its hottest, many people were buying homes without stepping into them, which could lead to rushed decision-making. A cooling market gives homebuyers more time to think and more selection, he said.
Today’s market also gives buyers the opportunity to put more contingencies on their offers, such as making a purchase subject to an inspection or to the sale of an existing home.
“Having those contingencies back helps protect the buyer against them not knowing what they don’t know,” Ottum said.
Ottum knows from years of experience that buying a home can be a cause of anxiety. “For first-time homebuyers especially, it’s a stressful time, because it’s a large purchase,” he said. “It’s something you’re not prepared for.” To help put potential buyers’ minds at ease, Ottum offers these four tips:
1. TRY TO RELAX. Specifically, don’t be anxious about sharing your financial information with a lender. While pro- viding such details may make people feel vulnerable, ultimately giving this information to a financial institution helps protect borrowers.
2. APPLY FOR PRE-APPROVAL. These days, real estate agents often won’t show houses to potential buyers unless they’ve been pre-approved for a mortgage. Going through this process with a lender indicates you’re serious about making a purchase, and also lets real estate agents know the price range you can afford, Ottum said.
3. PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR COMFORT LEVEL. The amount of money you may be pre-approved to borrow may be more than you want to spend – and that’s OK. The pre-approved amount is calculated based on industry standards, but you aren’t obligated to spend as much as you’re allowed to borrow.
4. USE A LOCAL LENDER. Lenders based in the community offer the best of both worlds: Like big national providers, community banks such as Merchants offer the convenience of applying online. However, unlike the big players, community banks provide hands-on service when needed, guiding clients toward buying a home.
For Ottum, homebuyers are people, not statistics. “I don’t believe in the numbers game – solely being a number,” he said.
Merchants Bank is a Member FDIC and Equal Housing Lender. Loans are subject to credit approval.