Fred Miller expected 2020 to be an easy transition year into retirement. Instead, it turned into one of the most challenging he would ever face.
After a 50-year career in investment banking, the Michigan native had been looking forward to spending more time at his suburban Detroit home with his wife of 35 years, Anita Farah Miller, and his extended family.
But just as the global COVID-19 pandemic began and stay-at-home orders were issued, Anita passed away on April 1, 2020, after living with chronic arthritis before her death.
“She was a real tiger, and the bravest woman I’ve ever met,” Miller said. “I miss her. She was quite a lady.”
Following Anita’s death, Miller felt the time was right to downsize from the 3,300-square-foot home he and his late wife shared. He decided to move back to his hometown of St. Clair, Michigan, about an hour northeast of Detroit. He had always dreamed of owning a home on the St. Clair River.
But where and how could a 79-year-old widower secure a 30-year mortgage? During a global pandemic, Miller admits he wasn’t so sure it was in the cards. That was before he connected with Better Mortgage, an online lender that has funded nearly $31 billion in home loans since it went into business in 2016.
A Change of Plans
Miller and his late wife had contemplated moving home to St. Clair after his 2019 retirement. But instead of returning to the community where he was born and raised, he and Anita chose to stay and remain close to their family.
Everything changed the following year when Anita passed away in their home, surrounded by loved ones.
A widower just four months into his retirement, Miller made the choice to search for his dream home in a familiar place.
“I was born and raised in St. Clair,” Miller said. “I left here when I was 23 years old to go into the [Air Force] and I didn’t come back until about 50 years later. The character of the town hasn’t changed since I was a kid. It makes me feel like I belong. It’s a special place.”
Homes along the St. Clair River carry some of the most expensive real estate prices in Miller’s hometown. But in late May 2020, while browsing online home listings with his daughter, he came across what appeared to be the perfect place for him to spend his retirement.
“The price was right because it’s the smallest one in the neighborhood, which is kind of cool. I liked that a lot,” Miller said. “This one just fit my needs perfectly.”
He still didn’t know if it would even be possible. At 79, Miller wondered, “what would happen if I walked into a mortgage office and said, ‘I want a 30-year mortgage?’”
As it turns out, he didn’t walk into a mortgage office at all. After speaking with his daughter, Laura Soderberg, a director of operations at Better Mortgage, a different path to his dream home came into focus. Soderberg helped her father input his personal information into the Better.com website, which pulled up his asset accounts, employment history, credit report, and other necessary information.
After uploading basic information about his finances, he quickly received pre-approval for a 30-year, $300,000 fixed-rate mortgage through Better Mortgage with a competitive interest rate. Mortgage rates made history earlier this year when the average 30-year rate dropped just below 3% in January. As recently as 15 years ago, rates were in the 5-6% range, so Miller’s rate is historically low compared to rates in the past.
The Better Way
With his preapproval in hand, Miller made a successful offer of $400,000 and closed in 30 days. Better Mortgage locked in his mortgage rate and even helped line up his homeowners insurance through Better Cover, the company’s affiliated homeowners insurance business.
“Now you have a 79-year-old guy with a 30-year mortgage. I don’t think I would have been able to purchase the home if I had gone through the regular mortgage steps [in person].”
Even Miller’s daughter, who works at Better Mortgage, was impressed by her firsthand experience going through the process with her father. “He took six months just to get [documents] for his Medicare, but then the Better [Mortgage] website pulled his W2s and pay stubs within seconds,” Soderberg said.
Miller — who has had a few mortgages over the years — described the Better Mortgage approach as “quick and efficient,” adding the website was easy to use and navigate. He also loved how there was only one person he dealt with every step of the way — making the process go more smoothly than with other lenders he’s worked with in the past.
Better Mortgage is part of a new crop of online mortgage lenders — recently named one of the best by NextAdvisor — and is available in 46 states and Washington, D.C. Its streamlined online platform can pre-approve borrowers in minutes. Better Mortgage charges no origination fees, and borrowers can receive extra incentives for using Better Mortgage agents. Better Mortgage also pays $2,000 if it doesn’t close the loan on time and $100 if it can’t match or beat another lender’s estimate.
“We did everything you would normally do when you get a mortgage anywhere, and we did it all online,” Miller said. “It was really an easy process. They didn’t ask for anything that was extravagant or unusual. They just basically wanted the facts. And when we got the facts, we got the mortgage.”
What’s Next for Fred?
Life in his dream house has made for a unique homecoming for Miller, who quickly reacclimated to his old community. In addition to volunteering at the St. Clair Museum and the St. Clair Historical Society, Miller spends his time catching up with old friends and neighbors. Though he misses his wife, he finds comfort in the familiarity of his hometown.
More than a year after Anita had passed away, family from across the country gathered in southeast Michigan for a celebration of her life at her gravesite. The day was capped by a large party at Miller’s new riverfront home, featuring karaoke and Middle Eastern food.
This first big family gathering at her dad’s new house was a “lovely day,” Soderberg said. “The kids were fishing [in the river] and we had thousand-foot-long freighters going by. It was everything my father wanted this house to be, with everyone here to see it.”
Miller eventually added new steps and a fishing dock to the property, where he can often be seen walking down to the river to catch walleye.
As life again settles down for Miller, he said purchasing the home provided a huge relief as he begins his next chapter. “I’m at peace, really,” Miller said. “I came home and I looked around and went, ‘St. Clair! Just where I wanted to be.’”
“I couldn’t have done it without Better, that’s for sure.”
(Better Mortgage Corp. NMLS # 330511.)