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Going Countrywide With Insurance

Home Lender Spotlights Its Other Business

November 18, 1998|JESUS SANCHEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After building itself into a giant in the home loan business, Countrywide Credit Industries Inc. is raising the profile of one of its less known operations: Countrywide Insurance Services.

This month, the company unveiled what it describes as the first-ever Internet site (http://www.cwinsurance.com) that can deliver online policy quotes for homeowners, auto and term life insurance policies. In the next few weeks, Countrywide will launch a television advertising campaign that seeks to establish a separate identity for its insurance business.

"We operate as a really large independent agency," said John Ingersoll, senior vice president of business development for Countrywide Insurance Services, which has nearly 350,000 policies in force nationwide.

Calabasas-based Countrywide does not break out the revenues of its subsidiaries, but Ingersoll said the company's insurance business has exceeded the growth of Countrywide's home loan portfolio. In response to that growth, Countrywide Insurance is planning to expand its staff by about a third in the coming months.

Countrywide has been offering its home loan customers homeowners insurance since the company's founding in 1969. It soon added automobile insurance after many customers voiced their preference for buying their auto and homeowners coverage from the same company.

The company has expanded its range of insurance policies and products in recent years and is planning more offerings down the road. Last year, for example, Countrywide began selling home warranties, which protect homeowners from the breakdown of home appliances and mechanical systems such as heaters and air conditioners. Countrywide will also be adding health insurance and long-term care coverage, Ingersoll said.

The insurance and mortgage businesses complement each other, Ingersoll said. Countrywide's insurance arm benefits because it can market its policies to the millions of Countrywide home loan customers. The mortgage arm has discovered that Countrywide policyholders are less likely to switch to another lender when it comes to refinancing their loan or buying another home.

"It's a very natural marriage," Ingersoll said.

Healthy Housing Forecast: After breaking sales records this year, the national housing market will cool off next year but will continue to grow and remain relatively healthy, according to the forecast issued earlier this month during the annual convention of the National Assn. of Realtors in Anaheim.

Sales of existing homes will reach 4.75 million units this year--the highest ever, according to John A. Tuccillo, NAR's consulting economist. Next year, annual sales should drop to between 4.2 million and 4.3 million as the economy loses momentum. Still, even at the lower rate, next year's sales would be the second highest on record.

"The market currently is shifting into a different phase," Tuccillo said in his forecast. "The slowing economy means slower employment growth, but the strong demographic factors along with low interest rates will keep 1999 strong."

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Homes Before Movies: Much of the news about the giant Playa Vista project has focused on efforts to land DreamWorks SKG as the development's anchor tenant. But it will be housing, not a movie studio, that will first rise on the nearly 1,000-acre site south of Marina del Rey. The first phase--which will include about 800 apartments, condos and townhouses--is expected to be ready by the end of 2000, said Ken Agid, vice president of marketing for Playa Vista.

Builders interested in getting a piece of the construction business had to submit bids by Monday. About 10 firms will be selected within three months to construct $200 million worth of housing in the first phase, Agid said.

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Mello-Roos Challenge Rejected: The U.S. Supreme Court ended a legal effort to undermine legislation that puts tax liens related to Mello-Roos bonds above all other claims. Mello-Roos bonds have been used to pay for building sewers, streets and other public improvements for residential and commercial real estate developments. Under state law, the Mello-Roos tax lien comes before any other claims on the property. That special status was challenged in a case involving the default of Mello-Roos bonds used to help build Oxnard Town Center in Ventura County. Kenneth B. Bley of Cox, Castle & Nicholson, an L.A. lawyer representing Oxnard and the affected community facilities district, said the decision "means that all attempts over this [six-year] period to invalidate the Mello-Roos law as a mechanism for financing infrastructure supporting private development has failed."

Jesus Sanchez can be reached by e-mail at jesus.sanchez@latimes.com.

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