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Express Financial's shutdown wallops real estate contractors

| Saturday, Sept. 22, 2007

AnnMarie Lincoln received a jolt Monday when she called Express Financial Services in Green Tree with the results of 10 appraisals she had performed for Express at a cost of about $1,100.

No one answered.

"I was shocked," said Lincoln, a Philadelphia-area appraiser, who couldn't get past a voice mail message, and was unaware that Express Financial suddenly had closed its offices at the Parkway Center the previous Friday.

"I had talked with them on Friday, asking if I could submit the appraisals on Monday, and they had said that was fine," said Lincoln, who has worked under contract with Express Financial "for five or six years."

Now she fears she may never be paid a total of more than $5,600 the company owes her for recent and previous work.

An unknown number of other contractors and people in the real estate business -- possibly hundreds -- who dealt with Express Financial, may have a similar story, said Brenda Schroeder, a St. Louis-area appraiser. She said her small firm is owed more than $15,000 for three months work.

Express Financial was a national company that provided appraisals, title insurance, closing and deed preparation services for major real estate lenders. It apparently lost business as numerous lenders closed or cut back operations as nation's ongoing credit crisis worsened.

Express Financial President Richard Fuchs and other top company officials have not been available for comment. Fuchs, of Upper St. Clair, founded the company in 1985, and saw its workforce grow to more than 400 before its recent troubles.

Employees interviewed by the Tribune-Review on Monday said only about 100 workers remained when the company closed. They learned of its plans to close at a morning meeting Sept. 14.

The company had been laying off workers in spurts since last year, employees said. Not only was the Green Tree office closed, but so were branch offices in Camp Hill and Malvern in Pennsylvania, Cincinnati and Columbus in Ohio, Cherry Hill, N.J., Columbia Md. and Tampa, Fla.

The Title Report, an industry publication, speculated the death blow for Express Financial may have come about six months ago when the firm lost giant Countrywide Financial Corp. as one of its clients. The lender chose to work with four vendors on a national level, it said.

"We are a small company, and we want to get paid," said Schroeder, who said she's done work for Express Services for more than 13 years. She now fears her company may not be able to stay open long unless she's able to replace the work.

She quickly filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office after learning of the company's fate from a Tribune-Review story earlier this week.

"I was thinking of coming to Pittsburgh because I didn't know what to do," she said.

The Attorney General's Office of Consumer Protection generally does not get involved in financial disputes between businesses, said spokesman Nils Frederiksen.

"We do not have any legal actions at this point against Express Financial Services," he said. "But if there are consumers out there who are having difficulty with this company, either with services that have not been delivered or other problems, they need to file a formal complaint."

Effects of the Express Financial closing on individual property transactions are unclear at this time.

Jeannette attorney Rob Dominick, who handled purchase and refinance mortgages for Express Financial, said he has at least one example.

"One of my clients, who co-owned a property with his deceased father, had paid Express $2,000 towards a refinancing of a mortgage and was waiting for the inheritance tax to be determined," Domenick said. "He tried to get his $2,000 back when he learned of the Friday closing, but was denied payment," he said.

Domenick said he also is owned about $5,000 by Express Financial.

More fortunate is Paul Zollinger of Savannah Mortgage in Jeannette. He had several mortgage closings scheduled by Express Financial, but once they closed their doors, he was able to use other title companies to handle closings without loss in time.

Meanwhile, more local fallout is occurring from the decline of the subprime mortgage market.

CIT Group, based in Marshall, will lay off 18 when it closes operations on Oct. 10, said Gordon Thomas, area manager and regional vice president.

"We have funded all the loans in our pipeline, and I am not accepting any new ones," he said. Additional Information:

How to file complaints with Pa. Attorney General

&#149 Forms are available online at the Office of Consumer Protection's Internet site -- www.attorneygeneral.gov -- that can be filled out online or printed out and mailed.

&#149 Or call the AG's hot line -- 800-441-2555 -- from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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