WASHINGTON — Todd Vitale, a personal trainer who opened his own gym last year, was having difficulty getting a mortgage of more than $700,000 to buy a home in Greenwich, Conn., because his new business was untested.
Then he tried Wells Fargo & Co., the biggest US home lender, where he kept most of his savings in an account he opened more than a decade ago, he said. He worked with the bank’s private mortgage unit, whose clients are entitled to loans of up to $6 million and personalized service, and had the opportunity to explain that he had already run a similar business and could make the gym succeed.
Wells Fargo approved his 30-year fixed-rate mortgage of more than $700,000.
‘‘I don’t think I would have gotten a loan unless Wells Fargo private mortgage gave me a shot,’’ said Vitale, 38, who moved into his new 3,000-square-foot home in February.
Jumbos, or loans of at least $417,000 in most areas, are one of the few thriving pieces of an otherwise shrinking mortgage market. The biggest banks, including Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Bank of America, are ratcheting up efforts to win wealthier borrowers while keeping credit tight for almost everyone else.
‘Big banks need loan growth. If they were getting decent commercial loan growth, they wouldn’t be so aggressive on competing for jumbos.’
Lenders are allowing assets in accounts to serve as collateral in lieu of down payments, cutting rates if customers have or set up investment accounts, rolling out new adjustable-rate jumbo mortgages, and accepting lower down payments.
‘‘Jumbos are growing while almost everything else is dead,’’ said Paul Miller, a banking analyst at FBR Capital Markets. ‘‘Big banks need loan growth. If they were getting decent commercial loan growth, they wouldn’t be so aggressive on competing for jumbos.’’
Applications for jumbo mortgages of at least $729,000 increased 4.9 percent in March from a year earlier, while requests for loans of less than $150,000 fell by 21 percent, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.
The average purchase application loan amount reached $280,500 in the week ended April 18, the highest since the survey started in January 1990.
Jumbos, also called nonconforming loans because they exceed the limit for government-backed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to guarantee, are loans of more than $625,500 in pricier markets such as Manhattan and Los Angeles. They’re generally made to the most creditworthy borrowers with FICO scores of 760, on average, and held by banks instead of being packaged into securities and sold to investors.
JPMorgan modified its guidelines in the third quarter for making jumbo loans to take into account a client’s total assets at the bank. The bank made the change after seeing that customers who had long-term relationships with JPMorgan were less likely to default on their loans.
Last year, Wells Fargo created a team of 400 underwriters across six US locations who focus on jumbo loans.
Bank of America in October reduced the down payment to 15 percent from 20 percent for most jumbos of less than $1 million. Existing customers may receive discounts on their mortgages based on their level of business with the bank.