A new Baton Rouge business, Commission Express, is handing out Payday candy bars to local Realtors, and the message is sweet and clear: Brokers and real estate agents with a contingency-free purchase agreement, buyer loan approval and ready signatories don't have to wait until loan closing to collect their commissions.

"Payday can be Anyday," announces the flier given out with the candy bar.

The quicker paydays are made possible through commission advances issued by Commission Express. A practice endorsed by the National Association of Realtors, advancing real estate commissions is called "factoring," or secured lending based on the assignment of receivables.

One of 25 U.S. franchises, Commission Express opened at 8280 YMCA Plaza Drive on Feb. 1 and quickly outdistanced its own projections. "We didn't expect a profit until the seventh month," said manager Webb Wartelle, "but it will already be sooner than that."

By Feb. 28, Commission Express had purchased two receivables and expected to sign up six more that day.

Commission Express is catching on fast with Realtors. "If we talk to 10 brokers," said Wartelle, "eight or nine of (the calls) are positive."

Leah Wartelle, the company's co-owner and marketer, said Commission Express is a much-needed service here and throughout the state. When she sold real estate here for three years, she said, "it would have been helpful to have the money before the sale, because I could have used it to market other homes."

Other Realtors use commission advances for day-to-day needs. Katherine Robins, a REMAX broker and a customer of Commission Express, said that one of her agents used a commission advance to pay her mortgage. Several other agents are obtaining advances averaging $3,000, but only as needed.

"It's much easier than going to the bank," Robins noted.

It's much like a cash advance on a credit card, "but with a lot lower rates," Leah Wartelle explained.

Commission Express operates on a sliding fee scale based on closing dates of 30, 60 and 90 days. For example, the sale of a $1 million home might yield a $15,000 agent commission. On a 30-day loan closing, Commission Express advances the $15,000 less its 8 percent discount fee and a 10 percent hold-back fee.

The 10 percent hold-back encourages the Realtor to keep tabs on the closing date, at which time the holdback fee is refunded to the Realtor.

While there are similar enterprises on the Internet, Commission Express differs, in several ways.

First, said Leah Wartelle, "A company like ours can really service local companies day to day. Webb faxes our application to the customer, approves and underwrites it, and dispenses the check within 24 hours."

Commission Express also offers a 30-day grace period extending beyond the. expected closing date. "None of the Internet competitors offer that grace period," she said. And if the closing date should drag on, Commission Express works creatively with the customer to "do everything we can to help."

Established in 1992 by two men in Fairfax, Va., Commission Express was initially a private business. "The owners started getting calls from other parts of the U.S.," Leah Wartelle said. "They spent lots of money finding out how to become a franchise."

Jay Crow, formerly a Baton Rouge agent-broker and agency owner, was entertaining the same business idea. One day, he picked up a supermarket magazine, learned about Commission Express and flew to Fairfax to meet the owners.

Crow purchased a franchise for North Carolina, where he lives, and phoned his friends, the Wartelles, in Baton Rouge, to share the good news.

In late November 2000, the Wartelles flew to Fairfax, studied the operation and bought the Louisiana franchise. The company, said Leah Wartelle, "is extremely well-planned. We were very impressed."

She markets the company, along with Prestige Home Warranties, while her husband manages and operates Commission Express. The company's capital pool consists of their. own money and credit line, along with potential capital from private investors and other franchisers.

In their market research, the Wartelles noted the presence of 2,000 real estate agents in Baton Rouge. Once this market is developed, their next stop is New Orleans -- and then the rest of Louisiana.

"We based our expectations on potential business in the state," said Webb Wartelle. "We looked at average real estate commissions and the number of transactions in Louisiana during 1999 and 2000.

"If we only purchased one-half of 1 percent of all transactions, we'd be extremely happy."

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