Pinning down low rate on a home mortgage via computer clearinghouse

You just got a great deal on a mortgage. Or did you? Lacking the time or the ability to shop for the best interest rate among all the mortgage lenders in your area, it can be difficult to make sure you got the best rate, paid the lowest closing costs, or found a good adjustable mortgage, if that's the way you went.

Some people don't like the idea of spending days on the phone to make all these comparisons to find out which loans they qualify for, even though the effort could save them several hundred dollars a year. For them, and anyone else who wants more mortgage information, there are now computerized data-base services on mortgages which can give home buyers an overview of the regional or national market.

These services are available at a growing number of mortgage companies, real estate offices, and other financial businesses. The information on the computer screens comes from the banks, thrifts, and other lenders that pay to participate. By feeding their mortgage data into these systems, they figure, they're more likely to find borrowers who can qualify for mortgages that they can then sell elsewhere.

Without ever seeing the prospective home buyer or listening to a voice, these computerized systems can qualify a borrower with a local bank, or, if the local banks' terms are too tough, find a more hospitable faraway bank.

There are perhaps a dozen of these systems in use around the United States, but only three have made much progress toward becoming true national networks. They are CompuFund, LoanExpress, and Shelternet. Another system is being introduced by the National Realtors Association. This one, called Realtors National Mortgage Access, or Rennie Mae, does not try to qualify borrowers or help them apply for mortgages.

``Our system does not process any loans,'' says Michael Matz, marketing director at Rennie Mae. ``It's just an information conduit.''

So far, Rennie Mae has been largely confined to a test in the San Diego area, Mr. Matz said, and will be expanded as it gains experience. Like the three larger systems, there is no charge to customers for using it.

The largest of the three major systems is Shelternet, a product of First Boston Capital Group in New York. It is the closest to a national system, with access to lenders in every state except Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Nebraska, New Mexico, North and South Dakota, Oregon, and Utah. It is also the most comprehensive of the services, offering prequalification, selection, application, processing, and commitment of loans, as well as closing documents.

CompuFund, based in Dublin, Calif., is still a regional system, serving markets in California, Dallas, and Houston. LoanExpress, out of Falls Church, Va., has operations in the Washington, D.C., area; Phoenix, Ariz.; and Tacoma, Wash.

Each of the three systems can do a preliminary evaluation of how much you can afford in monthly house payments and, thus, how much house you can buy. Based on this information, you may quickly learn what neighborhoods or towns are apt to have houses in your price range. But there are exceptions, so some independent shopping is a good idea here.

In a large enough area, each of the systems will have a list of several hundred mortgages provided by 40 or more lenders. If one of these mortgages suits you, your financial information can be transmitted to the right lender and you can be formally qualified, with a locked-in interest rate, in a matter of minutes. The final approval will take a little longer, to give the lender time to verify your statements, check your credit, and look at the property, but some lenders can do this in a few days.

While these systems still encompass a small segment of the total mortgage market, the potential for growth is great. Lenders will discover a broader resource of creditworthy home buyers, and customers will learn that losing some of the ``personal touch'' is compensated by a higher degree of assurance that they really did get the best available mortgage, even if the lender is a thousand miles away.

But there are some pitfalls borrowers need to be aware of, chief among them the fact that not all lenders are going to participate in these systems.

``The computer doesn't list everybody, just those who have paid to be on the system,'' says Jane DeMarines, a spokeswoman for the Mortgage Bankers Association of America. ``So people should still shop around.'' Check the Yellow Pages under ``mortgages'' and call banks and thrifts not listed on the computers, she suggests. This may seem to be defeating the timesaving purpose of the systems, but remember that every lender on the computer is one you don't have to call.

Some borrowers may also miss the face-to-face ``judgment calls'' their friendly neighborhood banker can make. Even if someone doesn't appear fully qualified for a loan on paper, the banker may know something about the family's financial situation that reduces the risk.

But according to Carl Mendenhall, senior vice-president of Cameron-Brown Company, a mortgage banker in Charlotte, N.C., more lenders are selling their mortgages on the national market to raise mortgage money, so objective lending standards carry more weight. As this national market grows, he expects computerized mortgage networks to become a standard part of home-buying.

If you would like a question considered for publication in this column, please send it to Moneywise, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, Mass. 02115. No personal replies can be given. References to investments are not an endorsement or recommendation by this newspaper.

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