Lenders, line up. Home builders of all sizes are hungry for liaisons with mortgage companies and looking to 1996 as the year to make them happen.

The consensus at the National Association of Home Builders convention here was that the mortgage process takes too long, is too unwieldy, and has way too many gatekeepers.

For most builders, going directly to a lender would be the best solution for cutting through the red tape.

"Is there a universal software package that builders can use to access mortgage companies and eliminate brokers?" one builder asked during a panel discussion titled "Reengineering the Housing Finance System."

Panelists - including James A. Johnson of Fannie Mae; Leland Brendsel of Freddie Mac; Kent Colton, chief executive of the home builders group; Lewis Ranieri, chairman of Commonwealth United Corp., and Angelo Mozilo, chief executive of Countrywide Funding Corp. - all embraced the idea of improvements in the system.

"The housing finance process is extremely inefficient," said Mr. Ranieri.

The time is now ripe for a software system linking lenders and builders, said Mr. Colton, because of technological advances and builders' having more education. "I'll make a commitment to work on that right now," he said, "and next year I'll report back to this panel."

Mr. Mozilo recommended Mixstar as the best available solution in an imperfect market. Mixstar is an on-line service based in Newport Beach, Calif.

"As I travel across the country, I find that the lending process is terribly inefficient from the homebuyer side," he said. Most often, salespeople in a builder's office have friends in the business that they direct loan business to, he noted.

There is sure to be some shakeout, the panelists said. "It seems like our business is really shrinking," sighed one Commonwealth United Mortgage account executive listening to the discussion. "More and more builders are getting into lending and establishing partnerships."

Countrywide was one of few lenders soliciting builders through a booth at the convention. Through its builder division, it places service representatives around the country who set up relationships with builders.

"The builders all want a mortgage company" to work with, said one Countrywide sales associate. "And most are familiar with Countrywide."

Chase Manhattan Mortgage, Bank United Mortgage, Commonwealth United Mortgage, and the Home builders Financial Network also made appearances at the conference.

Although the floors of the Astrodome and Astrohall were littered with booths offering software designed to make builders' lives easier, few packages featured partnerships with lenders.

One that did, Sales Closer, is free to home builders if they use affiliated lenders Norwest Mortgage Co. and Countrywide when selling homes.

One Urbana, Ill.-based modular builder that works with several lenders when selling homes said one of its large lenders is very slow.

"After locking in with the customer, it takes a long time to get to closing," he said. "The paper trail is just crazy."

The builder also works with Greentree Financial Corp., a St. Paul-based manufacturer and lender. "They're more willing to work with you," the builder said.

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