Countrywide Funding Corp., Pasadena. Calif. has established a toll-free hotline for Spanish-speaking customers seeking home loans.

Bilingual service representatives are available to field questions on interest rates, refinancing, down payment programs. and home counseling services.

"This is a vast and important audience, and we need to tap into it." said a spokewoman for Countrywide.

"First-time homeowners are growing right now, so the economic incentive is there."

The bilingual hotline is Countrywide's latest addition to its House America program. Begun in 1992, House America is geared to assist prospective homeowners with low-to-moderate incomes.

Many other lenders share Countrywide's view that ethnic markets as growth propositions and have been broadening their language capabilities.

"Lenders are big on providing more hand-holding," said Joan Barefoot, a consultant with Barefoot & Co. in Columbus, Ohio. "Providing more information up front to prospective buyers will likely result in an increased percentage of approved loans."

Activists have held that lenders are unresponsive to minorities and lower-income families, whose loan approval rates have lagged behind those of wealthier applicants.

"Lenders face a struggle in being believed," said Ms. Barefoot. "There is a certain skepticism whether they are really after these loans."

Countrywide has pledged to increase its lending to targeted minorities and low-income groups by 5% in an agreement with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. But it has said separately that it is aiming to double or triple its increase.

Countrywide said callers to the hotline must be prepared to discuss their total family income and debt obligations, as well as the cost of their desired home.

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