The much-predicted boomlet in refinancings finally made its appearance in earnest at mortgage lenders' offices across the country last week.

Mortgages applications in the week ended May 12 rose 26.4% above the week-earlier level, according to the weekly survey by the Mortgage Bankers Association of America.

But refi volume bulged even more, rising by 67.1% week to week. Applications for loans to buy homes climbed by 20.7%.

Much of the volume apparently resulted from switching into fixed-rate loans as the spread between ARM and fixed rates continued to narrow.

The volume of applications for adjustables climbed just 5.1% week to week and accounted for 22.6% of total applications.

David Lereah, chief economist for the MBA, said, "Refis were 17.3% of volume, and we're expecting that to climb to 22 or 23% eventually."

PNC Mortgage Corp. was among the companies reporting a recent surge in applications. "We saw application volume jump more than $50 million, or about 50%, in a week," said Larry Costello, a PNC spokesman. "We attribute it to lower interest rates. Consumers are seizing the moment to get their rates locked in."

The bigger gains were apparently reported mostly by mortgage bankers, who are benefiting from the switch to fixed-rate loans.

The pattern is also uneven geographically, with parts of California apparently continuing to lag. The state accounts for almost a quarter of all mortgage business nationally.

In the San Francisco Bay area, for example, home sales have been unusually slow so far this year, but could pick up. "We expect deferred activity to push sales volume up this month," said Donald L. Cohn, chief executive of DataQuick Information Systems, La Jolla, Calif.

A spokeswoman for Home Savings of America, San Francisco, said volume at its offices was little changed last week because it is a portfolio lender and specializes in adjustable-rate loans. "We're doing a lot of purchase loans, and people are opting for flexibility rather than rate," she said.

The surge elsewhere represents a confluence of various positive factors: a high level of consumer confidence; the onset of the spring buying season; and a continued flattening of the yield curve.

This curve represents graphically the relationships among yields on long-term and short-term Treasury securities. Last week, the difference between the one-year and 30-year maturities was less than one percentage point.

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