Home Financing Centers Inc., a Swampscott, Mass., company that makes consumer and business loans, has added a chat service to improve interaction between prospects and loan agents, and get consumers used to applying and closing online.

The service, from ChatPerson Inc., which is also based in Swampscott, connects hfci.com visitors to a 15-member team of loan specialists at Home Financing’s operations center. The procedure involves a phone link, so consumers do not have to disconnect from the Internet and need only a Web browser to use the service.

Mortgage shoppers are using the Web more and more to do research, but few are using it to apply for and close mortgages. Research conducted by Home Financing found that while 51% said they would be willing to apply for a mortgage online, only 4% had done so and only 2% had completed the process entirely online. Fifty-six percent said they use the Internet solely to conduct research.

About 150 consumers have used Home Financing’s chat function in the last eight months, and about 30 closed loans at hfci.com.

“It definitely enhances our credibility,” said Gary J. Kovner, president and chief executive officer of Home Financing. “Our whole Web site is designed to make them feel comfortable doing business with us and in giving us their personal information.”

Home Financing pays ChatPerson $3,000 a month, a cost that the mortgage company says is justified.

“Even if we did two more mortgages a month, that would pay for it,” Mr. Kovner said.

He calls the service a perfect fit for the mortgage lending business.

“People are pressurized. They want an answer fast and we have to respond quickly,” he said. “The beauty of ChatPerson is that someone can use it at work for a status update or information. It’s very private. They can chat with us online and no one knows they’re doing it.”

Home Financing, which was established in 1993, has loan offices in Massachusetts and New York and closes about 100 mortgages a month. Its goal is to close 20% of its loans online within four years.

Mr. Kovner said he is optimistic that most mortgage transactions will be done online by 2005. He noted that a big reason for adding the chat service is that half the people who visit hfci.com want to deal directly with an employee.

Home Financing is ChatPerson’s first financial services client. The year-old company’s four other clients are in the human resources and recruitment businesses, said Vadim Shilman, chief executive officer and president.

Companies that support live assistance over the Internet are growing in number and girth. Competitors to ChatPerson include Webex Communications Inc. of San Jose, Calif., which has 1,300 customers, including Countrywide and Fiserv; and LivePerson Inc. of New York, whose 800 clients include USAbancshares.com, Intuit Inc., Keycorp, and National Discount Brokers.

Security First Network Bank, an Internet-only unit of Royal Bank of Canada, added chat and collaboration software from WebTone Technologies Inc. last quarter. Toronto-Dominion Financial Group uses similar software from Brightware to help customers assess their financial needs.

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