WASHINGTON - Following widespread criticism from the mortagage industry, the Department of Housing and Urban Development last week decided to revisit referral fee rules put in place last November.

The rules were intended primarily to combat kickbacks, but opponents feel they would effectively lock out smaller lenders from realty offices and thus limit choices available to consumers.

HUD's announcement that it will begin hearings Aug. 6 took the steam out of a House Small Business Committee hearing to consider legislation remedying complaints about the rules.

Deep Divisions Evident

However, the announcement may well have been welcome to the committee members. The deep divisions evident at last week's hearing indicated it would be extraordinarily difficult to write a new law without offending some influential group.

The panel decided to postpone any action on the regulations until the HUD hearings are over.

That may take some time, as the agency said it would continue the hearings until everybody has been heard.

HUD originally drafted the rules several years ago in keeping with the Real Estate Settlement Practices Act of 1974.

The rules spell out what payments are permissible as well as those that are forbidden.

Supporters at the House hearing argued they would ensure the development of computer-based shopping systems - called CLOs, for computerized loan origination - that would bring loans into rural and low-income neighborhoods.

Ray Sims, senior vice president of GE Capital Mortgage Services Corp. in Concord, Calif, described his company's successful placement of a system in a small minority-owned bank in Newark, N.J.

The bank, he said, has made 25 loans in four months with the GE computer system, against only three in all of 1992 before the system was installed.

"We believe that the speed, convenience, and cost savings associated with computerized loan origination are too important to be lost in an intramural turf battle among settlement service providers," said Mr. Sims.

But opponents argued that the rules would limit consumers' borrowing options by effectively locking out smaller lenders

Vows to Press for Action

Herbert B. Tasker, representing the Mortgage Bankers Association of America, said the new rules were "a thinly veiled excuse for paying a referral fee."

He said that if HUD did not change the ruling, the trade group would continue to press for congressional action.

Committee members agreed on the need for new computer technology in the mortgage business.

But the panel's chairman, Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-NY, questioned whether the rules ensured that such systems would not be abused. He pointed out that the rules did not require that any other company's mortgage quotations be on a computer system.

Rep. Jan Meyers, R-Kan, asked if laws in Kansas and Minnesota limiting the percentage of loans a lender can receive through referrals would be acceptable to supporters of the computer systems.

Paul Speral representing the National Association of Realtors, said such limits would make it unprofitable for lenders to develop the computer systems.

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