The mortgage business is no longer a waiting game for lenders who had relied for years on realtors, home builders, and brokers for customers.

Pressed by competition, the lenders are shedding their hands-off style and aggressively marketing their mortgage products directly to potential customers who qualify both for low-risk and high-risk loans. And they're using direct mail, telemarketing, television, radio, and even the Internet as marketing tools.

The direct marketing drive is working well. "It's successful enough that there's a huge growth in it," said David Olson, president of David Olson Research Co. "It's just boomed."

Indeed, the results of a survey released in January by the Mortgage Bankers Association show that 76% of the 21 lenders surveyed were involved in some type of direct consumer campaigns. The rest said they were considering direct-marketing options.

The survey also showed that the most popular types of direct marketing methods are direct mail and advertising, followed by telemarketing, affinity programs, and the Internet.

While direct consumer marketing generated only 11% of the lenders' origination volume, direct marketing is generating 80% more volume than last year.

Most lenders began direct marketing when refinancings got hot in the early 1990s. The very nature of refinancings means lenders cannot expect realtors to bring in business, said Stuart Feldstein, president of SMR Research Corp. of Budd Lake, N.J., a financial services research and consulting company. Lenders began telephone and direct-mail blitzes to homeowners, advertising low rates.

Direct marketing also has helped some banks stay ahead in a competitive business that seems to be getting tighter all the time. Some realtors, home builders, and brokers are now opening their own mortgage companies and vying for mortgage customers.

Not to be outdone, many banks and mortgage companies have learned to compete. Countrywide Home Loans Inc., considered by many to be the master of mortgage marketing, misses few chances to convey its message. The Pasadena, Calif.-based company is active in television advertising, radio spots, direct mail, and telemarketing, as well as having a Web site on the Internet.

To head up these efforts and to ensure that the company sends a consistent message, Countrywide recently hired its first director of marketing, Andy Bielanski. His mission: to make the Countrywide loan a brand that the average consumer recognizes.

"Branding is an art that has to be integrated in everything that a company does - your logo and signage," Mr. Bielanski said. "It's the sum of all the points of contact you have with the consumer."

The goal, said Mr. Bielanski, is when people think mortgage, they should think Countrywide. In all of its marketing messages, from television advertising to its Web site, the company tells consumers that applying for a Countrywide mortgage is hassle-free and available to just about anyone.

While Web sites are becoming fairly common in the mortgage banking business, lenders acknowledge that they have not fully explored the options available on-line.

Bank of America, though, has found several creative ways to entice Web browsers as possible mortgage customers. The San Francisco-based bank has sites on America Online as well as the Internet's World Wide Web. Consumers who land on the sites can ask questions about bank services and send electronic mail to bank personnel.

Executives at other banks, however, say they're not convinced the Internet will ever be the most popular way for people to shop for a mortgage.

"I don't think anything is easier than a telephone," said Dennis Day, vice president and manager of residential lending at Seafirst Bank.

Seafirst customers can access information about the bank's services on a Web page. But the Seattle unit of Bank of America is encouraging people to phone the bank to apply for mortgages, instead of logging onto a computer.

Mr. Day said Seafirst is initially targeting its current customers for mortgages but plans to market from data-base lists in the future.

The bank, which closed $525 million in mortgages last year, generates 90% of its total home-loan application volume from its phone program. And the cost to the bank is far less than paying an extensive sales force to call on realtors - though the bank still does some of that, Mr. Day said.

While most lenders are moving ahead quickly with direct-to-consumer marketing campaigns, most of them still market to realtors and brokers. Great Western Bank, for one, markets almost exclusively to its mortgage intermediaries and is proceeding slowly on its direct consumer marketing efforts.

The Chatsworth, Calif.-based bank has tested the success of telemarketing its mortgages in the Midwest, and the results have been "encouraging," said Tim McGarry, a bank spokesman. He predicted that, by the end of the year, Great Western will begin telemarketing and doing direct mail campaigns on a larger scale for its mortgages.

"But that shouldn't be taken as implying that in retail mortgage lending our focus on realtors is any less important than it was," Mr. McGarry said.

However, banks that don't focus more time, energy, and resources on consumers will lose business, warned Mr. Feldstein, the consultant.

"You'd better figure out how to market direct to the consumer," he said. "Sitting back and waiting for customers to walk in - that's a recipe for disaster."

Ms. Moore is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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