At a time when "surfing the Net" has become a popular hobby among American consumers, mortgage bankers are only cautiously wading their way onto the Internet.

Industry consultants caution lenders about spending too much money on an Internet or World Wide Web site before they know how to fit them in with an overall marketing strategy. Widespread access to the Internet is still too new for it to be a viable way for mortgage lenders to bring in new business.

In fact, most lenders are waiting to see what others are doing before they dive in.

About one-third of all U.S. households have home computers, and only one-third of those are on-line, said Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Consulting, Bethesda, Md. That brings the on-line universe to between 15 million and 18 million people, he said.

"Fear and greed are pushing companies on-line," Mr. Arlen said, even though the companies do not reap immediate benefits from their on-line presence. "People want to find a way to get close to the customers."

Lenders should not expect to generate applications from their Internet site, another consultant said. Rather, they should use a "home page" as part of a larger marketing strategy for generating leads and name recognition.

"I advise people to get out there and figure out what's out there," Lelaini Allen, a consultant at Tenex Consulting, Boston, said. She asserted that the investment in a home page is so low that there's little reason for mortgage bankers to wait to get on-line, as many are cautiously doing.

Ms. Allen predicts a slow increase of borrowers turning to the Internet for a mortgage. She said people getting a mortgage on-line will plateau at about 20% of all originations - but that's many years away, she said.

About 40 mortgage lenders now have sites on the Web, a popular annex of the Internet, Ms. Allen said. Norwest Bank, Bank of America, Countrywide Home Loans, Citicorp, and Long Island Savings Bank are examples of financial institutions with Internet sites.

Citicorp Mortgage Inc., which has a home page on the Web, got between 300 and 400 hits, or visits, a day in its first three days, said Andrea Franklin, vice president and director of marketing.

Ms. Franklin told a Mortgage Bankers Association of America conference that Citi's site now carried information only, which she said most people are using the Internet for.

"Security is still an issue," Ms. Franklin said, "and we are holding back on on-line applications." Potential borrowers are directed to call an 800 phone number if they want to apply for a loan, she said.

Americor Mortgage, Troy, Mich., uses its Web site for aggressive marketing, said Thomas Balames, president, by getting potential customers' E-mail addresses and sending them information.

"We put their current rate and equity in a data base. If there is an opportunity for them to refinance, we give them a call," Mr. Balames said.

But, he added, Americor, a retail originator in Michigan and Ohio, uses its on-line presence in concert with other marketing methods. He said he does not think many people will get a mortgage on the Internet.

"I think it is a niche way for people to get additional business and get a presence out there," he said, adding: "We are doing whatever it takes to reach customers however they want to be reached."

Mr. Arlen and Ms. Allen both said any loan originated on-line will have such low overhead that even a few would justify the cost of an Internet site.

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