Borrowers may have been scarce during the holidays, but mortgage bankers were bustling.

From reviewing loan programs to considering ways to lure customers out in sub-zero weather, lenders across the country kept busy during the traditionally slow lending season.

"It's an important time for us," said Robert M. Couch, president of Collateral Mortgage, Birmingham, Ala. "We take a hard look at all the ways we do business"

While lenders said December's volume was off 10% to 25% from peak summer months - despite lower rates and November's jump in housing starts - the downtime gave them a chance to take stock of operations.

Collateral, for instance, took a look at the subprime lending program it started in 1996 and decided the results were convincing enough that the initiative should be expanded this year, Mr. Couch said.

Other lenders spent December's waning days working on marketing strategies for 1997.

In Anchorage, it can be pretty hard to get borrowers out shopping for mortgages in winter, said Judy Kemplen, vice president of mortgages at National Bank of Alaska.

"People just aren't interested this time of year," she said on a recent day when the temperature was 13 below zero.

Still, the bank manages to produce $300 million of mortgages a year - and Ms. Kemplen credits marketing ideas that customers can warm to. The bank spent last month developing a campaign to promote cost-saving refinancings for customers with high local taxes.

A number of lenders, resigned to the fact they won't be booking much new business in December, redoubled customer relations efforts, to help make sure closings go smoothly.

"We work especially hard around now to make sure borrowers get into their homes on schedule," said Ron J. McCord, president of American Mortgage and Investment Co., in Oklahoma City. "It's one way of reducing their anxiety."

Personal service also produces good word of mouth that can help boost volume beyond the $250 million of mortgages booked in 1996, Mr. McCord said.

Still, not every mortgage company is in high gear at this time of year. Calls to some firms the days before and after New Year's found more executives out than in.

And some who were in the office were a tad preoccupied. "I wouldn't be here," said a vice president at an East Coast lender, "but I'm working on my own closing."

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