Lenders, realty brokers and others can discriminate against minorities at a variety of stages in the homebuying process, according to a task force study sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

The task force - made up of 97 people from industries related to real estate - has found that subtle, sometimes inadvertent discrimination can occur when borrowers first meet realty brokers and lenders. when lenders deal with the secondary mortgage market, and when property is appraised.

The study, which began last year and is still continuing, is one of the latest efforts to identify potential discrimination in real estate brokerage and mortgage lending.

While previous studies, such as one sponsored by the Boston Fed, have relied on statistical analysis, the Cleveland project relies on input and examination by industry professionals.

As one of its first steps, the task force zeroed in on what transpires when a home buyer first meets a realty broker or a mortgage lender.

Realty agents, in their role as counselors to sellers and buyers, may discourage low-income borrowers, the report says. For example, agents may fail to alert both sellers and buyers to the possibilities of "nontraditional" loans.

Typically sellers say they will only consider offers from buyers who qualify for conventional financing, the report says. This excludes borrowers with unusual job histories or past credit problems, and realty agents may do nothing to encourage sellers to remove the condition.

Lenders, meanwhile, can discourage minority borrowers in a variety of ways, some quite subtle. For example, lenders may ask some borrowers to wait longer than others, and approach them without a smile, handshake, or eye contact, the report says

Or lenders may give some borrowers less product options than others, charge inappropriate fees, and evaluate the credit histories inappropriately.

The task force also has focused on two other parts of the homebuying process that can involve discriminatory practices. The findings:

* The underwriting guidelines of the secondary agencies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, are more restrictive than guidelines lenders are adopting to cater to lower-income borrowers. This making it harder for lenders to make loans to such borrowers.

* Smaller institutions have limited contact with the secondary-market agencies - formally known as the Federal National Mortgage Association and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. - and tend to interpret underwriting guidelines more restrictively than the agencies may intend.

* Appraisers do not know how to determine the value of rehabilitated houses in city neighborhoods, which may also have properties in poor condition or other factors that reduce the market value of improvements to a home.

The group's prescription to such problems: educating real estate agents, loan officers, senior executives, underwriters, and appraisers about how common practices discourage or discriminate against minority and low4ncome borrowers.

The Cleveland Fed's project is to continue this fall, with an examination of discriminatory practices at other points in the home-buying process.

The Cleveland Fed says it is also talking to other Federal Reserve banks about similar projects in other cities.

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